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Manifesta 1

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

9 June - 19 August 1996


Manifesta is Europe's latest international biannual art exhibition. Its first incarnation, Manifesta 1, was held this summer in a variety of locations in the centre of Rotterdam. Its organisers promised to offer a more focused perspective, concentrating on a younger generation of artists, than the more established overviews of contemporary art held in Kassel and Venice.

In the catalogue of Manifesta 1 the effects the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the myth of the border-less Europe are having on contemporary cultural activity were stressed. In the exhibition the issue of migration surfaced as an important theme. The more than seventy artists were selected by Manifesta's five curators to participate in the exhibition. Many of these were alluded to in the catalogue and press material as cultural nomads whose activities included going from place to place to produce site-specific ephemeral works and collaborating with other `trans-national' artists. In his curatorial essay Andrew Renton saw contemporary art making as an ongoing communication process rather than the production of objects and monuments. “There is no `centre,' no studio, no monument - only a series of connections, where the work becomes something in itself when sited.”

To respond, in part, to the importance of `site,' Manifesta 1 was divided up into a series of smaller exhibitions occupying more than twelve different museums and artists' centres throughout Rotterdam. Although each participating institution grouped together several artists around specific concepts, themes common to many artists recurred throughout the exhibition. The longing for home as both an ideal and as an object of nostalgic desire, (a side-effect of migration), recurred in various forms. Jaan Toomik expressed the anticipation returning home brings in Dancing Home (1995) which featured a video projection of himself on the bridge of the ferry returning him to his native Tallinn dancing to the `heartbeat' of the boat's engines. Koo Jeong-a exhibited La maison flottante (1996) - one of several tiny dwellings made of sugar cubes and wood. These delicate structures were erected on ledges and in alcoves of an uninhabited Villa in Rotterdam's Museumpark. Their title and form referred ironically to the utopian vision of the home as `organic architecture' proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright earlier this century. Their fragility of construction and appropriation of building materials recalled, however, the precarious structures that pass for homes in favelas and shanty towns.

Leaving a homeland, whether by choice or necessity, means leaving part of one's identity behind. Some of the more poignant work in this exhibition was made by artists who returned home to document a once familiar social landscape through the eyes of the prodigal son. Esko Männikkö's photographs of the inhabitants of his native northern Finland record a way of life distant from the metropolitan European norm. Scenes such as Kuivaniemi (1991) showing hunters and fisherman in their isolated cabins appear almost contrived, deliberately ridiculous. The figures depicted seem to be performing in a theatre of the absurd when viewed by someone who lives outside the context of their society and economy. At the same time this irreconcilable social distance between the viewer and the subject creates a nostalgia for this distant, culturally fragile, place.

The Israeli artist Uri Tzaig took a site specific to his homeland's identity and ironically mined it for its marketability. Tzaig's Untitled (1996) featured soap produced in collaboration with `Ahava' - Dead Sea Laboratories. These `Dead Sea' soap balls transform a geographical location linked inextricably to the history, culture and faith of the Jewish people into a market commodity. Tzaig combined the modes of presentation of global capitalism, video, printed flyers, with a working wash basin in the form of the Dead Sea. The viewer was invited to use the soap and sample its curative properties. Echoing the video displays of cosmetic counters Tzaig placed, on the corner of the large table with the basin, a monitor showing close-ups of a naked man using the soap on his body. Thus, the Dead Sea was transformed from the sacred to the commercial via a profane sensual association with the body.

As well as the customary locations, such as Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, for artworks to be viewed in Rotterdam work in Manifesta 1 was to be found in typically nomadic fashion `camped out' in a variety of `site-sensitive' public and semi-public spaces in the city centre. Rirkrit Tiravanija's and Douglas Gordon's Cinéma Liberté (1996), exhibited in a space rented for the duration of the event, combined Tiravanija's Bar/lounge (1996), a functioning bar where refreshments were served, with Gordon's Cinéma Liberté (1996). The latter consisted of bean bag chairs and a continual video projection of films which had at one time or other been banned in the Netherlands. In this relaxed setting the artists exposed the authoritarian presence of the host nation's government through a brief history of its moral and political intolerance.

Many other works were installed in alternative locations, locations which often corresponded with the theme of the work. For instance, Rogelio López Cuenca's manipulated travel posters depicting boat people and deportees were appropriately hung in Rotterdam's Maritime Museum. Despite the emphasis on `site sensitivity,' however, some of the most rewarding exhibitions were those in which the viewer had a neutral and uncluttered space in which to confront and interpret the personal language of an, often unfamiliar, artist. Eulŕlia Valldosera's complex video installation The Fall (out of the frying Pan into the fire) (1996) in the Rotterdam Kunsthal was one of these. Here, the Barcelona artist transformed domestic interiors and household objects into a three room labyrinth of projections and shadows. A video projection circled the first room counter-clockwise. An encounter between a man and a woman - the projection following the man's footsteps as he walked from one room to the next - results in the woman emitting a brief cry and falling. Forms of domestic furniture and household products periodically blocked the rotating video image causing giant silhouettes of chairs and bottles of dish washing liquid to also circle the room.

Paul Virilio, in an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist in the catalogue of Manifesta 1, foresees that the potential of virtual reality will radically transform our concept of space. “What we are seeing the beginnings of today, with virtual reality, is virtual spaces which will be inside real space, bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens... which can be used to call the spectres of your visitors, your televisitors.” In Valldosera's installation a personal instability, due in part to the dislocating effects of the new technologies on our corporal identities, is investigated. Valldosera identifies a distorting influence in our perception of ourselves; in one room of her installation a miniature dress projects a full-size shadow. The distance between ourselves and the mirror - the gap between the ontological self and its Lacanian reflection - is for Valldosera the source of our instability. In the information age the mirror refers not only to the looking glass but also to more recent technologies of visual duplication - photography, video and digital imagery. As images of ourselves become more abundant we feel more dislocated from our `true' selves.

Many of the works in Manifesta 1 emphasised geographical displacement. Valldosera focused on a more internal migration - the image of the self displaced through technology. Political changes in post cold war Europe have altered homelands and transformed the collective experience. At the same time new technologies have made possible the virtual self and transformed individual experience. Through its diversity Manifesta 1 reflected the effects of both these parallel transformations.


Paul Landon, 1996

Originally published in Parachute 85, January, February, March, 1997.


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