Call for action
Already the first information sent out, after the announcement that Polish artist Artur Zmijewski was its curator, by the office for the 7th Berlin Biennale in July of last year, was a call for action. It brought attention to an action by the Ramallah based artist Khaled Jarrar, who called forward people to have their passports impressed with a ‘State of Palestine' stamp at one of Berlin's most visited tourist traps, Checkpoint Charlie.
A month before the opening of the biennial and several emails later, some addresses of these ‘calls for action' have been visibly bored.
However, it was the newsletter containing a call performance work by the Czech artist Martin Zet that caused a great, almost immediate stir in the media. The newsletter called for owners of Thilo Sarrazin's controversial right-wing book ‘Deutschland schafft sich ab' [Germany gets rid of itself] to bring it to various collection points around the country. The aim was to gather some 60,000 copies of the book, a fraction of the 1.3 million copies that were sold - making it the most successful postwar publication of non-fiction by a German author - and to ‘get rid' of and recycle it. Obviously, this reminded many newsletter-readers of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony held in the evening of May 10, 1933 on the Bebelplatz in Berlin. In addition, some of the terminology used in the newsletter, the "get rid of" and the "collection points", also sounds remarkably like the language associated with Nazi concentration camps. But not only press representatives like Ingo Arend of Berlin's overtly left-wing Die Tageszeitung made the connection. One of the first comments on the project came from art dealer Volker Diehl, who said he was "appalled", at this "contemporary form of book-burning".
Many institutions originally slated as collection points, including the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) and Berlinische Galerie pulled out, adding to the controversy. A statement sent out by the organizers of the Berlin Biennale 24 hours after the original call, proved the precariousness of their situation. In it they clarified: "The artistic project does not aim at a destruction of books. The artist considers the donation and the transformation of the books as an act of resistance with artistic means against the anti-migrant and polarizing content of the book." Despite the controversy, some Berlin art world heavyweights are backing the performance, including art critic Raimar Stange. Needless to say, the 7th Berlin Biennale will show more than the work by Zet, but this controversy has definitely overshadowed preparations.
Long before the official opening on the 27 April, it is already clear that those who had hoped for an equally light-hearted, artist-curated exhibition as the now legendary Maurizio Cattelan-Berlin biennial, as it is often referred to, will be disappointed. Apart from the usual venue - the KW Institute for Contemporary Art - this year's edition will take place in the Akademie der Künste (Black Box), in the Deutschlandhaus and at the St. Elisabeth-Kirche, which some will host Pawel Althamer's art performance ‘Draftmen's Congress', where various invited work groups, including the audience, will draw on large sheets of paper lining the venue's walls and discuss this creative process with each other.
Since Artur Zmijewski's own work as an artist is often referred to as radical, it is only understandable that his activity as a curator will be equally uncompromising. Surely the 7th Berlin Biennale will demand action from its visitors, not unlike the biennial curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic four years ago. No surprises here: Szymczyk, now at the Kunsthalle Basel, used to work at the commercial gallery Foksal Foundation in Poland together with Joanna Mytkowska, who is now in charge of the Modern Museum in Warsaw and is on the selection committee of the Berlin Biennial that selected Zmijewski as its curator.
7th Berlin Biennale, from April 27th to July 1st. www.berlinbiennale.de