Academic journal article Afterimage

Nomads, Tourists and Territories: Manifesta and the Basque Country

Academic journal article Afterimage

Nomads, Tourists and Territories: Manifesta and the Basque Country

Article excerpt

The fifth installment of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, took place this year in the Basque country under the direction of curators Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma. The exhibition was staged across two very different urban sites, which although linked by a short bus ride are worlds apart in terms of economic and social infrastructure. This duality is mirrored by the fact that each site has two names. In Euskara, the language of the Basques and one of the oldest oldest European languages, these towns are called Donosti and Pasaia but in the more familiar Castilian (Spanish) they are better known as San Sebastian and Pasajes San Pedro. Donostia-San Sebastian and Pasaia-Pasajes San Pedro seem to be among the most geographically visible peripheral sites chosen by Manifesta. Basque culture, in spite of its geographical small scale, is in many ways at the heart of contemporary European identity, not least because it contests ex-isting national boundaries by extending from Northern Spain into South Western France. The region's claims for political autonomy, rooted in a strong sense of ethnic and linguistic identity, are by no means unique and Julio Medem's recent documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone proposes parallels with Northern Ireland, while retaining an awareness of the specificity of the Basque conflict.

The Basque setting links Manifesta 5 to a number of other artistic projects staged in contested territory. From a North American perspective, an obvious parallel could be drawn with InSite, the exhibition of public art taking place in San Diego and Tijuana for the fifth time in 2005. Manifesta, however, is a nomadic event and since its debut at Rotterdam in 1996, it has traveled to Luxembourg (1998), Ljubljana (2000) and Frankfurt (2002). By constantly shifting site, it has laid claim to a flexible and self-reflexive model of curatorial practice, and has sought to foster exchange between local configurations and external networks. This article examines some of these claims, through reference to the curatorial and artistic strategies employed in the Basque country and recent critical writing about nomadic art practice.

Manifesta's status as a nomadic outsider is complicated by the ties that bind it to the art world, and it has sometimes served as a conduit to the mainstream for both artists and curators. The International Foundation Manifesta, permanently based in Amsterdam, includes among its membership several prominent art world figures, such as Francesco Bonami, curator of Manifesta 3 and subsequently director of the Venice Biennale in 2003. It is perhaps no coincidence that nomadic art practices also found their way into Venice under Bonami's direction, in the shape of the Utopia Station project curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija. These art world connections are not hidden and Manifesta has continually readjusted its position in relation to centers of power. The third installment in Ljubljana, for example, focused attention on relatively marginalized Eastern European art practices while the fourth took place much closer to the art market. Staged in Frankfurt in 2002 in partnership with Documenta 11, it sought to explore relationships with a newer generation of institutionally-based curators. This strategy was not uniformly well received, however, and some critics suggested that Manifesta 4 was overshadowed by Documenta 11, the more established event (see Tamsin Dillon's review in Art Monthly 258, July-August 2002: 46). In fact Documenta 11 was marked by a particular thematic emphasis on the politics of place and identity. In addition to new installations by Chantal Akerman and Isaac Julien, it incorporated a number of influential film and video documentaries from the 1980s (such as the Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs, 1986).

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The curators of Manifesta 5 have, in turn, revisited some of the formal and thematic territory covered in Documenta 11. …

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