Issue #41, 2012

Forget Fear
Solvej Helweg Ovesen

Forget Fear,The 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
24 April – 1 July 2012

The seventh Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Forget Fear, curated by Artur Z˙mijewski (Poland, 1966) in collaboration with Joanna Warsza (Poland, 1976) was all together a turn away from the idea that art should pose questions to the idea that art should forget fear, give answers and take responsibility. In important ways a consequent curatorial articulation of a „biennale for contemporary politics“, take it or leave it. Bored by the inertia of the contemporary art world, art consuming audiences and artists talking social change but not delivering it, the curators wanted to present artistic or social processes that made substantial changes and operated on the level of politics. Inspired by Bauhaus and the Avant-garde movement of the 1920s, Z˙mijewski and Warsza, from the initial Open Call (transformed into for artists to the pre-opening events throughout to the end of the biennial bravely insisted on presenting performative and project-based processes more than art objects presented in a classical exhibition format.


Since this review appears after the 7th Berlin Biennale has closed, it is necessary to contextualize the overall perspective and why most art professionals rejected the biennial deeply and never returned once they entered KW. This in order to arrive at a point where I take a closer look at a selection of the art projects that really did what they said and were successful in doing so. The venues of this biennial included KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Deutschland Haus, Akademie der Künste, Elisabeth Church for the exhibition part, as well as other venues for the different events, for example Sophien-säle. The choice of a non-object based, but process oriented exhibition format meant that it was mainly addressing the people living in Berlin who could follow the processes and developments as more and more projects took form and in the end 120,000 people came to see it, double as much as the last Berlin Biennale; however, only a part of these visitors really saw it unfolded. Yet, this format of curating and presenting art projects also meant that the 7th Berlin Biennale disappointed the art tourists and art professionals as well as the press from the rest of the world and perhaps even the rest of Germany more than any other Berlin Biennale in history.

Forget Fearwas not consumable as a large-scale exhibition that you see in one or two days – it resisted art consumers and asked for loyalty for more than two months. It is the first time in recent history that audiences have been so shockingly appalled. The biennial succeeded in transforming what normally would be called a theme into actions with a functional, but not consciously aesthetic visibility. The projects that succeeded in doing so deserve to be recovered – especially for those who did not see them, since this social network and actions as well as elaborate discourses were the true power of Forget Fear that will enter history, at least the history of the Berlin Biennale, like no other previous one did.

Art That Works

In the pre-opening phase the Czech artist Martin Zet’s project of collecting the German author Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft es ab, 2010, through art institutions in Germany. This action provoked a fearful imagination in the press and amongst art institutions that the already highly criticised book, which contains racist statements on Muslims in Germany, would be burned as fascists and communists have been known to do it in German history. Although the artist had uttered no plan of what to do or how to present the collected books, his gesture of collecting the book, was what created the process and effects that in the end defined the artistic action.1 The project titled Deutschland schafft es ab (Germany Gets Rid of It), 2012, sparked a relevant discourse taking place amongst others at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, about the blossoming racism in Germany after the publishing of the book – a necessary discourse to be consciously aired and dealt with and not suppressed as some German press tried to do. At least this contemporary problem and taboo was now also brought to awareness in the art world and made the art bubble burst. After that introduction to the 7th Berlin Biennale expectations rose, at least locally, and once the opening came, it became clear that these kinds of art projects couldn’t be perceived on an opening event. If consequence would have been drawn from curatorial side, the opening should have been cancelled as format and a big conference could have replaced it. Also I did not see the biennial as an exhibition where it makes sense to talk about curatorial choreography or spatially generated meaning, but as a series of individual projects that flowered more than usual for such participatory projects in a time of interpassivity.

One such project was the impressive performative undertaking by Dutch artist Jonas Staal New World Summit consisting of an installation in KW with flags belonging to groups defined by the UN and EU as subversive terrorist enclaves as well as a model of a parliament setting, followed by a real summit event. Taking place in Sophiensäle in a both beautiful, frightening and powerful installation of flags surrounding the speakers and audience, an alternative democracy of selected speakers, amongst others The World Tamil Movement presented their cases and went into a professional and productive dialogue with US and NL international lawyers who are fighting cases of inadequate claims of terrorism. The gathered parts, listening to each other agreed in the end to proceed by ruling court cases with the aim of removing e.g. The World Tamil Movement from the list of defined terrorists in order for them to proceed with their life and conflict resolution process on legal grounds.

Another project that took on its own life and involved thousands of people was The Draftsmen’s Congress in theElisabeth Church in Berlin Mitte, where various invited social and artistic groups and everybody feeling inclined could generate and participate in drawing workshops throughout almost the whole biennial period. This project was initiated and run by Polish artist Paweł Althamer, who was present in person throughout the formation process of this collaborative installation. Here in the vast space (turned public for the period of the biennial) of a former church artists and the „general public“ were provided materials and they were drawing, deleting, framing and reinterpreting each other’s work in an immense process of over layering of graffiti, by amateur and skilled, educated drawers. The only tool of communication was drawing. The project paid tribute to the classically often celebrated, but always new experience of shared creativity and authorship, but really only for those who participated.

In the opposite direction was the artwork Christ the King, consisting in a 2 months process of carving out a ca. 4 meters tall Styrofoam version of the head of Christ in the space of KW. The work was created by an otherwise non-credited sculptor, Mirosław Patecki, who was originally commissioned by the Catholic Church to make a beyond-belief size public sculpture in Poland to glorify Christ and the Catholic Church. This project spoke about the history of art and craftsmanship and of course very intelligently displayed the existing strength or a thread between Christianity and art that Walter Benjamin taught us had ended with the industrialisation and individualisation of art-making. Revealed were the presence, power and economical capacity of the Catholic Church.

Earnest Talk and Local Digging

These projects as well as others such as the Palestinian Key of Return definitely had stamina and often managed to generate an unusual feeling of community and real interesting discourse – like a cut in the arm in comparison to the blurry and often pigeon-English art talks that take place for the events sake today. Here the discourse often was the means and weapon of the panelists that kept audiences awake and coming back again and again – although not everybody always agreed.

However, it is tough to exclude the established art world privileging for example the inclusion of the Occupy Movement. This happened for several reasons, but mainly and firstly because the biennial lacked care for pre-defined aesthetics and often presentation as well. An example is that the grand entrance space in KW was occupied by the Occupy Movement, who still built up tents although they now had a roof over the head, they wrote slogans on cardboard, graffitied the walls and generated their own visual identity. In some cases the biennial seemed too short-sighed in its political and geographical position. This could be seen e.g. in how it focused on recovering the history between Eastern Europe and Germany in the re-enactment The Berlin Battle 1945 by Maciej Mielecki. Why not give attention and support to some of the contemporary artists whose efforts concern wars and unfortunate deaths happening now, as Christian Boltanski asks in an interview in the biennial catalogue in regards to Yael Bartana project presented as part of the Berlin Biennale Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, suggesting that hundred thousands of Jews should be re-hosted in Poland. However, these questions are connected to a chosen localism, assumed also in the close collaboration from the curatorial side with the Voina group, which however also has its symphatic and loyal qualities on the backdrop of a truly fearless biennial.



1. ‑In the exhibition the project was presented as four of the books pressed up against the wall, closed, with a metal pressure stem, accompanied by a documentary with Martin Zet.