“Manifesta I”

Manifesta I

“Manifesta I,” the inaugural edition of a new European biennial for contemporary art, attempted to radically redraw the artistic mac of the continent. Five curators—Rosa Martínez, Viktor Misiano, Katalin Néray, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Andrew Renton—worked together to mount an exhibition whose declared goal was to reflect the state of art and life in a unified Europe. Rather than producing five competing sections, the curators collaborated on one large, multifaceted exhibition, held in more than ten venues, including the Witte de With, the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, and the Rotterdam Kunsthal. More than 70 artists from 25 different countries were invited to present works dealing with the following issues: migration, communication, translation, the relation between culture and nature, and problems of cultural identity.

Billed as an “ongoing process” that “keeps an open eye and mind to surrounding cultures,” “Manifesta I” clearly hoped to present itself as a nontraditional exhibition, (What large-scale international show doesn’t these days?) Naturally, the catalogue describes the section devoted to migration as “fluid, not fixed,” as a series of “transversals through space and time.” Behind this thick veil of curatorial clichés, however, was an art exhibition—one held in several venues, and updated continuously on the World Wide Web, but in many respects rather traditional.

One of the more commendable aspects of this venture was the national and ethnic diversity of the participating artists. Ever since the end of Cologne’s reign as art capital, some of the most fascinating artists have been popping up in the “periphery” (Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson stems from Reykjavik; the Romanian collaborative artist group subREAL from Bucharest; and Estonian Jaan Toomik from Tallinn). To make such a claim is, perhaps, to assemble no less a collection of clichés than do the promoters of the show, but at least it rings true.

The more established artists included in “Manifesta I” offered an array of lackluster projects. Rosemarie Trockel and Carsten Höller’s Mückenbus (The mosquito van, 1996)—a VW parked inside the Kunsthal equipped with speakers—was presumably an attempt to say something about communication between mosquitoes and humans. Cinéma Liberté, 1996, a collaborative project by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon, the young art stars of the exhibition, was actually pretty dull. This is how their project was described: “Gordon shows films that were censored when they were released in the Netherlands. One can view these films while seated on great beanbags. During or after the film one can have a drink in the bar, designed by Tiravanija.” I am sure the party on opening night was fun, but a couple of days later the small cinema was completely empty. Which comes as no surprise. Why would anyone want to sit alone on a beanbag and watch a bad projection of Ben Hur (inexplicably targeted by Dutch censors) while drinking a lukewarm Dutch beer?

The catalogue, seemingly designed not to be read, contains an interview with Paul Virilio in which he paints an unusually dystopian portrait of a Europe without borders: “Now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, collapsed, we shall see the collapse of Europe.” Few, if any, of the artworks reflected an equally gloomy view of Europe’s New World order; at the very least they put a humorous or absurd twist on Virilio’s apocalyptic message. Though Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, for example, has nothing positive to say about the situation, his two psychedelic wall paintings of targets belied the accompanying statement “Everything is wrong.”

Truly scary was the laboratory by Russian dog-man Oleg Kulik and his “scientific” advisor Mila Bredkhina, called Pavlov’s Dog, which comprised a mechanism capable of turning humans into animals through the systematic application of pain. Light-years from the sexy animal transformations of, say, Matthew Barney, Pavlov’s Dog gave Deleuze and Guattari’s liberatory strategy of “becoming-animal” brutal form: a naked, hairy man screaming unintelligibly. This was unquestionably the darkest and, politically, the most dubious project presented here. Part of Kulik’s program is to “cut the human population of the planet to a quarter of its present size.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s open cage with 30 canaries—some of which chose to leave their territory to enrich the work of other artists—was an airy and poetic piece that ingeniously gave expression to issues of migration and cross-cultural communication. Funnily enough, though the border remained open, most of the birds seemed to prefer their home turf.

The desire to make work with political relevance was strongly felt throughout the show, but it sometimes resulted in rather contrived installations. Tracy Mackenna’s “public diary” recorded conversations with visitors and charted them in diagrams on the wall. Rather inexplicably, a number of these are to be transferred onto blankets which will be distributed to the homeless. By contrast, subREAL actually had a story to tell, and needed no justification for their chaotic cavalcade of images which surveyed the bloody history of their country: the faces of the Ceausescus are endlessly, eerily fascinating.

Some of the most effective pieces lacked a political dimension altogether, and instead indulged in unabashedly personal imagery. In Dancing Home, 1996, Jaan Toomik, on board a large ship sailing the Baltic, danced ecstatically to the monotonous beat of the engine. Eulàlia Valldosera’s mysterious light projections hinted at hidden spheres of desire. One could glimpse fragments of a nocturnal love affair as a man and a woman, obscured by shadows cast by various objects, moved through a dark room; one kept expecting the narrative to become clear but the mystery only deepened.

Surprisingly few contributions dealt directly with modern communication technologies, even if the digital revolution clearly informed the curators’ overall conception of the exhibition. Those who mined this territory preferred to look at the dark side of the free-communication utopia. Video artist Renée Kool subtly infiltrated the cold medium of surveillance with the irrational forces of life. Her video sequences of a woman dancing and a man conducting an imaginary orchestra appeared suddenly on two security monitors behind the guards’ desk at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, thus linking the museum to the interior of the villa on the other side of the street.

As for “Manifesta” as a whole, one is left feeling that more energy went into the project than came out. In the ongoing discussion of what a large-scale art exhibition is and should be, it proposed an interesting alternative, but, in the end, its emphasis on collaboration sounded better than it looked. Rather than providing a perspective on a Europe redefining itself, “Manifesta” amounted to little more than another group show.

Daniel Birnbaum is a writer living in Stockholm.