According to the press release, 'Manifesta wants to be an interactive workshop for looking at the latest developments in the realignment of current social, political, economic and cultural realities in Europe'. Practically, this is how it works: European curators who don't know each other organize a biennial of contemporary art in a European city that they also don't know, and often with artists whom they (and we) also don't yet know. At the time of Manifesta 1 (held in Rotterdam in 1996) the idea held a lot of promise. It's debatable, however, whether the curators of Manifesta 4 - Iara Bubnova, Nuria Enguiat Mayo and Stephanie Moisdon - really responded constructively to the show's premise. They travelled around various countries and tried to meet, in their words, 'as many individuals as possible' and 'construct the exhibition from that diverse mapping of a complex process', but such mission statements have been described, not inappropriately, as amounting to no more than a 'K-Mart of buzzwords'.
Presenting the absence of a concept as a concept in itself seems almost to have become standard practice. It's not a problem if the resulting exhibition is any good. But there's the crunch. Among the great number of works by comparatively unknown artists there were in the end very few convincing pieces - mostly, again, from artists who are already quite well known. These included: Pierre Bismuth's Jungle Book Project (2002), a Babel take on Disney's 1967 animation classic assembled from many different dubbed versions, so that Balou the bear speaks Hebrew and Bagheera the Panther Arabic; a video essay by Jun Yang, Miss June Young (2002), which was a thrilling mixture of autobiography and pop-culture documentary about the cultural misunderstandings that arise from the pronunciation and spelling of the artist's name in Vienna, where he lives; Yael Bartana's video Trembling Time (2001), which in a single shot of night-time traffic in Tel Aviv conveys an ever-present mixture of solemnity and danger when sirens start to sound, marking the national Soldiers' Memorial Day; and Gerard Byrne's video Why It's Time for Imperial ... Again (1999), which is based on a conversation between Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and Frank Sinatra about the advantages of a luxury car, originally made for an advertising spread but now recreated by actors as if it were a row between two petty crooks.
Want to sell statements which reflect average ideas? No problem! This is what Mans Wrange attempts with The Average Citizen Project (1999-ongoing) which he paid a PR company to promote. The only thing you need to sell an idea is a masterplan, and it's smart marketing, not necessarily the product which will make it succeed. Which, in a way, also describes the curatorial approach of Manifesta.
You could say the fact that only a handful of the works here stood out reflects the reality of the European art scene. But the criterion for selection stressed by the curators - avoiding redundancies in the relation between the works selected - led to very few moments of interesting tension. What, for example, connects the record of Hans Schabus' boat trip through the sewers of Vienna (Western, 2002), which itself stands in ironic relation to the climactic scenes of The Third Man (1949), with Gerard Byrne's work? The fact that both artists used methods of transport to convey their concepts?
It's especially surprising because 'networks', 'contexts' and 'relationships' feature prominently among the tired buzzwords of 'Manifesta 4'. But even in the communication platform set up by David Andujar of Technologies to the People, 'e-manifesta.org', it was surprisingly quiet, even weeks after the opening of the exhibition. The relevance of Sal Randolph's project 'free.manifesta' within the framework of 'Manifesta' is just as debatable as the quality of the works. Nevertheless Randolph, who paid $15,099 to participate after Christoph Büchel (who had originally been invited) decided to auction his place on eBay, has without doubt been more successful at connecting to the local scene and activating her own networks as well.