The rotten roots of the present

The sans culottes they shot against the clocks that were in the streets to put an end to the time of the privileges. Literally and figuratively, the French Revolution was also a revolt against the hours and minutes. Four years after the taking of the Bastille, the Republic abandoned the sexagesimal system, in force since the Babylonians, to impose a new order calculated based on the number ten. It would be abolished by Napoleon a decade later, but it still seems like one of the most powerful metaphors for that regime change. The story was recalled this week, with relative humility, by the Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia, curator of the new edition of the Berlin Biennale. Like the insurgents, Attia aspires to stop time in order to imagine a different future. With the stopwatch stopped, he wants to draw “a visual map of the inherited world” and inspect the rotten roots from which the current era sprung, so marked by the harmful effects of capitalist and colonial rhetoric.

The title of the biennial leaves no room for doubt: Still present. It will be incorporeal, but that inheritance is still there, Attia seems to say, and its effects are highly pernicious for millions of people on the planet. It is a matter of putting an end to the opacity of that legacy, of exposing the poorly concealed Western superiority, of stopping dressing up the massive crimes of the past, from slavery to the different ethnic butcher shops. The curator wants to impose a change of story, redirect the perception of the less experienced visitor, neutralize his potential toxicity with a weapon as weak and effective as artistic language, the best treatment to disinfect the poorly healed wounds of modernity. All that Attia wants to do and he can’t do it, but he knew from the beginning that the initiative was doomed to failure. And yet, as with the revolutionaries, there is something poignant, for lack of a less cheesy adjective, in the naive radicalism of their ambition and in their reliance on art, as if hinting that out of seeming failures come lasting change. After all, France reverted to the unpopular decimal system in 1837 to measure, if not hours, then weight and length (in kilograms and meters).

Installation by the Australian artist of Vietnamese origin Mai Nguyen Long at the Berlin Biennale.
Installation by the Australian artist of Vietnamese origin Mai Nguyen Long at the Berlin

The 12th edition of the biennial, perhaps one of the most politicized in Europe, knows how to avoid the unfair feeling of redundancy, or even boredom, that can arise from reading its handout, a cocktail of commendable causes in which the climate crisis, the rights of minorities and north-south relations, peppered with names like Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon or Aimé Césaire, theorists of alterity without whom there would be no biennial worth its salt. The perception is illegitimate in substance —is a single decade enough to deconstruct a value system that has prevailed for centuries?— and also in form. The biennial, arranged in six different spaces in Berlin, condenses a selection of works of irregular interest, sometimes weighed down by a certain tendency towards literalness, but almost always surprising and daring. Three works located at different points along the route illustrate the purpose of their curator. In the Academy of Arts, attached to the Brandenburg Gate, the German Moses März imagines alternative world maps that trace a genealogy of concepts such as neo-colonial alliances or black ecology. The Indian Khandakar Ohida dedicates a video to one of her relatives, who stores thousands of useless objects in metal boxes, as if he were the curator of a museum less interested in masterpieces than in the sensitive magnitude of personal memories.

At the KW center, where this biennial began in 1996, Deneth Piumakshi has a similar desire: to decolonize the archive. This Sri Lankan artist toured museums in Paris, Berlin and Basel to find traces of her ancestors in ethnographic photographs taken in the 19th century. After finding them, she took them to the landscapes where they were taken. She thus resignified those documents that were at the service of racist sciences such as phrenology. The result is a symbolic restitution that underlines the paralysis that, after the impulse of recent years, those of a material nature seem to be present now.

An installation by the Congolese Sammy Baloji on the transport of exotic plants in the days of the British Empire.
An installation by the Congolese Sammy Baloji on the transport of exotic plants in the days of the British

Southeast Asia is overrepresented —while Latin America, surprisingly, is conspicuous by its absence—, as various Vietnamese artists also demonstrate, among which Tammy Nguyen stands out with canvases on the way of the cross where tropical culture seems to cannibalize Christianity. The Congolese Sammy Baloji remembers the transport of exotic plants by the British Empire, while the Chinese Yuyan Wang signs a video about the visual pollution of our time, inspired by her country’s initiative to create artificial moons. The best-known names also abound: there are Forensic Architecture and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, winners of the Turner prize, with two works on the clouds in war contexts, which are not cut by pointing the finger at Israel. Veteran Nil Yalter signs several pieces, including a mural near the Tiergarten, while the inclusion of two works by Alex Prager enunciates a bold idea: the white women in her photos look just as alienated as those of other races. Attia says, quoting Bernard Stiegler, that dreams usually precede thought. From this biennial with the aspect of an unhealthy nightmare, one leaves with the feeling of being the living image of the capitalist hallucination, but also the antidote that can prevent its infinite expansion.

‘Still Present!’. Berlin Biennale. Until September 18.

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