Polish curator and internationally recognized artist Artur Zmijewski has pushed radical chic beyond its limits this year with the Berlin Biennale, an international art exhibit funded by the German national cultural foundation with a generous 2.5 million euros. While critics froth at the mouth and artists turn up their noses, the exhibit’s success can be measured by the discomfort it produces.
Zmijewski’s stated intentions were to put politics back into art, and the result is a smorgasbord of provocative, media-grabbing projects: artist Martin Zet’s campaign “Germany gets rid of it” intends to recycle large numbers of German politician Thilo Sarrazin’s xenophobic book Germany Does Away With Itself while Jonas Staal’s New World Summit invites internationally black-listed terrorist organizations to voice their concerns about democracy. Viewers can have their passport stamped with Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar’s State of Palestine stamp. While they are at it, they can also take a piece of Auschwitz-Birkenau home with them: one of the hundreds of birch saplings Lukasz Surowiec’s project Berlin-Birkenau encourages volunteers to plant around Berlin as a self-initiated memorial to the Holocaust.
The Biennale’s staging of political activism as art has caused lectures to be held about what “Art” is and more specifically, what it is not. This is a clear sign that Zmijewski is pushing the right buttons. And yet, for those who are already thorough believers in the political potential of art, Zmijewski seems to have shot himself in the foot: his show proves to what extent art, in its attempt to be political, can all too easily slide into agit-prop and cheap dogmatism.
In an interview with The European, Zmijewski points out that he wants to break down the distinction between political activism and performance art altogether. In this vein, the main hall of the exhibition space has been given over to the Berlin Occupy Movement. Complete with sleeping tent, poster-making workshop, kitchen garden, and on-line radio, the headquarters are every Occupier’s dream. Does being put on display in a gallery space strike them as problematic? No. The activists see this as a cunning subversion of state funds. But placed in the context of the exhibit, alongside the fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement which calls for the return of 3 million Jews to Poland, the Occupy movement is a live time-capsule, a social sculpture and a heart-breaking exposure of the irrelevance of political dreamers in Realpolitik as we know it.
The show makes most people uncomfortable, which is a measure of success for the provocative Zmijewski. But is that enough? In order to actually shake up the artificial and yet existing boundary between political activism and performance art, it needs to be recognized as such first and then addressed. The Biennale refuses to do this in stubborn fashion, simply ignoring the distinction by presenting the political activism as art and doing it disservice.
Contrary to its stated goals, this year’s Biennale is not actually interested in exploring the extent to which art can be political. Rather, Zmijewski is playing with everyone: his artists, some of whom are more earnest than others; his funders, whose money is subverted for actual political activities under the thin veil of aesthetics; and his viewers, who leave with a headache trying to figure out what is in earnest, and what is hipster-ironic. The question the show raises is one that stubbornly eludes an answer and is cause for frustration and discomfort: to what extent can action—whether political or artistic, socialist or neo-liberal, racist or environmentally sustainable—be taken at face value, and to what extent is it performance? Where does the real end and the spectacle begin?
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