The Berlin Biennale (full name: Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst, Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art) is a contemporary art exhibition which has been held at various locations in Berlin, Germany, every two to three years since 1998. The curator or curators choose the artists who will participate. After the event became established, annual themes were introduced. The Biennale is now underwritten by the German government through the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Culture Foundation), and is the second most important contemporary arts event in the country, after documenta.
The first exhibition ran from 30 September to 30 December 1998 and was curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector. It took place in the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte, at the Akademie der Künste in Pariser Platz and at the postal centre in Oranienburger Straße. More than 70 artists took part, including several unknowns who would later become famous, such as Franz Ackermann, Jonathan Meese, Thomas Demand and Olafur Eliasson. The show was interdisciplinary to reflect the context of contemporary art; in the opening week the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija catered a banquet for 1,000 guests in the post office gymnasium, and a three-night combination symposium and festival, Congress 3000, took place in the House of World Cultures.
The Second Berlin Biennale ran from 20 April to 20 June 2001 and included works by approximately 50 artists (deliberately fewer than at the first) from more than 30 countries, several of them very young. It was curated by Saskia Bos, who adopted the theme of "connectedness, contribution and commitment" and sought to reject commercially oriented art and foster engagement with the public, to "exhibit a utopian sociability in art". Works were again exhibited at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Modern Art and the postal centre in Oranienburger Straße, and also under the elevated S-Bahn at Jannowitzbrücke and the Allianz Building, known as the Treptowers.
Since 2004, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art has been responsible for the Berlin Biennale.
The Third Berlin Biennale took place from 14 February to 18 April 2004 and was directed by Ute Meta Bauer, who chose five themes or "hubs", Migration, Urban Conditions, Sonic Landscapes, Modes and Scenes and Other Cinema, in order to focus on artistic conversation and on the specific circumstances of post-Cold War Berlin. The Kunst-Werke Institute for Modern Art was again used as a site and in addition the Martin Gropius Bau and for 35 cinematic works, the Kino Arsenal cinema on Potsdamer Platz. There were several collaborations with various Berlin cultural institutions, a partnership with the Friends of the Deutsche Kinemathek and a weekly special radio broadcast, reboot.fm. The event ended with a three-day multi-media Performance Jam on the final weekend. The Artforum reviewer pointed to the lack of new work and the extra year's delay since the second Berlin Biennale as signs of a need for better funding, and referred to some of the collaborations as "strained aesthetic ententes". A 2008 retrospective in Berliner Zeitung judged Bauer as "[having] been unable to decide between aesthetic statement and didacticism."
The Fourth Berlin Biennale ran from 25 March to 5 June 2006, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, known collectively as the Wrong Gallery after a project they did in New York, and featured works by, among others, Mircea Cantor, Bruce Nauman, Ján Mančuška and Thomas Schütte. Beginning with this year, the Biennale has received federal funding and other assistance as a "project of peak cultural importance". It was titled Von Mäusen und Menschen (Of Mice and Men) and conceived of as an extended narrative or life cycle. In The New York Times, Roberta Smith called it "a kind of rebus about the arc and tumult of life." The Berliner Zeitung retrospective contrasted John Steinbeck's theme in his novel of that name, the American dream, with the exhibition's, "the trauma of the 20th century". The organisers opened a special gallery, the Gagosian Gallery, and presented some works there six months in advance. The Biennale itself used 11 or 12 venues, including the Old Garrison Cemetery and the Hall of Mirrors in the Ballhaus Mitte, most of them along Auguststraße. This Biennale was "a giant success" and drew 85,000 visitors. However, one critic judged it to have sacrificed the human to economic considerations and preferred the opposition of the Third Biennale.
The Fifth Berlin Biennale was curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic and took place from 5 April to 15 June 2008. It was titled When Things Cast No Shadow. By day, 50 artists representing four generations showed works, many of them site-specific, at four locations including the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Schinkel pavilion behind the Kronprinzenpalais. A parallel night-time segment titled Mes nuits sonts plus belles que vos jours (My nights are more beautiful than your days; the title of a 1989 "erotic thriller" by Andrzej Żuławski) involved more than 100 artists in 63 presentations all over the city of more extemporaneous and less finished works. This Biennale drew on the history of the city, but was also seen by one critic as the "coming of age" of an exhibition which up to then had featured "trendy trash art" and been more a tourist-oriented evocation of the city as it was at the end of the 1990s.
The Sixth Berlin Biennale ran from 11 June to 8 August 2010 and was headed by Kathrin Rhomberg. It was preceded by Project Artists Beyond, sponsored by the European Commission, which sought to showcase the process of artistic creation through exhibits in public places. This began in January and involved seven artists in Amsterdam, Istanbul, Pristina, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Paris in addition to Berlin. The title of this Biennale was was draußen wartet (what is waiting out there) and the guiding question was "Glauben Sie an die Wirklichkeit?" (Do you believe in reality?). More than 40 artists were featured. Rhomberg chose sites in parts of the city inhabited by large numbers of migrants, and invited the New York art critic Michael Fried to mount an exhibition on the drawings of the 19th-century artist Adolph Menzel in association with the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Museum of Prints and Drawings. During the first week of the exhibition, La monnaie vivante / The Living Currency / Die lebende Münze was presented by the Theater Hebbel am Ufer and the Centre d’art contemporain de Brétigny, with choreography by Pierre Bal-Blanc. According to Der Spiegel, this Biennale was forgettable and the attendance figures were not even published.
The Seventh Berlin Biennnale took place from 27 April to 1 July 2012 and was curated by Artur Żmijewski with art historian Joanna Warsza and the Voina art collective. The emphasis was on political relevance: 320 trees from the environs of the Auschwitz concentration camp were transplanted to various Berlin locations, the organisers created a newspaper in advance of the opening, P/Act for Art: Berlin Biennale Zeitung, in which they published invited opinions from cultural figures on the state of cultural policy in Berlin, members of the Occupy movement were invited to occupy the Kunst-Werke Institute, and one weekend there was a forum in the round organised by Jonas Staal for representatives of organisations on terrorist watch lists. One exhibit, the Peace Wall by Nada Prlja of Macedonia, was a black barrier 12 metres (39 ft) wide by 5 metres (16 ft) high blocking Friedrichstraße at the point roughly 200 metres (220 yd) south of Checkpoint Charlie where tourist attractions and expensive shops give way to a largely immigrant and poor neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. It was taken down early after public protest. This Biennale broke the attendance record but was not well received by critics, with some saying that there was not enough art and that there was more relevance in the works on show at commercial venues in Berlin Gallery Weekend, which fell on the Biennale's opening weekend.
The Eighth Berlin Biennale took place from 29 May to 3 August 2014 and was curated by Juan A. Gaitán. Locations were the Haus am Waldsee, the Dahlem museums of the Berlin State Museums, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, and Crash Pad c/o Kunstwerke.
The Ninth Berlin Biennale took place from to 4 June to 18 September 2016 and was curated by the New York art collective DIS. The theme was The Present in Drag and the locations were the Academy of Arts, the European School of Management and Technology, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, the Feuerle Collection, and a sightseeing boat. Some reviewers criticised it as "slick" and "shallow".