Manifesta 4

Various Venues

The 2000 edition of Manifesta, Europe’s roving biennial of young art, took place in the shadow of NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia and the collapse of the Yugoslav Republic. The city of Ljubljana, located at a historical crossroads between East and West, offered a resonant setting for what was to be a roughly hewn but timely exhibition memorable for its uncompromising foregrounding of the documentary mode and for introducing the work of a number of remarkable new artists. This year Manifesta was in Frankfurt, in the capitalist heartland of Western Europe. It was hard to imagine the city firing either the soul or the imagination, and certainly the curators of Manifesta 4 seem to have struggled to find inspiration. Frankfurt (aka Bankfurt) is the financial and transportation hub of mainland Europe, a point of passage for people, money, and things. It’s a city that stands for the dream of European political and economic unification: comfortable, prosperous, and—with the exception of its leviathan airport and that giant sculpture of a Euro you run into near the Hauptbahnhof—generally lacking in distinguishing features. Monetary convergence and the enlargement of the community to the east have been the dominant issues in European politics this past year, and Manifesta 4, polite, thoughtful, and conscientiously researched, seemed to reflect a Europe that has passed from violent disintegration to peaceable integration.

Although the pan-European curatorial team—Iara Boubhova from Sofia, Nuria Enguita Mayo from Barcelona, Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley from Paris—spoke of a “reflexive project, based on doubt, conflict and confrontation,” the experience of the exhibition was one singularly lacking in passion. Despite its wide geographic sweep—with artists hailing from Bilbao to Brussels to Bosnia—it felt as homogeneous as the dream of Euroland itself: a federal exhibition based on agreement rather than polemic. There were plenty of young artists niggling away at the edges of capitalist order by way of pseudocorporations and activist collectives but little work, for example, that reflected on Europe’s smoldering tensions, such as the increasing mobility of asylum seekers and a concomitant rise in xenophobic politics in Western Europe.

Manifesta has always been laudable in its aim to provide a more experimental alternative to the proliferating international biennials, with their predictably global rosters of big-name artists. It has never tried to be a mini-Documenta, stressing instead process over spectacle, discursivity over definition, the formation of cultural networks over curatorial mandate. And yet this edition highlighted more than any other the fundamental problem of trying to undo the biennial format while ultimately operating within the same paradigm. A little like Zlatan Filipović’s video Restart, 2000, in which the artist systematically dismantles and reassembles a laptop computer, Manifesta 4 felt like a biennial taken apart, put back together, and finally looking exactly the same but with a few loose parts rattling around inside.

There is a fine line, after all, between forging new kinds of noninstitutional relationships among artists, curators, and the public and just substituting a different type of bureaucratic apparatus. Much was made of the transparency of the way participants were selected, and French artist Mathieu Mercier designed a huge archive to house all the paperwork gathered in the course of meetings with some one thousand artists. But in the end the research process was reified as the subject of the show while winding up as so much indigestible data. There were the requisite quota of Internet and broadcast projects, of delegated curation and delegated participation (Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, for example, sold his rights to participate to the highest bidder on eBay), to signal the experimental credentials of the show. The curators state that Manifesta is about an “open process of dialogue,” a conversation intended to reverberate beyond the temporal frame of the exhibition. Like all conversations though, it is helpful to know what it is about before you join in.

Among the few individual contributions that left an indelible impression I’d cite Lima-born Fernando Bryce’s extraordinary compendium of 543 China-ink drawings, which collects into a visual atlas of the life of the Peruvian nation over seven decades, and Berlin-based Tino Seghal’s dancing museum guards, who cleverly transform passive custodianship into active artwork. Also the street performance Manifestation, 2001, by the Radek Community (a conglomerate of Moscow-based artists, musicians, and critics), wherein an unwitting crowd of pedestrians waiting to cross a busy Moscow street find themselves co-opted as protagonists in a spontaneous political revolution. ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE and ONE SOLUTION REVOLUTION proclaim the banners unfurled above their heads, when all they were doing was hurrying to work. The anarchic politics of Manifestation contrasted with Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s forceful video Trembling Time, 2001, set on Soldiers’ Memorial Day in Tel Aviv. This piece charts a state-organized ritual of remembrance, as drivers abandon their cars on a busy highway to observe a statutory two minutes’ silence. From Slovenia, Tobias Putrih’s modest maquettes of impossible cinema spaces introduced a moment of utopian imagination to counterpoint the preponderance of works that delved into the anomies of contemporary European life, such as German artist Jeanne Faust’s impressive but depressing films sited in Mitteleuropa suburbia and Stockholmer Måns Wrange’s study in socially engineering the political opinions of the demographically typical European citizen (forty, single, female, and childless) into a new political orthodoxy. As an exploration into the power of averageness, Wrange’s project may well have provided the leitmotif both of the exhibition and of a putative future Europe.

Kate Bush is senior programmer at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.