Border Crossings

Ljubljana, Lyon, and Neo-Exoticism in the New Europe

In its third incarnation, the nomadic European biennial Manifesta takes place in the former "East." It opened in June in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a city Eastern Europeans once considered their "West." The title: "Borderline Syndrome: Energies of Defense." Its press conference had barely begun when Russian art anarchist Alexander Brener materialized behind the speakers' backs. He sprayed a slogan on the projection screen: "Demolish Neoliberalist Multiculturalist Art-Sistem [sic] Now!" Then, toppling the flower arrangements, he scrawled "Forget Europa Forever!" across the long table while his female accomplice flung manifestos into the air. But when he muffled the mike, he lost audience sympathy. A scuffle ensued, the table collapsed, and the two rebels spent the night in jail. Borderline syndrome, indeed.

The exhibition itself, spread through three museums, one cultural center, and several public spaces, isn't nearly as dramatic. Manifesta 3's four curators—Ole Bouman, Francesco Bonami, Mária Hlavajová, and Kathrin Rhomberg—have created a low-key event focused on the art of quiet gestures: smart, thoughtful, often politicized, occasionally underwhelming. Their premise refers to mental borders, defense mechanisms, and the concept of "borderline personality," as well as to issues of territory. They pose the question: "Where do we draw the line?"

Eschewing spectacular gesture or megalomaniacal installation, this biennial favors works that creep up quietly, such as Abdel Abdessemed's small birth announcement of a new Trinity, Mohammedkarlpolpot, alone in a room; Anatoly Osmolovsky's artillery gun aimed into a manhole; or Francisco Tropa's live Snail. Despite disagreements among the curators, and complaints from some Eastern Europeans that the artists—though mostly new and unknown in the West—aren't new enough, the exhibition (which continues through September 24) is coherent and edgy.

Before the fall: Alexander Brener (standing) at the Manifesta press conference
photo: Kim Levin
Before the fall: Alexander Brener (standing) at the Manifesta press conference

Much of the best work deals with borders and borderlessness with a do-it-yourself initiative. Swedish/Danish gay duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset install one of their "Powerless Structures"—Ljubljana's first commercial gallery for local artists—within the museum room where Moscow artist Anton Olshvang's blowups of anonymous rejected snapshots hang. De Geuzen, a three-woman Dutch team, offers a whole archive about cyberculture and the stateless market on a camouflage carpet. The Rome-based group Stalker's Transborderline tunnel is strewn with migratory soccer balls.

A pair of artists from Greece and Macedonia unite Macedonian apples and Greek oranges, free for the taking, on a market stand; their less innocuous medley of nationalistic songs plays on a stairway. A Bulgarian artist sets borrowed pots on electric burners, freeing the water within them as migrant steam. If works like these offer metaphors of the new Europe's crucial problems—expansion, contraction, exclusion, immigration—others, such as Slovakian artist Roman Ondak's secondhand images of tourist sites, are about different sorts of borderline mobility.

Joost Conijn's video film shows how, with no prior aeronautical knowledge, he built an airplane and made it fly. Veli Grano's A Strange Message From Another Star recalls the life of a Finnish immigrant in the U.S. who dreamed of escaping the earth and created NASA's first rocket fuel. The most haunting is refugee artist Adrian Paci's simple video of his child, who incorporates memories of Albania's recent civil war into fairy tales. A sporadic line of blue tape by Edward Krasinski meanders along hallways and stairs, recalling the arbitrariness of borderlines while giving the exhibition continuity.

If Manifesta 3 has to do with including the formerly off-limits, exoticized "East" within an expanded Europe, the Fifth Lyon Biennale, taking place this summer in France's culinary capital (through September 24), ups the ante of neo-exoticisms to a global scale. Tackling an equally problematic, if less geopolitically pressing, subject, the Lyon Biennale—despite its intentions of inclusiveness—perpetuates Europe's ambiguous, romanticized, postcolonial relationship to the rest of world art.

Manifesta broadens the field by absorbing political issues; the Lyon biennial focuses a European gaze back upon its own ingestion of non-European art. Titled "Partage d'Exotismes," or "Sharing Exoticisms," it is curator Jean-Hubert Martin's sequel to his notorious 1989 "Magicians of the Earth." Not a lot has changed. "Sharing Exoticisms" is a flawed global mix of contemporary, folkloric, and ritualistic art and artisanship. Old Euro favorites (Tàpies, Gilbert & George) share the space with new global stars (Manuel Ocampo, Cai Guo Qiang, Nedko Solakov, Soo-ja Kim), regionally known African and American artists (Barthelemy Toguo, Pumé, Rona Pondick, Willie Cole), Aboriginal paintings, Hindu religious icons, and bizarre curios, one of which is five pieces of a French legionnaire's tattooed skin. In other words, all the old French fantasies (orientalism! primitivism! primal energy!) are embedded like parasites in the new spirit of inclusion and empowerment. The artistic directors claim that this exhibition honors "the victory of anthropology over traditional aesthetics."

Anthropophagy is more like it. Instead of a guerrilla action by Brener, the Lyon Biennale, which opened a few days later, had a live mermaid as an hors d'oeuvre. At the opening reception, this reclining beauty was wheeled on a table through the famished crowd; her fishtailed costume was quickly denuded of its smoked-salmon canapé scales. If Manifesta, among other things, is about the energies of an unruly and exotic "other" Europe, Lyon is a feeding frenzy of global exoticisms. The mermaid was a blatant—if unintentional—symbol.

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?

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."

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