Each generation has its formative exhibition. For mine, it was Manifesta 2, held in Luxembourg in 1998. In June that year, I crammed into a car with friends to drive to the opening, taking highways that stretch from Hannover to Paris. We missed an exit at the Belgian border and got lost on country roads before a valley finally opened up, leading us to the small nation and city of Luxembourg.
Manifesta had launched in Rotterdam two years earlier, and we were curious to learn what this new ‘European Biennial’ was about. It seemed preferable to joining the queue at the portals connecting US and German artistic canons – which, frankly, didn’t seem worth the wait. Why listen in on deals being brokered on the red telephone between New York and Cologne? The Iron Curtain had lifted, revealing a messy patchwork of neighbouring states: a recently renamed ‘undivided Europe’. So, it felt timely to hitch a ride to an opening where my own harsh consonants were just one tone among many.
Botevgrad, Bratislava, Bucharest, Helsinki, Liepa-ja, Sarajevo, Tallinn, Vilnius, Warsaw: artists from these cities in the show – including Boris Ondreicka, Tanja Ostojić, Dan Perjovschi and Gitte Villesen – shared a commitment to what could be characterized as improvised translation. As if they were saying: ‘I can’t assume you know the place I’m from, so what story, joke, poetic sentiment, performance or video could fill you in?’ This lack of protocol rhymed with a sense that, in 1989, history had shaken up stale narratives of ‘East’ and ‘West’. In this limbo, it was up to the present generation to forge something new. I remember participating artist Deimantas Narkevicius telling me at the time that Europe stood for that hope – an undefined variable for ‘whatever a better future may bring’.
The Berlin-based artist Jagna Anderson recently told me that, after living through martial law in socialist Poland between 1981 and ’83, the 1990s felt to her like a plot twist in a strange dream: a mouse runs from a cat for years, then it turns around and the cat is gone. This feeling was shared by many who experienced the future as untold. In that brief window, a spirit of sheer optimism manifested itself. Like a ghost, it was impossible to verify. But I swear I sensed its presence, too.
The pessimist rollback soon followed. When Manifesta 3 opened in Ljubljana in 2000, criticisms mounted against the travelling Eurobiennial. For some, it was the latest instance of the ‘festivalization’ of culture: municipalities blowing huge budgets on one-off megashows, leaving local institutions broke after the carnival moved on. Why the euphoria? Didn’t they know that the ‘European community’ was forged through exclusions? At Manifesta 3’s opening conference, speakers pointed out that the Balkans were a region in which Western empires played cruel games over who they deemed fit to join their ilk and who unfit – think Dracula, the Balkan menace.
Their critique was prognostic. Today ‘Europe’ may be little more than a populists’ projection screen for phantasms of Christian monoculture, and a construct for policing borders. These same populists have bogeyman Brussels to blame for liberal conceit or for keeping vampires from the door – whoever they decide they are.
It’s bad – like many in Ljubljana warned it would be. One message intoned at the Manifesta 3 press conference was: ‘You Eurohippies seek harmony and understanding? Down here we hate each other. Always did. Won’t change. Suck on that.’ I still want to retort: ‘How can you be so sure?’ Optimists are fools to believe in untold futures, while pessimists are territorial, sticking with the truth of the past. They hold their ground, unmoved, until proven right by history – which they often are. After all, it’s hard to prove that things could equally well have taken a different turn.
As if to probe crisis for potential, Manifesta thereafter kept sending its curators to places rife with simmering tensions: San Sebástian in the breakaway Basque region in 2004 or Bolzano in Südtirol, on the fault lines between Italy and Austria, in 2008. Manifesta 12, opening in Palermo next month, summons the history of the Mediterranean as a zone of cross-cultural influence. Distinctions between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East never made sense in Sicily, where travellers from all coasts united seeking trade, shelter or war. Cultural identities have forever been made and unmade on this volcanic island in which governments falter. Could an art exhibition unlock the historical potential of this place? It’s a tall order, but I honestly wish the artists and curators the best with this task. They’ll need it. Maybe we all will.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Ship of Fools.
First published in Issue 195