This is the year of some of the most resoundingly flat biennials we have seen in a long time: Manifesta 11, which just opened in Zürich, and the 9th Berlin Biennale, which opened the week before. I am not simply using the term “flat” to describe the overall experience, but also to point out their flatness in terms of structure. The latter is the most interesting point. I will return to it later.
Manifesta first: the European biennial originally initiated as a response to the political and socio-economic changes that followed the end of the Cold War. It is a nomadic biennial: each Manifesta takes place in a new city, directed by a new curator, curatorial group or – as is the case this year, for the first time ever – an artist, more specifically Christian Jankowski (b.1968). The first Manifesta took place in Rotterdam in 1996, curated by Rosa Martinez, Hans Ulrich Obrist among others. There is a semi-official tradition of aiming for geopolitical hotspots in Europe. The 2014 Manifesta took place in St. Petersburg, and in 2018 it will take place in Palermo, Sicily.
The fact that Manifesta 11 takes place in the beautiful, mountainous and culturally potent nation of Switzerland, located in the heart of Europe, yet too rich a country to want to be part of the EU and also a “neutral” country outside of NATO, offers tremendous curatorial potential. The expectations aroused by the exhibition title “What People Do for Money”, were not lessened by Switzerland’s long-established and widespread tradition for collecting art, a circumstance which – coupled with special customs regulations and a constitutional right to banking secrecy – has made Switzerland (and further on to Miami and Hong Kong) such a successful site for an international art fair, Art Basel.
However, you can forget about the title’s potential moral or critical undercurrents. Forget about international economic transactions trickling out into the absurd quantities of high-end watch shops crowding in central Zürich. Forget about the current migration crisis, which has a scope and scale unprecedented since World War II, and forget the crisis in the EU, too – for Jankowski certainly did. He has created an exhibition with a distinctively 1990s feel, an exhibition that is, more than anything else, about “the encounter” between the thirty invited artists and the partners with whom they have chosen to co-operate in Zürich. Each partner/host represents a particular profession or workplace. The results of these joint ventures are displayed at the workplaces in question and at the two main exhibitions of Manifesta 11 – the largest in the Löwenbräukunst complex, supplemented by a smaller-scale presentation in Helmhaus.
On the first day this was fun. There is something special about city walks – especially in cities you don’t know very well, where you constantly have to board a new tram to get up and down the sloping streets, and where a trip through the city’s red light district fades into an excursion down a quiet street of houses in a picturesque residential area boasting perfect views of the city. I immersed myself in a Raymond Queneau-like style exercise, visiting the various sites as if they were chapters in some internal monologue: ah, yes, of course Michel Houellebecq chose to work with a private hospital, located in an idyllic leisure area high above the city, offering a splendid view of Zürichsee – his very own “Zauberberg”, signifying an immodest sense of affinity with one of the great novelists of European literature. Transcripts with details of blood analyses and EKG charts showed us that the patient is entirely OK.
The trip also included a visit to a dog salon. Well, it was an entirely fake, yet wholly convincing dog salon complete with dog toys and dog hair on the floor. Guillaume Bijl’s signature style.
On a couple of occasions I searched in vain – I spent a long time at Zürcher Hochschule der Künste looking for Leigh Ledare’s work, which no-one at the site knew anything about. Of course I would also like to have seen the work that marked Maurizio Cattelan’s resurrection (after he declared his retreat from the art scene in 2011) – a work involving the co-operation of a Paralympic athlete gliding across Lake Zürich in her wheelchair. But even though the work was shared countless times on Instagram during my time in Switzerland, I never met anyone who had actually seen it live. It is worth noting that the picture being posted is always exactly the same one: a close-up of the photographic documentation on display at Löwenbräukunst. Cattelan is a self-declared “image philiac”, as he stated in a snappy interview on Artnet during the opening days. If he can create an image that works, goes viral and which stays at the back of people’s minds, then he has succeeded. So he succeeded this time, too – just as the Catholic Church has done so many times before.
I also visited the dentist to inspect Torbjørn Rødland’s photographs of extracted teeth hanging in the waiting room, right above the heads of the people waiting there – none of whom appeared to be scared of dentists. Indeed, the sanitised setting, redolent of Eugenol, made these already antiseptic photographs appear even more squeaky-clean. Subtle, small-scale effects such as these can be perfectly fine if the overall exhibition has more to offer: approaches that are sharper and of greater intensity. So as a visitor, you hoped for a little more artistic reward for your efforts – not least because the press conference informed us that these collaborative satellite works were in fact the curator’s main stratagem. Sadly, the really juicy bits were few and far between.
One of the positive exceptions from this rule was Shelly Nadashi’s visit to Literargymnasium Rämibühl. Not so much because of Nadashi’s rather generic-contemporary-art papier maché objects in display cases, but because of Dr. Margaretha Debrunner, a highly enthusiastic Classics teacher who, seemingly at her own initiative, stood ready to greet visitors as students filed past her, heading for their weekend pursuits on this warm Friday afternoon. She gave us visitors an in-depth analysis of Ovid’s poem “Amores”, which had served as the starting point of the collaboration. That’s the kind of thing you always hope will happen when you engage with this kind of exhibition format: a host who is deeply inspired by the project and by its relationship to her own profession – and who has her own agenda: “I knew that we had to take part in the Manifesta project, for Latin is the key to European integration at a fundamental level,” as she said upon ending her lecture. Amen.
The main exhibition took place in the large Löwenbräukunst complex, which includes Kunsthalle Zürich, Migros Museum and LUMA Westbau, as well as some of Europe’s leading and most prestigious galleries: Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Eva Presenhuber. In spite of the rather vague approach, the satellites may have constituted the main exhibition. But we can certainly say that Manifesta 11’s largest collection of works is found at Löwenbräukunst – in at least two senses of the term.
New works by the thirty invited artists were on display, based on their collaborations with the satellites. Furthermore, a contextualising display – The Historical Exhibition – was presented on a kind of scaffolding, accompanied by keenly educational headlines that broadly relate to the theme: “Break hour”, “Artists adopting other professions” or “Portrait of professions”. The works showed here included both past and contemporary art, forming a strange kind of extra layer that seemed most of all to serve to divide the works into a kind of hierarchy: the primary artists, who worked directly with the various workplaces in Zürich, and then the secondary “context artists” who had simply been included to demonstrate that they, too, addressed “work” in some form or other. Of course they included a handful of good pieces, for example Adrian Piper’s Funk Lesson, from 1983, which follows the artist as she teaches a group of UCLA students about funk – in down-to-earth, practical terms: the movements of the shoulders, hips, head, interspersed by a rundown of the most frequent race-political misreadings of the phenomenon. Steamy, funky, political – in a way that is only all too rare.
Another extra-extra layer was added to Manifesta 11 in the form of Cabaret Voltaire, supposedly in honour the 100th anniversary of Dada at the place where Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara and the rest all performed and hung out a century ago. It made little sense within the context of the rest of this incarnation of Manifesta – renaming the place “Cabaret der Künstler – Zunfthaus Voltaire” for the occasion, or asking the visitors to audition for membership in order to gain access to the performance programme didn’t help much. Nevertheless, this was where – upon having done my audition – I had my best Manifesta 11 experiences. Peaches performed her Audition speak, shouting “I want to fuck you” at the animated audience. The next evening featured Ulay, bare-chested but clad in a green jacket and an aura of venerable performance history, hands shaking as he read from a frozen book, “Dada Hand Buch”, which gradually melted. Eventually the book could be wrung out onto a special kind of withered-looking plant that first looked brown and dry, but which turned green upon the application of Dada juice. Symbolisch.
Austrian collective Gelitin took the biscuit with one of their classic actions: in startlingly little time the stage was transformed into a chaotic pandemonium, and the artists then proceeded to sing, pee and plaster-slather their way through a two-hour performance. Excellently old school, yet also imbued with fresh energy. Overall, the Cabaret Voltaire gave priority to an old-fashioned, hardworking kind of performer body – a contrast to e.g. the Berlin biennial with its nebulous, yet utterly fit biotech body.
And so we’ve arrived: Manifesta vs. the Berlin biennial. As will be clear from the above, Manifesta was a sprawling, ever-expanding platform – a horizontal and spread-out exhibition with no overall score, imbued by a kind of cut-and-paste curating that refused to commit to any position and was mostly about “encounters” in the haziest manner imaginable. The clearest example of this was the so-called Pavilion of Reflections – a huge, raft-like structure with an observation tower, a café, sundeck, a changing room with a hairdryer, and a huge screen showing documentaries about the creation of the various satellite works as viewers sit with their feet in the water clutching Aperol spritzers. It would be hard to come up with a more thoroughly 1990s-platform-relational-aesthetics-bonanza.
If Manifesta 11 seems rather flat in a horizontal manner, then the DIS collective’s 9th Berlin biennial had instead a more vertical flat-screen-flatness about it. Billboards, Photostats, upright screens, flat tableaux and wall reliefs are not just an aesthetic preference that serves to accentuate the theme of interfaces and a privileged, specific viewing direction. This year’s Berlin biennial is an eternal portal, a place you always already inhabit, but it is also jingle, a teaser into which you cannot delve any deeper. For that is what our present age is like – certainly for those privileged individuals who have the right nationality and can afford to “suffer from” data obesity, and therefore to postulate generic airport aesthetics and constant airbnb-transits as fundamental human conditions. That is the greatest problem with the Berlin biennial. And it is not a trivial one.
Manifesta 11 ebbs out into the Zürich lake like yet another contourless EU summit with a mile-long agenda. It will soon be forgotton. By contrast, the 9th Berlin biennale stands erect, a one-eyed, toned zero with a tanktop and a tight ponytail – and this DIS, despite of everything, deserve thanks for formulating so pointedly.