A Theater of Absurdity: Parody, Power, and the Politics of Display at the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art
This study examines the 4thBerlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Of Mice and Men, an exhibition that took place in 2006 in 12 separate venues along the Auguststraße in Berlin’s Mitte district. Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick—an artist, curator/critic, and former editor, respectively—organized the project. They have long been known as art-world iconoclasts for whom appropriation and trickery form the very pillars of a collaborative practice. Referencing the work of existentialist playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Antonin Artaud, Subotnick once suggested that their Biennial might be considered a “theater of absurdity.” This study focuses on one of the selected exhibition sites—the former Jewish School for Girls—as a place where rhetorical statements and strategically chosen artworks performed a parody of the school’s Holocaust-related past, thus blindsiding an international art press that fell captive to the disquieting decay of its hallways and classrooms.
Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick characterized their Biennial as addressing the dialectical conflict between “the bestiality and the humanity of humans.” Yet the trio contradicted one another in a Janus-faced litany of essays, interviews, and publications released during the run of the show, presenting a highly self-conscious ennui and an apparent lack of any unified position. This study argues that their constructed self-image fortified the ideological barrier that has surrounded their practice for some time, which, in turn, harbored their Biennial as well. Art criticism often replicates curatorial rhetoric rather than staking out an independent position, and the critical reception of this exhibition proved to be no exception. As the trio’s statements were copious, vague, and often attributed to them as a team rather than as individuals, it became difficult to discern their intentions and thus to take a critical stance in relationship to their manipulation of the Jewish School’s evocative history. This project seeks less to make an ethical judgment of those choices than to understand how words, images, and sites coincided with history and memory to suspend the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art in a state of critical adulation.