BERLIN — In the mid-1990s, when the world began to outsource the production of contemporary art to this “poor but sexy” capital, one exhibition in particular underlined Berlin’s emergence as Europe’s artistic hot spot. The Berlin Biennale, whose first edition took place in 1998, brought droves of artists and curators to the city’s dilapidated factories and warehouses, and advocated full throttle for the city’s young artists before Germany’s museums caught on.
Berlin, though, is not what it was in 1998, and neither are biennials. Contemporary art has become one of the city’s key marketing tools for the Easyjet-and-Airbnb generation. And biennials are getting more homogeneous: You can encounter as much Berlin-made art in Venice, Istanbul or Taipei as you will here. Now 20 years old, the Berlin Biennale is facing something of an identity crisis, and really cracked up with its catastrophic 2016 edition — a fashion-fixated parade of narcissistic jokes, complete with posters snickering about fascism outside a former Jewish girls’ school.
Nothing could be further, at least on the surface, from the last edition’s moral clownishness than the 10th Berlin Biennale, led by the South African curator and artist Gabi Ngcobo. It’s pleasantly small, with just 46 artists and groups, fewer than half the count of the last edition. This biennial is serious, low-temperature and rather distant; an insider’s show, and one that takes almost too much pleasure in saying “no.”
Ms. Ngcobo first came to international prominence as part of the Johannesburg-based artistic collective known at the Center for Historical Reenactments. A majority of the artists she has invited to this biennial are African or have African heritage, living everywhere from Berlin to New York to São Paulo. They are joined by practitioners from Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, New Zealand, and just a few white Europeans. This reversal of “global” art exhibitions’ usual demographics led many journalists to preview this biennial as a postcolonial endeavor or a lesson in racial justice — which Ms. Ngcobo and her four fellow curators steadfastly and admirably refuse to deliver. The words “black” or “African” never appear in the show’s introductory wall texts. Racism is evoked only through the oblique phrase “a willful disregard for complex subjectivities.”
Where the previous Berlin Biennale spewed forth images and pranks, this one withholds — offering a minimal presentation that evades stereotypes but rarely leaves a mark. It unfolds across three principal venues, the strongest of which, by far, is the Akademie der Künste art school.
Here the young Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok presents evocative images, some sapped of color and others saturated with it, of flowering plants or a young man gazing out a window. Sara Haq has made dozens of delicate reeds sprout through the wooden floor, in an act of ecological disruption that also has delicate beauty (though its groan-inducing title, “Trans-plant,” undercuts its poetry). Two Cuban artists provide historical ballast: Ana Mendieta (1948—85), represented by tender ink drawings of fruit and flowers, and the wonderfully rediscovered artist Belkis Ayón (1967—99), whose large black-and-white monoprints have a ghostly authority.
Painting has a significant place in this part of the exhibition, for good and ill. Johanna Unzueta impresses with abstract compositions that draw on the forms of indigenous Chilean textiles. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye contributes half a dozen fictional portraits with, as usual, psychological acuity but overly hasty brushwork.
Ms. Ngcobo refuses to assign these artists any overarching agenda or to articulate any political orientation. Still, politics are not absent, above all in this show’s most talked-about work: “Again,” a video installation by the German artist Mario Pfeifer that casts a bitter eye on the country’s ongoing refugee crisis.
In 2016, four men in Germany’s eastern state of Saxony dragged an Iraqi refugee out of a supermarket where he was causing a scene and tied him to a tree. Video of the incident went viral, and many Germans defended the men’s actions as a selfless act of civil courage. The men faced trial but the case was thrown out, to the jubilation of supporters of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party; the 21-year old refugee, who had a history of mental illness, was found frozen to death in a forest before the trial.
Mr. Pfeifer bracingly stages an all-strings-attached re-enactment — his fictional version fuses Brechtian alienation techniques with the showmanship of trashy German talk shows — to pick at both the alleged crime and the holes in its media representation. A pseudo-jury of volunteers watches the re-enactment and, like many of the spectators at the biennial, they recoil in horror. “Would it have happened with a German? I don’t know,” says one. “Nothing has changed.”
The quality varies more across the five floors of the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, in the Mitte district. Painting gets welcome attention here too, above all in a commanding triptych by the Zimbabwean artist Portia Zvavahera — whose ornate layered scenes of a floating bull and bride, as indebted to Klimt and Munch as to southern African printed textiles, are the best work this promising painter has done. Dineo Seshee Bopape, one of many South Africans in this show, fills the museum’s largest space with smashed bricks, uncanny orange light, and footage from one of Nina Simone’s most chaotic concerts, adding up to a disconcerting tableau of displacement, racism and madness.
Yet much of the art in this part of the show feels underpowered, and that goes double at an unassuming art space in the west of the city, where the show really collapses.
Heba Y. Amin films herself as a megalomaniac politician who envisions an African-Asian-European supercontinent; her fantasy appears tasteless when broadcast alongside speeches by real world leaders with actual malign designs. There is figurative work here that barely rises above the undergraduate level: garishly colored portraits by Lydia Hamman and Kaj Osteroth, and fantastical drawings of horned creatures by Tessa Mars more appropriate to a comic convention. Here we run up against the limits of Ms. Ngcobo’s anti-totalizing stance: It simply asks too little of artists, and allows her to pass off the most puerile of projects as an act of resistance.
In political terms, there’s something quite appealing about Ms. Ngcobo’s imperiousness, and her steadfast refusal to give a majority-white German audience what it expects. She is right to scupper the art world’s expectations that certain artists and curators — black ones, queer ones, ones from the global South — must explain themselves, or, worse, teach others how to improve or atone. And in contrast to the fashionista reductions of the previous biennial’s curatorial team, Ms. Ngcobo’s high-mindedness makes welcome demands on us spectators, who have our own responsibility to look closely, think broadly, and learn our history at global scale.
But there is a curious congruence between the smiling nihilism of the 2016 Berlin Biennale and the aloof refusal of this year’s: Neither offers enough of a positive vision of what an art exhibition, and what art itself, might actually be for. There’s no shortage of outrages to which an artist or curator should say “No” — but “No” has to be the beginning of an exhibition like this one, rather than an end in itself. In a round-table discussion printed in the catalog, Ms. Ngcobo quotes Toni Morrison’s essential dictum from 1975 about the price of racism: “It keeps you from doing your work.” All the more reason to celebrate the artists here — Ms. Zvavahera, with her gloriously agitated paintings; Mr. Pfeifer, with his rigorous and forensic analysis — who have opted for ambition over retirement.
10th Berlin Biennale Through Sept. 9; berlinbiennale.de.