A Brief History of the Berlin Biennale

The Berlin Biennale has always reflected changes in the city.

Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, Massimiliano Gioni, Curatorial Team of the 4th Berlin Biennale. Photo: Shirana Shahbazi, 2006
Photo: Sabine Reitmaier courtesy of Biennale Foundation

DIS Photo: Sabine Reitmaier. Courtesy of Biennale Foundation.

The introduction to the 9th Berlin Biennale on the official Berlin Biennale blog breaks down art world boundaries and hierarchies in its unusual disposition. Curated by post-Internet rooted curatorial team DIS, the 9th Berlin Biennale, which will take place from June 4 until September 18 2016, rejects normative expectations of the event in a procession of “may’s or may not’s.” An event based on the exhibition of contemporary art may or may not even be about contemporary art at all.

“We feel consumed by individualism staged in the face of the utter powerlessness of the individual in the age of the Anthropocene and Big Data,” DIS’ Lauren Boyle explained at a press conference in February. “Our proposition is simple,” Boyle offered. “Instead of pulling talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious; rather than symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it; instead of talking about capitalism, let’s distort it […] instead of unmasking the present, this is the present in drag.”

In addition to the traditional location at the Kunst-Werke (KW)—which is the institution responsible for organizing the Biennale—the venues chosen by the curators are sites emblematic of the changes that the German capital has undergone in the past decade, and reflect the curators’ thematic focus on the paradoxes of our time.

Photo: Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

The participating artists reflecting on the “present in drag” will show at public and private locations, blurring lines between institutional purposes: The Akademie der Künste, the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), the newly minted Feuerle Collection, a sightseeing boat touring the river Spree, and KW. However, much of the program takes place on the Internet with the section “Fear of Content,” which hosts articles by artists and theorists as well as artworks all created especially for the platform. Los Angeles-based performance artist Puppies Puppies will post a new video online every day of the biennale, starting today.

Taking a look at the history of the Berlin Biennale, which was started by Klaus Biesenbach in 1998, the exhibition has always been concerned with an interdisciplinary approach in the exhibition of contemporary art aimed at an international audience, yet rooted in Berlin’s physical and cultural landscapes.

1. First Biennale, 1998: Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Nancy Spector
The first Biennale titled “Berlin/Berlin” was curated by Biesenbach together with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector, and utilized as its main venues the KW Institute, the then-still-derelict building of the Academy of the Arts at Pariser Platz—which has since been completely refurbished, prompting the 9th Berlin Biennale to revisit it—and the former exhibition space Postfuhramt.

Klaus in Berlin.

A screenshot of Klaus Biesenbach in Berlin.

2. Second Biennale, 2001: Curated by Saskia Bos
The second Biennale, which did not take place until 2001—three years after the birth of the event—was curated by Saskia Bos and was heavily involved with international artists. But the artists were not the focus of this Biennale—the public was. Using the original venues of the first Biennale in junction with public transportation spaces and Berlin’s Treptowers, which house the corporate collection of Allianz, the second Biennale encouraged public participation as a means of moving away from elitist art world approaches.

3. Third Biennale, 2004: Curated by Ute Meta Bauer
The third Berlin Biennale, in 2004, took place another three years after its predecessor and brought back the focus on local art and knowledge production present in the first edition. Curated by Ute Meta Bauer, the third Biennale maintained the main KW venue but also traveled around the city, settling in the well-known Berlin exhibition hall Martin-Gropius-Bau and showing films at the cinema Arsenal. This Biennale was divided into five core themes called “hubs,” which focused on issues of connections in the context of Berlin’s history and present topography.

Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, Massimiliano Gioni, Curatorial Team of the 4th Berlin Biennale. Photo: Shirana Shahbazi, 2006 courtesy of the Berlin Biennale

Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick, the Curatorial Team of the 4th Berlin Biennale. Photo by Jason Nocito Courtesy of the Berlin Biennale.

4. Fourth Biennale, 2006: Curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick
Curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick, the fourth Berlin Biennale in 2006 was the first to begin the “every-two-years” format that biennials traditionally employ. Titled “Of Mice and Men,” this iteration was laid out in a curious disposition; mimicking a story with various characters and universal fates more so than a traditional exhibition. Following its unusual layout, the fourth Biennale was housed in a sequence of unconventional venues all located along Auguststraße in Berlin-Mitte, almost predicting the subsequent exodus of galleries from this former East-Berlin district to the west.

5. Fifth Biennale, 2008: Curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic
Two years later, the fifth Berlin Biennale titled “When Things Cast No Shadow,” spread through the city in old and new venues and was divided between day and night. Curators Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic dedicated the daytime portion to a more traditional exhibition of works, whereas the nighttime was reserved for “events“ that rejected the boundaries of the gallery space through the use of less traditional mediums such as lectures, performance, films, and workshops.

Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic, curators of the 5th Berlin Biennale. Courtesy Berlin Biennale

Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic, curators of the 5th Berlin Biennale. Courtesy of Berlin Biennale.

6. Sixth Biennale, 2010: Curated by Kathrin Rhomberg
In 2010, the sixth edition titled “What is Waiting Out There,” took a contemplative stance on contemporary art as well as its role and relevance in the present-day context. The Biennale was curated by Kathrin Rhomberg and in addition to the traditional KW location, was also spread around the district of Kreuzberg, with one presentation even taking place inside an apartment used by artist Danh Vo at the time. Despite the thoughful curatorial conceit, some saw this edition as the harbinger of the gentrification of Kreuzberg.

7. Seventh Biennale, 2012: Curated by Artur Żmijewski
The seventh Berlin Biennale, curated by artist Artur Żmijewski, differed from its predecessors in one drastic detail—participation was entirely free of charge. Offering free access to the public was in some ways necessary when dealing with an exhibition concerned with the encouragement of social involvement and responsibility in relation to political discourse and social change.

Heavily political, the seventh Biennale received wide media attention: it was covered by news programs such as Al-Jazeera and CNN and written about in various publications. Its impact was so far-reaching partly due to the fact that its effects outlived the Biennale itself. For example, Łukasz Surowiec’s piece “Berlin-Birkenau,” which displaced birches from former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau and re-planted them throughout Berlin, continues to impact the city to this day. Similarly, lectures, workshops, and performances encouraging social change similarly prompted a wide audience to reconsider their future involvement in political action far past the closing of the exhibition.

Planting of the birches in Berlin-Neukölln, Photo: Artur Żmijewski courtesy of the Berlin Biennale

Planting of the birches in Berlin-Neukölln, Photo: Artur Żmijewski courtesy of the Berlin Biennale.

8. Eighth Biennale, 2014: Curated by Juan A. Gaitán
While the seventh Berlin Biennale was heavily rooted in the notion of change for the future, the eight Biennale instead focused on a historical past. Curated by Juan A. Gaitán, this latest Biennale made use of four distinct exhibition venues throughout the city, including the soon-to-be-closed Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, whose entire collection is slated to relocate to the controversial project in the center of the city, the Humboldt-Forum, which replicates a 15th century Prussian palace. Fittingly, the biennale explored the relationship between history and individual narrative.

Still from Narrative Devices; Not in the Berlin Biennale featuring Tilman Hornig Photo: Courtes 9th Berlin Biennale

Still from Narrative Devices; Not in the Berlin Biennale featuring Tilman Hornig. Courtesy 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

9. Ninth Biennale, 2016: Curated by DIS
Establishing itself as an “open space” for experimentation and critical examination of the art world’s latest trends, the Berlin Biennale enters its 9th incarnation this coming June with an outlook promisingly akin to this vision. The young DIS curatorial team places a large focus on creation for the most public and democratic of all forums—the Internet. In this fashion, the ninth Biennale suggests an involvement with this ever-growing digital force driving and connecting today’s societies and individuals.

Additional reporting by Hili Perlson.

The 9th Berlin Biennale will take place from June 4 to September 18, 2016. 

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