These 5 Political Installations are the Best of the Berlin Biennale

With the Berlin Biennale underway, we examine five politically-charged works challenging perceptions and bringing us back down to earth.

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–18

Taking its title from the Tina Turner track — “We don’t need another hero” — the 10th instalment of the Berlin Biennale, which opened to the public on June 9, rejects any notion of absolutes. Instead, its curators seek to instigate a dialogue about what is undoubtably a difficult time to be alive and make art. Intentional or not, many of the most interesting, thoughtful and memorable works on display this year are those that engage with politics, whether overtly or otherwise, forcing viewers to sit up and pay attention. With topics as wide-ranging and diverse as East African colonialism, secret Afro-Cuban cults, geopolitics, the exoticisation of the black female nude, racial injustices and it goes without saying, Donald Trump, BB10 is a veritable smorgasbord of politically-fuelled art.

However, the strength and range of these works demonstrates the capacity of the gallery to become a political space and equally, how gallery attendees, now more than ever, seek art that provokes intelligent discussion. Against an unsavoury political backdrop of Trump, the increased threat of right-wing governments and rising xenophobia, questions of race, gender and class are matters that art must take on. As the Biennale’s title goes, viewers are not looking for heroes, or indeed, answers and solutions, but the opportunity to reflect and contemplate through thoughtful and considered work that ultimately may pave the way for real and long-lasting change. With that in mind, here are our 5 must-sees at this year’s Biennale, all of which engage with politics in radically, powerful ways. Needless to say the images don’t do them justice, and we strongly recommend you experience them for yourselves.

Liz Johnson Artur at KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Liz Johnson Artur, Real…Times video from Black Balloon Archive, 1991–ongoing, installation view.

Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur is known for her arresting images that candidly capture the nuances of blackness and diasporic identity. The artist moved to London in 1991, and her work at the Biennale is focused on the U.K. capital. Perhaps, the most captivating of this output is the stirring video work, Real  … Times, a jarring reminder of the U.K’s current climate, the trials and uncertainties faced by the Windrush generation, and the “hostile environment” perpetrated by Theresa May. Playing out over various sequences of footage filmed in London this year, the work interweaves different narratives from London’s black communities — from Black Lives Matter rallies to millennial qualms voiced by Born N Bread collective. It’s startlingly relevant, speaking directly of the now, and immortalising this pertinent moment in our cultural consciousness.

Sondra Perry at Akademie der Künste

Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017.

Following on from her extremely well-received show at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where she presented a blazing digital re-working of a Turner painting, Sondra Perry is quickly becoming one of 2018’s biggest names. At the Biennale, she exhibits her video IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, a thought-provoking meditation on the question of colonialism, race and digital technologies. In this intimate single-channel video, Perry documents how her twin brother’s physical likeness — a basketball player for Georgia State University — was sold to video game developers, EA Games, without his prior consent. This intelligent video is a perfect example of Perry’s ability to challenge everyday injustices. Through her ingenious weaving of handheld camera, old photographs and digital avatars, she draws attention to matters of race and identity that may otherwise go unquestioned.

Okwui Okpokwasili at KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Okwui Okpokwasili, Sitting on a Man’s Head, 2018

Igbo-Nigerian American artist, choreographer, writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili has created one of the Biennale’s most powerful participatory works, made in collaboration with her partner Peter Born and a number of Berlin-based artists. Titled Sitting on a Man’s Head, the piece draws inspiration from traditional protest tactics employed by women in eastern Nigeria, metaphorically referred to as “sitting on a man’s head”. This peaceful but powerful strategy involves a collective disruption of seats of power in ways that enable marginalised women to “speak back, air grievances, and effect change”. Visitors are invited by presumed participants in the performance (or else very friendly strangers) to enter a designated waiting area, filled with semi-circular benches, and engage in a candid one-on-one discussion. You then enter a calm white tented space, guided by your designated leader. Inside an evocative score unfolds, activated by the tent’s new entrants. The result is a distinctly profound and unique experience that is hard to put into words. What’s certain is that Okpokwasili’s overall aim — that those involved “come together, find each other, and call out” — is undoubtedly achieved.

Tony Cokes at ZK/U (Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik)

Tony Cokes, installation view at ZK/U Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin.

In the dark, dank basement of ZK/U, American artist Tony Cokes has planted multiple TV sets, the brightly-coloured screens of which bear quotations pulled from numerous sources. Each monitor covers a different but equally explosive topic in recent history, including Hurricane Katrina, the Rwandan Genocide, and — particularly chilling for their misogynistic humour — interview snippets with Donald Trump. Paired with pop and rock songs by the likes of Nirvana, Whitney Houston and The Velvet Underground, the overall sensation is one of discombobulating and troubling impact. By separating quotations from the image, the artist compels you to focus on what these matters really mean. It is surprisingly simple concept that makes a persuasive political statement about the power of context and the media in the 21st century. Meanwhile, two video works play on a larger screen — Black Celebration and Mikrohaus, or the black atlantic?— the latter of which investigates the complex relationship between house and techno music and race. Not to be missed.

Dineo Seshee Bopape at KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–18

South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape takes over KW Institute’s central exhibition space with a vast disorientating installation, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016–18). An orange light fills the room, which is strewn with debris — from broken columns that mirror those of the room itself to piles of bricks and plastic buckets which collect droplets of water that drip slowly from the ceiling. The atmosphere is strange and dystopian, an effect compounded by various video monitors, the most prominent of which plays Nina Simone’s emotionally wrought 1976 performance of Feelings at the Montreau Jazz Festival. Two gourds are bound in soldered metal cages, their flesh bulging and distorted as a result; a giant wrecking ball comprised of used cardboard hangs from the ceiling. Themes of decay, mental instability, suppression and racism collide to dizzying effect, leaving you deflated and disquieted, but definitely feeling.

The Berlin Biennale runs until September 9, 2018.

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