When Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, was first instituted in 1993, it was in the spirit of cultural exchange, globalization and European integration that followed the end of the Cold War. In being an itinerant entity, Manifesta had a double remit: first, to present a picture of a pan-European cultural field; and second, to reflect specifically on the often troubled border zones in which the biennial was sited. This interest in conflict zones backfired at the last instalment of the exhibition, which was planned for Nicosia on the divided island of Cyprus in 2006 but cancelled at the last minute owing to regional politics. Although following in the path of this pockmarked history, Manifesta 7 offers itself at a moment very different from that of 1993. Many of the issues addressed by previous incarnations – regionalism, for example, or border crossings – have been parsed into subdivisions or now seem to lack clarity, and a number of current exhibitions and journals even suggest a return to considerations of the nation-state, conceived as an entity with qualified claims to artistic uniqueness. The slightly uncertain focus of this year’s Manifesta reflects perhaps as much biennial fatigue as this more widespread move away from such key biennial assumptions. Indeed, spread out across four sites (in three cities and one abandoned fortress) in the affluent Italian region of Trentino–South Tyrol, the four shows that comprised Manifesta all faltered – and, interestingly, in different ways – in responding to the notion of the continent at large, or even the specific history of the locale.
These considerations aside, however, Manifesta brought together some very good work. The biennial’s three principal sites were all organized by different curators and varied widely in thematics as much as in curatorial predilections, from Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg’s museum show hang ‘The Soul’ in Trento to the Raqs Media Collective’s chaotic open-space installation in a disused aluminium factory in Bolzano. ‘Principle Hope’ in Rovereto, meanwhile, curated by a team led by Adam Budak, looked at work dealing with cartography and architecture in an exhibition that aimed, largely through video, research- and Conceptual-derived strategies, to make visible the links between politics and economics and the spaces that people traverse. Sight lines and linear sculptures appeared throughout the venue, from Michael Budny’s scattered circles along a hall (River, 2008) to Didier Fiuza Faustino’s black tubular forms (Corpus Delicti, 2005), while Christian Philipp Müller’s Green Border – a suite of photographs showing the artist crossing Austria’s borders on foot – reappeared from 1993. The Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva created a sprawling installation of 16mm films (The Solids Projector (or the Dream of a Rock), 2008) that forced the viewer to walk among varied representations of the natural world, and a sculpture of a glass head seen through a peep-hole. In contrast to Gusmão and Paiva’s darkened room, which acted on the viewer’s body, many of the works in Rovereto remained passive objects to be looked at, forming a show that, although nominally concerned with agency and power structures, proved lifeless.
Where ‘Principle Hope’ looked outwards, ‘The Soul’ took an introspective turn, using as its starting-point the Council of Trent (1545–63), which decreed that Catholics should confess imagined sins as well as committed ones. Franke and Peleg used this pronouncement to suggest the beginning of modern culture’s historical turn inwards towards investigations of subjective experience. Many of the show’s artists responded to this premiss with figurative work, which unfolded with real visual sumptuousness throughout Trento’s former post office headquarters, the Palazzo delle Poste. In films, videos and works on paper the individual appeared in relief against the artificial – for example, in Omer Fast’s video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) (2008), which showed beauticians at work in a funeral parlour, or in Angela Melitopoulos’ The Language of Things/Die Sprache der Dinge (2007), which looked at amusement parks and virtual reality games in Hong Kong. Other works addressed modes of self-presentation and self-understanding, such as Barbara Visser’s sound installation of historical letters between the Palazzo’s architect, Angiolo Mazzoni, and the artist Fortunato Depero, who was determined to bedeck the building with Futurist motifs (Former Futures, 2008). Five ‘museums’ installed throughout the site traced idiosyncratic historical ways of conceptualizing and organizing experience – ‘The Museum of Projective Personality Testing’, for example, which looked at psychoanalytic tests such as projective cartoons and Rorschach tests, or ‘The Museum of Learning Things’, which drew a line between different pedagogies, such as German and Austrian Bilderbücher of the 19th century and avant-garde art of the 1920s.
In Bolzano the Raqs Media Collective’s ‘The Rest of Now’ show stuck most closely to typical biennial themes of urbanization and political representation – and much of the work looked as though it had been seen before, in one iteration or another. Air pollution was made material in a large-scale installation that blocked one side of the exhibition space (The Ethics of Dust, 2008, by the architect Jorge Otero-Pailos); a deformed matryoshka doll, sprouting bulbous heads all over her body, spoke of Soviet environmental disasters (Chernobyl, 2007, by Jaime Pitarch); and the video Secure Paradise (2008, by Judi Werthein) looked at a community of Germans who relocated to Chile. Continents were crossed and equated, and the show lacked any relation to its particular setting – an aspect best handled by the Budak show in Rovereto and, arguably, the fourth biennial site, the Fortezza, built in the 1830s to defend the road between Bolzano and the Brenner Pass.
The fortress’ empty rooms were filled with the sounds of texts read aloud in English, Italian or German – poems, polemics and stories commissioned collaboratively by the Manifesta curators. Visitors wandered through the rooms listening for their appropriate language or searched among the headphones for an understandable Sprache. Conceived as a terrain of languages, the Fortezza could be seen as Manifesta 7’s most concerted look at Europe, but few visitors stayed to listen all the way through each or even any of the texts. Most wandered instead to the elegant installation of a number of silent films in a long hall, in which Harun Farocki’s astounding Respite (2007) – a look at a Dutch transit camp for Jews during World War II – threw down the heavy cards of artistic mastery and reflexive interrogation, while Michael Snow’s joyous, seedy, text-only film So Is This (1982) blared reminders of what we look for not only in filmmaking but from all art: ‘filmmaking as giving pleasure, filmmaking as making known’.