View of “What People Do for Money,” 2016, dental office of Danielle Heller Fontana, Zurich. From left: Torbjørn Rødland, Crossed Confections, 2015–16; Torbjørn Rødland, Portrait, 2015–16.

View of “What People Do for Money,” 2016, dental office of Danielle Heller Fontana, Zurich. From left: Torbjørn Rødland, Crossed Confections, 2015–16; Torbjørn Rødland, Portrait, 2015–16.

Manifesta 11

Various Venues

View of “What People Do for Money,” 2016, dental office of Danielle Heller Fontana, Zurich. From left: Torbjørn Rødland, Crossed Confections, 2015–16; Torbjørn Rødland, Portrait, 2015–16.

I REMEMBER WANDERING DOWN Zurich’s Bahnhofstraße late at night some years ago and thinking that if this was one of the most secure streets I’d ever been on, it was also possibly the most sinister. The flagship private banks interspersed among the avenue’s luxury boutiques looked like Olympian mausoleums. They were groomed, still, and fortified, better rooted into the foundations of neoliberal society than the governments that purportedly regulated them.

Zurich, the site of this year’s Manifesta, is something of a departure from the exhibition’s previous farther-flung host cities, whose hybridity and geopolitical marginality evinced the diversity and experimentalism within Europe. This archetypically neutral location serves as a counterpoint to Manifesta’s edgy provenance to date. The tongue-in-cheek conservatism of selecting a city that plays a key role in Europe’s economy, yet is not part of the European Union, as a site for manifestations of radicalism reflects the greater instability of the region. Zurich is in the eye of the storm—as is the art world at large, in all its unregulated glory. The city manages to suspend a certain class of existence in a storybook, parochial stasis—forever immune to the crushing debts of the present and the realities of the working-class laborers who feel its effects most keenly.

On a late-spring morning some weeks before Brexit, a Bentley convertible sat parked expectantly outside a restaurant in which a press conference for Manifesta 11 was being held. As the speakers broke for questions, a reporter sought comment on rumbling accusations that the biennial underpaid, or in some cases did not pay, workers on the show’s production team. The biennial’s director dismissed the charges with a semantic dodge that set the room shaking with laughter: “They are not doing work, they are providing services.” It was a harbinger that the show itself might be caught in its own lofty delusions. And it is.

Artist Christian Jankowski, who curated Manifesta 11, provided the biennial with its most promising attribute: the title “What People Do for Money.” The chosen phrase alludes to the spectrum of everyday, lived transactions of labor and capital. This theme is vast and compelling, but the exhibition itself is, regrettably, quite shallow, a simplistic take on Marxist critique via the biennial-as-field-trip model, goadingly situated in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

The curator’s mandate was that each invited artist would collaborate with a Zurich tradesperson of his or her choice. The subsequent commissions are split between various art institutions throughout the city and the offices of the selected local professionals. Satellite projects are collectively presented via short documentaries screened at the Pavilion of Reflections, a temporary wooden structure with a bar and swimming pool that floats on Lake Zürich. The results of this gambit are underwhelming and forced. Tinged with rote relational aesthetics, the pairings strike one as representative of the kind of idea a conventional curator would never get away with—and in fact the biennial more closely resembles a work of art, an experiment by one artist, than it does a show of multiple and diverse artists.

The interventions into nongallery spaces are frequently flat-footed and sometimes border on the offensive. Michel Houellebecq’s scans of his heart, right hand, head, and lungs—presented, à la Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in stacks of takeaway prints in the waiting room of a medical-imaging lab—appear as a parody of bloated academicism. Houellebecq not only positions the benign minutiae of his body as art but places it in a context that plays off the suffering of actual patients. Other off-site works fail to take their chosen contexts into consideration at all. My most memorable experience was of being thwarted three times in a row while trying to enter Julius Bär, a private bank (and the official corporate partner of Manifesta 11) whose buttery lobby recalls what I assume a first-class airline lounge looks like. I never had the timing quite right to join the tour permitted across the threshold to view Georgia Sagri’s contribution, a portrait ensconced within the bank’s interior. The work lives on in my imagination, veiled by a curtain of bureaucratic exactitude.

Being compelled to wander through a bustling school, hospital, lingerie shop, or dentist’s office in search of these site-specific installations, one certainly experiences a more authentic sense of quotidian Zurich than one gets from navigating the otherwise vacant biennial buildings repurposed in other cities. But requiring such perambulations doesn’t necessarily contribute to the goal of producing a compelling meditation on labor issues. Not a single piece in Manifesta commands more attention than the environment in which it is situated. This is made patently clear by Franz Erhard Walther’s intervention, for which he had select staff of the Park Hyatt Zurich wear futuristic orange “Halved Vests” over their uniforms, ostensibly transforming them into living sculptures in the manner of his long-standing series of participatory fabric “instruments.” Though the straitjacket-like sleeves do catch the eye, the ephemeral gesture falls short of subversive, never disrupting the flow of service as usual or drawing attention to the relations of labor and exchange attending it. Curiously, the piece is overshadowed by the massive Sol LeWitt paintings hanging overhead as permanent fixtures of the room, which convert art into decor tout court—overtaking the environment entirely rather than fading into it.

To the northwest of Bahnhofstraße, Guillaume Bijl has worked with dog groomer Jacqueline Meier to make a “transformation-installation” that converts a storefront inside the Löwenbräukunst campus into a shop for washing, blow-drying, and trimming the fur of pampered pets. Also at the Löwenbräukunst is a perhaps unintended counterpoint to Bijl’s aestheticization of canine cleanliness: Mike Bouchet’s punny The Zurich Load, 2016, done in collaboration with sewage-waste engineer Philipp Sigg. A hall-size installation of cracked brown bricks, the sculptural work, which, ironically or not, resembles a 1970s Earthwork, compacts an entire day’s worth of the city’s human fecal output. A disconcerting aroma of commingled manure and ammonia pervades the pristine white room that houses the installation.

The Löwenbräukunst building serves as one of two large sites devoted to museum-style presentations of works made by each of the artists participating in the aforementioned collaborations. The other is Helmhaus Zürich, located beside the banks of the Limmat River, where Santiago Sierra’s project Protected Building, 2016, created in collaboration with security expert Marcel Hirschi, more or less did not happen. Sierra had hoped to cordon off the building with hundreds of sandbags as if it were a war zone—which, spoiler alert, Zurich is not—but the disturbance to various summer festivals and parades necessitated that the work manifest as a symbolic partial blockade inside the museum’s lobby. Another project, at the Hotel Rothaus, took a different form than anticipated, this time at the artist’s discretion. Teresa Margolles had been slated to install a work in one of the guest rooms, in which one cis-female sex worker, from Switzerland, and two trans female sex workers, from Mexico, would play poker. However, one of the Mexican women was murdered and the other sent to jail in El Paso before the project could be realized. In light of these events, the artist emptied out the room she was given and installed a large photographic portrait of her slain collaborator—an eloquent homage and a reminder that depending on one’s circumstances, such “services” might stand outside the economy and thus be rendered unworthy of the legal protections government sanctions provide.

One of the show’s rare discoveries is the massive wall of sexually explicit drawings by Andrea Éva Győri. These wild, Freudian cave paintings in peach, yellow, and blue watercolors are the product of masturbation tutorials administered by a local sex therapist. Unlike many of the other commissions, Győri’s work reflects a genuine exchange with her partner (as it were)—drawing on an erotic and reciprocal economy. Obsessive, symphonic mandalas of bodies, sexual organs, and erotic energy channel an unbridled, iconographic outsidery aesthetic by way of Carol Rama. (The corresponding in situ presentation by Győri, consisting of five small drawings tucked into a lingerie shop in town, is tepid by comparison.)

Another commission stands out for its canny treatment of work, process, and exchange. In the dental office of Danielle Heller Fontana, Torbjørn Rødland has hung a suite of still-life photographs that depict desserts, their remains, and dental molds of teeth scattered on plates. These are some of the most successful of the in situ works, because in addition to possessing beguiling formal qualities, they occupy their context authentically, somewhat removed from the attention of the patients flipping through magazines beside them. They exist matter-of-factly, as if rather than specially commissioned they were simply regular waiting-room wall decorations. Rødland has carved out a space in which the artwork coexists with while simultaneously rubbing against its context, exposing the gory underside of the seemingly frictionless neoliberal circulation of goods and services.

The elephant in the room is metal lattices running throughout the Helmhaus and Löwenbräukunst sites—a parallel exhibition of portraits, titled “The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction,” featuring nearly a hundred artists cocurated by Francesca Gavin and Jankowski. The premise of this sprawling project is to display representations of people who work. A vague criterion, to be sure; the grid’s insertion into every gallery of the exhibition effectively confuses and contaminates the work surrounding it. Interspersing new commissions by invited artists with a miscellany of paintings and drawings by others (selected in accordance with no guiding principle beyond subject matter) is an egregiously unconsidered idea—and one not unlike the pseudodemocratized gesture of attempting to bring local tradespeople into the works themselves.

The artist-as-curator seems to reach an apotheosis with Manifesta 11, in which diversity is subsumed into a totalizing vision. The exhibition relies on superficial equivalencies between art and life that are desperate in their clumsy naïveté, a throwback to the belief that art can simply effect social change even as it lives off an umbilical cord of gold. This Manifesta demonstrates that as a mode for presenting art, the very model of the biennial is nearing obsolescence. It’s tired and broken, like the backs of the people who do things for money.

Kevin McGarry is a writer based in Los Angeles.