The 7th Berlin Biennale opens today. Curator Artur Žmijewski advertises in fascist symbolism and operates with a fusion of leftist and Volkish anti-capitalism.

Rosa Perutz is a self-organised discussion context, dealing with nationalism, statism, and the specific conditions of production and reproduction in contemporary culture and art.
The following text is an entry point and working basis for a critique of the 7th Berlin Biennale. Extensions and objections will follow over the next few weeks.
On July 8th 2012 this discussion will lead to a public event in the Galerie am Flutgraben. 


Artur Žmijewski is especially well known in Germany for his video Berek („Hash me“), which shows naked adults playing tag in a concentration camp gas chamber. His short film 80 064 presents a re-tatooing of a concentration camp number on the arm of a survivor of the Shoah. (see Jungle World 04/12) In his artist manifesto Applied Social Arts published in 2007 in the Polish journal Krytyka Polityczna, Žmijewski called for a self-emancipation of art from the guilt that it is vitiated by its collaboration with totalitarian regimes and which has discredited a supposedly aesthetic self-reference of art. Art should now renounce an aesthetic irresponsibility, which is inherent in a notion of artistic autonomy, and should focus on its „applicability“ and should turn towards „sustainable“ solution of concrete problems. Žmijewski calls for an end not only of the presumption of aesthetic autonomy, but also of what Žmijewski calls based on a formulation of the Polish artist Grzegorz Kowalski „the art pollution“ – the „corruption of talent“ by the commercial, the „involvement of the art market in dirty money“. This double purification of art at the Biennale should be made possible through its fusion with immediate politics.
The curator becomes the prophet of a new „applied art“ and he walks with the torch of honesty and authenticity into the fight against corrupt art establishment, which keeps artists on the chain, so that they can‘t come too close to political fires. From today, all art lovers are invited to join his Fackelmarsch. Therefore the Biennale is very professionally designed as a „movement“ – with a movement newspaper and with a logo that shows the number 7 as a rune-like icon, reminiscent of the aggressive modernity of fascist symbolism.

Virility and politics

A proclaimed applicability of art by the Biennial is a call for real action, which should overcome the inhibitory discourses of criticism and the censoring power of the art market. The programmatic fusion of art and politics disconnects art from their specific social context and instead, places art in a decisionist act as a symbol of unconditional radicalism. It requires the authorities that it denounces to express such a radicality. Censorship and taboos must be constantly maintained in order to rebel against them. Žmijewski has shown us in his work: flirtations with the taboo as well as a tasteless exposure to the Shoah are effective means of such self-presentation. Any criticism can be denounced immediately as censorship by the powerful, the media, the directors. Politics is thus presented as an existential struggle against and for power, in which there is no room for contradictions and ambivalences. At first Žmijewski simply serves with his bombastic political symbolism the curatorial commonplace of any Biennial of Contemporary Art: He creates a temporary art exhibition featuring spectacular events and places a supposedly dissident art scene, which had been imported to Berlin – in this case primarily Eastern European – in a politically sensational context. In contrast to the 6th Biennial this context will not only be directly political, but above all national. Former curator Kathrin Rhomberg, with the support of the American art historian Michael Fried, was still to rehabilitate a supposedly „ideologically loaded“ notion of realism. While for Rhomberg art should take over the function, to represent reality rather than just itself, this year art aims for immediate action to change and to manipulate reality.

„Artistic pragmatism“ is one of the slogans proclaimed by Žmijewski. This deftly plays with the ambiguity of the term of the pragmatic itself. Z. recommends this as an artistic practice, while the term as a practical political capacity is widely celebrated at stammtisch, just to be brought into account against the dreamers, utopians and idealists. He doesn‘t take into account any such profane problems like making a living through artistic work, ie to exist in the art system. In „Forget Fear“ such a simple-minded pragmatism is been rather negatively defined as „artistic immunity“ against the true „artistic pragmatism“, which is performed in the name of the great idea and not of one’s own life. At the same time it is deliberately left in the dark against who or what artists are immune and what would guarantees such immunity.

In relation to the art world, Žmijewski behaves like a rebellious anti-curator. A traditional curator would mainly manage art, protect their copyrights, serve the market and would really believe that the artwork unfolds its social and political significance by somewhat magic means as a single object. Opposed to this, he says, the point is a direct politicisation of art. This would break the mere „appearance of the political in art“ and set art free from its alleged „impotence“. Whilst Rhomberg after all conceded the sphere of art as well as the social reality with a certain fragility and inconsistency, Žmijewski wants to overcome this disorientation caused by contractions. Berlin seems to him for his project as an ideal venue because this city is, as Žmijewski puts it, „tidied up“ of all ideologies. Here artists would meet an ideological vacuum that was created as a result of liberalisation and de-Nazification. And here they could enjoy ideological passivity and emptiness. Many seeked refuge so far, but what they all lack, he regrets nostalgic, are just big ideas – ideas in whose name they create art and which will first of all make their art authentic. Žmijewski attitude is post-ideological. He proclaims in an apocalyptic fashion the end of politics. He wishes a politics redeemed from any real and imaginary perplexity, from confusion, from complexity and self-reference and replaced by new ideas and a new imaginary identity. Žmijewski rejects the political irresponsibility of critical aesthetics, which is art discoursed trained and replaces them with absolute aesthetic violence. For him, as for every political consultant and each management agency, politics are a matter of manipulation that makes use of a rhetoric of persuasion, and of a permanently sworn transgression and danger. The authentic political is therefore preferably identified in arts from the tantalising distances „2nd world“, where censorship is strict, where everyday life is harder, and the artists still threatened to life and limb. Žmijewski therefore openly admits to the propaganda that was an original interest of art. This rips off any mundane trinkets, the corruption of the market and the hierarchy of institutions, by freeing itself from the world of the secondary as the primary policy, which promises the artists as well as the audience truth and power.

Žmijewski has arranged the works at the biennial work after a placement box principle, divided into compartments „Occupy“, Verbund der Vertriebenen and Palestinian Liberation Front. The large compartment in the heart of the spectacle, the ground floor of Berlin’s art is called GlobalSquare. It sees itself as a gathering place for events of global protest movements operating worldwide under the label „Occupy“.It wants to contribute to a „radical democratisation of global organisational efforts“ and to an articulation of „collective action“ and „common goals.“ Here too, the curator is hallucinating an entire movement of movements, whose founder and patron, he wants to be. Besides Žmijewski the team of curators of the Biennale also consists of the Russian group Voijna and curator Joanna Warsza. In a welcome letter ( to the „activists“ they proclaimed that they look forward to be working with TheGlobalSquare Berlin and that they guarantee that any influence by the organisers of the Biennale remain excluded. The participants are likely to have „autonomy“ over their „space“ and its use and would especially not „exhibited“ within an institutional logic. But what else should happen in an exhibition hall, if a scattered group of „activists“ are to perform democracy in front of an international audience? One can only hope that the invitees leave the space either abandoned or demonstrate its institutional and material boundaries.

On behalf of the Community

The generosity of the curators for the activists is an expression of a profound indignation to seriously deal with the political and social function of their own event, and reflects that international movements, if at all, can only be brought in relation to Berlin-based artistic and political groups via casting. But this inability has a bad reason, says Žmijewski, because the artist in „post-political“ Berlin had forgotten, „that only work for the own community makes sense, without them any sense is lost.“ This concept of community at Berlin Biennale is determined explicitly ethnic, religious, and above all nationally. In their appeal, the Biennale, reproduces the usual appeals to God, nation and state as safe factors of collectivisation and recalls reactionary stereotypes of repressive mass art, which seeks to ensure a community cohesion of their audience by emotional overwhelming: „I,“ said Žmijewski, „have asked myself whether the language of art can enable people in an ideological or religious state of excitement. Could artists acquire the same manipulative skills as a politicians?“ In the light of this statement two aspects of the Biennale become of particular importance. Žmijewski’s first act as curator was an „open call“ announced worldwide, in which he called to position oneself explicitly political: „… whether right, left, liberal, nationalist, anarchist, feminist, masculinist, or whatever else you identify yourself“ . While the radical nature of the art in emerging countries is proven through the existence of governmental censorship, the taboos this country would have to be against the establishment with its primacy of political correctness and against the globalised and „post-ideological“ Berlin. At least, Žmijewski has achieved with this simple logic, that neither political groups nor serious artists, who work politically, have been willing to cooperate with him. Especially Žmijewski’s dealing with German politics of memory, which reflects in his aesthetics of authoritarian breaking taboos, was an important reason for such refusal.

About a year ago Žmijewski had already taken an equally broad as random attempt to include in his plan politically concerned parts of the Berlin art scene. With the already almost forgotten publication P / Act for Art in 2011 he had tried to intervene in the then virulent debate about the design and distribution of cultural funding by the Berlin Senate. He invited numerous art producers, artists and authors to the „cost neutral“ production of a few lines about Berlin’s cultural policy. About 50 accepted the invitation, but subsequently not a single one of them was willing to support Žmijewski‘s efforts. Even the Berlin artists‘ initiative „Haben und Brauchen“ were not available to pose as identification figures. Unlike Žmijewski, they, as well as others addressed, were more concerned about the production and development of self-organised structures, and not about the /spectacularisation/ of their work through the political and aesthetic Redeemer Žmijewski.

In this context, Žmijewski’s self-presentation and the selection procedure, which earned him his job, is to be judge. An essential element of his self-representation on the Biennale website is an exhibitionist kind of social autism, with whom he shows off especially in interviews. It is a special form of subversion, an offensively and grumbling flaunted nonconformity against the hated gallery and exhibition landscape, of which he himself is however an integral part. Žmijewski‘s supposedly radical politics is the most vulgar and at the same time modern kind of representative politics. Accordingly Berlin Biennale enjoys representing itself as a movement, but not as a collective practice, but as an association of committed individuals and autonomously acting movements.

On your marks, get set, go

The majority of the work presented at this year’s Biennale reduces art to a kind of proud insult: a constantly overdriven image and performance machine, which aesthetics does not require denounced as reactionary moments of beauty, poetry and contemplation. But art, however, cannot escape the spectacle, but furthermore stages a new one: They want to break the sphere of the aesthetic in order to reach outside to the authentic – to the real resistance, to the tent camps of occupists and to the refugee camps of displaced persons. With the resulting sequence of „agitation“ and „event sequences“, as Žmijewski calls these attempts to escape, return well-known political enemies and projections. In the new edition of the Austrian art magazine Camera Austria International, which is dedicated to the Occupy-movement, the activists denounce the „boundless financial markets“,and a „global society, in which the income of individuals is rated higher than the common good or the humanity,“ as well as a „capitalism, which significantly overvalues the use of money against the use of ideas and human labor,“ because for him „growth, productivity and profit are the only standards.“ They are calling for a state-guided human capitalism, which argues for labour against money and the individual against the public interest. For Occupy Dusseldorf dominates „the commodification and the corresponding materialistic value basis all aspects of our lives. (…) No one mentions values of compassion and solidarity, integrity, trust and honesty anymore. Instead, words such as competition, profits, productivity and competitiveness have settled in our minds. In the land of poets and thinkers (Germany) we are dealing with an unprecedented intellectual and emotional heimatlessness.“ Nation, homeland, and moral decency should compensate for what had been corrupted by individuals. The new advocates of decency are also recommended: The artist Marina Naprushkina from Belarus is proposed as a successor to Alexander Lukashenko. She has brought little cartoon drawings in circulation, which depict the slogans of demonstrations, their exact origin remains unnamed. „We decide,“ is one of them, or „The president is for the people not the people for the president.“ The creation of a strong state is promoted, which supports the regional economy and not only protects the artist from the „wild“ pricing of the global market.
Who exactly this constantly appealed „We“ is, remains, of course, unclear, although it emerges from the reverse images of the enemies of globalisation, greedy individualists and misfits who do not serve the uniting great idea of a nation. It is all about, to create this „we“ of a movement performatively. The frame of the originally appealed Community, namely nation’s ethnic collective, is never left.

The affirmation of national collectives passes all those works for the 7th Biennial, which deal directly or indirectly with the consequences of National Socialism. The Biennale presents itself as a democratic ideal artist cabinet, in which terms such as „expulsion“ amalgamate heterogeneous historical processes to such an extend that a history of subaltern European and international community of the victims of global capitalism arises. All the victims act as „displaced persons“, displaced persons, which are across times and societies, the Palestinians in Israel, the Polish Jews who were persecuted and murdered in the Nazi era, as well as the former Silesian and East Prussian Germans in Poland. They are all victims, and all victims are a people whether they consider themselves as such or not. The interests of both the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, as main funds of the Biennale, as well as the Berlin Kunstwerke as their main venue, but also the rest of the sponsors, especially the Goethe Institute, British Council, the Foundation for Polish-German cooperation and the Austrian Cultural Forum converge on this point: It is promoted nationally. The history of National Socialism and anti-Semitism, however, is never explicitly mentioned. Rather, with such a nationalist search for identity and impeacement the capital becomes a universal platform for potentially any war or international conflict. Therefore, it is not surprising that Yael Bartanas fictitious, through videos, stories, and conferences simulated „Jewish Renaissance Movement“, which promotes the return of 3.3 million Jews to Poland, has found a forum in peaceful coexistence with the federal government of the displaced at Deutschlandhaus. The parallelisation of the German „displaced persons“ with the persecuted Polish Jews has been promoted by Erika Steinbach for a long time. But in her case, you know who you are dealing with. If, Poland and even Jews themselves operate this falsification of history, the old ideology is reincarnated as politically correct practice, although nothing has changed in the matter.

Yael Bartana stages an involuntary parody of Zionism as a supposedly removable community and movement project, referring to Leni Riefenstahl. Meanwhile German expellees, who see themselves as „victims of forced migrations and their descendants“ donate personal items to the Deutschlandhaus, „which commemorate forced home loss“. As, according to Bartana, Israelis with Polish background, shall return to Poland, so the Palestinians may of course return to Israel. A ton key, the „Key of Return“ is supposed to have been the biggest key in the world, is especially transported from the Palestinian refugee camp Aida for the Biennale to Berlin. „Since the mass exodus in the years 1948 and 1967“ states the official site of the Biennale, „generations of Palestinians are waiting in numerous refugee camps in Palestine and the Middle East to meet a ‚right of return‘.“ With an own artistic intervention they wish to „to start a new beginning, beyond all biographical, national and social conflicts.“ Such a genuously triumphant ingenuousness and a corresponding desire for peace ignores any politics. They deny not only all subjective interests, fears and historical contexts, but also the anti-Semitic, reactionary and inhumane resentment in the welded together collective of victims themselves. It‘s rather unlikely that there will be a sign next to the „Key of Return“ that indicates that the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1995 unanimously voted in favour of the death sentence for Arabs in case they hand over their front door keys to Jews.(1)

No one will make any new aesthetic experiences through „Key of Return“. the work is a monumental depiction of a stereotypical opinion that has the appearance of being hard-won or martyr-like. The political situation of Israelis and Palestinians, the question whether all of them want to return and for what reasons, is of equally insignificance than the recently by Norman Finkelstein articulated criticism that the claim of international activists to a right of return for Palestinians is not more than a plea for the destruction of Israel. 

Weak Jews, strong Jews

At least, no one so far had been motivated for a project of Germans returning to Poland. However the reason for this is probably more likely,, that Germany is recognized as a nation and state, while Israel is forever counted as an exception and an assumptive state formation. Bartana‘s „Renaissance“ project suggests, that the Polish Jews in Israel should feel a desire to return to the land of their murdered or escaped grandparents or parents. Neither anti-Semitism in Poland is mentioned nor Polish collaboration with Nazi Germany. Stunde Null has finally come, history has come to an end. If you‘re not keeping pace and follow the aesthetic UN Secretaries, you‘re wrongheaded, screwed up, and perhaps even malicious. „Forget Fear,“ is the consistent slogan, which is also the title of the Biennale reader. Žmijewski announced in the catalog of as critical and subversive advertised event explicitly that he hopes for an end of the „German debate“.

Bartana eventually parallelised Israel with the „Third Reich“ when she claims that the Arabs in Israel are today, what were the Jews in Europe. Israel has failed as a state because it could offer no security to the Jews, therefore, must be given to alternatives. With her project to return Bartana places herself as the prophet of a new migration, which is grounded in Zionism, but completely ignores anti-Semitism as well as the experience of the Holocaust: This is rather an instrument in the hands of right-wing propaganda, she says in an interview in the book „Forget Fear.“ She does not recognise the absurdity, to assume in one hand, Israel’s „right“ for an instrumental use of the Holocaust and to compare in the other hand the situation of the Arabs with the persecuted Jews in Europe. This project fits well with the representation of Germany as a remorseful nation: anti-Semitism in Germany is not an issue at the Biennale. Bartana‘s affirmative orientation to Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic is by no means simply to be understood as fascist denunciations of the Zionist movement. She affirmatively imagines rather a cultural Zionism without Israel, a re-Europeanised Zionism, which does not need a Jewish state. In her performance for the Biennale the Israeli national anthem is therefore consequently played backwards. It seems secondary to her, why – except on behalf of the great idea – anyone should be living in Poland instead of Israel, what the requirements were to be attached to such a life, and what assurances you gave up for it.

Bartana has no jobs to offer, and she even said frankly she would never dare such a move. Under the dictatorship of political movement art at the Biennale, her project is not only an utopian fiction, but occurs as a real political movement, as doable and desirable. But actual politics, such as real power relations, material interests, and historical contexts, are being cut off. She said that „Polish elites“ as well as Europeans in general – who had invented Islamophobia and imported to Israel – are guilty for Israel’s alleged failure as a guarantor of Jewish security. One of the issues of the „Jewish Renaissance Movement“ congress taking place during the Biennial, is the manner in which Israel could become „a part of the Middle East“. While opposition movements in the so-called Middle East, focus on the question how they can become part of the West, Bartana wants to integrate Israel into a Middle East, which is here in a post-colonial style understood as a „cultural area“. This program is advertised as a renewal program of „Judaism“, as an interview between Žmijewski and Polish literary critic Igor Stokfiszewski can tell. One of the two gentlemen self-accusingly complains: „We kill, humiliate and occupy. (…) We are too strong. To be strong, be brutal and inhuman, that is to be an Israeli. But being a jew means to be weak and this weakness, here the three of them unite, is now needed again.“ For Bartana has the creation of the state of Israel has wiped out the Jewish people, they should therefore be reborn in Europe.

The programmatic undercurrent of all of these utterances is the mystification of the collective in relation to the modern nation, the replacement of the political state by ethnically framed entities: every anti-semite will be full of glee about statements like that which argues that the weak „jew“ automatically becomes aggressive within the normality of a nation state. At least Bartana admits that she herself is rather frightened of the international Pro-Palestine movement. Žmijewski on the other hand already stepped up the pace and denounces her justified question „What is it really that we want?“ with a nonchalant demand for being without fear: „Forget Fear“. Under this slogan Auschwitz becomes a gardening case: as a commemoration to Auschwitz the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec re-plants young birch trees from Birkenau in the Berlin soil, which allegedly grew „out of the ashes of the murdered“. Again, this is not an ecumenical reconciliation project at a protestant church convention, neither is it an outdoor education programme for eleven year olds, but it is part of an exhibition which presents itself as a highly discursive survey show. It seems natural, that the curator must be aware of how monumentally dull and naive this artist’s project is and that it is exhibited not despite its obvious undercomplexity, but because of it. As part of what the application of artistic means to authoritarian ideas has always been: propaganda.

In the last 20 years the rise of the Biennials as state-run, or – in the name of civil society’s politics of engagement – also privately sponsored collecting points for „political art“ have also given rise to direct forms of dependency from the regional means of production and political determinations. In that way they do not differ from the capitalist art market, which Žmijewski despises so much. These stereotyped mega events, which are stylised into being political issues in themselves thus are indeed political in certain regards – but not in the sense of a dare. Their sole determination is their own right to exist, which lies in the affirmation of the social consensus they agreed upon beforehand. The interest of the state becomes the interest of its Biennials: ecology in the case of the Sharjah Biennial in the Emirates, the proof of a belonging to the globalised cultural West in the case of Istanbul or Sao Paulo, or, as in the case of the Berlin Biennial, the national usefulness of a self-attested critical art. Žmijewski was chosen by a jury which is economically as well as politically representative for the region, as is the case with all Biennials, amongst them the founding director of the Kunstwerke as well as representatives of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes. As Žmijewski had been known through his own artistic work for exactly the same strategies which he was now able to play out in Berlin, his outrageous dealings with the Shoa, which complements the authoritarian exhibitionism of German commemoration politics, presumably have been of no small relevance for his selection.
There is one moment in Žmijewski’s understanding of art which threatens to become characteristic for political art in the beginning of the 21st century in general, and which can be described as „political art in the age of its national applicability“. The most political stance which art could take in opposition to that might be aiming at reflecting how its peculiar appearances – in this case that of the Berlin Biennial itself – are picturing the regime art itself is subject to, and thus the political disposition it is based upon. But where art verges right into becoming political propaganda it has to be politically defeated, as all politics.

(1) The law was passed on the basis of a Jordanian law which had been in effect until the Six-Day War. The mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrama Sabri, and the Palestinian Islamic top judge, Scheik Taysir Tamimi, issued decrees which authorised the killing of any Arab who would sell property to a Jew. 

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