Manifesta 4

Frankensteiner Hof, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Portikus, Städelsches Kulturinstitut Frankfurt – May 25 until August 25, 2002

Expectations for this year’s ‘Manifesta 4’ in Frankfurt were high. The previous instalments of this nomadic ‘European Biennial of Contemporary Art’ outside the traditional European art centres, in Rotterdam, Luxembourg and Ljubliana had raised the stakes. Manifesta had become a brand that presented daring and exciting new work by young artists from all over Europe, without dependency and subordination to the art markets – close to contemporary theoretical discourse and on the pulse of the time.

The three curators, Iara Boubnova (Sofia), Nuria Enguita Mayo (Barcelona) and Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley (Paris), were chosen to create such a show for the fourth time in Frankfurt, and their experience, knowledge and curatorial capabilities raised the hopes even higher. Perhaps it is the great promise that makes the outcome particularly disappointing.

The discussion among the curators about the scope of the exhibition, about what the term ‘European Biannual’ should comprise, stands at the heart of ‘Manifesta 4’. They attempt to articulate the non-similarities and subjectivities of human experience, and by expressing what concerns artists in Europe aim at attaining relevance for a wider European audience. However, these experiences are so manifold, that in the end the selection is again by geographic exclusion.

According to a statement by Iara Boubnova, Nuria Enguita Mayo and Stéphanie Moisdon Trembley, this ‘Manifesta 4’ was meant to “reveal the contradictions of the present, the different ways artists are rethinking the classical relation between time and space in the experience of urbanity, dwelling, mobility, travel, exile, language, conversation and translation, endurance, memory and history …”, and in some way it does all this. Yet in the end, the exhibition becomes so multi-layered, it tells so many stories, that its structure is not readable anymore. It is but an accumulation of art. This is not to say, at all, that the art on show is bad, just that sometimes it does not seem to have a purpose in the exhibition. In almost every new space, the visitors have to start afresh, have to forget what they have seen before.

Several of the works in the exhibition are documentations of everyday lives, noting different experiences and remarking about changing realities. Laura Stasíulytë for example records questions posed by young girls to the sex-advise pages of a Lithuanian youth magazine, and Jun Yang documents his own experiences and also his own identity in a video installation that notes the numerous misspellings of his Chinese name in Europe.

Oliver Musovik provides an account of human interventions in the shared urban spaces of his own neighbourhood in a series of black-and-white photographs, and Hans Schabus’s film about his boat trip through the sewers of Vienna, Western, 2002, is also directing the visitors’ perception to what usually remains a hidden structure of society.

This theme is also explored by Trembling Time, 2001, a film by Yael Bartana, that shows a stretch of motorway during Soldiers Memorial Day in Tel-Aviv, and records the minute of silence when during a cross-country siren everything comes to a halt, a more psychologically structuring event in the lives of Israelis. Fernando Bryce is also contributing information about events of importance in a national history. His Atlas Perú is a complex series of drawings that sketches a view on the marks of historical developments.

It is a logical consequence that the archive of ‘Manifesta 4’, containing information about all the artists that the curators considered for this exhibition is presented alongside these documentations, in an installation designed by Mathieu Mercier, that is at the same time an object and a meta-structure.

Another group of works in the exhibition is encroaching various levels of realities. Ján Mancuska’s The Conference, 2001, is the rendering of doodles into minimal sculpture, the Salad Bowl by Alban Hajdinaj re-creates precious centrepieces from cheap kitsch objects, and Pierre Bismuth’s The Jungle Book Project has each character in the popular Walt Disney movie dubbed in a different language, creating a very enchanting and understandable multi-lingual experience.

Måns Wrange seems also to use documentation as a means. The Average Citizen Lobbying Project is advocating for monuments in various cities to an idealised “average citizen”, a woman that impersonates the ideals of the existing Swedish society.

Some of the more successful pieces in ‘Manifesta 4’ are almost architectural. There is Monika Sosnowska’s Untitled, a series of doors, which lead into more and more interconnecting small rooms, creating an almost claustrophobic atmosphere, or Gazebo by Sancho Silva, a wooden structure that is almost impenetrable from the gallery, yet can be accessed via a separate staircase at the Frankensteiner Hof and the space in which it stands can be observed through narrow slits from within.

It is the space of Dirk Fleischmann’s The Bistro, in which snacks are sold named after those artists who relinquished the artists’ fee and instead receive the proceeds from the sale of ‘their’ product.

‘Manifesta 4’ stretches across the city of Frankfurt: part of it is shown in the exhibition galleries Portikus, Frankfurter Kunstverein and Städelsches Kulturinstitut, and part in a former office building, the Frankensteiner Hof.

Several out-door locations along the river Main and in front of the Schirn Kunsthalle also add to the show. The ‘Städel’ is the location for the video screenings of this Manifesta (in a rather clever installation, all the screens hang in one space, and the viewers wear remote headphones which pick up the individual signals) with notable videos by RADEK, Ivan Moudov, Lyudmila Gorlova and Pia Greschner.

The largest of the venues is the Frankensteiner Hof. It is also the one with the least recognisable profile. The time for using deserted industrial and office buildings without restoration as an exhibition venue seems to be over; in the past ten or so years, there have been too many shows in this kind of unused spaces, and while the novelty value is running low, the grotty rooms do not provide a very good place for the art either. However, this might possibly be one of the long term benefits for Frankfurt, as there are cautious plans to turn the Frankensteiner Hof into a permanent exhibition space – an information, the head of Frankfurt’s department of culture, Hans-Bernhard Nordhoff, intimated at the press conference.

However, in the present economic climate, when Frankfurt is even discussing the closure of cultural institutions, this seems more driven by wishful thinking than by a realistic assessment of the situation, though the declaration of intent alone might already have some positive effect.

For the city of Frankfurt, and for the corporate sponsors of this exhibition, ‘Manifesta 4’ was about the development of the city, the branding and marketing of Frankfurt as a modern and open-minded market-place. It was an attempt at creating an atmosphere of artistic activity and creativity as a background to profitable business transactions, a re-enactment of the excitement surrounding the opening of several museums just over a decade ago. This goal will not be met, as the exhibition proofs too unspectacular for a wider audience, and altogether is too loosely curated to attain a reputation of excellence.

The task of a biennial is to raise the image of a somehow developing city, to create an image of artistic excitement that will enhance the city’s reputation; Venice is the oldest and best known example for this, Kassel with what is actually a quinquennial another. The art can gain, if the ‘brand’ biennial takes on a positive image, if it is able to establish a tradition of quality.

In two years time, another city will strive to improve its reputation with the help of the next European Biennial of Contemporary Art, and another exhibition will try to bring a city and the art together, will create a dialogue between the two. ‘Manifesta 5’ will be in San Sebastian, in the Basque region. Perhaps then, in another more remote city, Manifesta will regain some of its excitement.