Pablo Larios The title of this year’s Manifesta, curated by artist Christian Jankowski, promised a theme that was concise, transparent and topical – a question seemingly everyone could relate to: ‘What People Do For Money’. But by that same standard of popular appeal, I’ve spoken to no one who found the exhibition successful. Where did it go wrong?
Jörg Heiser It may have gone wrong halfway through preparation. The initial idea – to ask artists to chose a partner in the city of Zurich based on a list of 1000 different professions – was as you say, concise and topical, and based on Jankowski’s prior artistic work. For example in 2008 he made the brilliant project Dienstbesprechung (Staff Meeting) at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, which involved asking the entire staff to swap roles for the duration of the project – the house technician suddenly became the head curator and so on. At one point it even involved a staff survey asking whether they would be willing to also swap their respective income for the period. Though the idea was turned down it was brought up in an interesting and even edgy way, questioning how professions and money relate across usual social divides.
PL Social divides could have been productively bridged, or further distanced, by Jankowski’s proposed ‘joint venture’ between artists and non-artists. Instead we saw a series of missed opportunities for meaningful comment. Zurich is a mind-bogglingly rich city with conspicuous social divides – though where finance and art literally stand in close proximity. At the Löwenbräu complex, Torbjørn Rødland’s photographs were sold at a commercial gallery just across the hall from their presentation at the Manifesta exhibition. This city could have been the ideal setting to address proximity or divisions between industries. Jankowski says in his curatorial statement that the ‘investment banker has … become a paradigmatic profession for our era’: an intriguing point, but one he hardly refines within the exhibition.
JH Not so, sadly. There are two factors upon which Jankowski presumably had little or no influence that prevented artists from truly engaging such underlying structures. First, Manifesta’s definition as a travelling biennial has increasingly fallen short of its self-declared task to critically reflect upon a transitional post-1989 Europe while creating a sense of transnational development and unity – after the previous St. Petersburg instalment little of that initial impulse had been left. Secondly, as you’ve pointed out Zurich is one of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in the world. In such a place it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to challenge the unspoken rules connected to affluence, class, and national identity unless you chose an openly confrontational course. Jankowski has a lot of experience in charming and twisting his way into an institutional framework to get a productive work out of it, but being up against both the tired bureaucracy of Manifesta and the efficient stubbornness of Zurich was perhaps too much.
PL Nevertheless the question ‘What People Do For Money’, when posed intelligently, could open up questions about creative labour and the freelance economy, not to mention precarity and migration. These are key issues: today, art has a fraught relationship to its publics and often finds itself caught between populist exhibition-making and insular, professionalized and inward-looking ‘art publics’. (Telling are Pablo Helguera’s funny-ish New Yorker-style cartoons comprised of art world in-jokes, which spoke only to the educated and privileged viewer.) Further to art and professionalization, we’re witnessing the rise of the mediagenic artist: careerist, articulate and highly ‘employable’ within a project economy of exhibitions such as this. And finally, our neoliberal age promises to make us all ‘artists’ but chains us to constant streams of self-expression and customized filter bubbles. What a great wealth of themes! But were any of these addressed? Hardly. Instead, the texts introducing each exhibition section posed platitudes such as ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and ‘Jobs can be decisive in shaping our identities’– bromides that turn a well-meaning, potentially topical exhibition concept into a watered-down, feel-good and ultimately harmful exercise at polite ecumenicalism: everyone is special, to each his own task. In this context, these were the messages of the August Sander photographs in the exhibition’s unimaginative, cramped ‘historical’ section. The more divisive Jankowski intriguingly wrote in his statement that he saw himself as a ‘guest worker’ – but were such underlying political realities ever exposed?
JH One of the more glaring examples of things going wrong is Documentary of Behavioural Currencies (2016) by Georgia Sagri, who interacted with Josephin Varnholt, a banker at private Swiss bank Julius Bär. They set up a kind of cute favela veranda at Löwenbräuhaus that was mirrored by an identical structure at the bank, to which one was only given access on a very limited basis. Inside the small veranda-like structure, a 10-minute video documented the artist’s efforts to communicate non-verbally with Varnholt by splitting open a book or busting a dance move. Sagri’s work felt belittling vis-à-vis the reality of the financial industry in the wake of tax evasion scandals such as the Panama papers. Not that the answer would’ve been to interrogate Varnholt about the dealings of the bank, which probably would’ve been to no avail. But instead, presenting this choreography of ‘poetic’ interactions turned the work into an uninteresting encounter between ‘individuals’ as if the professions were actually just arbitrary and their task was to deflect from what they are really about.
PL Throughout the exhibition, and true to Jankowski’s art more generally, there were attempts to consider whether communication across disciplines, contexts and occupations is even possible when people are motivated by varying interests. At times this was too literal and spoke down to the viewer, such as when Ceal Floyer’s work Romance (2016) set up booths for the simultaneous translation of an English text into German and Italian. Snooze. I preferred Leigh Ledare’s work in which he collaborated with a therapist to create group psychology sessions comprising 21 Zurich citizens of different backgrounds, ages and occupations. This set up a fruitful documentation of communicative misfire – showing precisely how people do not or do not want to communicate when asked to do so – while also attempting to reckon with the demography of Zurich.
JH Although Ledare’s work was also one of the numerous examples where the split between main venue and ‘satellite’ in the city made the latter seem like a mere superfluous leftover. I spent 40 minutes back and forth on the tram to find a soundless monitor in an art school cafeteria – a half-assed version of his ‘actual’ project at Helmhaus, one of the two main venues.
PL Teresa Margolles’s project with a transgender escort and masseuse Poker de Damas (2016), was a work of moving, rare impact in the exhibition: a wall ripped open by Margolles’s collaborator, Sonja Victoria Vera Bohorquez, and a video in which a group of sex workers speak about their friends’ lives, including a violent murder and imprisonment. For me, this was a moment of solid value in an exhibition that was too often filled with flippant schtick and cartoonish gimmicks.
JH Other than Margolles’s work, which I agree was very moving and powerful, my favourite piece was the most aggressively sculptural – Mike Bouchet’s The Zurich Load (2016). The work consists of the entire city’s defecatory output on 24 March 2016 as received by the local sewage treatment plant, dried and cut into 80 tonnes of minimalist blocks. Presented on the top floor of Migros Museum, the stench of ammonia wasn’t bearable for more than a few minutes. Bouchet not only gave the city an unwanted present of its own making but also engaged its entire population and very practically interacted with sewage professionals. And for once, transferring the result of such a professional interaction developed an undeniable presence (hats off to Migros staff for suffering through the ordeal), rather than remaining a mere ‘representation’ of something that had taken place elsewhere.
PL The old equation of gold and shit still takes the cake.
First published in Issue 25