Manifesta 11 – A Story of Two Crises
A Story of Two Crises
Curator and critic Toke Lykkeberg reviews Manifesta in Zurich and asks whether artist-curated biennials are really the best answer to the current impasse of contemporary art.
If a couple of artist-curated biennials are enough to make a trend, ARTnews was right to ask in June whether the specialized star curator is dead. In an interview Francesco Bonami suggested that the reason for artists being invited to curate shows was that “the art system has exhausted all the possible options to defy boredom”.
The two major examples of artists-curated exhibitions this summer may be on view concurrently, but they are decades, if not worlds, apart. Going from the Berlin Biennale to the itinerant Manifesta biennial, this time in Zurich, is a journey through time from 2016 to the 1990s. The Berlin biennial, curated by New York collective DIS, is sharp, cool, exclusive, and controversial. Manifesta, with artist Christian Jankowski as chief curator, is open-ended, generous, inclusive, and rather cozy. What both curatorial teams have in common is a kind of humor that specialized curators in awe of art rarely dare embrace. The main venues of both biennials come wrapped in jokes. Each of them seeks to defy the boredom of contemporary art, as Bonami phrased it, but in different ways.
For the Berlin Biennial, Babak Radboy created a marketing campaign in Deutsche Bank’s aesthetics, with twisted slogans such as “Why should fascists have all the fun?” Shocked art-worlders, for whom good art means good politics that troubles no one, swiftly mobilized online to post crying or angry smileys on Facebook. Manifesta 11’s visual communication by Ruedi Baur is more low-key: a blend of the aesthetics of administration and pictography. The hallway of Zurich’s Löwenbräu building sports Pablo Helguera’s good old jokes as wall drawings. One is a rerun of Helguera’s well-known Artoon of an intimidated curator clinging to his briefcase while surrounded by Indians armed with spears in some “Third World” village with the caption: “He says he is curating a biennial and wants to know if anyone here does video.”
DIS open their show with a statement that troubles the current art-world consensus on what makes for a legitimate political stance. Jankowski opens his show with an apology for the troubling politics of art where good intentions don’t add up.
Whereas the public in Berlin is divided about whether to laugh or cry, in Zurich, everybody’s in on the joke, and everybody’s laughing together. And that’s not just down to Helguera’s brilliance. It’s also because we already know the story about video as green card to the art world for the globetrotting curator. Updated for today, it might involve a curator picking up an artist online because his IP address matches the need for “Third World” representation in the real art world.
That said, Christian Jankowski is not one to shy away from conflicts. Among his best-known artworks is Casting Jesus, 2011, in which actors audition to play Jesus in front of a panel of judges from the Vatican. As curator of Manifesta, the artist goes in some ways further. His artist list prominently features Michel Houellebecq, who has succeeded in insulting people of all kinds of political and religious convictions. This time the writer disarmingly targets himself. His work at Manifesta involves a full-body check-up and rather fascinating scans from a specialist medical clinic in Zurich. The so-called work in progress Is Michel Houellebecq OK? resonates with a passage in Houellebecq’s recent novel Submission where the protagonist talks of himself as nothing but “a jumble of organs in slow decomposition.” Though the presentation in Zurich is not exactly a triumph, it makes perfect sense: after his 2010 novel about the art world, The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq now extends the area of struggle into the realm of visual art.
Jankowski’s curatorial concept for Manifesta 11 was clear, concise, and playful. Under the heading “What people do for money”, he invited artists to work with non-artist professionals in Zurich. Many of the resulting works are on display throughout the city at the professionals’ own workplaces. Alternate versions of the works are simultaneously on view at the Löwenbraukunst complex and the Helmhaus museum. This idea is also good. Since it’s impossible to see the different venues with varying opening hours, even over a couple of days, these exhibitions might give an overall idea of the show.
But a lot of good and concise ideas do not necessarily make for a good and concise show.
In addition to 30 collaborations between artists and other professionals, and sometimes hilarious films about these projects’ realization in a Pavilion of Reflections on Lake Zurich, and the obligatory performance program, this time at Cabaret Voltaire under the aegis of artist Manuel Scheiwiller, Manifesta proudly presents 250 works in a historical section, co-curated by Francesca Gavin. This glut meant that when I left after two overnight stays in Zurich I felt scatterbrained, without an adequate overview of either venues or exhibitions. Had Manifesta 11 been fully convinced of its own initial concept, it would neither have repackaged the collaborative works for white-cube exhibition spaces nor added all these extra works. And it wouldn’t have struggled with rumors about Manifesta staff being poorly paid in a show about work and money in one of the world’s financial centers. And this writer wouldn’t have been told that Marguerite Humeau’s apparently stunning work at ETH Zurich was not accessible due to “technical problems”.
Still, there are a lot of good, even amazing works in the show. At Löwenbraukunst, the most spectacular is Mike Bouchet’s sculpture made of 80,0000 kilos of sewage treated with a powerful fragrance. The amount represents Zurich’s daily sewage production, so the work is a joint venture not just with the local wastewater treatment plant, but with all the city’s inhabitants. At the same venue, Jon Rafman sculpts animals swallowing other animals in vore-like fashion, as well as an one-person-only video installation where the public sees one of its members drifting off into one of the artist’s virtual worlds. On a smaller scale, there’s Maurizio Cattelan’s collaboration with Paralympian athlete Edith Wolf-Hunkeler, which has her gliding on a wheel chair on Lake Zurich like Jesus. Other joint ventures by artists Marco Schmitt and Jon Kessler deserve mention. Jankowski has admirably succeeded in the difficult task of working in a variety of alternative settings, so it’s a shame the overall result doesn’t match his courage.
Good works are not enough to guarantee a good show. It might have been fun from a curator’s point of view to experimentally cram a big Katherine Bernhardt painting between big photos by Martin Liebscher and Oscar Bony without pretending to initiate any kind of dialogue whatsoever between these pieces. Or to hide an impressive Simon Denny sculpture behind a chaotic jumble of other artists’ work. Or to squeeze a scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris into the corner at the entrance of the Migros Museum and project it onto a canvas unworthy of a non-profit. But that doesn’t mean it’s as much fun for the public, or for the artists.
In 2002, Nicolas Bourriaud wrote that “since the early 90s, the dominant visual model is closer to the open-air market, the bazaar, the souk, a temporary and nomadic gathering of precarious materials and products of various provenances. Recycling (a method) and chaotic arrangement (an aesthetic) have supplanted shopping, store windows, and shelving in the role of formal matrices.” Well, in 2016 it’s about time we stopped thinking of a chaotic arrangement as an aesthetic. In Zurich it’s just a chaotic arrangement.
Google’s algorithms might do the same job better.
The broader background to both the Berlin Biennale and Manifesta is that the history of contemporary art is the story of two crises. The first is the identity crisis of art, which the long 90s inherited from the avant-gardes. The second and more recent is the crisis of the contemporary at a moment when things are accelerating around us to the extent that art has difficulties keeping up with our shrinking present, i.e., with being contemporary. Jankowski’s Manifesta 11 remains relevant, since the first crisis of contemporary art is still with us – but the second crisis of art means that it’s for different reasons from those that applied in the 90s. In Berlin, art mingles with fashion, business, activism, and culture as if there were no longer any gaps between these areas, while the second crisis of the contemporary is dealt with under the heading “The Present in Drag”.
The real trend today is not that artists curate. Nor even that curators are supposed to be as creative as artists. The fact we need to confront is simply that an increasing number of people outside the art world no longer simply consume art but also have access to its means of production and display. In this climate, wanting to set up a dialogue between artists and non-artists runs the risk of creating a gap in order to bridge it.
Toke Lykkeberg is a Copenhagen-based curator and critic.
Manifesta 11 is on view until 18 September 2016.