'The Crack Begins Within,' The 11th Berlin Biennale

El Palomar, Schreber is a Woman, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Silke Briel

The 11th iteration of the Berlin Biennial titled The Crack Begins Within opened its doors ten days ago and it will be on display till November the first, 2020.

The Epilogue of this 2020 edition, emerges as a final chapter of the continuous work of a whole year at the ExRotaprint complex, one of the venues of the event in the Wedding district, and adds two emblematic venues in the city, daadgalerie and Martin Gropius Bau to the historical venue, KW, where the Bienal was originally created twenty-four years ago.

Assuming the geology’s definition that a crack is a fissure that appears when the surface contract under pressure, the bb11 seventy-five collectives and individual artists, and the four curators: Chilean María Berríos, Argentinian Renata Cervetto, Congolese Lisette Lagnado, and Spanish Agustín Pérez Rubio understand these systemic fissures as something that keeps us apart but also bring us together to react, writing a statement in four parts —one for each of the four venues— about diversity, affect, dissidence and colonialism.

Process-based bb11 and omnipresent coronavirus

Despite some postponements —the 11th Berlin Biennale’s Epilogue was initially scheduled from June 13 to September 13—, on Saturday, September 5th, with three months of delay due to the pandemic, the 2020 edition of the German capital biennial’s concluding event, The Crack Begins Within, was fully open to the public. The title comes from the poet Iman Mersal (Egypt, 1966), who explores ghosts of motherhood, “destroying its contemporary morality” as a space of transition that should not be simply read as a binary between old and new. In short, as an epilogue to the biennial, it denounces the fallacy of claiming for oneself the destruction of the old and the birth of the new.

bb11 concept sheds light on the cracks in the system and the new forms of solidarity being forged by healers and carers. Despite new restrictions, the program still aims to “contemplate the idea of exchange as an overall concept that weaves together both curatorial and pedagogical practices…[trying out] practices of communicating beyond boundaries, of gathering cautiously, listening in solidarity, rethinking established approaches and building fleeting learning communities.”

This Berlin Biennale is uniquely process-based, the curators focused on lived experiences and sought to build sustainable relationships with the people and the city of Berlin. This process began in September 2019, when they took up residence in a temporary space at ExRotaprint. This space was shut down when the pandemic hit the world but reopened as soon as the city of Berlin administration allowed to open art venues. During the last trimester of last year and through 2020, three exhibitions —called experiences— took place. Of three months of duration each, Os Ossos do Mundo/The Bones of the World was the exp.1, followed by the exp.2 Virginia de Medeiros & Feminist Health Care Research Group and exp.3 Affect Archives. After the first three parts, which addressed “the stories behind maternity, the care of time, reproductive work, queer bodies, or the need to understand other beliefs”, the biennial came to a close with an Epilogue that encompasses all these realities with a careful sense of continuity.

Chapters of the Epilogue

If the previous edition was given to African background curator, in this iteration, the curators all have South American and Spanish femme-identified backgrounds. They all have carefully selected the participants for the experiences, as well as the epilogue according to their background. Thematics presented throughout the year resurface in this final chapter: the colonial symbolism of the church and an alternative in an “anti-church” at KW as a safe space for the marginalized; the connotation of clothing and how a dissident body rebels against constructs through the choice of clothes at daadgalerie; the looting and erasure perpetuated by museums at Gropius Bau; and the idea of the Biennale as a living archive in which multiple stories have been brought to public attention at ExRotaprint. Events and happenings will take place from until November 1st, thus the Biennale is a set to reflect not only on its own process but also on the unexpected events of 2020.

The Antichurch, KW Institute for Contemporary Art

“Patriarchal violence, the white father, the priest, and the statesman, preaching from their nationalist pulpits. The sexual politics of fascism can be felt in a communion of ecstatic repression that lashes out at all heretics. The religion of colonial capitalism, in its many mutations, continues its criminal rampage against a rising majority of non-believers.”

For that reason, artists present in KW presents works of those confronting the systemic dangers fighting back by featuring those who simply live their lives, an exercise of real survival. Using lullabies sung by elders, insurgencies woven by Indigenous women, children turning from their mothers finding new “family” connections, they confront the tactics of fear and fanaticism by creating personal and collective antichurches, queer and transfeminist temples with emancipatory cosmologies & sexualities. They proclaim to be the granddaughters of witches not burned, they perform rituals of feminist solidarities, they invent matriarchal alliances of rebellious mourning, they share their vulnerability and their stories, they are spiritual healers and they are always many, never just one.

El Palomar, portrait. Courtesy El Palomar

Walking KW from top to bottom, in the third and last floor of the KW, the Barcelona-based art collective El Palomar (Mariokissme and R. Marcos Mota) present the two-channels film and installation Schreber is a Woman (2020) which investigates queer ancestry and history. Against the father and the patriarchy, their installation departs from the case and memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge confined to the Sonnenstein mental asylum in Saxony in 1894. At the turn of the twentieth century, he writes Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), where he recounts feeling like a woman, among other experiences. Schreber’s text influenced Sigmund Freud and helped him to elaborate his theories on paranoia and schizophrenia. Relevant to Schreber’s story is the fact that his father, Dr. Moritz Schreber, authored several books that proposed strict authoritarian models for the physical and moral education of children, which were very popular in Germany and other parts of Europe at that time. This family history helps explain why Daniel Paul Schreber’s text was seminal to postwar analyses of authoritarianism by poststructural philosophers and writers.

El Palomar uncovers and reinterprets the experience and writings of Schreber from a transfeminist perspective that resists concepts of confinement and exclusion, of domestication and control; they deconstruct the Freudian link between Schreber and schizophrenic paranoia from a queer viewpoint. Schreber is a Woman subverts the original circumstances of queer lineage, recontextualizing gender, and pleasure in the present by focusing on the images and sounds that Schreber describes in his memoirs. In summary, the installation offers a new reading of the case as rooted in a period when gender identities were restricted to classical binary archetypes.

El Palomar, Schreber Is A Woman, 2020, two-channles video installation. Video stills and installation view courtesy El Palomar

Moving down, to the second floor, Virginia Borges, Gil DuOdé & Virginia de Medeiros presents the film Ìyá Agbára/Strength of Mothers (2020). Produced for the 11th Berlin Biennale, the film revolves around the portraits of eight female (including Virginia Borges and Gil DuOdé, coauthors of the piece) affiliates of the Ilê Obá Sileké —the only Candomblé temple of Germany— while exercising collectively with the temple community. Shot in 16mm, the video-piece include many somatic and spiritual registers.

Virginia Borges, Gil DuOdé, and Virginia de Medeiros, Ìyá Agbára [Strength of Mothers], 2020. Video stills. Courtesy Virginia Borges, Gil DuOdé, and Virginia de Medeiros

In the first floor, against patriarchy, patrimony, or colonialism, girls train to fight, in the three-channel video installation They Sing, They Dance, They Fight by Peruvian artist Elena Tejada-Herrera. Mapuche artist Paula Baeza Pailamilla presents Kurü Mapu/Black Land (2018) an imaginary map of Ngulu Mapu weaved collectively by Mapuche Indigenous women, which represents their ancestral territory violated by Spanish colonization. Baeza Pailamilla also shows the film-documenting the action which addresses the condition of invisibility of indigenous female bodies in their current context, displaced from their territories of origin.

The Teatro da Vertigem collective staged past August one of the most powerful performances in years, documented here in a film displayed on a single flatscreen. By the why, we are already at the KW ground floor. Marcha à ré/Reverse Gear (2020) was a more than a hundred car procession resembling a funeral march driving slowly in reverse gear down Paulista Avenue in São Paulo, the city’s financial district. The participants wearing protective masks contrast with the demented voice of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, speaking over the soundtrack as the cars continue passing a white banner featuring a drawing of an old woman lying on her deathbed in agony. The drawing is by Flávio de Carvalho (1899–1973), a Brazilian artist and architect whose work inspired a central aspect of the performance —that of the cars are driving backward. In his 1931 work Experience No. 2, Carvalho walked in the opposite direction, without removing his hat, through a crowd of worshippers during a Corpus Christi parade in Saõ Paulo, inciting an angry and violent response.

Several other works by Carvalho are present in the biennial. Showed in KW, it is Retrato ancestral/Ancestral Portrait (1932). Moreover, some other works and actions are displayed in the other sites, documented and published by the Biennale.

The Teatro da Vertigem captures the dystopic feelings induced by the far-right Bolsonaro government and its enablers, who with their COVID-19-denying and racist policies appear willing to kill their own people.

As Teatro da Vertigem, Mariela Scafati’s Movilización (2020) seize strong images from current events. She has filled the gallery’s first ground-floor space with monochrome canvasses in various colors, located next to each other to form abstracted outlines of human bodies lying flat on the floor, or with legs bent. As the title suggests, the Buenos Aires-based artist initially conceived these figures as standing, like a crowd of protesters, but when lockdown interrupted feminist demonstrations against a string of femicides, Scafati instead decided to conjure a moment of fragility and rest.

Mariela Scafati, Movilización [Mobilization], 2020. 65 Paintings Installation view, KW. Courtesy Mariela Scafati; Galería Isla Flotante, Buenos Aires; PSM, Berlin. Photo: Silke Briel

The grand central space of KW has been transformed into a dissident church. At the center, ten life-size statues of Jesus, by Young-jun Tak, form a circle on the floor, their bodies are plastered with the homophobic pamphlets routinely handed out in South Korea by Christian fanatics. The title, Chained (2020), references how these groups attempt to stop Pride parades in South Korea by chaining themselves together and lying in the street.

Such intolerance is also expressed in a series of paintings by the Brazilian artist Pedro Moraleida Bernardes, who died from suicide in 1999, at the age of 22. A polyptych is suspended like an altar-piece just behind Tak’s Jesus circle; the six panels depict—in brute, neo-expressionist manner—scenes of lust, violence, mortification, and humiliation. Entitled Sentindo um cansaço mortal por representar o humano, sem fazer parte do humano/Feeling a deadly weariness of representing humans while not being part of humanity (1997), some of the figures wear smiling pig-heads in front of large church crosses. Before Moraleida Barnardes’ altar, Florencia Rodríguez Giles’ monumental black-and-white pencil drawings, from the 2018 series Biodelica, project a utopian wonderland in which human bodies, muscular and gracile at the same time, defy binarism in favor of a luxurious, graphic, and lustful polymorphic corpses. Taped to the walls or placed in glass cases before Rodríguez Giles’ colossal drawings, and Tak + Moraleida shrine is the work of Spaniard Azucena Vieites. Drawings, texts, publications, serigraphs, and papers borrow from the seriality of her minimalist practices, in a wide range of scale and materials. Her longstanding alliance to queer feminist politics and associated subcultures are referenced in her DIY/copy-shop aesthetic work A World (Colouring Book) (2012-2020).

Finally, in the basement, Colombian artist Carlos Motta presents three videos that constitute the work REQUIEM (2016). A queer reading for crucifixion, merit, goodness, and atonement—concepts traditionally affirmed by Christian institutions.

Storefront for Dissident Bodies, daadgalerie

“Cities are not made of buildings, but of soft bodies in movement and their cartographies of affect. The clothing we wear helps us make, inhabit, and transform space. Prêt-à-porter architecture for vulnerable movements and their politics of fashion, tearing down the hypersexualized normalcy of department-store season collections. Clothing as a second skin of protection and care, exposing the masquerades of birth and biological givens. White walls are softened, veiled, made light-reflexive, embracing all in their shimmery drag. This is a storefront for queer and dissident bodies and their fierce promenades.”

The theme of religiosity that lingered in KW connects with “possibly” the key to the question of spirituality in contemporary artworks, exemplified by two of the works presented at daadgalerie. One is by Delaine Le Bas, who installed a lively window-display of playfully makeshift clothing in homage to St Sara Kali George (2020), a merging of two patron saints of the Roma people. Together with an animated video clip, these pieces celebrate the undetermined sexuality that this new holiness stands for.

The other is The Santa Claus Army, a historic piece based in an action by Solvognen (The Sun Chariot) Theater Group from 1974. Men, women, and children dressed in the standard Santa Claus red costume and beard wandered the streets of the Danish capital, first with the usual signs of spiritual comfort—giving away hot chocolate, singing carols, etc.—before diverting into increasingly radical protests and announcements calling for motor factory workers to become owners, or causing an anti-consumerist fuss in a department store, an aesthetic subversion of an icon (Santa Claus) standing for both folk tradition and capitalism.

Solvognen (The Sun Chariot) Theater Group, Installation view (detail), daadgalerie.Courtesy Solvognen (The Sun Chariot) Theater Group. Photo: Silke Briel

On the other hand, that of the dissident bodies, the cartographies of Andrés Fernández —a member of Debajo del Sombrero, a Spanish artists platform that proposes new meanings for the word “disability”— seem to be underlined by patterns that recall the structures of urban planning, a city’s topography, or a traffic system, but Fernández’ drawings ultimately follow only the zigzagging movements of inner logic and curiosity. His compositions could be described as intimate maps for self-preservation: shortcuts and illustrations taken from his journeys through Madrid, taking the form of virtual tours, when leaving the house was not an option.

Andrés Fernández, Installation view, daadgalerie. Photo: Silke Briel

Up in the second floor, there is the big-screen film Resiliencia Tlacuache/Tlacuache Resilience (2019) by the Mexican artist Naomi Rincón Gallardo. Four characters wearing colorful DIY outfits and objects, coming from different narratives of origin and times, come together in the present to evoke the power of fire and joy in the fight against modern extractivism dancing and singing in open and closed spaces. A fable based on Mesoamerican cosmologies and decolonial feminisms whose songs lyrics question the processes of expropriation and destruction generated by the logic of progress and the codes of capital and colonialism. The work is dedicated to the struggle of Zapotec environmental activist Rosalinda Dionisio Sánchez.

Naomi Rincón Gallardo, Resiliencia Tlacuache [Opossum Resilience], 2019. Installation view, daadgalerie. Courtesy Naomi Rincón Gallardo. Photo: Silke Briel

Other works:

The Inverted Museum, Gropius Bau

“Museums have been built on the name of progress and eased into modernity by reaffirming that all knowledge is indebted to their “discoveries.” Those pieces of worlds being broken, their looted belongings, continue to be displayed in small glass coffins. But the stones remember the centuries of burning forests, of depleted lands and lives. They have been observing, and they know that time cannot be broken into a straight line. Those evicted from history do not ask for permission to exist, and they refuse to forget. They warn us that the dark smoke rising from the cracked mother earth poses dangers to all who inhabit her, that the falling sky is an imminent threat.”

Gropius Bau presents an inverted museum accessed through the back door and with diagonal walls made of fabrics. Fragments of other museums appear: the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente, the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (MSSA), or the Museu de Arte Osório Cesar or the taxidermized and dissected animals chosen by the Senegalese artist Pélagie Gbaguidi from the Collection Royal Museum of Central Africa.

Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, deals with colonial issues about Andean objects in Spanish museums and collections. And this is what she presents in her installation The Museum of Ostracism (2018), a display of anthropomorphic ceramics of pre-Inca and Inca origin. Four dark, atmospheric paintings are shown in dialogue with this installation. These new works from the ongoing series Cryptomnesia (or in some museums the sun never shines) portray the “scientific” exhibition of non-Western objects at different European anthropological museums.

Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, Cryptomnesia, series. Installation view (detail), Gropius Bau. Photo: Mathias Völzke

The religiosity present in KW  is modulated in Gropius Bau towards shamanic rituals. Francisco Huichaqueo’s Kuifi ül/Ancient Sound (2020) or Antonio Pichillá’s Golpes y Sanación/Blows and Healing (2018) films document their actions following traditional spiritualist practices.

Bartolina Xixa’s Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente/Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality (2019), a music video in which the Andean drag queen, who is of the Coya people of northern Argentina, dances in the middle of a dumping ground. A mix of traditional indigenous and flamboyant contemporary attire, she denounces the ruthless neo-colonial extractivism of companies such as Monsanto.

Bartolina Xixa, Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente [Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality], 2019. Courtesy Bartolina Xixa. Photo Mathias Völzke.

Other works:

The Living Archive, ExRotaprint Complex

“For the past year, the temporary space 11th Berlin Biennale c/o ExRotaprint has been a site of experiences and exchange. There, multiple stories have been told, shaped, and shared in an array of different languages that continue to be spoken and heard in the courtyard and on the street. It has been a place for experimental exhibition-making, for people to encounter one another, have conversations, drink tea, sit and read to each other, create and stage puppet-plays, draw and write, listen and dance.”

At ExRotaprint, the 1974 Uruguayan animation En la selva hay mucho por hacer /In the Jungle There Is Much to Do, by Grupo Experimental de Cine, immediately reminded me of watching similar productions as a child. Based on the eponymous 1971 children’s book by Mauricio Gatti, this story about animals planning their escape from a zoo is visualized in a stop-motion and cut-out aesthetic. Walter Achugar, a founding member of the radical Montevideo-based film collective Cinemateca del Tercer Mundo (C3M), first encountered Gatti’s book while held captive as a political prisoner; upon his release, he invited three young C3M members (Alfred Echániz, Gabriel Peluffo, and Walter Tournier) to make this animation. The film was C3M’s last: in 1974, its members were arrested or forced to flee the country by the Uruguayan dictatorship. These events may seem distant, encapsulated in the Cold War era. But in Latin America, they are closely related to artists’ and activists’ contemporary struggles for minority rights in the face of harassment and prosecution, not least during the pandemic.


Part of the past Berlin Art Week and Berlin Gallery Weekend full of usual names of art-market, this is a biennial of artists that process existential, sometimes life-threatening experiences. Artists not only dissident because of their relationship with European colonialism or Western hierarchies, but because of their own situation within their territories and cultures of origin.

Powerful aesthetics grow from those process, and not just as a side-effect of quantifiable political effect, but as a medium and source of emotive perception and intellectual insight. Subtle but important gestures comes from attentive observation of the artworks of the bb1, the cracks are narrow and probably minuscule compared to the large art constellation, but also irrevocable.

The Crack Begins Within
Exhibition: Sept. 05–Nov. 01, 2020

Note.- The text quoted is part of the curators’ statements for the four chapters of the exhibition

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