Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

Jeremy Deller, Social Parade, 2004. Performance view, Manifesta 5, Donostia–San Sebastián, 2004.

Jeremy Deller, Social Parade, 2004. Performance view, Manifesta 5, Donostia–San Sebastián, 2004.

Manifesta 5

Various Venues

WHEN IT WAS HELD two years ago in Frankfurt, Manifesta’s fourth incarnation offered art pilgrims little more than a dry, somewhat nonvisual exhibition in a lackluster banking town—right down to a catalogue printed in black and white. This time around, both the organizing committee of Europe’s peripatetic biennial and its curators, Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma, seem to have taken that experience to heart, opting for a good-looking exhibition in Donostia–San Sebastián, Spain, a sunny resort town. While there are certain advantages to these choices, some of Manifesta’s gritty experimental potential feels lost. The exhibition series has always prided itself on its critical treatment of its site (indeed, this mission is often cited as the rationale for its nomadic structure), yet here the self-sufficiency of the show necessarily means that some of the imperatives of actual engagement are only partially met. Despite attempts to integrate different parts of the city into the exhibition—including a major venue and several site-specific pieces in nontouristic neighborhoods, as well as an “Office of Alternative Urban Planning,” founded by Manifesta to investigate different ways of “interweaving its presence into the fabric” of the city—the curators struggled to reckon adequately with arguably the most important aspect of San Sebastián’s complex identity: its location in Spain’s politically charged Basque region. While it may not completely fulfill its own sweeping claims to react to and inform its ethnic, political, and cultural context (indeed, this exhibition could have been mounted almost anywhere), Manifesta 5 nevertheless does provide a valuable survey of the best emerging European art.

Some of the most compelling work in the show pursues a tendency that today seems pervasive on both sides of the Atlantic: the artistic address of large questions about politics and representation through hermetic personal histories. The majority of such works here are films or videos in which archival footage has been edited to tweak the documentary mode, evoking a dreamy and subjective state. Two notable examples of this strategy are Hito Steyerl’s November, 2004, a paean to a friend martyred while fighting for Kurdish independence, and Maria Lusitano’s Nostalgia, 2002. In this seductive DVD projection, the artist weaves a story of her sister’s Portuguese military family in 1970s colonial Mozambique, fusing micro- and macronarratives and complicating broad ideas about place, identity, and belonging. Deploying a more straightforward documentary approach, Olivier Zabat also treats the intersection of the personal and the historical in a pair of video installations that flesh out the lingering psychological effects of violence and war on groups of individuals by probing their fanatically pursued obsessions, such as one character’s fascination with land mines.

As prominent as projected images are, this Manifesta is also marked by a preponderance of material art objects. While several photographic projects are presented in the show (three magisterial vintage series by Boris Mikhailov unfairly stack the deck against more emerging personalities), sculpture and drawing are predominant. A beautifully installed room of Mark Manders’s work represents a welcome pictorial turn in the young Dutchman’s autobiographically metaphorical sculpture, and a selection of chalky paintings and velvety pastels by Johannes Kahrs convincingly demonstrates that the photographically based handmade image may yet have significant life. Kirsten Pieroth’s humorous installation dealing with Thomas Edison’s demure refusal to attend a dinner represents a particular branch of research-based “project” sculpture (think Simon Starling), while Cathy Wilkes’s paintings and sculpture stand in for new formalist tendencies among European artists. Extending another of the exhibition’s major themes, Jan De Cock’s beautiful intervention at the Ondartxo boatyard and Carlos Bunga’s project in Rafael Moneo’s Kursaal continue art’s fruitful crossover with architecture. One of the discoveries of the show was Cengiz Çekil’s newspaper collages of media depictions of violence and disaster, which, dated 1976, presage many contemporary concerns and strategies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the more publicly oriented work comes closest to fulfilling the exhibition’s stated desire to address critically the city of San Sebastián. Jeremy Deller literally took his contribution to the streets on the evening of the exhibition’s opening, organizing a parade for the city’s “marginal” interest groups, including local surfers, magicians, and homeless. However, the most revealing lesson about context in this Manifesta comes from an art project that could only partially have anticipated its meaning: a standout intervention by Hüseyin Alptekin in a barren alley in the outlying neighborhood of Trintxerpe. Erecting a string of lit hotel signs bearing such names as “Hotel Baghdad” and “Hostal Balkan,” Alptekin offers a wry commentary not only on America’s current imperialism but also on the kind of cultural tourism that exhibitions like Manifesta both embody and occasion. In the first days of its installation, however, this form of tourism met its real context head-on, as several of Alptekin’s signs were broken by stone-throwing vandals. Perhaps this was only the mischief of a few teens, or, as I overheard one visitor surmise, the culprit may have been someone who did not want light shed on the nocturnal trafficking normally conducted in the secluded roadside pedestrian crossing. Either way, the incident reminds us that a work of art in a dark foreign passageway will only be seen as a light (and therefore a nuisance) until it actually begins to address the reasons why the passageway is dark in the first place. If from hotel row on the beach San Sebastián seemed impossibly sunny, in one of the few instances in which the exhibition ventured into the heart of the city, context quickly, and somewhat jarringly, became content. One hopes that, even if only in a small way, this reception can serve as a lesson to curators and their customers alike.

Jordan Kantor is assistant curator in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art and an artist.