10th Berlin Biennale, Berlin
09.06 – 09.09.2018
My initial ambition at this year’s 10th Berlin Biennale was to see as much as possible. In the context of a progressively more aggressive and consumerist creative economy, we’re often encouraged to take in as much as possible in spaces like biennales. And, as a good capitalist subject, I suppose I wanted to do my due diligence. Those ambitions were stopped dead in their tracks upon finding myself in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art- which ended up being the singular space where I spent all of my available time during my short stay in Berlin.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a morbid fascination with death. I used to believe this was solely due to my anxiety and depression and the trauma that accompanies being this black and this queer at this particular moment in history. But lately I’ve been thinking differently. I’ve been thinking about mourning and grief. Particularly, the mourning and grief that have been denied black and indigenous people’s living in post-TRC South Africa. I’ve been thinking about what the resultant collective, psycho-emotional effects would be on a people who have endured centuries of colonial conquest and, later, the apartheid administration. And I say ‘endured’ because I’m not entirely convinced we ‘survived’. Or, rather, I believe, “[We] have survived, but [we] have not been spared”, to quote Catherynne M. Valente. And by ‘we’ I include all black, indigenous and oppressed peoples who live under oppressive regimes that only seem to increase in their proliferation and indiscriminate virulence as the 21st century draws on. What Bopape’s Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] catalyses, for me, is a space to conceive of ruin and the resultant grief that accompanies it. It is a space that has affect at its heart.
“Nothing more than feelings”As I walked through the landscape of architectural ruin Bopape had rendered in the expansive space in the KW Institute I found myself assaulted by a despair so acute and absolute I had to find a corner to sit down in and weep. And, as I wept, a recording of Nina Simone’s rendition of Feelings, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, rained down on me: delicate and indifferent. Coaxing ever more feelings from out beneath my sternum as I silently heaved for an unnameable loss amidst the rubble and disrepair strewn about the floor.
In the context of the title of this year’s Biennale, We Don’t Need Another Hero- conceived by South African artist and curator Gabi Ngcobo and her team (Yvette Mutumba, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Moses Serubiri and Thiago de Paula Souza), the potency of the implications of Bopape’s exhibition develop a decidedly mournful reading: We Don’t Need Another Hero because there is nothing left to save. What has been done can never be undone. What has been lost can never be unlost.There is no utility belt equipped with the requisite tools to unlatch us from the global grief that has beset us here on planet Earth, so there is nothing for us to do but to sit down and to weep. To account for that which we have lost. To do the unspeakable work of counting the bodies. “Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it”, says Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace advocate Thích Nhất Hạnh.
In response to questions surrounding the title of Berlin Biennale Ngcobo states
…it rejects the desire for a saviour. Instead, it explores the political potential of the act of self-preservation, refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities.
In relation to Bopape’s work and how she juxtaposes various depictions and elusions to prominent black feminine figures in history, Ngcobo’s conceptualization complicates the ways in which black women are often either deified or demonized in popular, public discourse. Examples of which come no more incisive than figures such as Nina Simone and Winnie Madikizela Mandela who both feature prominently in the exhibition. This allows an opportunity to conceive of how the deification of these women in the overwhelming love they displayed throughout their lives was conversely what led to their demonization and eventual ruin. And it is here in the soft, burning sunset glow of Bopape’s imaginary that we are given a moment to mourn that which is left of these women here on Earth, and to conceive of the complex web of complicity that we are enmeshed in in their absence.
“Feelings of love”
But all is not lost. I don’t believe the acknowledgment of grief is cause for despair. On the contrary, I believe hope to be impotent if we cannot find tools to reckon with our grief. Bopape affords us not only the space to grieve but also to commemorate.
“Now I know I can… Now I know I can. In the past I didn’t, but when I saw my children mowed down in Soweto, in 1976, then I realized that in order to defend that… I would do exactly the same…”
The above is the incantation Bopape recites in a video installation that forms part of the exhibition. The recitation itself is an excerpt from an interview Winnie Madikizela Mandela conducted with a Dutch television network post-the Soweto uprising. These words can be read as an invocation of retaliation but they also possess something with the texture of hope, though a hope wrought from the most unspeakable circumstances. The nuance of this in juxtaposition with the ruins surrounding it evokes complex feelings of despair and hopefulness that somehow, in their incoherence and seeming opposition, sit alongside each other like old, embattled companions.
Throughout the exhibition Bopape collaborates with artists Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman and Robert Rhee. The romantic in me believes that this is a testament to collaborative effort being the singular means of reckoning with any kind of ruin. Arnell’s Discoball X hangs suspended above the ruins surrounding it, a humongous sphere made from cardboard haphazardly patched together like an allegory for the disabused Earth tentatively veering into apocalypse. Workman’s Justice For _____ sits in a corner to the far right of the exhibition space. A projector angled upward with the help of some books that softly clicks as each recurrent frame takes the place of the next. All emblazoned with the same phrase “Justice for ________”. Perhaps there are too many people and peoples to be named. Alongside the persistent click of the projector slides is the incessant drip from the installation of buckets collecting water alongside it, an image familiar to anyone who has lived in a house that leaks. The buckets slowly collect the water with no evident chance of overflowing.
All I could think of were my useless tears as I wept in the corner while Nina sang on and on and on and how, it would appear, that there may be no conceivable end to the outpour but there are places where it can be contained; where it can be held. And that may not be salvation but it is some kind of solace. And maybe, for now, that is enough.