BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 12 NOV 00
Featured in
Issue 55

Manifesta 3

Ljubjana, Slovenia

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 12 NOV 00

'Manifesta 1' was held in Rotterdam in 1996, the second in Luxembourg in 1998 and most recently, 'Manifesta 3', in Ljubljana, capital of the Republic of Slovenia. Whereas 'Manifesta 2' offered an optimistic view of a liberal Europe, focusing on ideas of 'local' and 'personal', 'Manifesta 3' explored crises, such as the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia. As the title 'Borderline Syndrome - Energies of Defence' indicated, the curators, Ole Bouman, Francesco Bonami, Mària Hlavajová, and Kathrin Rhomberg, chose to describe Europe as suffering from a kind of neurosis/psychosis. The many failures of political systems in recent years could certainly justify disillusionment, but nevertheless, the curators' approach was somewhat paralysing. To interpret political problems as pathologies is to portray them as potentially fixated states. To provoke analysis and action, pragmatic rationalism might work better than psychological fatalism. (In this sense, Brecht beats Freud.)

It is arguable whether the show's somewhat sensational claim that Ljubljana is situated in a critical 'borderline position' between East and West is valid. Of all the states that once belonged to Yugoslavia, Slovenia has always been closest to the West both in cultural and economical terms. It remained largely untroubled by the civil war and is one of the first countries in line for admission into the EU. Ljubljana is a prosperous, lively city - anyone who crossed the border and expected it to be a miserable place was likely to be disappointed. Still, it was hard not to notice that 'Manifesta' was overshadowed by local power games: only representative state institutions were chosen as exhibition venues and Ljubljana's art scene remained more or less invisible for the duration of the show. That the torch-lit opening ceremony was held in what was once former Yugoslavian President Tito's summer residence added to the impression that the authorities perceived 'Manifesta' to be a prestigious state event.

The function of a European Biennial is one that has often been criticised - promoting the idea of Europe can mean advertising the economic system of the EU. Yet it seems wrong to label 'Manifesta' as an agent of global capitalism. Many blockbuster exhibitions of 'global art' celebrate their neo-liberalist generosity by presenting work of non-European artists as delicate symbols for cultural otherness. In contrast, 'Manifesta 3' offered a more convincing solution, stressing the discursive capability of art to inform. Throughout the exhibition, video-works with a documentary approach prevailed. As a result 'otherness' was not commodified but presented in a specific and explicitly political context.

Difficulties associated with the Diaspora are explored in Amit Goren's Your Nigger Talking (1999), a video portrait of a worker from Ghana who runs a kindergarten for illegal immigrants in Tel Aviv. Nasrin Tabatabai filmed Rotterdam from the perspective of a Turkish resident in Old House (1999). Many videos touched on the trauma of Former Yugoslavia's civil war: Jasmila Zbanic, for example, spoke to Bosnian children about the death of their relatives in After, After (1997). Anri Sala´s video Nocturnes (1999) told the stories of two young Parisians: an ex-soldier who is haunted by his memories and spends sleepless nights performing war games on his Playstation, and a nerdy animal lover who dedicates himself to the maintenance of his huge aquarium.
Other works offered a more ironic take on their subject. In a satirical animated cartoon, Discover Latvia (1999), Agnese Bule mocked Latvia's self-imposed isolation by reporting that Latvians are stuck in 12th-century traditions and have never stopped living in barrels. In a similar way, Josef Daberning's film, Wisla (1996), satirised unacknowledged stagnation. Set in an empty and dilapidated stadium in Krakow, Poland, the film followed the movements of two sport coaches, who, unconcerned by the fact that there is no game, still go through the motions of coaching.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.