To what extent can the Berlin Biennale be decolonized? Not only it is important for Europe to reflection its colonial past and still existent colonial practices rooted in its institutions to right their centuries-long wrongdoings that disrupted natural development and led to huge disparities between the nations/cultures, but it is also important for art institutions and practices too to reflect on that in order to produce relevant and truly contemporary art that would reflect the world today.
In order to study this topic, I wanted to deeply engage with Berlin Biennale as a case study, because traditionally decolonization discussions are mostly centered around restitution research and museum archives, while Biennales seem to not raise so many questions and even perceived as experimental labs that are not burdened by museum’s colonial DNA and chambers of looted art, and are more flexible to welcome and promote change inviting underrepresented artists.
12th Berlin Biennale is of particular interest to me for several reasons. Firstly, I personally visited 2 of its sites and have digital documentation as well as personal impressions, embodied feelings, and questions that I think are of importance and relevance when evaluating/researching an art Biennale. While visiting, I was also traumatized by one of the artworks (Jean-Jacques Lebel’s “Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American occupation (Baghdad)” (2013)) that I consequently found out is of major importance to discuss decolonization attempts of Biennale. As I’ve read collective open letter that collected over 300 signatures, self-withdrawal of artworks by Iraqi artists present on the Biennale, and one member of the Biennale’s artistic team resigning from her post shortly after the show opened (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/berlin-biennale-artists-withdraw-2161112 ). Another interesting aspect to me was the head/leading curator Kader Attia’s French-Algerian background, his research and art practice on colonialism and decolonization, as well as his theory of Repair that he proposes asa method for decolonization. And of course, 12th Berlin Biennale’s self-proclaimed mission to decolonize was like a red cloth to the bull for me. As a person whose country/people are now engaged in decolonizing attempts to heal post-colonial trauma and find our decolonized selves, European institution’s engagement with the topic cannot not make it personal. And then the question that is bothering me when it comes to colonial institutions and decolonial attempts is are existing European art institutions salvageable? Or its beyond hope? Can Biennale be self-critical and representative of contemporary needs & critical philosophy theories, restructuring its hierarchies and abandoning its hegemony over discourse and exploitative practices? Is Biennale an art institution in its practices, organization, or it is truly different & is as proclaimed flexible & prone to change? Is Bourdieu’s habitus theory applicable? Can I use institutional critique developed by artists, conducted through art means to challenge academic colonial research framework, and bring art back to whom it belongs-artists?
Can I use Foucalt’s theory of power&knowledge interconnection, discourse and episteme to analyze Berlin Biennale’s message/discourse/curatorial statement, idea? While reading the sources on Biennales, I quite quickly realized, that Biennales are ‘meant to fail’, or that no one holds their breath expecting them to be a critical or problem-solving art event, as they naturally follow the logic of spectacle. However, not only for the sake of thesis, but also to follow an ameliorative approach that will pursue critical sustainability of reforming rotten structures, as well as to bring the fresh perspective, I think it is worth to notice and admit that new curators and new seasons of Biennale are attempting new critical approaches. But I think it is also interesting to explore from a structuralist perspective: what happens when someone with an idea becomes part of a Biennial machine? How successful, perceivable was that theory/method of “repair”? And how independent is the curator?What other actors, forces are involved? What about artists’ agency? Do they have a say? We know decolonization of arts is failing (that’s obvious because discursive decolonization is not efficient, is there a point of decolonization of arts at all?), but it has destabilized the center, where things are enabled because the conversations have started.