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Of Mice and Men


The exhibition Of Mice and Men unfolded like a novel: a story with various characters and personalities disclosing their private fates and universal fears. In order to capture and present these kind of tensions the curators of the 4th Berlin Biennale chose a series of unconventional venues and exhibition space—all located along the same street in the heart of Berlin: Auguststraße of Berlin-Mitte. Of Mice and Men was neither a thematic exhibition nor an exhibition that followed a certain thesis but rather posed larger questions about Birth and Loss, Death and Surrender, Sorrow and Nostalgia. The exhibition showed artworks by more than 60 artists of four generations.

Six months prior to the opening of the exhibition, an eight-part exhibition series was launched at Gagosian Gallery, a small gallery space on Auguststraße, that the curators had opened for this very purpose. In cooperation with project spaces and independent curators from Berlin, the focus of the exhibitions here was on local art production and far from large-scale exhibitions. In addition, the team of three curators toured through several German academies, artist run centers and galleries, in cities such as Düsseldorf, Frankfurt/Main, Hamburg, Karlsruhe, Munich and Stuttgart to present a format called The Wrong Gallery. The curatorial research was archived in the publication Checkpoint Charley featuring images by more than 700 artists encountered in numerous studio visits and through recommendations by friends and colleagues, etc. Another activity in the run-up to the exhibition was a regular column in the Berlin city magazine Zitty featuring interviews with participating artists conducted by the curators.

A major influence to the working conditions of the curators was the decision of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation) in December 2003 to support the Berlin Biennale as a “cultural beacon” and thus to secure the funding of the 4th and 5th edition of the Berlin Biennale.


Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick

4th Berlin Biennale, 25.3.–5.6.2006; curatorial team: Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, Massimiliano Gioni; 2006; photo: Jason Nocito

Graphic Design
Kerstin Riedel and Philipp Arnold

From the catalog

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Nancy Spector: I want to go back to what you just said about spaces, as this seems to be a crucial element for your biennial. You decided to set the whole exhibition on one street, using different spaces, some of them quite unusual, like a ballroom, a cemetery, an old school and even some private apartments. Why did you decide not to use a museum space like the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was a central location for the 3rd berlin biennial?

Ali Subotnick: We believe institutions are like people, ideas, and strategies: they are software, not hardware. So spaces are important, but what’s more important is what you can do with them. For us the idea of having the exhibition in an institutional setting felt a bit like a limitation: Not many people do art or see art in those kinds of clean, fixed environments in Berlin. It just didn’t feel right.

Massimiliano Gioni: We also wanted to link the exhibition to a whole new set of locations. And the idea of a biennial which could change location according to the needs and atmospheres of the show was just too tempting to resist: It is something quite unique, that only a young biennial can afford to do, and only in a city like Berlin. When we first started coming here, we did a lot of research to find spaces. Everybody was saying what great places you could get in Berlin. So much of the mythology of this city is connected to the wealth of spaces, which opens up more possibilities for artists, but all these empty spaces also remind you that certain things are not really taking off in the city.

Spector: You have mentioned the title “Of Mice and Men,” which clearly refers to the John Steinbeck’s novel. It’s a book from the 1930s, which is a strange choice for a contemporary art show, and it’s also a book about solitude, isolation, murder and cold-heartedness. So you did an exhibition about cruelty and loneliness?

Subotnick: Not exactly cruelty, but there is definitely a certain sadness in the show, a sense of darkness, and of course loneliness. And Steinbeck’s novel was also bittersweet, mixing the sentimental relationship with a tragic, seemingly inevitable end. We hope that this 4th berlin biennial will not just be a list of names, but a more coherent exhibition, with recurring moods and tensions.

Maurizio Cattelan: For me it’s a show about men behaving like animals, and animals looking scary and scared like humans. It’s an exhibition about letting things go, about losing, surrendering, sometimes about dying. So in a way it is an exhibition about life, but as reduced to its simplest elements: You are born, you live and then you die.

Gioni: We didn’t work exactly on a theme show, but we hope we have built some connections and open-ended stories that make artworks and spaces resonate together. One option would have been to simply take the pulse of contemporary art, but the situation has become so complex that we thought we also needed to edit and create stronger connections between pieces. Nowadays art fairs seem to have become the new model for looking at art. We thought that maybe biennials have one advantage when compared to these festivals: They can provide a context, or at least an atmosphere, an experience. That’s why the spaces were so important, and that’s why we left them pretty much as we found them.

Subotnick: And then John Steinbeck had already borrowed the title himself. He took it from the Scottish poet Robert Burns’s poem from the 18th century.

Spector: Did you choose the artists with the spaces already in mind? Did you commission new pieces? What were the criteria?

Cattelan: Gee, we hate the word criteria; it makes art sound like a competition or an exam.

Subotnick: It’s possibly worse than the term “concept”…

Gioni: We chose artists whose work interests us and appeals to us on various levels, artists we wanted to talk to more than once. And yes, sometimes we chose artists who could do something unusual in a strange space. But the artists always came before the spaces. When I hear the word criteria I just get cringe. Do you have criteria for choosing your wife? It’s just so cynical.

Subotnick: Some men do have criteria for their wives, but that’s a whole other story.

Spector: But there has to be some kind of principle. What keeps all these artists together? In the end it does sound like a random list of artists, like a normal biennial.

Subotnick: Our exhibition could be described as a treasure chest filled with people and the creations that intrigue us, stir in us excitement, agitation, sadness, or curiosity, as well as irritation, melancholy, and anger. It’s also kind of a microcosm that reflects a larger world dominated by a growing violence, unpredictability and paranoia, by the feeling of anxiety and fear – a fear within each of us that is presented to us as in a mirror.

Gioni: It’s our own ark – a place for things we would want to keep, maybe. The artists in the show share a dark intensity, as they shift between beauty and degradation, between ecstasy and the scatological, between the seductive and the uncanny.

Cattelan: They also seem to have a sense of history, or at least they seem to know they are just part of a larger, much slower process. As if they always knew the end was near. Maybe it’s just us, we are too pessimistic.

Subotnick: For sure we didn’t want to do a show of new trends. We didn’t want to pretend we had discovered anything. Discovering is another awful word, like artists were some kind of underdeveloped species that needs a couple of curators to teach them how to behave.

Cattelan: We’re the ones that need the lessons in behavior modification.