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 Piratbyrån (Piracy Bureau), Partybus, 2008. Installation view, ex-Alumix factory, Bolzano-Bozen, Italy.

Piratbyrån (Piracy Bureau), Partybus, 2008. Installation view, ex-Alumix factory, Bolzano-Bozen, Italy.

Manifesta 7

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MANIFESTA HAS ALWAYS come across as a complexly sensitized biennial, reactive not only to the morphing state of post-Wall Europe—the crucible in which it was conceived in 1991—but also to itself. The so-called European Biennial of Contemporary Art has leaped, in its itinerancy and self-reinvention, from the city of Luxembourg’s affluent avenues (Manifesta 2, 1998) to Ljubljana, Slovenia, then in proximity to ethnic violence (Manifesta 3, 2000). It has temporarily abandoned, at different points in its history, its theme-driven approach (Manifesta 4, Frankfurt, 2002) and its overwhelming fealty to young artists (Manifesta 5, Donostia–San Sebastián, Spain, 2004). Most recently, in the case of Manifesta 6, intended for Nicosia, Cyprus, in 2006, it has ventured too close to the political knuckle and failed to open, shanghaied by intractable disagreements between the local government and the curators—who, hoping that art might override politics, proposed projects on both sides of the Green Line that partitions the city into Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot sectors.

So it is perhaps not surprising that Manifesta 7 entrains more than one volte-face. Featuring three exhibitions, each in a different town or city—and organized independently by one curator, Adam Budak; one curatorial team, Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg; and Raqs Media Collective—this version of the biennial spans more than ninety miles of luscious mountains and greenery in the prosperous Trentino–South Tyrol region of northern Italy. (Cue long but pleasant train journeys.) While that district still harbors the schizophrenic tension of having once been part of Austria—indeed, a collaboratively directed fourth envoi, titled “Scenarios,” is staged in a fortress sited at the Austro-Italian Brenner Pass—it is seemingly less volatile than the Basque region of Spain or divided Cyprus. For Manifesta’s organizing agency, International Foundation Manifesta, which selects both the curators and the location, there was apparently to be no risk of repeating 2006’s ignominy of defeat. Meanwhile, each curator or curatorial group has presented a discrete show under a self-contained and suggestively titled rubric: “Principle Hope,” for Budak, in Rovereto, the show’s southernmost point; “The Soul,” for Franke and Peleg, halfway up the territory in Trento; and “The Rest of Now,” for Raqs Media Collective, in northerly Bolzano-Bozen, by which bilingual-sign-studded point one barely feels oneself to be in Italy at all. The northernmost effort, “Scenarios,” meanwhile, is essentially a sorbet, as the organizers were not allowed to physically install anything, resulting in trilingual sound works, musing on history, memory, protection, and invasion, by the likes of Mladen Dolar, Renée Green, and Arundhati Roy, plus a roomful of silent, projected films by five artists including Harun Farocki, Larry Gottheim, and Michael Snow. The hugely atmospheric deserted fort overpowers the art with ease.

If one thematic overarches these various segments, it is—according to the Manifesta 7 Companion—the notion of the literal frontier that is the Trentino–South Tyrol area as a figurative “zone of contact,” where nationalities—trailing cultural differences—have no choice but to meet. This idea, and its metaphoric extension into a consideration of the way in which Europe functions as a multiethnic society, is directly echoed by a scattering of artworks included within each quadrant of the show—works variously considering the travails of immigration, the legacies of invasion, and the notion of belonging. If it proves to be a pragmatic blanket formulation, though, it is not necessarily one that overrides the spectacle of curators and organizers actually pulling in several different directions. One can see why disharmony might be a desirable condition for a show using a cobbled-together Europe as its theoretical foundation. But the risk, strongly apparent here, is that the overall project never quite coheres, seeming less reflective of continental sociopolitics than flat-out disjointed.

That said, a fittingly troubled notion of interiority is at the heart of Franke and Peleg’s section, “The Soul (Or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls),” sited in the Palazzo delle Poste, Trento’s former post office—despite the show’s being tantamount to an expansively retooled vision of identity politicking. The title makes reference to, and takes as its site-specific conceit, the Council of Trent that the town hosted from 1545 to 1563. Having inaugurated the first formal policing of interiority—mandating, for instance, that adherents confess their fantasies alongside their sins—this landmark clarification of Catholic doctrines constitutes for the curators “one of the most important events at the outset of modernity.” What they deliver, in respect to this notion, is a 360-degree tour of molding forces attendant to subjectivity—i.e., our era’s incarnation of “the soul”—impressive not for reiterating the notion that we are constructed beings without pre-existing cores (I mean, duh), but for the displayed breadth and depth of the constructing energies.

To select only a few examples from the thirty-some contributions, there is work that deals with superstition, as anatomized in Althea Thauberger’s deceptively perky video Amon l’dea umena de poetiches impienida (We Love the Human Idea Full of Poetry), 2008—a theatricalized folk parable explaining the ubiquity of death and poverty—and a quasi documentary (restaged based on testimony) of Italian men touching their testicles for luck, based in Maria Thereza Alves, Jimmie Durham, and Michael Taussig’s faux-ethnological “Museum of European Normality” (one of five miniature “Museums” that punctuate “The Soul”). Political and religious imperatives, are addressed in Rabih Mroué’s empowered confessional, I, the Undersigned, 2007, a videotaped “apology” for his wrongdoings in the period of the Lebanese Civil War, in lieu of any public apology from those responsible. And nostalgia’s pull is one subtext of Bernd Ribbeck’s paintings, radiant but scuffed intersections of circlets and triangles resembling lost Robert Delaunay canvases bruised by time travel. It helps, given the diversity of concepts shown, that “The Soul” has a faintly clinical, even clerical air, redoubled by its anchoring in video and orderliness of layout—much of the display is tidily sequestered into offices. Its applied diagnostics in general feel practiced, aimed at self-knowledge even as they leave the would-be knowing self fully dismantled. In many cases, the work’s polyvalence is pinched by instrumentalization, but this does not seem to matter much. The show’s firm narrative grip becomes a dominant pleasure in itself.

Moving north to Bolzano-Bozen, Raqs Media Collective’s “The Rest of Now”—mounted in the town’s former aluminium factory, ex-Alumix—meditates on the residues and aftermaths of various types of, as the curatorial statement put it, “extraction.” “Let us rest for now,” the curators (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, who are the collective’s constitutive members) write, “and consider what remains from a century devoted to the breathless pursuit of tomorrow’s promised riches.” In a show that frequently rehearses a politicized, neodocumentary mode, it turns out that “extraction” can mean much. Often it means “might is right” as in Ranu Ghosh’s The Dialogue Remains, 2008. The film, which details the plight of Bengali workers who face losing their livelihood when their factory (manufacturing such consumer durables as sewing machines) is to be converted into costly real estate, is taped by a renegade employee who refuses to leave, demanding his lawful right to work. The theme is elaborated upon in Sanjay Kak’s installation of sketches, photographs, and found objects, A Shrine to the Future: Memory of a Hill, 2008, in which a rural community in eastern India loses use of a piece of land, vital for regional flood control and irrigation, after it is identified as being full of bauxite—the base ore used for producing commercial aluminum—and given over for strip-mining.

Elsewhere in this leg of the exhibition—even if, or, more probably, because it does not connect in any consistent way with the “zone of contact” notion of the whole—one might begin to envision a fortuitous dialogue with “The Soul.” In useful contrast with the concept of the soul unpacked by Franke and Peleg, here, entropic processes—in which the soul is assumedly displaced from the body—proliferate. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union become political exiles and, in Alexander Vaindorf’s three-channel video Detour: One Particular Sunday, 2006–2008, are found living, not without difficulty, in Rome—“the eighth circle of hell,” we are informed by a Ukrainian man, but better than outside the city in caves, where the Bulgarians and Poles have lived. People die in Mexico City, and the water used to wash their bodies prior to autopsy is recirculated via humidifier in Teresa Margolles’s Sudor y Miedo (Sweat and Fear), 2008, in an anteroom of ex-Alumix. People die elsewhere and Walter Niedermayr makes sterile, glowing photographs of the empty gurneys that carried their corpses in Raumfolgen 20 (Space Con/Sequences 20), 2001. There are a few celebrants at this compounded wake, however: Piratbyrån (Piracy Bureau), for example, a modern-day Swedish Merry Pranksters who founded The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing community initiated in 2003, and whose colorful bus, parked in a corner of the hangarlike exhibition space, displays the residuum of protracted partying en route to and during the exhibition opening. Regardless, in sum, this sector of Manifesta 7 is a forthright bummer.

Again, looking to salvage coherence, one might imagine Adam Budak’s solo-curated effort, “Principle Hope,” as a counterpoint to Raqs’s compound miseries. Here, suggests the title, is some consideration of the need to go on, and some strategizing toward how. Of the four divisions, Budak’s is possibly the strongest, even though its installation across two postindustrial venues in Rovereto comprises a knotty and oblique prowl around the brittle concept of optimism that might demand more time and patience than some viewers will likely have. There are still outright freedoms on display—the no-copyright wonderland offered by Alterazioni Video, for instance, which uploaded its entire aggregated music collection to computers for public use, alongside a stack of burnable CDs; or Guido van der Werve’s accelerated film of himself standing at the North Pole for twenty-four hours, turning clockwise while the world turns counterclockwise, Nummer negen. The day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007. But much else drifts toward, and encourages, circumspection: Tatiana Trouvé’s spindly furniture, part idealist and part nightmarishly distorted—and the collective Famed’s deliberately blank installation, merging latency and ennui: a dangling strip-light; an almost entirely black film shot from a roadside at night, intermittently punctuated by headlights zooming past; and a deserted circular stage. Elsewhere, the show covers the waterfront in sketching out what Burdak describes as “a cartography of urges . . . towards a horizon of ontological possibilities”: an affectionate old Michelangelo Antonioni documentary hymning local life and continuity, Gente del Po, 1947; a consideration of territory and personal autonomy by Christian Philipp Müller, who in Green Border: Eight Hikes Across the Austrian Border, 1993, presents eight precisely drawn vedute with corresponding texts translated into three languages, describing routes for illegally entering Austria’s neighboring countries; and Ewa Partum’s scatterings of adhesive letters on the floor in floods of linguistic potentiality.

“Hope,” indeed, is one concept that ghosts the show, asking one to measure this edition against the event’s history. Entropy is perhaps another. In 1998, Manifesta’s advisory board outlined the event’s aim as being primarily “to explore the mental and geopolitical boundaries of the new Europe.” It has sought, additionally, a legatorial regenerating role. This time around, there is some optimistic discussion of the defunct industrial venues and military fortifications repurposed as art venues being maintained as beaconlike cultural centers after Manifesta leaves town. (There was similar talk before Manifesta 5, too, but local-governmental negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful.) The region, though, does not appear in dire need of cultural regeneration, and such promises seem somehow minor. Instead, it might be more to the point to see this Manifesta as another self-reinvention of sorts, perhaps primarily a pragmatic one that admits of lessons learned over a dozen years—and one in which an earlier prerogative has begun to vaporize.

For, arguably, Manifesta 7 speaks first to art-world, even art-market, imperatives: the requirement to have as complete a picture as possible of the emerging-artist landscape, and the desire for an attractive merger of art and tourism (as clarified by 2007’s Grand Tour of Venice, Münster, Documenta, and Basel, and the whole notion of “destination art”). This could be reclassified more generously as “exposure,” but either way something gets lost: momentum, and a sense that the show is driven by a particular viewpoint in need of articulation. While peppered with references to Italy’s past, this exhibition gestures more typically toward issues that span the globe, using thematics that are spacious enough to include a plethora of artists. On the downside, this can feel conventional and generalized—although the primary effect of this dispersal and discreteness is that voyagers are refreshed by changes of scene and context. Does Manifesta 7 extend the event’s tradition of showcasing young art in commanding depth? Absolutely, and in a manner that leaves one hopeful. Does it operate as a lucid reflection of Europe circa 2008? Not so much.

Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.