Mai Nguyễn-Long

Installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste

Photo Jung Me Chai

©월간미술 Wolganmisool monthly art magazine/ Aug 2022

Berlin Biennale – Still Present! 
What Still Exists?

Jung Me Chai

The unhealed historical wounds inherited from the past are the keywords for this year’s 12th Berlin Biennale, curated by Kader Attia, a comprehensive curator, and five multinational female curators. Kader Attia, who comes from Algeria, grew up in France, the former colonizer, and Algeria, the colonized country, inheriting the wounds of history. Ana Teixeira Pinto, a Portuguese art theorist; Noam Segal, an independent curator from the United States; Marie Hélène Pereira, a curator from Senegal; Đỗ Tường Linh, a curator from Vietnam, and Rasha Salti, an art historian working in Beirut, would have experienced colonialism, capitalism, and racial discrimination from their perspectives.


Long-standing colonialism has distorted historical perspectives towards a Western-centric view, and the fear of losing privileges among white people has created monsters such as right-wing populism and Islamophobia. Then, how do the 70 participating artists view imperialism, capitalism, and colonial feminism in the present, overflowing with images and information? Especially for many non-Western artists among the participants. It should be noted that many participating artists are based in Western or various cities, regardless of their place of birth.


Today’s world is interconnected through invisible networks and surveillance algorithms that entangle the past and present. It seems highly unlikely that we will be liberated from such a situation. “Still Present” offers a reparative approach to dealing with this resilient imperialistic capitalist system. In addition to the existing KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Academy of Arts on Pariser Platz, Akademie der Künste Hanseatenweg, Pariser Platz, and Hamburger Bahnhof, the exhibition will be held at Stasi Headquarters—campus for Democracy in Berlin Biennale.


Archive as Knowledge and Experience

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a British-Lebanese artist who specializes in audio documentaries and installations, creates works that mainly consist of “Air conditioning.” The clouds depicted poetically appear to be drawn. Still, the fine particles of the clouds printed on several inkjet printers gradually transform into darker colours on the large exhibition wall of Hamburger Bahnhof. The work shapes the images of the surveillance data collected by Israeli military aircraft monitoring Lebanese airspace since 2006. Lawrence Abu Hamdan integrates historical records of data and natural elements to depict different forms of violence. On the website, which the artist team developed, visitors can see the Israeli air attacks on Lebanon that have taken place over time.


Palestinian duo Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, based in New York and Ramallah, created “Oh Shining Star Testify,” a video installation that combines real-life footage captured by Israeli surveillance cameras with projections onto tree sculptures and other structures. The video depicts the true story of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot and killed by the Israeli army while picking edible plants near the separation wall near Hebron. Collecting these plants, which are essential to Palestinian cuisine, is illegal. The surveillance footage was initially posted online but later removed. The installation portrays the erasure of existence and documentation of the destruction of Palestinian territory under occupation.


Imani Jacqueline Brown, based in London and Louisiana’s New Orleans, created “What remains at the ends of the earth?,” a video installation exploring the highly industrialized coastal area of Louisiana, where black slaves settled in the 18th century and which remains a representative site of the history of exploitation and violence against them. The area is also known as “Cancer Alley.” The installation touches on issues such as the conservation of natural resources, climate crisis, and labor exploitation.

“Dekoloniale Erinnerungskultur in der Stadt” is a project that criticizes colonialism and racism and explores the past and present. “Exile Is a Hard Job,” a poster series by Turkish-born Nil Yalter based in Paris, features photographs and quotes from videos recorded by a Turkish woman of her conversations with her family. The installation is located in a window of a street in the central region of Metz, known for its significant role in cultural arts, and can be viewed at any time.


Stasi headquarters. The Democratic Campus was where the East German Ministry for State Security oppressed its citizens and upheld the power of the Socialist Unity Party. Today, it serves as an archive where visitors can access files documenting the information and surveillance of both East and West Germans. Omer Fast, born in Jerusalem and active in Berlin since 2001, raises questions about who evaluates surveillance and related data through his installation piece “A place which is ripe,” which incorporates CCTV.


In the installation artwork “Self-Portrait as Restitution – from a Feminist Point of View,” as suggested by the title, the sculpture is a self-portrait from a feminist perspective. Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, originally from Sri Lanka, modeled for the sculpture and holds a replica of her ancestor’s skull in her hands. The skull, whose identity and gender are indistinguishable, along with the current female self, poses intriguing questions about feminism and historical identity.


Worlds of Wounds, the installation artwork by Thuy-Han Nguyen Chi based in Berlin and London, tells the story of a journey from Vietnam to Germany via Thailand on a boat after the Vietnam War. The sculpture, which combines a hospital bed with a ship and an oxygen mask, is installed on a blue screen-like floor. Visitors can watch a video containing two separate events narrated in the first-person past tense by the speaker on the ceiling while lying on a blue mat around the sculpture. The themes of space-time and survival exist in a state of ambiguity between documentary and fiction.


As her name suggests, Mai Nguyen-Long was born to a Vietnamese father and an Australian mother. She grew up and lived in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Australia, China, and Vietnam, which led her to focus on identity and language. Her installation artwork, “Specimen (Permate),” consists of numerous glass jars containing replicas of fetuses, human organs, and some body tissues neatly arranged on two extended shelves. They appear like ingredients in a spice jar. “Specimen (Permate)” reminds viewers of the disasters and historical trauma caused by Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.


Taysir Batniji, who hails from Gaza, Palestine, created “Suspended Time,” where an hourglass is positioned horizontally. While time is depicted as moving, in “Suspended Time,” the concept of time is in a state where it cannot enter or leave a restricted space. Batniji made this artwork the year he left his hometown of Gaza, uncertain of his return. He symbolically represents Palestine’s historical (time) and geographical (space) situation with the horizontally placed hourglass.


This year, Documenta and the Berlin Biennale, among others, are focusing on the Southern Hemisphere, not just the West. “Wounds” are not exclusive to Southeast Asia and Africa, which have been injured by colonialism, slavery, racism, and imperialistic capitalism. The world is organically interconnected and is subject to a system of governance called algorithms. There is still so much that is “Still Present!”