A Theater of Absurdity

This abstract has gone to print, so…

A Theater of Absurdity:
Parody, Power, and the Politics of Display at the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

This study examines the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, “Of Mice and Men,” an exhibition that took place in 2006 and was situated within twelve separate venues along a single street—Auguststraße—in Berlin’s Mitte district. Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick organized the project; an artist, curator/ critic, and former editor, respectively, they are long known as art world iconoclasts for whom appropriation and trickery form the very pillars of a collective practice. Referencing the work of existentialist playwrights such as Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett, Subotnick once suggested that the Biennial might be considered a “theater of absurdity.” This study focuses on one of the exhibition sites—the former Jewish School for Girls—as a place where rhetorical statements and strategically chosen art works performed a parody of the school’s Holocaust 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 one concerned with the dialectical conflict between “the bestiality and the humanity of humans.” Fittingly then, the trio contradicted one another in a Janus-faced litany of essays, interviews, and publications released during the run of the show, fostering a highly self-conscious ennui and an apparent lack of a unified position for their project. This study argues that their constructed self-image fortified the ideological barrier that has surrounded Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick’s practice for some time, which, in turn, harbored their Biennial too. Art criticism is often guided by curatorial commentary, and this exhibition proved no exception. As the trio’s statements were copious, vague, and often attributed to them as a team rather than individuals, it became difficult to clearly discern their intentions and therefore to take a critical stance in relationship to their manipulation of the Jewish School’s evocative history. This project seeks less to impose an ethical code on to those choices, than it does 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 ambivalence.


Tadeusz Kantor; Bench from “The Dead Class”

I’ll be presenting this (as yet unfinished) paper on 3 March at “In the Crosshairs: Intersections of Art and War,” the 22nd Annual Graduate Student Symposium at the University of Iowa.


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Filed under Academia, Criticism, Institutional Critique, Publications, Visual Culture

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