The Manifesta Decade (Book Review)

Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic, (eds.): The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe. MIT Press, 2006. 340 pp.

In every corner of the world, on a yearly, monthly, or by now almost weekly basis, new biennials are shooting up out of the ground like mushrooms. While the radius of their impact was at first limited to Europe and North America, the magnitude of global successor events should not be underestimated. In fact, it is precisely these events that simultaneously generate a local and international discursive climate. In the course of time it has been demonstrated that these successor biennials have become the locus of contemporary culture. It was in this cultural context that Barbara Vanderlinden’s and Elena Filipovic’s survey catalogue entitled The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions in Post-Wall Europe came into being. Divided into six parts, the publication begins with a chronology of political and cultural events since 1989. For example, it is brings to our attention that on November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, while on the same day, Gilles Deleuze committed suicide, and the 52nd Carnegie International Biennial opened in Pittsburgh. The result is an overarching survey that spans the transformations in art and the manner of its exhibition, the new European geopolitical map and the cultural territories that arose out of it, and finally concludes with the study of Manifesta

itself and a comprehensive archive of all artistic contributions to the exhibition to date. This survey is simply too broad.

The editors’ intended focus on Manifesta as an exemplary case study sounded promising. However, this nomadic event, which has taken place at a different location every two years since 1996 (Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, and San Sebastian, with the latest iteration in Nicosia, Cyprus, having to be cancelled at the last minute), is reflected against a very blurry backdrop of global realities. The chronology at the beginning, starting with the year 1989, which was significant not only for the fall of the Berlin wall, but also as the final year of Apartheid in South Africa and the year when Tiananmen Square ignited in Beijing, is undoubtedly significant for the new geopolitical order of Western and Central Europe. The fact that in this year Jean-Hubert Martin made one of the first, much-criticized curatorial attempts to adopt a global perspective with his exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre seems to be more than a mere coincidence. Nevertheless, the noteworthy and insightful textual contributions by Hou Hanru, the Raqs Media Collective, Boris Groys and others appear in this context to suggest that the changing conditions of art (and its institutions) keep pace with the conditions of exhibiting it.

The widening of the previously Eurocentric and Anglo-American focus on art, however, did not necessarily give rise to new curatorial practices, changing the way in which the art was exhibited. Instead, the pool of participants was radically expanded, and rightfully so. In this sense, it is not surprising that in Manifesta Decade, political events in Central Europe, critiques of globalization and institutional tendencies are mixed up into a scarcely comprehensible mass. Ultimately, one is left with an impression that Manifesta is the art biennial that has taken on these topics to a notable degree. Let us not forget that it was Documenta 11, curated in 2002 by Okwui Enwezor (who has also contributed to this catalogue), that first established the postcolonial view and the new global order on a wider, more popular level, at least in Europe. Conversely, because of its shifting locations and curators, Manifesta has changed in many ways.

Documenting this in a clearly presented archive is the main achievement of Manifesta Decade. We learn, for example, that Manifesta was originally an initiative of the Dutch government to found a new European biennial that would address political changes and devote itself exclusively to young artists. Thus, Manifesta was also intended as a successor event to the Paris Biennale, which was called into being in 1959 by André Malraux, who was at the time the French Minister of Culture, and was reserved for artists under the age of 35. Unlike the biennial in Paris, Manifesta was meant to travel and to take place in cities with a “specific dynamic.” In the mid-80s, the French artist Robert Filiou already had the idea for a biennial that would tour Europe, which actually found an outlet in Hamburg as the Art of Peace Biennial, but which unfortunately could not be continued because of his death. This and much else can be learned from Manifesta Decade, a carefully researched publication that is also worth reading because of its ambitious, discursive spirit of contradiction.

Translated by Elizabeth Tucker