The seventh edition of Manifesta, which runs July 19-Nov. 2, 2008, is the Voltron of contemporary art biennials, comprised like that cartoon action hero of several units that combine to form one behemoth exhibition. By far the most ambitious in the series of European biennials put on by the Amsterdam-based International Manifesta Foundation (IMF), No. 7 ups the ante by embracing the entire region of Trentino/South Tyrol in northern Italy. It takes place in five major venues in four cities spanning some 80 miles. Indeed, visiting the show requires a real pilgrimage, though the half-hour train rides through northern Italian countryside from one venue to the next are certainly made less tedious by views of the Dolomites, its foothills striated by hillside vineyards.
Founded after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the IMF tends to pitch its tent in European political hotspots: Manifesta 5 took place in San Sebastian in northern Spain, where the Basque terrorist group ETA is still fighting for autonomy. More recently, a planned Manifesta 6 in Nicosia on the Greek/Turkish island of Cyprus was stymied by infighting and political tensions beyond the best intentions of organizers. Art’s ability to serve as a band-aid sticking two sides together, apparently, has its limits.
In the case of Trentino/South Tyrol, tensions are at a bit of a lower intensity, but passing through one still gets the sense of the divide in the area. With Manifesta host cities such as Bolzano/Bozen, Fortezza/Franzenzfeste and Trento/Trient -- each pointedly listed with both their linguistic identities -- the region seems suspended like a coin in the air, waiting to land heads or tails. Since annexation by Italy after the First World War, Trentino/South Tyrol has been straddling an unspoken dual allegiance to Italy and Austria. Coinciding with the opening, a local arts paper ran a cover photo of a contentious billboard declaring that "Süd-Tirol ist nicht Italien!"-- that’s "South Tyrol is Not Italy!" for English speakers.
This time the Manifesta team has apparently taken on their challenging task -- organizing an epic art show that intervenes in a disputed locale -- by sidestepping it. Perhaps in reaction to the sting of the Cyprus debacle, here the art focuses on things like the soul, hope, obsolescence, the future; targets like the broad side of a barn, difficult to claim for any one "side" of anything.
Take "Principle Hope," organized by Polish curator Adam Budak in an old tobacco factory and an old cocoa factory, in Rovereto. The title, at least, sounds optimistic. But consider, for example, a work by Portuguese artist Ricardo Jacinto in the main courtyard of the factory. Dubbed Labyrinthitis (2007), it’s a bouquet of six huge black helium-filled balloons tethered to the ground. Visitors who grab the balloons’ dangling lead find their weight diminished by roughly 80 pounds, providing a sensation both liberating and disorienting. Visually, however, since the balloons are black, they seem only mock-celebratory, as if marking a wake rather than a birthday party.
But keeping in the party spirit, on the other side of the courtyard UK artist Tim Etchells was handing out free scoops of ice cream, via his Art Flavours gelato cart. The flavors were supposedly inspired by contemporary art, and had names like "Memory," "The Spectacle," "The Archive" and "The Body." Though Etchells describes his work as "an encounter between popular confectionary and art practice," to me everything tasted like. . . vanilla.
Upstairs, in a series of second-floor rooms with views of the courtyard, is Croatian Igor Eškinja’s Carpet (2006), the image of an ornate rug stenciled on the floor with dust from the artist’s home, as well as a kind of documentary opera by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson with a libretto derived from a newspaper article about the hardships of Eastern Europeans who seek opportunities for menial work in EU countries. Tatiana Trouvé, winner of the 2007 Duchamp Prize, contributes Polder (2007), a magnificent construction of what appears to be home fitness equipment parts fused into an impossible apparatus. Downstairs again, the German-born, Seattle-based artist Heide Hinrichs has a less approachable installation of deflated basketballs and soccer balls strapped to a table by bicycle inner tubes, as well as a panoply of crude clay tools arranged on a table.
As we make our way through the horseshoe-shaped building, each work seems to launch off in another direction, leaving the feeling of grasping at threads. All the while, through the windows that open onto the courtyard, we see Jacinto’s huge black balloons. People repeatedly grab the line dangling from the balloons, clearly hoping that they might be lifted high into the air. Only the balloons don’t hold anyone up, but instead bring them right back down to the ground, each and every time.
This "let-down" proves an apt metaphor for the show itself. Don’t get me wrong, some great artworks are on view, including a series of video collaborations by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva in a large darkened room -- "believe it or not" tales of the amazing and the paranormal (a man who eats glass, a human torch, a drinking bout in the woods). But ultimately, "Principle Hope" seems increasingly conceptually convoluted -- and at some point the "hope" is that the art will be able to speak for itself.
Meanwhile, some 10 miles away, at the fascist-era Palazzo delle Poste in Trento, we have "The Soul, or Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls," curated by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg. The theme here seems to be introspection, and that being the case, it helps that each work is afforded its own room in the institutional space. The art here not only speaks for itself, but has a more visceral effect, speaking perhaps less to the head than to the heart.
At the press opening, Franke explained that Trento had been home to the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent during the 16th century, which expanded the definition of sin to include not only what one did but what one thought as well -- appropriate to the theme of the "soul." And indeed, such a theme popped up in works like Israel-based Roee Rosen’s risible Confessions Coming Soon (2008). In a dark room, a single-channel video installation shows a young child who is prompted to speak the artist’s confessions (to lying, corruption, etc.) in an awkward phonetic English -- a language he doesn’t in fact understand. Also on view here is Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s more frank I the Undersigned (2007), for which the artist is pictured apologizing for crimes committed during the Lebanese Civil War -- since no one else will.
Still another video installation, Omer Fast’s Looking Pretty for God, takes a look at modern attitudes toward death. While the camera slowly pans over the many gaudy coffins that are for sale in a mortuary showroom, we hear a mortician justifying the family trade and telling stories from childhood about playing "mortician" in daddy’s mortuary. In a grotesque juxtaposition, we see a close-up of a young boy having stage make-up applied by someone off camera while we hear the gruff voice of a Long Island mortician detailing what’s involved in beautifying a corpse. The boy is mouthing the mortician’s words, adding to the creep-factor.
New York artist Beth Campbell’s disquieting installation Following Room (2007), which also made an appearance recently at the Whitney Museum, calls to mind those spot-the-difference puzzles in newspaper comics sections. A mundane, IKEA-furnished reading room is replicated several times as if seen in a mirror, only, instead of using mirrors, Campbell physically reproduces the same room over and over again, to exacting detail -- right down to the used teabag. It is a bizarre exercise in hyper-reality, but it is also a rather humorous, the ubiquity of IKEA making it entirely possible that this same reading room exists in countless apartments.
Most interesting in the local context, however, was Canadian artist Althea Thauberger’s video installation, and accompanying photos, Amon l’Idea Umena de Poetiches Impienida (We Love the Human Idea Full of Poetry), for which she collaborated with a group of local poets who have chosen to continue to write in their native Ladin, an ancient language only spoken in a few folds of the Dolomites. The haunting piece mined the vein of Euro-pluralism that Manifesta has made its own, though considering the state contemporary poetry is in, the work also defines poetry as an archaic, quaint craft practiced by a few dying cultures. Like the unheard-of Ladin culture, poetry needs visual artists to revive it.
If Manifesta 7 has a particular penchant for idea-driven media work, this inclination was taken to an oddball climax in "Scenarios," a collaboration between all the various curators, staged in an early-19th-century fortress in Fortezza, a town north of Bolzano. The fortress is a remarkable landmark in itself that remains entirely intact because it never saw a day of battle. Comprised predominantly of sound recordings held in room after dank, empty room of the complex, "Scenarios" features contributions by artists, theorists and historians, responding to the locale -- some more didactic than others.
Intentionally or not, three works in particular dovetail nicely. In a closet-like pitch black room in one of the fortress’ outbuildings we hear a recording of British novelist Glen Neath reading The Breach, a marvelous spoken-word piece that, by way of a neurotic, internal monologue, likens the body to a fortress or submarine that is vigilant against a rupture, sealing off any internal breach as it occurs before the whole thing is overtaken. Meanwhile, in a sound recording amplified through speakers set up in the windows of another of the outbuildings, philosopher Mladen Dolar’s The Voice and the Fortress reminds us that the voice is the "breach." In a meditation reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek (Dolar is, in fact, a frequent collaborator with his fellow Slovene), he sets the idea of the voice against the idea of the fortress: the voice is quintessentially ephemeral, disappearing in its very expression and straddling the border of internal and external, while the fortress symbolizes permanence, and its walls separate the inside from the outside. Finally, author Arundhati Roy, in an audio recording titled The Briefing, which sounds like a guided tour of the property given to potential investors, muses about this austere old fortress, the invulnerability of which meant its eventual obsolescence.
On one hand, these specially commissioned, site-specific audio pieces are among the most rooted in the venue Manifesta had chosen for itself, clearly committed to exploring this unique locale. On the other hand, the enviable exhibition space could have provided a wealth of other possibilities as well. Also, though it is refreshing to see a commitment to the spoken word, "Scenarios" brings to the fore the difficulties of an audio exhibition in a multi-lingual region: Most of the pieces were installed in triplicate in three adjoining rooms, one each for English, Italian and German. Thus, rather than bring us together, we were sent off in separate listening rooms, or plugged into one of the iPods playing Roy’s piece.
This may explain why the separate screening room of silent films was consistently full, since it at least offered the semblance of a little community. A separate building in the middle of the complex housed a dark room with five screens partitioned off by curtains, each one showing a different film, incuding Larry Gottheim’s gorgeous Barn Rushes (1971), Karø Goldt’s digital abstraction Bouquet (2006), and Michael Snow’s text-only, Puckishly self-referential So Is This (1982).
Finally, in a cavernous former aluminum factory just outside the quaint, very Austrian tourist center of Bolzano, curators Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (of the New Dehli-based curatorial group Raqs Media Collective) have set up their show, dubbed "The Rest of Now." If the soundworks in "Scenarios" evoke a trance mood, the work here clamors for attention in the high-ceilinged industrial space. On one extreme, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles’ experiential piece Sudor y Miedo is essentially only a placard on a wall explaining that the air in the immediate area is being humidified by water that was used in a morgue to wash unidentified corpses (blech!). On the other extreme is Argentine Judi Werthein’s Secure Paradise, a film about German-speaking "Colonia Dignidad" in Chile. It is a marvelous documentary -- but simply being situated among other works of art doesn’t necessarily make it one as well.
Several artists seem to take the gloomy title of this exhibition and the idea of residue quite literally. Spanish artist Jorge Otero-Pailos coated an entire wall of the former factory in latex in order to trap the residual dust, then peeled the latex off, displaying it like a murky, floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window titled The Ethics of Dust. Accompanying the work is Close Your Eyes!, a sound piece by local artist Stefano Bernardi, using recordings of the work undertaken to restore the building -- which restores to the space a simulation of the clatter of the building’s industrial heyday. And Singapore’s Charles Lim Li Yong videotaped himself swimming a slow-motion breast stroke through a long-neglected wading pool overtaken by pond scum for his video installation It’s Not That I Forgot but Rather I Chose Not to Mention. The natural forces of decay, as a function of human activity, could hardly be made more evident.
The opening of "The Rest of Now" was infused with the heightened intensity of meditative practice or religious supplication, thanks to a performance by the Indonesia-born, Germany-based artist Melati Suryodarmo, who stood on a 12-foot-high pedestal to the right of the entrance with one end of a 30-foot pole pressing into her sternum. Meanwhile Hiwa K., an artist who has an Iraqi background but now resides in Mainz, Germany, performed Moon Calendar, for which he danced to the staccato rhythms of his own heartbeat broadcast live, moving his feet to the sounds he heard through a stethoscope held to his own chest, which obviously accelerated as he exerted himself.
In sheer size, Manifesta 7 certainly delivers bang for the buck. The IMF set out to prove that No. 7 could not only bounce back in the wake of its aborted predecessor in Nicosia, but could return as the biggest event in the IMF’s nearly 15-year-long history. Size is a dual-edged sword, however. Such vaulting ambitions leave the thing just obscure enough to be politically unassailable -- like Fortalezza’s fortress itself -- while skirting any overly touchy subjects.
Looking back, the works in Manifesta 7 set off plenty of little sparks in their particular proximities. But when we are told that, rather than a group of mini-Manifestas, the exhibition instead is united by an overarching statement, it’s easy to feel like a bunch of blind men describing an elephant. In the end, the parts here are greater than the whole.
BRIAN SKAR is a writer living in New York.