Welcome to the LOLhouse: how Berlin's Biennale became a slick, sarcastic joke
A recent newspaper cover of Die Zeit featured a about the 880 refugees who, on a single week in May, went to their deaths in the Mediterranean. It contrasted the increasingly hardline politicians of EU nations, in particular the rising party, with the rescuers who had to fish bodies from the sea with nets. It described a couple whose corpses were found arm in arm, and a baby with blue lips and shrivelled feet.
I read this story on the morning of the opening of the , whose main exhibition site features a juice bar, a giant cutout poster of Rihanna, and a poster reading: “Why should fascists have all the fun?”
Welcome to the LOL biennial. And brace yourselves. The reins of one of Europe’s most significant art showcases, now in its ninth edition, have been handed over to the New York , who have never put together an exhibition before. The DIS foursome – Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro – don’t aspire to be curators. Instead they manage an , photo service and other digital enterprises; celebrate the middlebrow and the ornery; and revel in sponsorships and branding opportunities that efface any distinction between creation and complicity.
And what they have produced, at this moment of political revanchism and humanitarian crisis, is an ultra-slick, ultra-sarcastic biennial, replete with ads, avatars, custom security guard uniforms, a manic disposed to hashtags like #BiennaleGlam, and a woman lip syncing to .
Stick with it across five sites – an art academy, management school, Kunsthalle, private collection, and a tourist boat upholstered in fake fur and fire prints – and you will find a few things to like. One of the strongest works in the show comes from Cécile B Evans, an American artist living between London and Berlin, whose immersive video installation What the Heart Wants offers a rare dose of ambition and seriousness.
In a huge underground gallery, a watery garden traversed by a runway forms the backdrop for a grim but sensitive vision of the near future, in which life is lived somewhere between a server farm and a Chinese-led global post-democracy. Lovers achingly remember a society populated by real bodies; disembodied ears float in CGI-rendered deserts. Evans imagines the end of the world as routed through an Aaliyah video, in which love itself has been commoditised, and slickness is no escape from psychological or ecological meltdown.
Every artist here has Evans’s easy command of digital media; almost none display the same gravity or care. The biennial groans with imitations, parodies, deceptions, knockoffs, pairing soft-dystopian visions with sniggering jokes. offers up a terrarium equipped with vapid pseudo-brands like “New Peace” and “Mirrorscape” (the commons is being privatised – LOL). The aforementioned juice bar comes from , a Mexican artist who styles herself as “Debora Delmar Corp”, and whose bottles of green gunk are accompanied by an ad campaign that pitches self-worth through consumption (health neuroses are big business – LOL).
A jaw-dropping installation by Christopher Kulendran Thomas places the history of ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka into a real estate showroom (genocide – LOL). In front of a window on to Pariser Platz – filled on the day I visited with a grab bag of protesters – a callow statue by the Swedish artist Anna Uddenberg depicts a young woman in a thong who is taking a picture of her ass with a selfie stick. From the Pergamon to this in 2,000 years.
These artists seem to want to have their fun and still get credit for topicality, but let’s get real: I have seen spambots with greater sensitivity. Images and ideas appear here as one big put-on, and everything gets absorbed into the DISosphere, a feeble blancmange of logos and light boxes. Numerous artists’ contributions, such as a shot by Anne de Vries, are indistinguishable from DIS’s own impostures. These include those “Why should fascists have all the fun...?” ads, hung in one case across the street from a former Jewish girls’ school. (, the campaign’s art director Babak Radboy justifies that disgusting slogan by claiming we should “learn from” Donald Trump, exulting that the biennial has “no critique, no discourse, no stakes”).
At the very least, no one seems to have read an art history textbook. There is a century of precedents for artistic intercessions into mass culture that undermine the fetishised “newness” paraded here. The most obvious and important is dada: with his of 1924, Marcel Duchamp turned himself into not just a brand but a corporation. Think of the commercial mashups of modernist collage, or the in the 60s; think of the redeployed images of 80s appropriation, or even . DIS’s mid-market, mass-sophisticate pose reboots 90s collective , who staged mock fashion shoots with clothes from The Gap. Even the glib inclusion of an outdoor gym (yes, the biennial offers training sessions) rehashes the Documenta of 1992, which featured a boxing ring.
Historical indifference is a venial sin. The mortal sin is DIS’s noxious metaphysics. For them, art is hopelessly tainted by commerce and the past is for suckers. Neoliberalism mechanically slays critical thinking, so insincerity is the only way out. (In fairness, DIS’s online magazine often publishes articles offering far more stimulation and seriousness). But why even make an exhibition, if you are this sneering about it? This show does not argue for a better art world; it argues for giving up on art entirely.
DIS are right about one thing: artists have to work inside the economic and image-saturated straitjackets of contemporary culture. Artists have to think hard about the changing nature of work, the dissolution of the private realm, the omnipresence of media, the psychological impact of data floods (and climatic ones). But to do so as flippantly as this biennial – to spit on the past and LOL at the present – is worse than arrogant; it is a puerile misunderstanding of what art is and what it can do. In Berlin right now, a commanding show by the sculptor , on view at the gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, exhibits deeper engagement with economics and identity than 50 biennial artists.
Try being sincere; try believing in something. Exhausted by the biennial’s sarcasm, I took myself to the Deutsche Oper, which has erected a massive poster facing a major boulevard, one quite different from DIS’s fascism-is-fun advert. The opera house façade now features a panorama of the EU’s border fence with Morocco – and, behind it, the gleaming Mediterranean in which more refugees will drown this week, the next week, and the week after that.
It may be idealistic, I know, to insist that arts institutions have a role to play in considering and changing that ghastly reality, and all the others of our damaged world. But better that than a digital nihilism so shameless it treats even as a joke.
• runs until 18 September at venues across the city
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