Maja and Reuben Fowkes:
Manifesta Reaches New Heights
Under the auspicious motto ‘It’s happening’, Manifesta 7 boldly opened to the public this July in the mountainous Italian regions of Trentino and South Tyrol. This most diffuse edition of the European biennial takes place in four locations that are more than 100 km apart, and situated along a historic route connecting the Roman and Germanic worlds.
Highest up the Alps lies Fortezza, a colossal Habsburg fortification and the only place where all the Manifesta curators undertook a joint venture. The other three venues were awarded to individual curatorial teams, Bolzano went to the Raqs Media Collective, Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg got Trento and Adam Budak was stationed in Rovereto, together they invited more than 180 artists to participate.
The large number of curators, artists and venues might speak about the ambition to reconnect with the previous series of successful Manifesta shows and at the same time overshadow the last minute cancellation of Manifesta 6 in Cyprus two years ago.
The experimental aspect of Manifesta was most strongly felt in Fortezza, where the curators decided to make a show virtually without artists. The exhibition, entitled ‘Scenarios’, is based on ten interdisciplinary texts by various authors, including Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar and Dutch theorist Saskia Sassen, which are presented at ‘listening stations’ via loudspeakers, earphones, and wooden disks.
In this dematerialised exhibition our attention is drawn to the picturesque architecture and spectacular setting of the fortress in a mountain gorge above a fast flowing river. The recorded scenarios on the other hand, partly inaudible, remain almost immaterial, and as one visitor commented, the most interesting sounds in the show are made by the rushing water and the wind. One of the barracks of the fortress is given over to a cinema, in which the curators in a clever reversal chose to screen five silent films. According to their guidance, the idea was to consider ‘what we hear when we are not forced to see, and what we see when we are not forced to listen.’
In the industrial zone of Bolzano the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective curated the show ‘The Rest of Now’. They set out to explore the meaning of time, the modernist obsession with speed, and the present-day wish to slow down, along with issues of memory and amnesia, by further developing their concept of residue, as what is left behind when everything has been removed. Taking as their starting point a nineteenth century botanist’s study of the Flora of the Colosseum, which catalogued the biodiversity of the Roman amphitheatre, the Raqs Media Collective aim to do something similar for a disused aluminium factory.
The Ethics of Dust by Spanish architect Jorge Otero-Pailos, who took casts of layers of dust dating back to the Mussolini years from the factory window sills, draws attention the erasure of history when sites are cleaned and restored, as well as pointing to preservation as a counter-cultural practice. A similarly site-specific approach was taken by Norwegian artists Reinhhard Kropf and Siv Helene Stangeland, who in their perforated wall piece, The Naked Garden, follow the fungi that flourish on the walls of the factory, drilling holes to provide them with light and water to preserve their habitat.
Other works in the show capture residues in different geographical and conceptual contexts. The film Secure Paradise by Argentine artist Judi Werthein gives us an insight into the world of a closed German colony in Chile, highlighting their obsession with cleanliness and strong work ethic. One of the most provocative installations, Sudor y Miedo by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, can be experienced only after entering an empty room and learning from a label on a distant wall that the space has been humidified by water brought from a morgue in Mexico City where it was used to wash corpses prior to autopsy. Although many of the works deal with the past, ‘the Rest of Now’ is the exhibition the most oriented towards the future, and is infused with a sense of freedom and liveliness.
The exhibition with the apparently simple title ‘The Soul’ and theatrical alternative ‘Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls’, is curated by Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg in an empty post office building in Trento. Heavily indebted to modernism and the wish to revitalise the white cube, the exhibition struggles to rise above the site-specificity of the countless small office rooms that make up the Palazzo delle Poste. Taking the sixteenth-century Council of Trent that launched the Counter Reformation with a reinvigorated doctrine of confession to include the innermost thoughts of the individual as the basis of their exhibition, the curators chose to remain on the level of metaphor and metaphysics, rather than investigating this historic event as a possible precursor of today’s intrusive biopolitics.
The only work explicitly dealing with the biopolitical dimension of the soul is the Museum of European Normality by Maria Thereza Alves, Jimmie Durham and anthropologist Michael Taussig. The work includes a ‘non-visitor’s book’ with the bare statistics of anonymous asylum seekers who drowned trying to reach Italy and draws attention to those excluded from the European ideal.
More typical of the exhibition is Joachim Koester’s Tarantism, a black and white video installation that refers to the medieval ‘dancing cure’ for the delirium-inducing tarantula bite and depicts frenzied dancing as an exploration of the secrets of the body and Ria Pacquée’s film Entre Nous Quelque Chose Se Passe, which shows Europeans practising Eastern breathing and exercise techniques in parks, setting up a rhythmic communication between kindred spirits.
Finally, the exhibition in Rovereto is divided between two more industrial venues, a former cocoa factory and a tobacco factory. Adam Budak’s section of Manifesta is entitled ‘Principle Hope’, and is founded on a capricious range of theoretical references from Ernst Bloch’s ‘principle of hope’ to Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism. In the spacious Manifattura Tabacchi the works follow the logic of this broadly conceived exhibition, in which space was found for the electro-thermal bubbling of pots and pans, designed to place everyday objects within a post-industrial aesthetic; enormous black balloons hovering in the courtyard, apparently to announce the decline of modernist utopias; to the revisiting of the local legacy of Futurism, by making paper masks and sculptures in poor materials.
One of the most attractive works is Guido van der Werve’s film Nummer Acht. Everything is Going to be Alright, in which the fragility of hope is suggested through the magnetic image of the artist walking a few steps ahead of an icebreaker on the frozen sea off Finland. The other venue, Ex-Peterlini, is the place where Hungarian participants Miklós Erhardt and Little Warsaw show their video work La Nave dei Folli in rather thankless conditions, as their soundtrack is drowned out by another film. Their well-produced contribution is based on a story from the recent history of the building itself, which prior to restoration was squatted by local anarchists. The artists registered their accounts, and in order to avoid turning their acts of resistance into a spectacle, transferred and restaged it with Hungarian artist activists. Another interestingly corresponding work is Claire Fontaine’s neon We are with you in the Night, which repeats the graffiti from the 1970s expressing solidarity with Italian political prisoners, although the label underneath prefers to interpret the sentence as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘uncertain’.
To some extent it seems that Manifesta 7 aspires to flourish on ambiguity, manifold readings, and the realm of the post-political, taking modernism and regionally-specific Futurism as constant reference points, rather than confronting the critical state of this region or Europe today. One wonders whether this is because the over-politicised ambitions of Manifesta 6 had such disastrous results, or if the general line of this Manifesta is just following wider trends.