So I was prepared to despise this biennial, which starts with a false display of mutual otherness: Geometric designs by Sol LeWitt and South African tribal-house painter Esther Mahlangu share a freestanding billboard, looking like decorators instead of the conceptual wall painters both are. But this show isn't easy for critics to berate. There are too many surprises, too generous an array of fine projects from around the world. Nothing quite spoils the guilty pleasures, not the curtained labyrinth that partitions the humongous hall nor the problematic concept. It has Thomas Hirschhorn's United Nations, a multinational torched and war-torn mini-golf terrain, plus the Poiriers' equally vast carbonized metropolis, Exotica. It has Liza Lou's beaded kitchen. It has identity-swapping send-ups by Yinka Shonibare, who costumes a gay family unit in Western-style and African cloth; by Orlan, computer-morphing her face into African masks; and by the Swiss duo Biefer and Zgraggen, who pose as paunchy, postmod tribesmen. Western artists appropriate the non-Western, African artists cannily Africanize Western modes, Asian artists exploit their own orientalisms, and Latin Americans (a distinct minority) make pointed jokes about their postcolonial exoticism. In the end, all seem equally "inauthentic"; call it multiculti gone Las Vegas. The conceptual flaws are nearly overcome by the wayward humor and excess of the art.
Pascale Marthine Tayou's La Vieille Neuve is one of the few works not sucked into the flawed premise of shared exoticisms. This Cameroonian artist's unpretentious installation, with a video and an apparently scavenged derelict auto, transcends the show's romanticized notions of exchange. Made in Tokyo, driven nearly to death in Europe, bought as scrap, and taken to Cameroon, the car still miraculously functions as transport and as metaphor. "Put in the garbage in Europe and sent to Africa," says the artist. "I would like to take this car all over the world." In Lyon, it's a pointed reminder that the borders between inclusiveness and exploitation remain permeable. Despite a by now inextricable symbiosis, one crucial question remains: Who is using whom, and how, and why?
photo: Kim Levin
Before the fall: Alexander Brener (standing) at the Manifesta press conference
But while the New York art scene spirals in on itself in ever more minuscule fantasies of micro-identity, at least artists and curators elsewhere are grappling with urgent issues of cultural conflict, macro-identity, exoticism, and exploitation. Meanwhile, scrawled on a wall near the train station in Belgrade, according to a critic who changed trains there on the way to Ljubljana, a graffiti taunt rivals Brener's: "We are fucking you Columbus."