Ways of Seeing: Manifesta 11 and the 9th Berlin Biennale

Historical Exhibition, 2016, installation view, Löwenbräukunst, Zurich,. Manifesta 11: What People Do For Money. Photograph by A. Will Brown.

Historical Exhibition, 2016, installation view, Löwenbräukunst, Zurich,. Manifesta 11: What People Do For Money. Photograph by A. Will Brown.


June witnessed the opening of two important European biennials. Manifesta 11, curated by the artist Christian Jankowski and titled What People Do for Money, opened in Zurich on June 11; the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, curated by the DIS collective and titled The Present in Drag, opened in Berlin on June 6. These exhibitions propose to explore the present, yet employ profoundly different strategies and intentions to do so, starting with their titles. What People Do for Money implicates multiple actors and embraces an active, sprawling, questioning stance. The Present in Drag, by contrast, deliberately embodies a singular present, one whose glamourous surfaces produce a cloying yet somehow captivating field.


The Present in Drag is located throughout the city of Berlin, with presentations at the Akademie der Künste, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Kreuzberg bunker, the Reederei Riedel sightseeing boat, and the European School of Management and Technology. Despite its inclusion of a range of artists and venues, the common element of BB9 is the strategic employment of an inescapable gloss, a cold, advertorial luster that is reminiscent of the (largely digital) work of the show’s curators: Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro of DIS.


Cécile B. Evans’s What the Heart Wants (2016) is a good example of their approach. Her work is an expansive, cave-like installation housing rhythmic and mesmerizing explorations of human-machine interactions, for instance Phil, a digital rendering of Philip Seymour Hoffman trapped in the digital grid, like a ghost caught in a web of developer’s code, at once human and something other. One watches Phil, among the video’s other characters, from floor cushions on a darkened platform surrounded by shallow, still water, and among fellow visitors who take pictures and videos on smartphones. Endemic to the biennial, such passive and theatrical staging amounts to a commentary in parallel with the content of Evans’s work: it marks the “present” that the exhibition describes as one of unhindered, and perhaps psychologically unhinged, neoliberal capitalism. As post-Internet cultural consumers, we must simply watch.


The Present in Drag is most interesting when regarded, as DIS stipulates in the catalogue, as a body: a compilation of personality traits and limbs. They write: “Let’s give a body to the problems of the present where they occur so as to make them a matter of agency.” Yet this ambition—to make the “problems of the present” a “matter of agency”—runs counter to the relatively passive viewership the biennial allows.


Manifesta 11 presents a very different vision. Sited around Zurich, it includes thirty site-specific projects as well as group exhibitions in venues that include the Cabaret Voltaire, the famous home of the early twentieth-century Dada movement, and the Pavilion of Reflections, a wooden platform that floats on Lake Zurich. Across these sites, Jankowski and his curators explore the nature and politics of work and capital.


Two of the more traditional exhibition sites, the Löwenbräukunst and the Helmhaus, present a sub-exhibition titled Sites Under Construction that features both historic and contemporary artworks. Sites Under Construction uses a novel display mechanism: dark metal scaffolding that extends the artworks off the walls and into the space. Jankowski’s collage-like hanging system allows visitors to walk all the way around artworks to see wiring protruding from screens or the markings on the backs of photographs and paintings. One therefore engages with the work on view in a bodily way. More importantly, though, the display system subtly mirrors the theme of work and labor. Everything appears in process, flexible, physically present, navigable.


Manifesta 11 includes several such concisely focused sections, each of which approaches facets of the exhibition’s themes. Break Hour, at the Löwenbräukunst, reflects on notions of reprieve. Duane Hanson’s Lunchbreak (1989) dominates the room through its human scale and uncanny simulation: three well-muscled construction workers sit and stand amid a wood and steel scaffold while eating and smoking cigarettes. Across from Hanson’s sculpture are equally commanding photographs by Sharon Lockhart titled Lunch Break Installation, “Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life,” 14 December 2002–23 February 2003, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2003). Lockhart’s images depict Hanson’s work being installed by men who could easily be a part the lunching crew. Between these works the viewer is enmeshed in a moment of self-reflection; woven into the fabric of Manifesta 11 as a whole, such contrasts contribute to a rich intellectual and aesthetic texture missing from Berlin.


The satellite projects—partnerships between participating artists and Swiss professionals—also approach questions of life, work, and leisure. Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Muthoscapes, for example, located in the Bahnhofstrasse Tourist Center, asks viewers to consider how representations of landscape contribute to national identity. Çavuşoğlu commissioned an artist to paint a series of modest landscape paintings of the mythical Turkish island of Mu. As the Alps (on which the paintings are based) do for Switzerland, the lost land of Mu plays a key role in Turkey’s national identity. Hung in a museum-style display, the paintings appear among train schedules, maps, and souvenirs next to an information desk where confused tourists can make plans with the help of a Swiss guide.


The satellite projects benefit from their demand that viewers visit a real, functioning place in the city. Carefully placed, they force viewers to ask questions of their surroundings, to explore the streets of Zurich, and to consider the city’s inner workings.


These different modes of staging speak directly to the respective biennials’ themes. Manifesta 11 positions its viewer as a sort of exploratory laborer. BB9, by contrast, is directed at a consumer, who is offered a polished survey of (DIS’s version of) the present. One may merely like or dislike, buy or pass over, the vision presented.


The viewer is hardly asked to dispute the “body” as DIS presents it, though certainly some reviewers have. But perhaps that dislike arises from a defensive position, where one asks in baffled embarrassment: “Is this really a depiction of our society?” Rarely does one revel in a true reflection of oneself. The vitriol with which DIS’s BB9 has been met seems, above all else, paradoxically to reinforce their assertions about contemporary culture, in the sense that we often reject that which we are. The psychic dimension of this rejection matters. Sigmund Freud might describe it as a matter of projection, the transference of negative feelings about the self onto another.


Manifesta 11 explores both labor and the nature of cities, but subtly excludes much psychological reflection. BB9, by contrast, makes such psychic acceptance or disavowal of the “body” of the present an essential condition of viewing. This key difference comes into focus when considering the aforementioned Break Hour section of Manifesta 11 and the staging of Cécile B. Evans’s What the Heart Wants. In Break Hour the viewer is implicated into the collective processes and aesthetics of labor, which mirrors the exhibition’s tactic of sending throngs of visitors throughout the city. BB9, by contrast, interpellates the viewer as a passive individual, who is nevertheless challenged to reject or embrace the images crossing their screen.


A. Will Brown is a founding curator of Monument Lab and is the Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland.


Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016, installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: The Present in Drag. Photograph by Cécile B. Evans.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016, installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: The Present in Drag. Photograph by Cécile B. Evans.

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