Bernini may have once shared a sketchbook with Pope Alexander VII in the gardens of the Vatican, but the German-born artist Christian Jankowski sought a more sensational collaboration when he alighted on the Holy See some centuries later. His 2011 reality television-style video work Casting Jesus enlisted Vatican staff as jurors selecting an actor to play the role of Christ. Relieved of the cassock of ideology, Jankowski’s is an art of deftly constructed capers that trade in an element of surprise. So it is with the artist’s first curatorial effort, the 11th Manifesta Biennale, in Zürich (on view through September 18), for which he commissioned 30 “joint ventures” between contemporary artists and the working professionals of Switzerland’s largest city.
Titled “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures,” Jankowski’s turn at the helm of Europe’s itinerant biennial of contemporary art occupies four main locations in Zürich—three sprawling floors of galleries at the Löwenbräukunst complex in the deindustrializing Zürich-West neighborhood, the entire Helmhaus center in the city’s Old Town, a pavilion constructed of unpainted wood floating on Lake Zürich, and Dada birthplace the Cabaret Voltaire, as well as numerous satellite locations, where participating artists have embedded their projects in the working spaces of their professional collaborators. The first two venues, the biennial’s largest, display the outcomes of the collaborations as well as a parallel selection of historical art, organized by Francesca Gavin around the relationship between art and work. All told, there are 130 artists: 100 in the historical section (covering the past century, though heavily weighted toward postwar and contemporary work), plus those 30 commissioned by Jankowski.
These dispersed “joint ventures” form the biennial’s core, and through them Manifesta’s artists express assorted guises of art’s interdisciplinary, or at least inter-occupational, possibilities. Some treat the professions of their chosen collaborators as one might a spice rack in an unfamiliar kitchen, adapting new ingredients to existing artistic recipes, like photographer Torbjørn Rødland bringing his eye for tightly composed disequilibrium to a dentist’s office for the prints in Intra- & Extraoral. Others cede considerable ground to the domain of their professional interlocutor. Santiago Sierra’s intervention laid siege to the exterior of the Helmhaus venue, which, following the recommendations of “security advisor” Marcel Hirschi, he fortified with enormous sandbags, plywood, and barbed wire for the self-explanatory work Protected Building. (On a second visit to Zürich, in mid-July, this work had been taken down, apparently at the behest of local authorities who were concerned about pedestrian traffic.) In The Zurich Load, a day’s worth of the city’s human waste was processed for safe public display and arranged into a gridded rectangular expanse by artist Mike Bouchet and water treatment engineer Philipp Sigg. The gallery housing the resulting 80 tons of scatological minimalism delivers a maximalist olfactory thrill, industrial-scale ventilation notwithstanding.
“Ideologies have no part to play in my preparations; I trust in the artists and the art,” Jankowski writes in the catalogue’s introduction. The notion of unfettered play that Jankowski favors, particularly in the context of a European biennial enlisting the participation of white and blue-collar workers in Switzerland, emits more than a whiff of ideology. As The Zurich Load demonstrates, the constraints of the biennial mean these collaborations have little breathing room to explore the durational aspects of “what people do for money,” let alone the negation of doing in refusal or strike. Despite being a yearlong project and an impressive logistical feat, Bouchet’s project dead-ends with an auratic object. Unlike Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s decades-long engagement with the New York City Department of Sanitation in the name of what she terms “maintenance art,” Bouchet’s assimilation of technical expertise, like much of the work in the biennial, enforces an artistic authorship at arm’s length from so-called specialized labor. And no matter how fun or interesting, these agreeable transactions between artists and professionals have undeniable advantages in terms of satisfying a general audience’s desire for relatable novelty while pleasing governmental and institutional patrons eager to see art orchestrate harmonious social encounters.
This isn’t an accusatory observation. The catalogue does, after all, include a tract by the Marxist theorist Franco Berardi, who notes that “the social order based on salaried work is already vanishing” and argues in favor of a Swiss universal basic income, a proposal rejected by 77 percent of the electorate in a referendum that coincided with the biennial’s opening days. Nevertheless, Georgia Sagri was the only participating artist to turn her attention to the assumptions of Jankowski’s scenario. She did so both in the work she produced, Documentary of Behavioral Currencies, two identical installations (one shown in the exhibition space, the other at the office of her collaborator, a female private banker), and in her participation in the show’s catalogue and its campy “making-of” documentary, which screened daily at the lake pavilion. “I question Manifesta 11’s curatorial approach, which defines a profession as a de facto process for the construction of identity,” Sagri writes. “Work is not the decision of a free person, of a free will. On the contrary, it is a barrier to living freely.” For her own part, the banker with whom Sagri worked, Dr. Josephin Varnholt, observes that “Georgia was as organized as a chief executive. Professional, well prepared, like a businesswoman.”
Sagri’s calculated disruption of Jankowski’s curatorial scheme was unique among her cohort, but it should be noted that some of the most insightful material to emerge from Manifesta at large is to be found in the organic written reflections on each “joint venture” offered by the collaborating professionals in the catalogue. Indeed, much of the biennial’s discursive force is generated not by art professionals but by the gainfully employed citizens of Zürich, some of whom have also been invited to give weekly gallery talks. Even the more anodyne commissioned efforts—like novelist Michel Houellebecq’s decision to have himself medically imaged and analyzed in “Is Michel Houellebecq OK?”—are redeemed, at least partially, by the opportunity to open the catalogue (displayed at some of the satellite venues) and read about the work from an informed critical perspective distinct from that of the artist or curator. (“Beforehand I was told that Michel is pretty special,” Dr. Henry Perschak writes. “That was hardly necessary: as a doctor I’m used to dealing with all sorts of people on a daily basis.”)
Connections forged between art and specialized fields of work have come with varied and mutually incompatible effects. There has been collaboration but also antagonism, cobranding as well as critique. Employees of the RAND Corporation told John Chamberlain to “GO TO HELL MISTER!!” during his 1970 residency there, as Elvia Wilk notes in a relevant recent essay that touches on past outcomes of such encounters. This dynamic range, absent in the mostly congenial content in Manifesta 11, is sampled but not digested in the biennial’s sprawling historical component, “The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction.” Sharing the galleries with the biennial’s new works in the two main exhibition venues, this element of Manifesta avers that it “eschews a fixed narrative,” which simply means that the curatorial project doesn’t reference important precedents, like Helen Molesworth’s 2003 exhibition “Work Ethic” at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and that its works are presented in only a loosely thematic way. Despite the absence of practitioners who may trouble the orthodoxy of productive labor—like Claire Fontaine and Mladen Stilinović—key works by the Artist Placement Group, Oscar Bony, Louise Lawler, Sharon Lockhart, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Jill Magid, and Sophie Calle make the cut all the same.
“Artists have been in the dog salon, with the police, with the fire brigade,” Jankowski reflects in the catalogue, surveying the labors of his commissioned artists. “They have collected sewage sludge, given citizens therapy, looked for death, life, the perfect orgasm.” The late critic Leo Steinberg described the identification of art with other domains of work in his well-known 1968 essay “Other Criteria,” framing a dominant impulse in postwar American art with a fusillade of bracing declarations: “Not art but industry”; “Not art but technological research”; “Not art but objects.” What “was once an exceptional manifestation” in the polymathic interests of Renaissance artists, Steinberg stated, “has now become institutional within the field.”
Neither hermetic nor “de-skilled,” artists under the influence of the postindustrial West have long mastered the flexible managerialism Jankowski espouses, what the banker who worked with Georgia Sagri observed in surprised metaphor. While Manifesta doesn’t add much to the longstanding identification of art with “non-art” subjects, it does offer a rare opportunity for those subjects to talk back. This is no small thing: that identification may be open-ended, but it still privileges the artistic, its discourse remains generally top-down. The exceptional authorial role accorded to the biennial’s “non-artists,” though relegated to the catalogue, occasionally threatens to upstage Jankowski’s entire project. Writing about the artist who had chosen to work with him, Jorinde Voigt, whose piece concerns an historical account of Rousseau meditating on freedom upon a Swiss lake, the boatmaker Melchior Bürgin delivers an elegant and devastating rejoinder:
Presumably Rousseau lay in a fishing boat, not a racing boat like the ones we produce. My work has to do with competitions, with team sports, collectives who strive towards their goal. How to reconcile that with the self-imposed isolation of Rousseau is something that Jorinde will have to resolve in another work. I won’t have anything to do with that. I formulate my thoughts more prosaically: I try to build a boat. And that boat needs to float. That in itself is fascinating.