Berlinische-galerie-1For my first Stalking of 2014, I headed to the Berlinische Galerie. A big show (Vienna Berlin: The Art of Two Cities from Schiele to Grosz) and the festive low-work, high-family-outing season combined to make me think I could really do justice to the Stalking concept: follow random museum-goers on their own journeys through a show, relinquishing my control over what I see. (Go to the Stalkings tab of this blog for more.)

Finding the right art lover to follow is always a challenge, so the more there are, the easier the task. Approaching the museum, my mouth was practically watering as streams of menschen funneled into the main entrance. “I’ll be spoilt for choice of stalkees,” thought I, rubbing my gloved hands in glee.

How wrong I was.

Picture-taking was verboten in Vienna Berlin. So I had to cower into the photo-friendly “collection” show upstairs – Art in Berlin: 1945 Until Today – sadly smaller and significantly less peopled.

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The trick to my brand of Stalking is choosing a show that is not too linear. If visitors are overly obliged to toe the curatorial line, or if they are just following a chronological order, then their reading is pretty much pre-ordained and there is little interest in stalking them. Clearly, people sporting audio guides are instantly eliminated for this very reason.

What I found promising about the Art in Berlin platform was how it foregrounded simultaneity. It seemed to admit that there was no longer a time-based sequencing of styles post-WW II. It imparted that somehow this art could not be pigeonholed into schools or movements: all artistic explorations, in all media, were occurring at once. The space was split into stylistic “blocks” – Expressive, Constructive, Realistic, Conceptual – within which sprouted certain sub-themes. No chronology. No order. Away we go…

2014-01-03 16.07.56My stalkee first attracted me not only by his unseasonably vivid attire (magenta trousers, shoulder-draped burnt orange sweater) but also by the break-neck speed with which he negotiated the space. Flitting hither and thither, ducking in for a peek at a work like some frenetic bird beak-stabbing the wall, his route through the Constructive, Expressive and Realistic spaces was very much a blur. He finally slowed to a leisurely clip in the Conceptual block (which, truth be told, suited me perfectly).

The first Conceptual sub-space concerned issues of “trauma and memory.” My stalkee breezed past Tacita Dean’s harrowing photogravure series The Russian Ending (2001),

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Tacita Dean, The Crimea (2001)

snubbed his nose at Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s Pawn Boys (1983),

Edward and Nancy Kienholz, The Pawn Boys (1983)

Edward and Nancy Kienholz, The Pawn Boys (1983)

opting instead for a prolonged examination of the wall-mounted maquette of Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe (1997).

2014-01-03 16.09.06The Memorial, sans Serra, was actually realized and is on most Berlin tourists’ “to do” lists. Could this be the reason for my stalkee’s pause: real life experience made him cling to its representation? As this question lingered, he lurched into the section of the Conceptual space on “collecting and categorizing.” Paying scant heed to the compelling Pulvairum (2005-07) by Jenny Michel and Michael Hoepfel, which diligently catalgoues dust bunnies and hair clumps,

Jenny Michel and Peter Hoepfel, Pulvarium (2007)

Jenny Michel and Peter Hoepfel, Pulvarium (2005-07)

he segued into the “writing and language” sub-plot, where he honed in on Hans-Peter Klie’s Begriffsbildung/Forming Concepts (1993).

Hans-Peter Klie, Bergriffsbildung (2001)

Hans-Peter Klie, Bergriffsbildung (1993)

Here is a work I probably never would have even glanced at: a series of photographs depicts bowls of alphabet soup offering up varying letter sequences.

tumblr_mxc6s71pXt1szplyno1_500While the randomness of the letter/word/concept formation illustrates the whole arbitrary nature of language and linguistic signs, the series itself seems overly confined, flat and ultimately staged. Maybe I missed something? Anyway, I go where my stalkee leads. And now he is leading to the “city in the mind” sub-theme.

2014-01-03 16.15.46Here he seems to take a liking to Katharina Meldner’s Stadtkarte Berlin (1980-83). This is the first and only time since I started shadowing him that he has actually photographed a work. Meldner’s map is intuitive: it is a topography drawn from memory and imagination. The more “lived” zones are intensely rendered in white, while the less familiar and forgotten areas sink into black.

Katharina Meldner, Stadtkarte Berlin (2003-05)

Katharina Meldner, Stadtkarte Berlin (1980-83)

From here, he spent some time leaning over maquettes, ultimately settling on Beate Gütschow’s S#14 (2005) c-print.

Beate Güschow, S#14 (2005)

Beate Gütschow, S#14 (2005)

This is a photomontage of Gütschow’s work on modernist architecture: she pieced together her research images, complemented by fictive projections, all catapulted into a seamlessly rendered utopian architectural form. A sad sense of decay stirs in this image. It also seems to pack a punch against architectural photography: Gütschow’s creation calls into doubt attempts at reproductions of any architectural reality.

On this reflective note, my stalkee was surprisingly joined by a companion. After jointly knowing nods at Gütschow’s work, they took off, out of the museum, engulfed by the wider Berlin cityscape, full of shadows and promise.2014-01-03 16.18.06

Tan Boon Hui

Tan Boon Hui

In June 2013, I was inveigled by Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia into flying to Singapore to review a show entitled Terms and Conditions at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). During my lush sojourn, I met Tan Boon Hui, then Director of the SAM, and head of this year’s Singapore Biennale.

Although Boon Hui has since left the SAM to take on a broader role with the country’s cultural powerhouse, the National Heritage Board, he is still orchestrating the Biennale, which is now about halfway through its four-month stint.

Eminently articulate and wildly enthusiastic about his multiple roles, Boon Hui is at the helm of a Biennale boasting a (relatively) unique curatorial model: 27 different curators officiate over selection and exhibition of works almost entirely by artists linked to South East Asia.

PrintOur interview took place about two months prior to the Biennale’s opening, when proposals were still being hotly debated and loose ends abounded. Everything has since been whipped into shape, and the Biennale is in full swing. So I thought it important to reminisce: here I revisit Boon Hui’s ever-relevant comments on the so-called Global South, the audience-growing power of the biennial format, the multi-curator model and (the bane of many a biennial) censorship.

Kevin Jones: 2006 saw the first Singapore Biennale. It seemed to be part of a bigger economic thrust, propelled as it was by the vision of Singapore 2006: Global City, World of Opportunities. There was evidently a strategy of linking culture to economic growth. How successful would you say that strategy has been and how has it evolved?

pic01_490x550Tan Boon Hui: The 2006 Biennale was almost like a program in an economic congress. The idea was that you couldn’t be an economic global hub if you didn’t also have a cultural dimension. It was an attempt to round off what a global city meant. But it was successful. The 2006 Biennale brought many artists into prominence. It also reached people who would not normally go to museums, who would never be exposed to contemporary art. For most people, art was paintings on a wall or sculpture on a pedestal.  The idea of installations, performance, video and audio installation, of art that was tied into the social fabric – all this was very new. The biennial format is useful in a country where culture is developing and you are trying to grow audiences for art: instead of having little flotillas, you suddenly bring out the aircraft carrier. No one can fail to notice it. It was a very important platform to kick-start conversation.

3099970554_4d2fec6b34_oIt is actually in line with growing cultural appreciation. Only in 2009 when I came to the SAM did we make the decision to dedicate the whole museum to contemporary art practice. That’s one year after the 2nd Biennale.  I think audience awareness of contemporary art had grown considerably. If it weren’t for that, I would never have been able to propose a format like the one for this current Biennale – to have a Biennale that is not afraid to say “I want to be relevant to my region.” I mean relevance in terms of the physical, cultural and social context we are in. Even now, the Biennale is a high point in the contemporary art calendar. Yes, tourists that will come for the Biennale, but this is possible only because of the ambition for culture. Culture has a kind of magnetism.

KJ: Even when it was a so-called “international” biennial, it still dealt with specifically Asian themes. I am thinking of Phil Collins’ 2011 video The Meaning of Style about Kuala Lumpur skinheads. Elmgreen and Dragset even recontextualized a German barn to Singapore. Does it not seem unfair to exclude the international artists from the Asian roster?

TBH: Having an international biennial does not mean being a United Nations of art, bringing an artist from every point in the globe. You can be international simply by looking at what is special about a particular region, especially as contemporary art has become so globalized. If the art is good, it can speak more about the world, and less about where the artist is from.

Oscar Villamiel, Payatas (2012)

Oscar Villamiel, Payatas (2012)

We felt very strongly about raising questions of “what is a biennial.” Why are there so many biennials in Asia, for instance?  Through this lens, by just looking at the region, we could see echoes. Yes, the Phil Collins work was commissioned last Biennale precisely to look at the local context. But this year it is pushed much further. There is a “compression of perspective” that we expect to be heavier. We think it will be very interesting to see what comes out of there.

KJ: When you say “compression of perspective,” don’t you worry the Biennale could fall into the trap of tunnel vision for a purely Asian identity? As you say, there are so many biennials and it has become somehow trite to just work on that Asian identity, just as it has to harp on about the Arab identity here in the Arab world. The most sophisticated artists, it seems to me, are the ones who go beyond that. Is that something the curators are knowingly working around, or are you just letting it happen organically?


Nge Lay, The Sick Classroom (2013)

TBH: The debates focus on what it means to look at artists coming from the region as a lens. This idea of geography is itself slightly misleading; there is more variety and diversity in it than people anticipate. For example, we have artists that are ostensibly South East Asian, like a Cambodian artist who is proposing a sound work. He actually lives in the US. He spends very little time in Cambodia. So is he a Cambodian artist? Not really. His proposal questions this idea of what it means to be identified with a locale where people are preoccupied with minimizing the attachment of their identity to any cultural labelling. Think of the lady who recites the airport announcements: her precise preoccupation is to detach her aural identity from any cultural or geographical identification.

One thing became clear very early in preparing this Biennale: there won’t be any country pavilions. The artists are not “tagged” into particularly countries.

KJ: The Biennale themes over the years are very interesting. Belief, Wonder, Open House, If the World Changed... They seem to narrate the neo-liberalist progression of Singapore itself. Is that just my reading, or was that somehow planned?

singapore-biennale-2011-open-house-88TBH: Looking back, it was an organic response to people asking “what could it mean for us to have a biennial?” So I don’t think it was deliberate, but at least for this Biennale (If the World Changed…), it sprang from questioning how art relates to a world that many feel is transforming. We are not talking about something concrete, like this war or this climate change, but the whole summation of this and how people feel it. Many of our co-curators, who live in rural, remote communities in South East Asia, will say, “No, the world does not change. Tomorrow will be exactly the same thing.”

KJ: Looking forward, with all of the questioning going on, would you qualify the Biennale as a space for experimentation in Singapore?

TBH: Yes, particularly because of the artists we have announced. Many of them are not so well known on the international circuit. Their work is very confident and wholly contemporary. There are many levels of newness that are interesting and we are getting a whole range of work from across the spectrum – from spectacular installations to painstaking work that is intense and delicate. People will find the work very surprising.

KJ: Censorship is a question that always hounds biennials. You were directly involved in the outcry surrounding Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Munber in 2011. If the Biennale is going to be a place of experimentation, shouldn’t it have some kind of immunity? Is it not somehow exempt from “normal” rules?


Simon Fujiwara, Welcome to the Hotel Munber (2011)

TBH: I would repeat what Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi said for the Sharjah Biennial in 2011. For Singapore and South East Asia, contemporary art is very, very new; that is the reality. The end objective is to slowly move the fulcrum of public appreciation of contemporary art. I mean art with all its barbs: it is not just pretty, sometimes things hang out, sometimes it’s sharp, it’s a little bit acidic. So the Biennale is a very important platform to build support for contemporary art. It carries that burden. Hence, we would never be completely immune from these considerations. But, each time, we can push the envelope a little further. Actually if you look at the Biennale through the years, each instalment pushes the limits a little bit more. It will take time, but we have learned to act early. The more upstream we go – when commissioning, for example – to already have conversations with the artists, the easier it is to deal with censorship issues in an honest, dignified way that doesn’t damage the artistic integrity of the proposal. We don’t want a situation where you react post-mortem.

KJ: Can you tell me about this commissioning process? Is it any different, given the multi-curatorial approach this year?

Kiri Dalena, Monument for a Present Future (2013)

Kiri Dalena, Monument for a Present Future (2013)

TBH: The commissioning process is more or less still the same. At certain points the entire curatorial team gets an opportunity to look at all the proposals and concepts as a whole. This year, with the benefit of such a diverse curatorial team, how individual artworks work with each other becomes more intense and yet nuanced at the same time. These curators know very intimately the stream of work of that particular artist, that trajectory. So you have a much more rounded discussion of how two works have a conversation with each other physically in the space. Or how two works could be together because they absolutely refuse to converse with each other – they are polar opposites, so as a display it works because they confront each other. We are trying to use the tensions that come from this to energize the final exhibition.

KJ: This is the first time I’ve seen a platform of 27 curators going at a biennial. Could you tell me where this idea came from, what is the history of this configuration? How do you foresee it panning out?

Toni Kanwa, Cosmology of Life (2013)

Toni Kanwa, Cosmology of Life (2013)

TBH: Originally, the idea of curatorial teams, of country experts having deep local knowledge, was launched by the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in Brisbane. It was a way to build. When you are relatively young and new, you have to build expertise and draw upon the existing knowledge people have of the regions. The first three iterations of the APT in the 90s used this to great effect. I saw value in adapting this approach, with one key difference: we don’t really highlight the artists’ countries of origin.

KJ: Sharjah, Kochi and other biennials outside of the Western circuit are concerned with the idea of the Global South. Sharjah this year made that very explicit, whereas it seems more subtly woven into the fabric of the Singapore Biennale. How do you react to the overall feeling that the East is the new West, that the world is shifting eastwards, specifically in terms of art and culture?

Eko Prawoto, Wormhole (2013)

Eko Prawoto, Wormhole (2013)

TBH: I believe it is simply about broadening the canvas of what we mean by art and art development. It is no longer a question of who came first and who came second. We have many presents and many contemporaries moving and occurring simultaneously. It is not useful any more to talk about where something originated. Do we care where installation started? No. It is completely irrelevant at this point in time. My response is this: all these biennials – Sharjah, Kochi, Singapore – combine to say that there are other trajectories, other contemporaries happening. Obviously, it doesn’t mean we deny the existence of the North. But we exist. Don’t ignore us.


I seriously debated making the trip to see the waning 13th Istanbul Biennial. Wrestling with the shoulder-hovering duo who crop up for such existential dead-ends  (yes, the scrupulous angel vs the far sexier yet shifty devil), I ultimately gave in to temptation: ignoring a looming deadline, I flew out of Dubai like hellfire. Sole concession to my suspended conscience: to write this post before I left Istanbul.

Which I did.

Sort of.

titleWhile the rest of the art world was nursing hangovers at Frieze, I was lapping up the brisk Bosporus air and haunting the many venues that housed curator Fulya Erdemci‘s 88-artist show, intriguingly titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” Coming hot on the heels of the Gezi Resistance showdown (when the brisk Bosporus air was laden with tear gas) between Turkey’s I’m-not-gonna-take-this-anymore youth and its outmoded government, this Biennial was the subject of some concern, not the least of which was its own curatorial survival. Did the Gezi Resistance somehow dismantle the Biennial’s stated theme of “public domain as political forum” in its very planning stages? Istanbul-based artist Elmas Deniz sensitively analyzed the politics of Erdemci’s move to migrate the Biennial into primarily white cube spaces, but couldn’t help concluding (and I can’t help agreeing) that it was nonetheless a missed opportunity to foreground the “power of the public space.”

Yes, SB11asepticized white cube prevailed over being smack in the urban thick of it. But the 13th Istanbul Biennial benefited from a curatorial theme that was balanced and coherently threaded throughout –neither heavy-handed statement nor meek marketing pandering. I thought instantly of this year’s Sharjah Biennial, which also spotlit a space of public exchange: the courtyard. While there was much to love at the 11th Sharjah Biennial (like its integration into the urban thick of it), the convoluted curatorial platform was not part of the lovefest. (See my review in the Writings section of this blog.)


Yto Barrada, Beau Geste (2009)

At IB 13 (shorthand from here on out), the public space is a realm of subversion. While some artists revel in this tripping-up of the established order, others underscore the frustrations of how it is expressed. Yto Barada‘s widely shown Beau Geste (2009) is the story of how she foiled devious developers by propping up a palm tree that they had devilishly plotted to topple (thus giving them a green light to develop that newly palm-less spot of land).  It is Barada at her most wryly activist.

With perhaps fiercer sting, Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra take a swipe at Spain’s leadership in their video, a self-described work of “counter-propaganda,” Los Encargados (2012). A Soviet march, mere hums at first but slowly climaxing, is the musical backdrop for the visual procession, down Madrid’s Gran Via, of an official cavalcade-cum-funerary procession. Each car carries an inverted portrait (on a black background) of a post-Franco leader. A clear indictment of the leadership line-up for the current state of economic affairs, but also a blow to the hollow, self-congratulatory nature of public political ceremony. The opening shot of the backwards Schweppes billboard (cue to the inversions to follow) somehow implies that this ruling class has managed to capsize consumerism as well (no small feat).

Kovanek escalator

Jiri Kovanda, Untitled (1977)

But subversion is not just for grand occasions. 1970s Czech conceptual artist Jiri Kovanda’s “interventions” in Soviet-era Prague disrupted everyday social conditioning in the public space. Kontakt (1977) has him purposely bumping into people he passes on the street. In Untitled (Escalator) (1977), he would explosively turn and stare at the person behind him on an ascending escalator. I was unfamiliar with Kovanek’s work. But I left the pieces (merely photos in IB 13) with a clear sense of their poetry and politically charged immediacy. Somehow it made sense in the post-Gezi vibe.

Incidental Insurgents 1

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents (2012-13)

If you asked me for my favorite work at IB 13, I think Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s installation The Incidental Insurgents (2012-13) would be the answer. I had been curious to see The Incidental Insurgents ever since reading Guy Mannes-Abbott’s review of the ICA’s Points of Departure show this summer. Entering the installation is a bit like walking into someone’s cerebral cortex: strewn with taped-up images, piled-up books, a revolving turntable, littered Farid al-Atrash vinyls, Godard outtakes galore, it is the flotsam and jetsam of unbridled research. The messy expanse quickly articulates itself into four separate stories of bandits, including Abu Jildeh, a precocious Palestinian revolutionary under the British mandate. The work warrants a deeper review than I can muster here, but its interest, for me, lies in how it foregrounds the inadequacy (or incompleteness) of the language and imagery of oppositional movements. Again, Gezi is not far away.


Silence Sheep 1

Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Amal Kenawy‘s Silence of Sheep (2009) always makes me laugh. It is essentially footage of a performance she orchestrated in which day laborers crawled on their hands and knees through bustling Cairo streets. As she follows the procession through this public sphere, she ultimately comes nose-to-nose with indignant Egyptians (all male) who scold and berate her for her “scandalous” treatment of “poor laborers.”  Some great lines are exchanged (“They told you that making people walk like animals is art?”) as the artist pointedly explains her intent to the outraged crowd. Recalling Santiago Sierra’s use of laborers in his work, Silence of Sheep is a complex tangle of issues, not least of which is the very nature of the public space as a platform for art.

Silence Sheep 2

Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Silence Sheep 4

Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Silence Sheep 3

Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Kenawy’s piece was among many works featured back in the spring of 2013 in an IB 13 preview show entitled Agoraphobia in Berlin’s excellent but now sadly closed Tanas experimental space. Run by maverick René Block thanks to whom many Turkish artists have been introduced to a wider (read Western) audience, the gallery shut its doors on 3 November 2013.

Speaking of Berlin, über interesting writer/theorist/photographer/filmmaker Hito Steyerl had a commissioned video at the IB 13. The lecture/performance asks the question if a museum could be a battlefield. With flourishes of wry humor (look for the part on Angelina Jolie), Steyerl raises the curtain on some awkward questions regarding the uneasy bedfellows of art and weapons.



Ayse Erkmen, bangbangbang (2013)

Since I only managed to get to the IB 13 in its closing days, I missed many of the performances programmed as part of the Biennial opening (including Ahmet Ögüt’s stinging The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain).  I managed to catch Ayse Erkmen’s bangbangbang (2013): a green buoy-cum-wrecking ball tapped hourly against the soon-to-be-demolished Antrepo 3 building which housed the bulk of the IB 13. The building will be replaced by a hotel/tourism development (sound familiar?)


Elmgreen and Dragset, Istanbul Diaries (2013)


Elmgreen and Dragset did a repeat performance of their Paris Diaries (2003) in Paris’ Galérie Emmanuel Perrotin with an added post-Gezi twist: in a room filled with lamp-lit desks, seven men came daily to write their Gezi Resistance experiences in diaries which were on public view between writing sessions. It showcased, very cleverly, the simmering voices of Turkey’s young generation.











IB 13 Catalogue


Ultimately, I believe my trip to IB 13 was worth the initial struggle with the forces of good and evil. Memories of the experience will certainly come to enliven the sleepless nights I will now spend scrambling to meet my deadline.

Oh well…

Tumbleweed. I kid you not: tumbleweed. That good-ol’ Western-film staple, rollicking down the dusty streets of countless back lot ghost towns. This is what Moroccan-born French artist Latifa Echakhch did before she won the Prix Marcel Duchamp last week. (Well, among a lot of other intriguing work.) In Tumbleweeds (2012), one of the commissioned works at Frieze Projects New York that year, she transplanted hundreds of the wayfaring tangles onto the lawn of the fair’s Randall Island site. Raising a host of questions (but answering none), the installation, like much of the artist’s sharp, no-frills work, interrogated the importance of symbols.

Frieze Projects NY 2012

Frieze Projects NY 2012

For me, the hallmarks of Echakhch’s work are precision (as in economy of means and messages) and openness (as in “You, viewer, tell me your reading of this.”)

Take, as an example, her installation at this year’s Sharjah Biennial (SB 11). Entitled Tkaf (2011), which loosely means “evil eye” in dialectical Berber, the work presented a room filled with pulverized bricks, the pigment of which stained the surrounding walls in smeared handprints.

Tkaf, SB 11, photo courtesy of Universes in Universes

Tkaf, SB 11, photo courtesy of Universes in Universes

Encountering the work is already quite visceral, thanks to the frenzied hand-trails (play? torture? ritual?), but a deeper reading unearths some art historical references (Carl Andre’s brick line-ups and Beuys’ shamanism spring to mind). Teetering between civilized and savage, contemporary and archaic, Tkaf is precise and direct yet somehow haunting and unshakable.

The road looks a great deal less desolate for Latifa Echakhch as Marcel Duchamp Prize-winner than for the aimless tumbleweed (or the lowly bricks for that matter): she will have a 3-month show at Paris’ Centre Pompidou in the autumn of 2014 and a €35k grant. She went head-to-head with collective Claire Fontaine and artists Farah Atassi and Raphaël Zarka for this year’s prize.

One for the road

My long suppressed tumbleweed fetish, newly revived by Latifa Echakhch’s win, compels me to share this mesmerizing video illustrating the rambling weed’s symbolic power.