I had not been aware before now of the concept of the micro-trend. Natasha Stagg explains it as something that “doesn’t last the time it generally takes to be recognized as a proper trend.” Stagg is the author of a novel about Internet celebrity and a contributor to the catalog for the Ninth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, “The Present in Drag,” installed in various venues across the German capital through September 18. The term could have described the phenomenon of post-Internet art when I first heard that phrase a few years back. At the time, it was hard to grasp what “post-Internet art” was supposed to mean, other than art made by people who have long been familiar with the Internet and have come to accept it, however ruefully, as part of their environment—or even as their entire environment, since for many of us today, the Internet is no longer something we encounter on-screen, but instead is somehow embedded in our houses and clothes, our desires and dreams.
That the Internet is by now second nature makes it all the more urgent—and difficult—to understand it better. But for many artists, it is also simply a bottomless source of images and techniques that are theirs to use for their own ends, rather than something of inherent fascination. A good comparison would probably be to photography in the mid-19th century: It was seen by some as a threat to the art of painting, but painters almost immediately began using it as part of their working process. Painting changed as a result, but not necessarily in obvious ways. There are works by Edgar Degas that clearly look like post-photographic painting, but photography was also employed by plenty of artists whose works look far more painterly. And besides, the snapshot aesthetic of a Degas horse race or ballet class was not yet part of photography as he knew it; Degas was really in advance of, rather than in tandem with, the then-new technology. Similarly, when the work of a 21st-century artist reminds us of experiences familiar from the digital realm or of its effects IRL, as one used to say, it might not be ahead of the trend.
I had hoped that the whole “post-Internet art” micro-trend might fizzle with the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, whose subtitle—“Surround Audience”—seemed to signal an aspiration to mimic the Net’s all- encompassing nature. The show was mostly cheered by critics, though the artist Sam Pulitzer, writing in Artforum, called it—critically, I think, yet also somehow in awe—“a veritable circus of globally operative contemporary art, which falls into roughly two categories: on the one hand, those works that seem to amplify the notion of the ‘surround’ put forward by the show, mimicking the supposed omnipotence and immersiveness of digital technologies; and on the other, works that evade or undermine this surround.”
A year and a half later—an eternity in the realm of the micro-trend—post-Internet art is still with us. The connection between “The Present in Drag” and “Surround Audience” is patent. The Berlin Biennale has been curated by Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro of the New York–based fashion/art/design group DIS; they participated as artists in the New Museum Triennial, while Ryan Trecartin, cocurator of the latter, is (in his ongoing collaboration with Lizzie Fitch) among the artists most prominently featured in Berlin. (Also in both shows are a couple of other artists, Guan Xiao and Josh Kline.) The déjà vu might suggest that the “post-Internet” vibe may have too much staying power to count as a micro-trend, but it’s notable that what was greeted with something like relief the first time around—“a break in the clouds,” as Holland Cotter sighed in The New York Times—is now being received with almost hysterical indignation, most notably in The Guardian, where Jason Farago coined one of the best bits of invective I’ve read lately: “I have seen spambots with greater sensitivity.”
It’s true enough that most of the Biennale is dispiriting, an intellectually and physically claustrophobic experience. If you have a weakness for the stylistics of infomercials, trade fairs, and motivational speeches—with the content suitably sliced and diced to generate a kind of artistic nonsense—then this Biennale is for you. But the local art-magazine editor who defended the show by telling me, “It doesn’t need to be good—it’s exemplary!” was also on to something. Dropping all defenses against the most obnoxious aspects of present-day culture—its historical myopia, its indifference to critical thought, its snarky puerility—and surrendering to the aesthetics of commerce was actually a strategy, however misconceived, to engage with aspects of contemporary life that can’t be ignored. The problem—politically and aesthetically—was to crassly misrepresent an aspect of our present as the whole.
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Luckily, that wasn’t the case with every work. Two in particular struck me as far richer than most of the others on view. One was an installation by Camille Henrot, a French artist living in New York. At first, I thought the work was pretty thin: a group of large canvases presented on elegantly minimalist easels, each representing in cartoonish outline a pair of birds or other animals over a field of washy, translucent colors. It’s yet another Pop appropriation, I figured, a saccharine greeting-card style blown up to museum scale. Having dismissed it, I started to look at the sheets of paper spread out over the floor among the easels. Some of them turned out to be printouts of e-mails of a very familiar sort: ads for products and services, but also appeals for donations from political and social campaigns. The other sheets, printed in a distinctive cursive font, were Henrot’s responses: She had taken each of the targeted ads, always addressed to her as if in urgent personal communication (“Camille, I need you before midnight!”), and composed a reply to it as though this were really so.
What impressed was Henrot’s serious wit. In imagination, she could respond to fakery (even the well-meaning fakery of a pitch from a worthy cause) with something like sincerity. What still puzzled me was the relation between this written work, Office of Unreplied Emails (2016), a collaboration with the poet Jacob Bromberg, and Henrot’s paintings. What I discovered was that the imagery in 11 Animals That Mate 4 Life (2016) was found on the website Mother Nature Network; it represents our heart-warming fictions of nature and humanity in all their sentimental spuriousness—but without the all-important counterproposal represented by the unsent e-mail replies. Yet seeing the two works together, interwoven as a single installation, it was the potential for response that resonated.
The other piece that stands out in memory is Duilian (2016), an elaborate video installation by the American artist Wu Tsang. It’s basically a self-contained theater in which to view a 26-minute movie. Shot in Hong Kong, the video conveys an ambiguous love story, loosely based on the historical relationship between two women, a late Qing Dynasty poet and a calligrapher. But the present-day city is constantly in evidence—Tsang happily admits anachronism into the mise-en-scène—while the protagonists might appear to be male or of indeterminate gender (the calligrapher is played by the artist, who previously took the masculine pronoun and now takes the female one). The work’s very title is ambiguous, because it refers to a form of martial-arts competition and a genre of poetry in couplets—both being relevant to a spectacle that encompasses breathtaking choreography, the dynamic editing of martial-arts dance performances, intimately nuanced close-ups of gestures of writing, and the wordless communication of the lovers’ glances.
What both Duilian and Office of Unreplied Emails implicitly argue is that most of the rest of this year’s Berlin Biennale misleads by understanding the present to be what one of the catalog writers, Meredith Meredith, calls “a closed system, shaped by a ubiquitous, glitzy positivism, where it’s hard to imagine what else could be true.” Or as another catalog contributor puts it, quoting Mute magazine editor Josephine Berry Slater: “Modernism with its claim that criticism is possible is a thing of the past.” Really? Just try and stop me.
Then again, the challenge is all mine, since so many works in the Biennale are barely worth criticizing. Is there anything to say about the juice bar, MINT (2016), by the Mexican artist who bills herself as Debora Delmar Corp.; or Josephine Pryde’s The New Media Express (2014), a model train big enough for several people to sit atop, which will take you back and forth uneventfully through part of the exhibition; or Will Benedict’s noise-music video I Am a Problem (2016), in which a space alien as might be imagined by some best-forgotten 1950s B-movie director is seen being interviewed by Charlie Rose? But I almost wonder why I’m talking about artworks at all: The ad campaign is as important as the pieces in a show entirely shot through with the logic of marketing. Even so, I wonder who the target audience would be for slogans like “It’s my job to make the intangible real—and the real incomprehensible”; “I miss the conspiracy”; or—I’m not kidding—“Why should fascists have all the fun?”
“The common tools of visual and political persuasion—variously employed by state and market, left and right, art and commerce—swarm both the biennial as institution and ‘art’ as a category of cultural production,” write DIS. Then why am I not persuaded? Partly it’s the nagging insistence of the appeal, which immediately makes me feel like I’m being conned; partly it’s the incredibly facile erasure of the actual differences between state and market, left and right, art and commerce. Are questions like “Is Donald Trump going to be president?,” “Is Iraq a country?,” and “Do I like Shakira?” really comparable just because they might all be Google searches? Once you start positing false equivalencies like that, you’re stuck in a dead end. In any case—and maybe this makes me a freak in the world that DIS inhabit—their tropes don’t make whatever they’re selling seem very desirable. If there’s one thing I know about the rhetoric of persuasion on which “The Present in Drag” places its bets, it’s that it does allow us to see ourselves (to quote John Ashbery) “as we truly behave.”
Despite my distaste for much of “The Present in Drag,” some of the criticism of it is wrongheaded. Farago taxes it with heartlessly ignoring the crisis in Europe: What about the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean and the rise of anti-immigrant parties? Another commentator, Dorian Batycka of Hyperallergic, goes a step further by charging DIS with “ignorance of current events shaping Europe—like the refugee crisis, the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland party, Brexit, neoliberalism, austerity, and the privatization of art, culture, and education.” I suspect that DIS have heard about all those things, and might even argue that, in an indirect manner, that’s what their show is all about. They might even defend themselves with the advice that Lenin gave a young Romanian Dadaist in Zurich: “Try to be as radical as reality itself.” (Their phrase for it: “let’s give a body to the problems of the present.”) I don’t think they come close to succeeding, but at least they’re making an effort.
Better anything, in any case, than Ai Weiwei making a fool of himself, as he did earlier this year, by circulating a photograph of himself posed as a drowned Syrian child on the beach at Lesbos. Glib as they are, at least DIS know that simple play-acting is no good. Their problem isn’t ignorance; on the contrary, they’re too knowing by half. They should try being less clued-in.
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For a better, less self-indulgent, more scrupulous and attentive way of trying to face up to reality, one could do worse than to look elsewhere in Berlin, where an outstanding exhibition by the German photographer Thomas Struth is on view at the Martin-Gropius-Bau through September 18. (It was previously presented at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, and will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, October 16–January 8, and then to the St. Louis Art Museum.) Comprising color works made between 2005 and the present, the show is titled, with apparent simplicity, “Nature & Politics,” but it might challenge your idea of what those words imply. As far as politics go, you’ll find even less direct reflection on war in the Middle East, the crises of the European Union, the rise of anti-immigrant parties, or the ever-increasing economic inequality that has led to social unrest almost everywhere. And if nature means trees, wildlife, and landscapes, Struth would appear to agree with DIS that “there is nothing particularly realistic about the world today,” that artifice is everywhere and far more than skin deep. Yes, some of the photographs in “Nature & Politics” show landscapes, but shot in Anaheim, California, they are Disneyland simulacra of places that might exist elsewhere. More surprising and striking are the images of laboratories and technical institutes where the basic elements of nature are investigated and manipulated. This is where nature becomes political, and where capital is poured into it, though nearly without our noticing.
In his pictures of places where technological research is done, Struth seems to be implicitly refuting Bertolt Brecht’s famous criticism of objectivist photography: “Things have become so complex that a ‘reproduction of reality’ has less than ever to say about reality itself. A photo of the Krupp factory or the AEG tells us almost nothing about these institutions.” For Walter Benjamin, this implied that “photography is unable to convey anything about a power station or a cable factory other than, ‘What a beautiful world!’” At one level, of course, Brecht’s observation is a truism: There is always so much that escapes any photograph—but, I could also add, there is so much that escapes any book, or even a whole shelf of them. A full understanding of any complex social phenomenon will always be a chimera. But Struth proves that there is much that can be told about such institutions by way of a photograph—provided that the person creating it is as much the master of his technique as those whose work he is studying. Struth’s photographs have something very different to say than “What a beautiful world!”
Viewers acquainted with his best-known images, his museum photographs of the late 1980s/early ’90s and the late ’90s/early ’00s—altogether, a supremely empathetic study of how the great painting of the past functions as a social nexus in the present, a direct comparison of art and life through art—may be surprised that the more recent pictures in “Nature & Politics” are unpeopled (with just a couple of exceptions). In this, Struth has returned to his earlier practice, as seen in his black-and-white images of cityscapes, shot early in the morning when the streets were absolutely empty. He titled those pictures “Unconscious Places”; by extension, these newer works might be said to show the unconscious of highly conscious places. Like the museum pictures, the recent photographs are mostly very large (up to about nine by 11 feet), and necessarily so—not in order to have a spectacular impact, but in order to make visible vast amounts of detail.
We may not be able to interpret the details, but that doesn’t mean we can’t interpret the images composed of them. Take Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery, Max Planck IPP, Garching (2009): At first glance, one might be tempted to compare the crazy snarl of ducts and cables that make up most of the image to the interwoven skeins of paint in a Jackson Pollock work. But that’s hardly the point—and not just because this jumble of lines opens up spatial depths that Pollock had banished from his art. The structure that Struth shows in close-up is described on the website of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics as a “fusion research device, where plasmas with temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees are produced.” The photo, one of several shot at the institute, may tell us nothing of what the device does, but it says a lot about how much improvisation and expediency are required for even the most refined technical device to function as needed. Not only life but all of nature is, as Charles Darwin said, a tangled bank, and it requires just as much tangle to make sense of it. If the photograph could be reduced to an exclamation, it would be: “What a kludge this world is!”
The smooth, seductive interface that fascinates DIS and many of the other Berlin Biennale contributors is not reality. To begin to understand the politics and nature of the present, gaze instead into the incommunicative depths of photographs like Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery. Or if it’s surfaces you prefer, try a picture like Struth’s Chemistry Fume Cabinet, the University of Edinburgh (2010), in which you’ll find yourself peering through a window at a compartment filled with colorful balloons attached by tubes to various dingy mechanisms that look like outdated home appliances. The pane through which these things are visible is itself filled with scrawled chemical diagrams and formulas, as well as less explicable notations like the phrase “J’ai mal au nez.” The overlay between the window, made more noticeable by the markings on its surface, and the objects behind it generates a perceptual confusion that might best represent where we stand with technology today.