It reeks of shit. A stairway at the art complex Löwenbräukunst dead-ends where a fan on the floor emits a scent akin to the smell of a portable toilet on a hot day. A bottle of air freshener sits atop it but, as far as I can tell, no one has used it. ‘Mild odour emissions are part of the artistic concept and are harmless,’ assures a sign taped to a closed door. Inside the room from which the foul smell emanates is Mike Bouchet’s The Zurich Load (2016), the artist’s joint venture with Philipp Sigg, process engineer at Zurich’s Werdhölzli Wastewater Treatment Plant: 80,000 kilos of human waste displayed in blocks on the floor as minimalist sculpture. Bouchet’s collaboration is one of 30 projects commissioned by Christian Jankowski for Manifesta 11 (‘What People Do for Money’), for which he paired artists with Zurich professionals. The other half of Bouchet’s joint venture, at the treatment plant, is only accessible on selected days. This disconnect is symptomatic of Manifesta as a whole, which always promises that the ‘real’ manifestation is to be found somewhere else. While the artist-worker collaborations may have indeed yielded fruitful relationships, they largely fail to be translated to viewers of the exhibition itself.
Going into Manifesta, I tried to see this artist-curated show as a conceptual work by Jankowski, which seemed like a promising prospect. After all, the artist has often produced poignant pieces by teaming up with ‘guest workers’, from weightlifters to preachers. But, here, his concept feels diluted – most glaringly by an entire parallel show, ‘The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction’, which is installed on a scaffolding structure that weaves through the two main venues. This extraneous visual sidebar clutters works from the last 50 years, hung on metal bars, salon-style, into ill-defined categories such as ‘Portraits of Professions’, ‘Professions in the Art World’ and ‘Art as a Second Profession’. The literal support structure feels like an apologetic metaphorical ‘support’ for the new commissions on view alongside it. Portraits by August Sander hang in a half-lit entryway to Jon Rafman’s multi-channel video installation. The set-up creates constant competition for attention between the joint ventures and the parallel works. Are they meant to be footnotes or are they integral to the show? Why not give them equal billing with the new commissions or, alternatively, let them remain as implicit references? The distracting solution offered here does no favours either to the artists in the show ‘proper’ or in the ‘survey’.
Nevertheless, some of the joint ventures in the main venues stand above the fray. Torbjørn Rødland’s pictures of broken teeth and open-mouthed patients in Dr. Danielle Heller Fontana’s dental practice (Intra- & Extraoral, 2015–16) are visceral and voyeuristic, evoking the discomfort and vulnerability of a dental procedure. At the Helmhaus, Leigh Ledare’s collaboration with psychotherapist Christoph Müller (The Here and the Now [Zurich 1:1], 2016) is set up by a strong sequence of works about surveillance and voyeurism by Sophie Calle and Jill Magid, among others. On their heels, Ledare’s videos of group therapy sessions he initiated with a cross-section of Zurich citizens also renders the artist both observer and observed. Refreshingly, his work reveals the conspicuous friction with its participants – Ledare’s notes, also on display, suggest they even talked about a ‘strike’ or ‘insurgency’ – as well as the artist’s own ambivalence about his methods and motivations. Ledare’s joint venture makes room for acknowledging the problematic efficacy of collaborative artistic projects – questioning not only his own work but Manifesta’s curatorial premise as a whole, which, in turn, made me reflect on my role as a viewer.
In the two main venues, each manifestation of a new commission is framed as a stand-in for the collaboration itself, as if these are suggestions of something better out there, in the city. The prospect of visiting the satellites – whether a fire station, dog salon or hotel in the red-light district – seems to promise an ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ experience of the artwork, which in my experience often remained unfulfilled. Some satellites disavowed any knowledge of the project whatsoever; others seemed bemused. Slinking sheepishly into the swanky bar at the Park Hyatt, where Franz Erhard Walther enlisted hotel staff to wear the Halbierte Westen (Half Vests, 2016) he designed with textile producer Thomas Deutschenbaur, I watched as one of the bartenders handed the hideous orange garment to a colleague who’d just shown up for his shift: he held it out as if it were contagious and said: ‘It’s your turn today.’ In this case, ‘What People Do For Money’ required them to wear another utilitarian uniform on top of their existing one – one that just signals more glaringly their status as ‘workers’.
Looking for Jennifer Tee’s collaboration with undertaker Rolf Steinmann (Ether Plane / Material Plane, 2016), I wandered among strangers’ graves in a massive cemetery, afraid I might bump into actual mourners and be forced to ask where the art exhibition was. As it turns out, Tee had installed her sculptures on the walls of the funeral house’s cramped viewing rooms, where loved ones would say their final goodbyes. Here, her thin, twee, self-described ‘ethnographic’ sculptures hang above empty vaults where open (or closed) coffins would normally lie – a juxtaposition that feels woefully out of place. (A low point was seeing the artist’s own catalogue conspicuously placed on the bench outside.) From the cemetery, I set out in search of Is Michel Houellebecq OK? (2016), the French author’s joint venture with Dr. Henry Perschak, whom he asked to perform a thorough series of tests and scans at the Hirslanden Klinik. What I thought would be the clinical hallway of a lab turned out to be the waiting room of a hospital where families were visiting patients with flowers, or pacing anxiously. Picking up an A4 sheet of Houellebecq’s blood test, from a stack unceremoniously placed next to the reception desk, I felt like an intruder. Tee’s and Houellebecq’s installations don’t fail because they take on grim subject matter but because they are tone-deaf to the contexts in which they do so. Ultimately, these projects reveal more about the artists than the workers they engaged with – ironically exposing those artists’ own lack of self-awareness.
My cringe-worthy visits to the graveyard and hospital contributed to the feeling that these joint ventures were a failed attempt at that old-school biennial aspiration to create a ‘dialogue’ with some vague notion of ‘the city’. But, in almost every instance, I felt more like an observer than a participant. Consequently, the most successful pieces were those that, in Jankowski’s footsteps, infiltrated existing media and could be accidentally or passively received: Pablo Helguera’s project with a weekly newspaper, for instance, or Fermín Jiménez Landa’s intervention into local TV weather forecasts. Or, most notably, the short newscasts Jankowski commissioned – screened at Manifesta’s temporary Pavilion of Reflections – in which teenagers act as ‘art investigators’, tracing the course of the collaboration and even-handedly interrogating both parties to the joint ventures. It is here that true curiosity is most avidly on display.
Ultimately, none of Manifesta 11’s projects felt as powerful, radical or confrontational about the themes of art and labour as some of the historical precedents relegated to the sidebar survey show: like Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Works (1969–80), for which – among other tasks – she scrubbed the stairs of the interior and exterior of a museum on her hands and knees. Or Chris Burden’s Full Financial Disclosure (1977), in which he bought television advertising time to disclose his net annual profit of US$1,054 (GB£765) as an artist. Or, indeed, (though not included in the show) Jankowski’s own Telemistica (1999), where he asked television psychics for help devising a concept for an exhibition. These pieces laid the groundwork for Jankowski’s hopeful concept, but the works in Manifesta didn’t deliver.
First published in Issue 181