De-hy-dra-te! De-co-lo-ni-se!

The Decolonial Ouroboros of Kader Attia’s Berlin Biennale

The behaviour of a solar system with three stars is notoriously difficult to predict. Unlike the binary we know from the Earth’s revolutions around the Sun, the movement of three bodies bound by gravity is chaotic. Planets beholden to the attractive force of their suns are subject to their irrational destructive ire too, and life governed by the lack of a stable solution to the three-body problem is subject to the harshest of evolutionary demands. This Newtonian hyperbola makes for the central conceit of Cixin Liu’s sprawling sci-fi trilogy The Tree-Body Problem[1]Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, trans. Ken Liu, Remembrance of Earth’s Past (New York: Tor, 2014). in which the Earth’s closest star system, host to the civilisation of Trisolarians, becomes a threat to our planet. Unbeknown to humanity, the universe is filled with a plethora of intelligent life ruled by the familiar laws of relentless capitalist expansion and competition. In Cixin’s epopee, earthly human political affairs, social orders, and personal desires are scale copies of the cycles of exploration, exploitation, and elimination that rule the whole universe.

Next to Samy Baloji’s mini-greenhouse for tropical plants and Temitayo Ogunbiyi’s botanical drawings, one of the first works one may encounter in this summer’s edition of the Berlin Biennale is Yuyan Wang’s The Moon Also Rises, a light-drenched account of a Chinese initiative to launch three artificial moons in orbits over major cities which would provide their inhabitants with constant illumination by powerful LED installations. The video mixes pulses of disco lights, shots of electronics assembly lines, and controlled architectural abstractions with a tantalising soundtrack. Its images are hypnotic and, had one not been primed to expect something rather different on Kader Attia’s curatorial agenda, one could take them to open an exhibition that thrives in the ambiguous spaces between natural and constructed phenomena. A glance at the wall text, however, dispels such hopes: Wang’s video deals with “capitalist authoritarianism and neocolonial control” and is offered as “a form of postcolonial resistance” condemning the hubris of the would-be trilunar Icarus.

Yuyan Wang, The Moon Also Rises, 2022, full HD-video, color, sound, approx. 20′; lighting equipment, dimensions variable, video still © Yuyan Wang

Even without curatorial explanations, a visitor would soon be asked to learn about a veritable smorgasbord of abuses and traumas inflicted by war, capitalism, expropriation, or simply by history on subjects ranging from migrant communities to natural habitats. Dana Levy’s photo installation Erasing the Green documents the destruction of Palestinian Land. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s research display The Natural History of Rape presents the evidence of mass sexual assaults in post-War Berlin. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Air Conditioning itemises Israel’s illegal military surveillance flights over Lebanon. Nil Yalter’s video interviews with migrants in Exile is a Hard Job show that there is no respite from the violence of Western societies. The list goes on.

Such fare is now customary in institutional contemporary art and coded forms of decolonial discourse have become the norm in recent editions of the Berlin Biennale. Attia’s project is an exception only because it makes this focus itself the focus of the exhibition. The curatorial essay stresses the need for dwelling on “the collective trauma that haunts our societies”[2]Iris Ströbel, Faguet, and Sabine Weier, eds., 12th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art: Still Present! (KunstWerke Berlin, 2022), 24. and the exhibition sheds light on events that took place many decades or even centuries ago. Why return to any historical atrocity when another has already entered the news agenda? Because, Attia proposes, this has the potential to initiate a ”process of reparation” and to refuse to bear witness to history is to be complicit with “imperialism’s regime.”[3]Ströbel, Faguet, and Weier, 28.

Nil Yalter, Exile is a Hard Job, 1983/2022, montage of paper works & b/w video stills, dimensions variable © Nil Yalter

Such work is, no doubt, necessary but for the viewer who has not signed up to atone for all his kind’s sins, this project quickly becomes exhaustingly didactic and overbearingly demanding. Nearly every work could be accompanied by an explanatory encyclopaedia and some, like Moses März’s mind-map drawings whose nodes include ‘imagined national communities’ and ‘plantationcene’ are encyclopaedias in need of encyclopaedias. A video detail of Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige’s otherwise compelling body of works on cultural restitution is accompanied by over a dozen densely-filled pages of ‘translations’ nonchalantly left for visitors to evaluate as they stare at a static image on the screen. The political scientist David Chavalaris’ 10-metre infographic timeline Shifting Collectives which narrates recent French politics through Twitter trends not only presents thousands of data points but includes a QR code through which visitors can… buy a book with even more detailed analyses.

The artist taking on the role of witness or storyteller is nothing new, but if this is the dwelling that Attia wanted to encourage, it’s compromised at once by a lack of depth and by an excessive cognitive demand. Faced with Forensic Architecture’s high-production installation Cloud Studies, a visitor may remember that they already knew about the egregious breaches of environmental regulations by corporations, perhaps from an interactive presentation on a newspaper’s website (part of Cloud Studies is explicitly co-branded by the Guardian). In Jean-Jacques Lebel’s claustrophobic maze composed of the infamous photographs of torture in the Abu Ghraib US detention facility, they may remember that they already knew how to suppress reactions to such material. 

Between these scholastic presentations lies a range of more bizarre proposals, such as Susan Schuppli’s baffling video-and-voiceover demanding that Arctic ice be granted legal autonomy or Uriel Orlow’s intricate photographic, sculptural, and performative installation which suggests that the wood grown on the Portuguese island of Madeira is synonymous with the transatlantic slave trade. One at a time, these works and their intellectual and emotional questions have merit, but in mass, they communicate a concern for the performance of political critique more than the subjects of critique itself. Parts of Attia’s biennale are thus not a decolonising project, but an exhibition about decolonialism. This isn’t a limitation of this exhibition form per se but a present problem of the institutional political exhibition in 2022. With it comes a set of intellectual tropes and aesthetic conventions that are not easy to shake off: even the German Federal Foundation’s official introduction to the Biennale catalogue opens with a quotation from a Native American poet rather than the customary invocation of Goethe.[4]Ströbel, Faguet, and Weier, 12.

Uriel Orlow, Reading Wood (Backwards), 2022, installation, wallpaper, photographs, wood objects, sounds; performative activation, dimensions and duration variable.

Over many years and many more generations, the civilisation of Trisolarians developed ways to thrive in the unpredictable conditions of their stellar system. Their history is divided into Stable Eras and Chaotic eras, each lasting anything between days and centuries. During ancient Stable Eras, the civilisation’s resources were spent mostly on rebuilding the damage caused by the burning of the sun in their preceding Chaotic Eras, until the Trisolarians developed a technology for surviving the reign of chaos in suspended, dehydrated form. The end of the Trisolarian Civilization Number 137, one of those that Cixin accounts for, is marked by the appearance against the scorching solar disk of a galloping horse-rider. He screams at the top of his lungs: “Dehydrate! Dehydrate!”

The civilisations’ revival in the subsequent Stable Eras was subject to the whims of the climate as much as to the political conditions under which they could rehydrate. Some Eras were host to thriving civilisations, others saw life return to a shadow of its former self, with only the coming of another Chaotic Era cycle guaranteed. De-hy-dra-te! Re-hy-dra-te!

Back in the exhibition, some of the works break out of the decolonial scheme and embrace the ambivalence and fleeting stability of aesthetics. Maithu Bùi’s video animation Mathuật – MMRBX based on a virtual reality game embraces a series of visual tropes that play on the artist’s Vietnamese heritage with a mixture of reverence and levity. Bùi, for whom this was the “first work as an artist and also the first exhibition”, juxtaposes images of toylike planes with their father’s story of a campaign to collect domestic cookware for the war effort. “Pots and pans for planes! Pots and pans for planes!” After flooding the screen with cartoon bombs and floating iceberg lettuces (which stand for historical military tactics, of course), the narrator’s synthesised voice breaks into song: “Kolonizierungsprozess, Dekolonizierungsprozess, Kolonizierungsprozess, Dekolonizierungsprozess. De-ko-lo-ni-zie-rung! 🎵” Is Bùi celebrating the Việt Kiều diasporas or digging into their parents’ generation for leaving the burden of decolonisation to their offspring?

Maithu Bùi, MMRBX, 2022, 2-channel video installation, colour, sound, ca. 30′; salt, dimensions variable © Maithu Bùi

That art’s role in probing societal norms is highly contextual is put to the test in Amal Kenawy’s 2010 performance The Silence of Sheep in which the artist paid a group of people to parade across the streets of Cairo on their knees and hands, like sheep, until the project was inevitably halted by a group of observers who found the work degrading, indecent, and insulting to Egyptian culture. Kenawy’s defence in the public altercation that ensued jars as wholly inadequate: her “I want to do art for the street and people” solicited a to-the-point “making these people into animals is art?!” Is 1960s-inspired live art appropriate for decolonising the patriarchal society of 2010s Egypt?

The problem of narrative unity of time and place is also undone in Noel W. Anderson’s tapestries in which photographic images of police abuse of black Americans are presented distorted, stretched, or distressed like documents that have survived a washing machine cycle. Despite this, the images in the tableaux appear familiar and it is unclear at first glance whether that is because they refer to singularly iconic photographs from history books or because the history of black plight at the hands of police is itself a product of endless similar images that conform to a nullifying white aesthetics. Such images are perhaps best presented without context and, as Attia aspires to in his essay, they find the viewer “standing before a work of art, […] plunged into another temporality, radically different from that of their environment”.[5]Ströbel, Faguet, and Weier, 34. If only the exhibition allowed for more such moments, like in the encounter with Florian Söng Nguyên’s pencil drawings of feral stray dogs which the artist encountered while living in the Atlas Mountains. The dogs, rendered by Söng Nguyên in fragments and sparse detail, were the subject of periodical violent culls by the Moroccan police. Some dogs, the artist remarks, look for masters. Some look for affection.

Noel W Anderson, Downward Dog, 2021-22, distressed, draped cotton tapestry, 366 x 274 cm, courtesy NWA Studios, New York © Noel W Anderson

In The Three-Body Problem, Earth’s fate is sealed when a scientist reveals our civilisation’s existence to the Trisolarians who respond by mounting a 500-year expedition to destroy humanity. Half a millennium is a long time to develop new defences or to flee the Earth, and in Cixin’s novels, the battling factions of the UN mount no end of experimental projects to outwit the Trisolarians. The approaching invaders, however, have a fundamental epistemic advantage: they dispatch Sophons, sentinel devices which carry information at speeds far exceeding that of light. The Trisolarians are thus able to communicate with the Earth and closely monitor the progress of human preparations for their arrival. By introducing disinformation, they subvert the course of fundamental scientific research and halt human progress. While the Earth makes significant technological advances worthy of a sci-fi novel, they could never outpace those of the Trisolarian fleet. Knowledge travels only one way.

All fragments of the word will come back here to mend each other, an installation by the Senegalese collective The School of Mutants forcibly escapes the logic of decolonial knowledge production and circulation. The presentation combines an assembly of classroom furniture and books with a collection of robes and banners imbued with post-internet aesthetics. Between the bright colours of the chairs that one may loosely associate with West or North Africa and the aesthetics of pixelated screengrabs, who is teaching whom, what, and how in the decolonised virtualised classroom of 2022? What is the role of the institution intent on decolonising itself in maintaining the technologies of power-knowledge? Is the colonial decolonising institution anything but a contradiction in terms?

The School of Mutants, 2021, installation view.

In a handful of otherwise compelling works, institutional allegiances clash with their aesthetic politics. Clément Cogitore’s restaging of a scene from Rameau’s opera Les Indes galantes with a group of krump dances is arresting for its visceral dynamism and the claustrophobic self-sufficiency of the black-box theatre in which it was filmed. But the illusion of cross-cultural knowledge exchange is fleeting and it vanishes with the work’s credit sequence that lists the usual institutions of the French state as creditors of the work’s cultural capital culture. Elsewhere, Asim Abdulaziz deploys craft to study the disorientation experienced by societies in Yemen and succeeds, just until the logo of the British Council floods the screen.

Attia’s introductory essay betrays a morbid fascination with Western societies’ egoistic self-destruction. Still Present! is an attempt to unpick the centuries-long threads of imperialism one by one in the hope that they can reconstitute a universe capable of averting its demise. But this is a vain hope: studying the past may change it but only so as to serve the present’s scholar. Art’s hook, line, and sinker engagement with the decolonial apparatus is never-ending and it says little about our possible futures; only sidestepping the discourse has the potential to restore art’s function in the project of world-making.

Clément Cogitore, Les Indes galantes [The Amorous Indies], 2017, HD video, color, sound, 5′26′′, video still, courtesy Chantal Crousel Consulting; Galerie Reinhard Hauff, Stuttgart © Clément Cogitore / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Main image: Florian Sông Nguyễn, Les Cheins Errants (detail), 2022, ink wall drawing, ink on paper, dimensions variable © Florian Sông Nguyễn