Ljubljana, Slovenia

Manifesta 3

Various Venues

Although Manifesta has been loosely dedicated since its inception four years ago to defining a “new Europe,” the 2000 installment provided the first opportunity for the show to inhabit a city that might actually exemplify such a definition. The only nomadic species in the proliferating genus of biennial exhibitions, Manifesta’s previous editions in Rotterdam and Luxembourg were, respectively, safe and sloppy, and both were of a piece with the stylistic drift in European art toward narrative, self-involved work (e.g., Pipilotti Rist) that largely circumvents issues of politics and identity. In particular, Manifestas 1 and 2 revealed fissures in younger curators’ attitudes toward the continent’s shifting borders, which began with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s and continues with the convulsive disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Despite lip service paid to artists working in more marginalized regions of Europe, both exhibitions relied heavily on the established circuits and capitals of Western Europe, leaving their viewing public largely in the dark as to what constituted the latest artistic developments in these regions.

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether this obsession with redefining Europe is merely a subtler and more insidious manifestation of the nationalist tendencies that the biennial’s founders are trying to rebuke, the Slovenian capital made sense as the host city for Manifesta 3 not merely because of its storied past as a cultural center. The first Yugoslavian state to declare its independence from Belgrade, Slovenia was largely spared the “ethnic cleansing” that became rampant in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Nevertheless, with the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia still fresh in the minds of many Europeans, the exhibition’s curators—Francesco Bonami, Ole Bouman, Maria Hlavajova, and Kathrin Rhomberg—found themselves forced to acknowledge the uneasy standoff between realpolitik and culture taking place throughout the Balkan region. Adopting a pseudoclinical title, “Borderline Syndrome,” and a rather more dubious subtitle, “Energies of Defence,” they succeeded not only in offering the first truly globalist treatment of European art since the fall of the Berlin Wall; in the process, they provided a surprisingly cogent argument for why Manifesta needs to persevere.

Of the fifty-nine artists and artist teams invited to exhibit, a respectable total of nineteen represented countries from the former Eastern bloc, and of those, nine hailed from the former and current Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, a number of artists produced media-based works that dealt with the underlying problems of ultranationalism and xenophobia that fueled the war, while others addressed its more immediate aftermath. Even within the latter framework, artists’ positions were surprisingly complex. Albanian artist Anri Sala contributed Nocturnes, 1999, a video based on his interviews with a former paramilitary soldier responsible for multiple deaths in the mid-’90s and a man who lives surrounded by the tropical fish that are his passion. By forcing us to see these two subjects as somehow intertwined, figures in obvious need of consolation, and denying us the righteous indignation of the war’s innumerable victims, Sala suggests that the mind of a man who has killed in the name of ethnic and/or religious purity is not as different from our own as we might wish to believe. In other powerful works, the very act of victimization became a microcosm that enabled viewers to identify more fully with the casualties of war. The nearly unbearable emotional weight of Sarajevo artist Jasmila Žbanić’s sixteen-minute video After, After, 1997, stems from the responses of a group of first-graders, most of whom lived for years in occupied territories, to the simple question: “What are you afraid of?” In many of the works from outside the Balkans, artists addressed ways in which outsiders become transformed into nonpersons. One unsettling example was Amit Goren’s 1999 video Your Nigger Talking, which focuses on the invisibility in his native Israel of people like Nana Opoku Agyemang, a non-Jewish, non-Palestinian immigrant from Ghana who runs a makeshift day-care center for the children of other foreigners.

Although most of the works in Manifesta 3 dealt with sociopolitical issues, some did so more obliquely than others. Matthias Miller’s video-film exploration of Brasilia’s past and present (Vacancy, 1999) used subtle, almost impressionistic editing techniques, such as slow pans, and oversaturated colors. By turning the individual’s isolation in the city into a medium for addressing the failure of all utopias, Muller also manages to convey the nearly irresistible lure of absolute social control. Probably the most memorable work shown, for those fortunate few who experienced it, was Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s Motion Picture, 2000. Organized as an event “staged” for a public location, the work deployed eleven stage and screen actors who spent thirty minutes seamlessly playing the roles of various urban dwellers (a tourist, a pair of lovers, a skateboarder). Because of its quasi-clandestine nature (the actors were unannounced and left without even acknowledging that there had been a performance), the work provoked onlookers to approach nonparticipants and ask if they were part of the spectacle. By calling attention to the oscillating distinction between who belongs and who doesn’t, Althamer’s work fleetingly crystallized the principle that merely recognizing another’s individuality means that this person can never be perceived as a nonentity again. Since the Balkan conflicts seemed to find their dark hearts in the violent turning of neighbor against neighbor, Althamer’s work also served as a metaphor for the larger ambitions of this exhibition, which was memorable for its insistence on art’s potential to instill broader notions of humanity in place of the perennial search for the latest fads and stylistic wrinkles.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.