Alise Tīfentāle
  "Strange morning and strange evening,

strange my ties with Jesus."

Jānis Steiks, Latvian poet and priest (1855-1932)

A few hours after sunset, the opening night of the European biennial of contemporary art Manifesta 5 began in a San Sebastian club right on the shore of the Bay of Biscay. Invited were all the participating artists, their partners, journalists and all the other people that usually get invited to these occasions. Everything was normal. Sitting on the beach there is a good view of the illuminated statute of Jesus at the top of the hill - beautiful. Suddenly it begins to flicker. People are guessing that there is a fault with the electricity or that perhaps here, this is an accepted effect to draw attention to Christianity at night too and so on. After a while the power has been fixed. The next day I find out that it was actually a work from Manifesta 5 - the German artist resident in Austria, Leopold Kessler's (b.1976) intervention in the city space "Blinking Jesus". At several times in the night, the illumination of Jesus flickers transmitting in Morse the words "don't be afraid". Accepting without objection that there cannot be a work of contemporary art that can be adequately read without commentary, it was clear to me that it's worth it. This one work is satisfaction, an undeserved prize and pleasure. Just like the "dancing lessons given by God himself", as Vonnegut would put it.

Northern art import in the shadow of palm trees

The European contemporary art biennial Manifesta 5 takes place in San Sebastian, Spain from 11 June to 30 September. It is a project of the Amsterdam based International Foundation of Manifesta. Every year the biennial is held in a different European city (Rotterdam‑- 1996, Luxembourg - 1998, Ljubljana - 2000, Frankfurt - 2002) in accordance with the principles of the theory on the nomadic lifestyles of the "new" Europe open to co-operation and interaction. Initially Manifesta was intended to be a wide-ranging project that would be able to showcase young and as yet unseen artists as an alternative to traditional and often, highly politicised events such as the Venice Biennale and documenta. However, as is often the case, in reality the concepts are more different than the results. Nevertheless Manifesta 5 is an important event for two reasons - a strategically selected venue and at least one genuinely delightful work of art. And that is no mean feat. I'd even say that it's a triumph.

The Manifesta 5 curators are Marta Kuzma and Massimiliano Gioni. Kuzma is an independent curator; she has managed the international exhibitions programme at the International Centre of Photography in New York. From 1991 to 1999 she was the artistic director of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in the Ukraine, but currently she is a lecturer at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Gioni is the artistic director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan. In 2003 he curated The Zone, the exposition of the young generation of Italian artists at the Venice Biennale. As well as writing for Flash Art, Parkett and Carnet, he is also one of the directors of the non-commercial Wrong Gallery in New York.

In the explanatory texts the Manifesta 5 curators speak of the dimensions of the European space, on aspects of the interpretation of the same geographical points, on the multifaceted character of the San Sebastian environment (a seaside resort and tourism centre with poor and dangerous districts next door), on the complex anatomy of Basque autonomy in the cultural context and so on. To make the viewers' life more easy, the curators have provided a list of "key words" including such phrases as political rumour, cultural landscape, spiritual noises, instructions for landscape use, city folded over onto itself, bipolar city, power of identity, Potyomkin village, the staged matrix etc. The works are located in various parts of San Sebastian including both the city's museums and the modern exhibition centre as well as an abandoned factory and a ship repair yard but that goes without saying. There is much evidence that the curators wanted to confront the global, intellectual, socially critical, elite and the progressive (contemporary art) with the local, obscurantist, aggressive, traditional and intuitive (small town in a particularly undeveloped corner of southern Europe). It doesn't matter if most of the works in the biennial were produced in the last four years in completely different cities and for completely different purposes. In a few words I will try to comment on the role of San Sebastian as the background for the contemporary art biennial. San Sebastian is predominantly a monument to traditional culture - a picturesque, romantic seaside resort on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, where nothing special has to be done to captivate the most cynical visitor. The palm trees, architecture, climate and even more magical factors have an immediate effect. Moreover, San Sebastian is not a Spanish city. It is in the legendary land of the Basques and they are proud of their ancient language, history, traditions, cuisine and so forth. The Basque language does not resemble Spanish in any way or indeed any other European language. The Basques themselves call San Sebastian "Donostia". The Basque country was for a time considered to be a particularly backward region of Spain that is slowly waking from its sleep of poverty thanks also to cultural activities (for example, the Guggenheim Museum in the regional capital Bilbao). However, we also know about the Basque separatists and their idealistic struggle to establish their own ethnic state, which does not square with current thinking on "a united Europe without frontiers". In any case, we can admire the art biennial organisers in selecting for a relatively elitist event, such brilliant surroundings, which are not without their complex socially, economically and politically problematic situations. And we can also wonder at how easily contemporary art loses out to the colourfulness of the surroundings. Although the idea was to "interact", "co-operate", "find common ground" and such like, the works on show in various parts of San Sebastian-Donostia most often looked like foreign bodies that would soon disappear without trace. Those same works would look convincing in, for example, the sterile light and conditioned air of the Kiasma museum, but not in a city where indoors is hopelessly mixed with outdoors; the streets are overflowing living rooms where the locals spend most of the day eating, enjoying wine and in conversation. This does not mean that contemporary art can only exist in the metropolis. In the case of Manifesta 5 art lost to local charm mainly because of the import of ready made works, produced in a completely different place. (As is usual in projects of this scale, there were very few site-specific works.) There was another anecdotal assumption: it is no secret that most contemporary art is produced in northern and central Europe and not in the south. The artificial attempt by Manifesta 5 to inject the northern habit of sublimating their passions and suffering into art is a failure. It fails because after a hearty lunch and lengthy siesta, aesthetic and spiritual satisfaction may also be found in a beach landscape. And it will cross no one's mind to suffer, let alone conceptualise this suffering in a video loop or photo series.

A woman-bird, rabbit in trousers and some brown paintings

The second revelation after "Blinking Jesus" was "Gast", a 2004 video work by Berlin artist John Bock (b. 1965). At first I was almost overcome with indignation but towards the end (the video is 11 min. long), I understood that of all the videos in this year's Manifesta, this was the most enjoyable. Sufficiently ironic in content, sufficiently naïve and for art unusually kind in terms of form - such an organic collection of properties is rare not only for video but for art in general. I would give this video the sub-title of "Trap for a Fat Rabbit". The inquisitive camera follows a well-fed rabbit moving around an apartment and records how the rabbit copes with various tasks - to eat some greens tied to the owner's slipper, to crawl through his trousers, to gnaw a carrot in order to release a tie for some cream to pour out nearby and so on. The joy of the innocent rabbit for life and food, filmed with childlike interest was something fresh on the background of traditional and predictable videos. It was made perverse only by the fact that we were expected to read into it not only a layer of wonderfully joyful meaninglessness, but also the story of Joseph Beuys' attempts to explain art to a dead rabbit.

The young Estonian artist Kūlli Kaats (b. 1975) videoaudio installation "Avifauna" (2004) may also have artistic merit. Viewers are attacked from several monitors by the calls of various Estonian birds reproduced by the artist herself. I have to admit that for a few moments, this cacophony of absurd and inhuman sounds achieves a hysterical and even monstrous impression. And although the work is physically unpalatable, it could nevertheless be called good art. At last, no politics, only an interest in living nature. Neither is this project a whim of the artist. Her artworks and musical compositions have been related to research into bird voice and behaviour since 2000.

Currently popular so-called model art was also represented on various scales with different commentaries and, of course, there were several respectable installations that complied with classical notions of the genre. The most outstanding example was "Kursaal Project" by the young Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga (b. 1976). This was one of the few works created on the spot. In the exhibition hall the artist had erected a huge cardboard model of a building that he slashed before the opening in order to obtain the convincing cardboard ruins of a castle. The equally young Belgian artist Jan de Cock's (b. 1976) example of right-angled and rectangular plywood art "Denkmal 2" almost filled the entire ship repair workshop leaving room only for the viewers, local security guards and their dog to get around it. Vangelis Vlahos (b. 1971) applied political pathos to the preparation of his model thus creating images of skyscrapers erected and destroyed by various regimes, including the buildings that suffered in Sarajevo. Misha Stroj (b. 1974), a Slovenian artist living in Vienna, created an impressive installation "Sorry, There's No Secret", which had the appearance of an unsuccessful model of a children's playground constructed from old authentic parts with new, absurd additions.

It was good to see some examples of "pure" painting too, although there could be further discussion on their quality. A separate room had been set aside for the moderately sized paintings by Michaël Borremans (b. 1963) in which we can see apparently figural realism and at the same time something terrible, mystical and dreamt of. It is possible that this effect comes from the brownish grey, somewhat antique and romantic range of colours. In every sense, this painting appeared serious and convincing although I did find myself admiring the space as a whole - the small brown paintings, strategically precisely arranged on the walls of the large white room had a calming effect, like meditational reference points for one's view. And this might very well be the role of painting in contemporary culture. Johannes Kahrs (b. 1965) from Berlin occupies the visible space with the help of drawings as well as paintings and video. In his two-dimensional paintings he tries to capture the fourth, time, by working on the depiction of movement.

I'm interested most in photography, but in Manifesta 5 it was only included as a token gesture. Moscow artist Sergei Bratkov (b. 1960) exhibited works that had already been seen somewhere including socially critical series "Children". Children of a quite innocent age were dressed and placed in archetypal flesh for sale poses. The Belgian Geert Goiris (b. 1971) had created a series of boring high quality colour landscape photos that would be at home in National Geographic magazine. And there were some other works that had obviously been produced without inspiration or sense of mission.

A festival of documentary film and newsreels

In the cultural life of Western Europe, San Sebastian has, until now, been mainly associated with the film festival. Paradoxically it now turns out that a contemporary art exhibition has become a show of documentary cinema. This is not because there were a proportionately large number of video works as could be expected from the way the biennial was positioned, but because they would be most suitable for a documentary shorts competition.

The social criticism aspect in documentary films is easy to find. It only remains to select a location that has been seen suitably often in TV news reports, a primitive subject to be criticised that can be perceived in an instant and most of the work has been done. You don't have to solve some general problem of the human soul and the documentary character guarantees an emotional response. A typical example of the genre was British artist Gillian Wearing's (b.1963) video "Tedi" (2003). The film features a small Albanian boy who, like a real Soviet type young pioneer, introduces us to the capital Tirana's monuments and symbols diligently repeating the phrases learnt by heart. Using children for artistic aims could be moving but not in such a manipulative and cheap way. Exactly the same goes for the theme of "Arabs", which was the subject of several short documentaries and works in other genres. The softest of these was "Route 181" (2003), a film about the artificial Israeli-Palestinian border by artists with a direct interest - Eyal Sivan (b. 1964 in Israel, now living in France) and Michel Khleifi (b. 1950 in Palestine, now lives in Belgium).

Somewhat less political was the video installation by Basque artist Inaki Garmendia (b. 1972). "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" (2004). The artist used two cameras to film the audience at some nondescript rock concert and the material was projected synchronically on two adjacent screens using authentic sound. An amazingly anarchic risky work even though anarchy, I think, has not been in vogue for at least ten years. Very similar visually and in content was British artist Mark Leckey's (b. 1964) video "Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore" from 1999. This work however, is a lively combination of frames from British television channels featuring nightclub life, typical of the 1990s. Here, with a certain degree of nostalgia, we can observe the seriousness with which party animals, searching for some anonymous happiness, go about fulfilling the nightlife rituals of the city. Of course it's no bad thing when "real life" becomes the centre of attention without being dramatised or aestheticised, but why does it have to be so simplified, literally and primitively? Sitting in the dark and watching yet another video, for a moment I felt the way secret agents in films probably feel. Under the light of a full moon and with a flickering torch, they go searching in graveyards, derelict buildings and other unsuitable places for evidence to back up their versions of events, while the audience already knows that the "truth is out there" and not where the agents are looking. I began to look for an emotional artistic experience where it shouldn't even be; documentary film is a completely different genre with a different mission despite being shown at an art exhibition.

Reverence for the classics

Not only young artists are on show at Manifesta 5 as you might expect. Discreetly placed among them is the odd classic and old master - if we can say that of contemporary artists - so that we may better understand the ties with the origins, just like quoting the Old Testament when speaking about the New Testament. In some cases the "old" turned out to be still more powerful than the "new". An example is the 1971 video "I'm Too Sad To Tell You" by Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader (b. 1942 in The Netherlands, disappeared in 1975). This three-minute work, where he is quite credibly suffering so much that he cannot say anything, explains wonderfully why these days, there are so many videos that are "all the same" but without the feeling that you're seeing something for the first time. Take, for example,"Le Luneux", a 2003 work by Andrea Faciu (b. 1977), a Romanian artist living in Germany. Here we have a woman's lips in close-up singing a song that can be heard in the background although the commentary tells that we should be paying attention to the song's strangely sadistic text. Visually at least, this was a purely formal exercise, just like an etude for a budding actor and these the public does not normally see. Perhaps that's exactly what the curators wanted to demonstrate - how little effort and imagination is required to be successful in contemporary art.

Ukrainian artist Oksana Pasaiko (b. 1969, lives in Berlin) has quoted "Please Don't Leave Me", a work by the previously mentioned artist Bas Jan Ader. These movingly banal, yet existential words were written on a wall and lit up using bare, traditional light bulbs. Had this not been a quote, it would have been one of my Manifesta 5 favourites.

Among the classics we must include Boris Mikhailov, born in Kiev in 1938 and who now lives in Berlin. He achieved international fame by documenting the grotesque Soviet reality in black and white photography. On show at Manifesta 5 were his photo series from the 1970s and 80s. St. Petersburg artist Yevgeniy Yufit (b. 1961), the father of Necrorealism in the 90s, may also be considered to be a classic. His hour long surreally gloomy film "Killed by Lightning" (2002), which deals with the meaning of life, was shown on a giant screen in a church, in the dark with the audience's backs to the altar. Italian artist Paola Pivi (b. 1971) is also a familiar name. Her best-known works are a heavy truck turned on its side and an airplane lying on its back. In Manifesta 5 though, there is the comparatively gentle and feminine work "E" from 2001. This is an interactive sculpture fitted with a complex system of sensors that raise and lower fine metal needles as the viewer approaches or retreats.

Asides: the new emigration and the cult of the curator

Looking through the biographies of the artists invited by Manifesta 5, I discovered that a good number of them represent not only the younger generation but also the global community of cosmopolitans. These are people who moved to live where, according to them, "it's all happening". There they have received or continued their education in art and in an international environment they have adapted and tuned their personality to what one might call an average common European style. This isn't a bad thing because everyone understands each other; just like the so-called English language of the Europeans, which has little to do with the real English spoken in Britain, either phonetically or semantically. I'm not saying that all the "new European" artists have lost their personality but you can't deny the fact that they have learned the formal, superficial language that everyone understands and which is dominant in Manifesta 5 as well as other projects. At the moment this is an ongoing process and the consequences are impossible to judge, for now we can only observe the signs. The artists' biographies show that you can be born in Haifa, Nazareth, Helsinki, Munich, Madrid, Kiev, La Coruna, Kharkov, Offenbach, Lima or elsewhere but you can become a rising or already glittering star in Berlin, London, Paris, Amsterdam or Rotterdam. This is a serious topic of research for sociologists but I have certain doubts about the truth of these modern phrases - all Europe as a single entity, openness and the tearing down of frontiers, the collapse of the relationship between centre and periphery and so on and so forth. Although, for example, the artists participating in Manifesta 5 apparently represent almost all the regions of Europe, theoretically this exhibition could have been put together by spending a weekend in each of the traditional metropolises and just looking around.

- Oh, look! That's Bonami! - says an art critic nudging me with her elbow, as we stand in the square by the San Sebastian City Museum where the Manifesta 5 press centre is.

Yes and? This cult of the curator is quite self-serving and that's exactly why the large, prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art turn out to be very similar, although on a theoretical level, they have proposed different objectives. This has also been noticed by some of "them".

"The biggest problem is that at these biennials, we see one and the same works. Biennial curators visit other biennials and select the same artists for their own. It's not the artists' but the curators' problem that their choices are so uniform," honestly admits Ute Meta Bauer, co-curator of documenta 11 (2002) and curator of the 3rd Berlin Biennial (2004) (Diena, 19.06.2004).

And that is why in the end, Manifesta 5 did not start a dialogue with its surroundings but remained in the position of an alienated installation. In San Sebastian the local culture - rich, interesting, traditional and at the same time modern if, after all, it still survives‑- remains as a harmless, uninvolved background even though it was specifically chosen by the curators. Although some works were in close interaction with the city environment, the biennial consisted mainly of what could be seen in the exhibition halls, and that's where it stayed - safe and sound. Let the locals carry on singing their folk songs at the annual fair, we're going to lock ourselves away and use foreign words in our conversation. And microbiologists or quantum mechanics theoreticians would probably do just the same at their conferences.
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