Anyone who believed that the 12th Berlin Biennale, unlike the Documenta, would get through the scandal-ridden art summer without any major excitement is now wrong. There had been rumblings beneath the surface for some time. An open letter by the Iraqi artist Rijin Sahakian, which was published in the US art magazine “Art Forum” with 15 other signatories, brought the conflict to light.
The installation “Soluble Poison. Scenes from the time of the American occupation of Baghdad” in the Hamburger Bahnhof shows enlarged excerpts of well-known torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison. This triggered opposition, especially among Iraqi artists, whose works were located in the immediate vicinity of the photographs presented in the form of a labyrinth.
However, protests against Jean-Jacques Lebel’s maze of horror must have come much earlier. The co-curator Ana Texeiro Pinto is said to have left the five-person team around the Biennale organizer Kader Attia for exactly this reason.
The Biennale did not want to comment on this, but pointed out in a statement that despite her withdrawal, Teixeira was still responsible for the “Whose Universal?” conference organized jointly with the House of World Cultures in July. Kader Attia promises a statement, but its release is a long time coming.
In the meantime, it has been rehung, the contribution by Iraqi artist Sajjad Abbas is no longer near the torture pictures. His video “I can see you” with an oversized eye is already hanging at another Biennale location: above the entrance to the exhibition rooms of the Academy of Arts on Pariser Platz.
It is said that an alternative location has yet to be found for the painting by Iraqi artist Raed Mutar. The Rieck Halls remained closed on Thursday due to current renovations.
The protest by the Iraqi artists is primarily directed against the fact that the recording was reproduced without the hardly expected permission of the tortured. In her opinion, the warnings about the disturbing content of the extremely enlarged images, which are separated from the exhibition tour by curtains, would not be enough.
In particular, the affirmative representation is criticized.
Jean-Jacques Lebel’s statement on his work on the Biennale website and on the fact that after Saddam Hussein’s henchmen were tortured by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison, implicitly reinforces this accusation: “The only new thing about this seemingly eternal tragedy was the mass of photos — testimonies of their criminal misconduct — that the torturing Americans made themselves and proudly posted on the internet,” he writes. The Biennale title “Still Present!” receives a sad confirmation with Lebel’s contribution. Attia’s attempt to break through old injustice turns into the opposite here.
Otherwise, however, the Berlin Biennale, which also primarily focuses on the Global South, seems less affected by the conflicts with which the documenta is confronted. Works with anti-Semitic content were not identified, but contributions that are decidedly critical of Israel, such as the survey by the British artist group Forensic Architecture led by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who recorded the flights of Israeli drones over the airspace of Lebanon on a display board over a period of 15 years.
The Israeli artist Dana Levy, on the other hand, took a critical look at the Israeli settlement policy. So the Biennale did not have to hang up a work, but now it did.