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Manifesta. History and Concept
art kaleidoscope | Februar bis Mai 2002
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++++ May 24 sees the opening of "Manifesta 4. European Biennale for Contemporary Art" in Frankfurt. But just what is the Manifesta? What are its objectives? Where are the differences to all the other Biennial and to the Documenta? Why does it set up shop every two years in another European city? Questions over questions are reason enough to ask Hedwig Fijen of the International Foundation Manifesta to again fundamentally explain the goals of "Konstrukts Manifesta". Whether Manifesta 4 achieves them is up to visitors to decide from May 25 through August 25.



The Origins
The idea of creating a new European contemporary art biennial was first mooted in the Hague in the early 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the political reunification of Europe. Gijs van Tuyl, then Commissioner for the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale, took the initiative. A number of fellow national commissioners in Venice, including Rene Block (Germany), Svenrobert Lundquist (the Nordic countries) and Henry Meyric Hughes (UK), all were enthusiastic for the idea of providing a new platform for young artists who had hitherto been excluded from the usual networks of information and distribution. There is, then, a sense in which Manifesta was born out of the Venice Biennale, and in reaction to its apparent inability – and that of similar large-scale institutions, such as Documenta - to react quickly to young artists’ needs, in a rapidly changing political and economic environment.

In which way is Manifesta different from other Biennial and international Contemporary art events?
Maifesta’s basic rationale is to establish a pan-European network for the contemporary visual arts, which would be based on direct interpersonal contacts and develop in response to the different processes in which artists were engaged. A network to changing contexts for the presentation of artistic work.
Manifesta is no ordinary event, although its principal focus is a biennial exhibition, which takes place each time in a different city in Europe. The exhibitions are merely one aspect of a continuing dialogue between artists, theoreticians and the public. Manifesta wants also to be an interactive workshop for looking at the latest developments in the realignment of current social, political, economic and cultural realities in Europe. It operates as an open-ended network, emphasising the value of democratic procedures and of collaboration and interactive communication, through new media and technology, such as the Internet. By changing location every two years, Manifesta is compelled each time to take stock of new realities and enter into dialogue with a new set of partners. Thus, it offers a viable alternative to the dominant Western-European channels of artistic communication.

What is Manifesta’s position in relation to the Venice Biennale and Documenta?
At the beginning of the 1990s the Venice Biennale and Documenta clearly failed to take adequate stock of the rapidly changing political and cultural environment in Europe, as a whole. The earlier demise of the Paris Biennale des Jeunes had also left a gap, at one remove from the increasingly lively, but commercially orientated, art fairs in Basel and Cologne – a gap which the Aperto in Venice, from the early 1980s onwards, had only partially managed to fill.
The national pavilions at the Venice Biennale have always tended to present the work of artists with established reputations in their own countries. This meant that throughout the Cold War East European countries, in particular, presented a very official view of art, which was at odds with what the predominantly Western-European public wanted to see. Moreover, the Italian organisers of the main events in the central pavilion and elsewhere showed a marked lack of curiosity in the activities of younger artists working on the peripheries of Europe, unless they happened to benefit from representation by a commercial galley. As a result, the Biennale sometimes gave the impression of being more interested in the exotic cultures of the Far East and the ”Third World” than in those of the former ”Second World” in, for example, East and Southeast Europe, or in representatives of minority cultures within Europe itself, an increasing number of whom had extra-European cultural ties. Achille Bonito Oliva had attempted to open up the Biennale, as whole, to broader participation by artists from small countries and minority cultures, but had only enjoyed limited success with this. It was not until Harald Szeemann’s ”Dappertutto”, in 1999 that some kind of realignment was achieved.
Documenta was originally set up in conscious antithesis to the official cultural programmes of the ”East bloc” countries in the 1950’s, but has unaccountably continued up to the last, almost to turn its back on the region. This may simply be attributed to the personal predilections of successive directors, who enjoy almost unlimited freedom of choice and independence from the obligation to back anything much more than their personal judgement and experience.
Yet the curators from the Manifesta 1 (Rotterdam 1996), 2 (Luxembourg 1998) and 3 (Ljubljana 2000) were quick to pick up on the emergence of a new generation of artists, in East and West, who were far less concerned with the ideological battles of the past than with the effects of globalisation and new technology and with the need for a fundamentally new approach to ways of making, presenting and promoting art.

Is Manifesta as a biennial focused mainly on East–West relationships?
Manifesta is not specifically focused on East-West geographical parameters, even though the opening up of East Europe provided it with some of its impetus, in the early days. The first two Manifesta teams incorporated curators from the Central and Eastern parts of Europe. They organised workshops, debates and meetings in places formerly not visited by western curators – hence, the perfectly justifiable reputation that Manifesta enjoys, of being one of the few platforms accessible for East European artists. The reality, though, is that Manifesta offers equal access to all artists, whatever their origin, who live or work in what we may choose to call Europe, according to the broadest geopolitical definition of the term.

What has been the impact of Manifesta on a new generation of artists and curators?
Between 1993 and 2000, 12 young European curators from a variety of different backgrounds worked intensively together on the successive editions of Manifesta, developing new forms of collaboration, extending their own, and Manifesta’s, networks, acting as ambassadors for the event and becoming integrated into the international art circuit. Most of these 12 curators have subsequently been invited to curate other biennials and major art events, including the Istanbul Biennial, the Berlin Biennial, the Santa Fe Biennial and aspects of the Venice Biennial.
Much the same might be said for the impact of Manifesta on the subsequent careers of the 186 European artists and artists’ groups who have taken part in the event, so far. For many of them, Manifesta provided them with their first international exposure and their first opportunity of working collaboratively with fellow artists and curators from a different cultural background, as well as with a young, well informed and inquisitive public. Over 90% of the artists participating in the first three editions of Manifesta have had their work published in the major international newspapers and art magazines. Their work has also been made visible through the Internet, through catalogues and through related publications and promotional material, sponsored by Manifesta. Through its activities and multiple contacts in the professional art world, Manifesta is thus able to create many new opportunities for young artists from all over Europe, at a critical point, near the beginning or their careers.

How independent is the curator’s work?
A key function of the International Foundation Manifesta is to uphold the Biennal’s reputation for intellectual and artistic integrity. Thus, the Foundation and the Host City share joint responsibilty, within the prevailing legal and financial framework, for guaranteeing the curator’s full independence in their choice of artists and artistic programmes, for protecting them from any form of censorship or unwarranted interference, at all stages of selecting and installing the work for the exhibition, of preparing material for publication in the catalogue, and of presenting their ideas in public debate. Specifically, the Board and the Host undertake to protect the curator’s from all forms of political, commercial or populist pressures which might, in their view, compromise the curator’s independence of judgement and action. In exchange, the Foundation and the Host expect the curators to select a broad cross-selection of artists and works of art, which reflect the diversity of cultures in Europe as a whole and the range of available forms of artistic expression.

What are the measures of Manifesta’s success?
So far, none of Manifesta’s exhibitions has been a blockbuster, though each has attracted audiences far in excess of the local norms. One explanation is the public’s lack of familiarity with the artists taking part and the ”difficult” nature of much of the work. Another may be the deliberate choice of cities (Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, and even Frankfurt) which are somewhat off the tourist track and at one remove from the principal centres of artistic production. All the same, Manifesta regularly attracts large crowds of professionals from all over Europe.
If emulation is a mark of success, one need only point to the recent initiatives, such as the Berlin Biennial of 1998, The Liverpool Biennial of 1999 and the Santa Fe Biennial of 2000, which all may owe something to Manifesta, without ever going so far as to copy its organisational structure or nomadic principles.
The most important aspects of Manifestas low key success includes immediate acceptance by the general public, as one of the most important new platforms for young artists, critics and curators. And the fact that it is seen as a primary source of information for art professionals from all over the world. Manifesta has fostered the emergence of a new generation of young artists and curators, who have the confidence, and the ability to go on developing their international careers. It has also considerably expanded the audiences for contemporary art, in new directions and in new geographical centres.

Hedwig A.M. Fijen
Secretary General of the International Foundation Manifesta and founding Director of Manifesta 1, in Rotterdam (1996). Lives in Amsterdam.

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von/by Hedwig A.M. Fijen

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