A Game of Chess With Death

Manifesta 13 in Marseille – one of the European cities hardest hit by the pandemic – unbolts the door to madness. But is madness enough in these insane times?

Ken Okiishi, A Modell Childhood, 2018/2020. Installation view, Musée Grobet-Labadié, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

Travelling to Manifesta 13 in Marseille, right now one of the European cities hardest hit by the coronavirus, feels like a feat in itself. I’m scared, but my curiosity trumps my fear. I think about Ingmar Bergman’s listless knight in the plague-stricken middle ages, offering to play chess against death in order to buy himself some more time. Death prevails, but the theatre company that the knight encounters in the beginning of the film has time to get away. If you extend this analogy to the realm of art, it is safe to say that art is always a more or less successful game of chess with death. Sometimes art wins, sometimes death wins. But art can also offer a retardement, a gap in time, a room for manoeuvring in which everything is possible, at least for a while.

From a larger existential perspective, Manifesta is one big chess game against death. Very few have visited the biennial, and fewer still have written on it – which is a shame, because how often do exhibition visitors get to feel heroic? Certainly not while sipping a Bellini at a swanky opening in Venice, that’s for sure. I arrive in Marseille a pandemic knight of the arts, in full battle gear, face mask on, and hand sanitiser at the ready, the day after the second big opening. The first one was a month ago, but was limited to the exhibition’s first chapter, The Home

Jana Euler, Radieuse, 2016 & Martine Derain, Républiques, 2006. Installation view, Musée Grobet-Labadié, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

My first impression in was surprise. I had expected the city to be a resigned Walking Dead-scenario, as the city heads for a new period of quarantine and the media is full of alarmist articles. But the sunny streets are bustling with life; some people aren’t even wearing masks. In back alleys, groups of old men are smoking hookahs in the shade, at a safe distance from the pandemic and the art.  

The low-key title of Manifesta 13, Trait d’unions (Hyphens), not only suggests presenting new ways of coming together, exposing existing forms of collaboration in the city and region, but also creating new commonalties with the hope of transforming the classic hit-and-run formula that tries to satisfy the intellectual and financial market’s hunger after the new into an interdisciplinary, research-based and socially engaged biennial for the local population. 

Furthermore, Trait d’unions is written in the plural in order to emphasise the plurality of institutions and individuals involved. The concept, which recalls the most recent Manifesta in Palermo’s “cultivating coexistence,” would normally feel a bit lame. But in a time when most of the world’s leaders and epidemiologists are urging people to live in isolation for the “good of the collective,” searching for new ways of coming together has a real urgency. The team of curators – Katerina Chuchalina, Stefan Kalmár, and Alya Sebti – have taken the idea from curator and theorist Simon Sheikh’s 2011 essay ‘None of the Above: From Hybridity to Hyphenation’ in which ‘trait d’union’ becomes an answer to Homi Bhabha’s theory of  the hybrid ‘third space’ which arises from the fertile fusion of cultures.

A political time machine 

I begin my walk in the exhibition’s first chapter, The Home, at Musée Grobet-Labadié, a space straight out of a Visconti film, full of opulent Louis XIV furniture, heavy velvet curtains, tapestries, musical instruments, plush Persian rugs, Christian cult objects, antique Chinese porcelain, and trompe l’oeils sculptures. The exhibition emerges as a political time machine, as the curatorial team has elected to create elaborate contrasts between the luxurious interiors and well-placed contemporary artworks about mechanisms of exclusion, poverty, vulnerability, and the difficult art of finding a place in the world – a home, even. This results in a non-linear, almost kaleidoscopic depiction of history.

The most successful clashes of culture and time arise from the work of the French artist Martine Derain, who is accustomed to looking in the trash cans of history. In the staircase, photographs of abandoned luxury homes with torn pink wallpapered walls hang alongside imposing baroque paintings of lavish aristocratic women surrounded by cherubs. In one of the halls, which is filled with cabinets of curiosity and erotic paintings from the 18th century, Derain exhibits beautiful studio photographs from the 1970s of well-dressed North African migrant labourers who wanted to show their families back home how well they were doing in the new country.

Adjacent is a small TV monitor showing a documentary about the demonstration ‘Un center-ville pour tous’ (a city centre for all) in 2006, in which retired North African workers who were evicted from their homes as a result of discriminatory changes to tax law, protested in front of the Marseille tax authorities’ office. With tears in his eyes, an elderly miner talks about how hard he has worked in his new home country, only to be driven around like unwanted cattle from one hotel to another. The countless figurines, boxes, jewellery, and colonial collectibles in the curiosity cabinets appear next to this heart-breaking story as macabre phantasmagorias taken from Walter Benjamin’s famous Arcades Project in which he describes the religious illusion of modern capitalism which makes people forget their finitude, at least for a while.

Reena Spaulings, Lion Hunt, 2019. Installation view, Musée Grobet-Labadié, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

In another hall – this one full of bookshelves of leather-bound miniature books, some no larger than match boxes – there is a nice sound work by the American collective Black Quantum Futurism. The work consists of a black pedestal with a pair of headphones, a microphone, and two pedals sticking out. If you press the white pedal, you can listen to voices answering questions such as: “Where do you feel at home?”, “What does community mean to you”, “How do you regard the future of Marseille?”

The answers I listen to are all hopeful for the future. If you press the other pedal, you can record answers to the questions, which are presented on an adjacent sign. I feel like I’ve seen this piece a hundred times before, yet right here, right now, it doesn’t seem all that bad. Could it be that the coronavirus has made me lower my demands of art? To my great relief, shortly thereafter in the stairwell I come across both Jana Euler’s gigantic painting of a dromedary and Arseny Zhilyaev’s exceptionally kitsch installation of mannequins dressed as football players from a future dystopian football match where violence has taken over the sport.

Ken Okiishi’s several-metres-long printed email exchange about the effects of the coronavirus on art is no more urgent, given what has already been said on the subject. However, another work by the artist catches my eye. A Model Childhood (2018) consists of an enlarged photograph of the artist’s father, taken 1940 in Honolulu. He is sat on the floor in front of a large shelving unit filled with hundreds of mysterious toys and cult objects. The small child looks as though frozen in the same eerie position as the objects which surround him. I can’t imagine a sadder image of the child as trophy or something to show off.

Another visually and conceptually appealing work is a semi-abstract painting by Reena Spaulings, based on Eugène Delacroix’s The Lion Hunt (1855). It is painted in neon yellow in implicit tribute to the yellow vest movement’s struggle for a more just society. Overall, the exhibition at the Musée Grobet-Labadié is a rich, playful, and visually satisfying art experience. Under normal circumstances, it might have been activated further with performances and the like. Now the building is bathed in an overly sacred “look but don’t touch” atmosphere, with silent guards staring silently into the room behind their face masks.

Arseny Zhilyaev, The Keepers. One-dimensional Sphere Game, 2020. Installation view, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

Civilisation and its discontents

Presented at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, among taxidermy giraffes, peacocks, bats, leopards, and elephants, are ethno-apocalyptic films about endangered Indigenous populations and researchers at abandoned museums who sink into psychotic states. Feelings of discontent seem never to have been greater. The French ethnologist Michel Leiris believed that the only cure for this discontent was a madness that defied the laws of logic and rationality. But is madness a sufficient resistance strategy in insane times? Jean Baudrillard argues in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) that in a culture which dreams of conquering death in the name of economic gain, symbolic death is the only valid currency. His answer was a necrosophical science fiction scenario about a system that must commit suicide in order to survive. With 9/11, the prophecy seemed to come true, but it is only now, with the climate crisis and the pandemic, that Baudrillard’s philosophy of doom has gained meaning.

I study a 300,000-year-old skull of a Homo Neanderthalensis. The vanity of vanities! To pursue knowledge or folly is like chasing the wind. What is art to the skull’s laughter? I quickly move on to the next exhibition chapter at the Musée Cantini, which is full of works that allude to the isolation of quarantine, and Musée de l’Historie where the art is about crime and marginalised individuals in the segregated boroughs of Marseille. Again, not much new under the sun. 

Hannah Black, Oof, 2020. Installation view, Musée Cantini, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

The odd, the poetic, and the possible 

Things finally take a turn at The Almshouse on Centre de la Vieille Charité. Suddenly, I am calm and activated. This strange building brings to mind the odd perspectives in de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings. This peculiar place, playing with the laws of perspective – not least the cathedral, whose dome is oval, like an egg dropped from the sky into a rectangle of symmetrical staircases, arcades, and gaping black doorways – has confined people to isolation since the 15th century, those who risk infecting the social body: the mentally ill, poor, homeless, prostitutes, and criminals.

For this part of the exhibition, which is the absolute highlight of Manifesta, the curatorial team has selected works of art that are sorted under the terms ‘the odd’, ‘the poetic’, and ‘the possible’. In the old cells of the monastery, in a yellow hazy light, far away from the clinical atmosphere of the white cube, you can read the psychedelic trip reports that Walter Benjamin wrote in Marseille, Arthur Rimbaud’s love letters, and Georges Bataille’s legendary journal Documents (1929–30) which he also linked to his sect Acéphale (the headless secret society that made fun of both the French Revolution and the Freudian operating man).

There is also: a watercolour by Roland Barthes that is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s symphonic abstractions, Japanese calligraphy, and Pollock’s drop paintings; a couple of drawings depicting the revolt of ‘language’ and ‘angels’ by psychiatrist and art enfant terrible Antonin Artaud; and a couple of erotic drawings by the recently deceased author Pierre Guyotat (1940–2020), who wrote a series of extraordinary books on sexual violence in the colonies and became a cult figure for the younger generation of French authors.

Roland Barthes, Untitled, 1973 & Trait d’Union Journal de Saint-Alban, 1963. Installation view, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

One artist I had not heard of at all is Hélène Smith, who was active at the turn of the last century. In one of Charité’s cells, one can take part in her cryptic “acoustic landscape,” which led her to develop a whole theory of language based on the connections between Sanskrit and the language of aliens – and which eventually led to her work slipping into the pathologising compartments of pseudo-psychiatric art historians.

Included here is also Trait-d’union, the journal made by the patients at the Saint-Alban clinic, which revolutionised psychiatry with “psychothérapie institutionelle,” premised upon the idea that everyone in a clinic needs therapy, both the inpatients and the staff. The clinic became so beloved and mythical during the Second World War that both Paul Elouard and Tristan Tzara chose to settle here. The ground-breaking journal contributed to reformulating what madness is and how it should be treated, as well as to the idea that madness was an art that could be cultivated and refined, even something to long for.

Another discovery at La Vieille Charité is Lionel Soukaz’s completely mesmerising documentary Race d’Ep (The Homosexual Century) from 1979, a time when homosexuality was still taboo. The film chronicles a brief adventure between two men, an American and a Frenchman, who meet at a bar in Paris and decide to spend the day together. The Frenchman is clingy and malicious, while the American is elusive and shrouded in a sphinx-like mystery. The really funny thing about the film is the clash between their behaviours and the respective voiceovers, which reveals what they really think of each other. The film also includes montages with several other stories, including about the German photographer Baron von Gloeden and gay pornography from the 1970s.

This part of the exhibition contains not only surprising historical works and artefacts, but also contemporary works, such as a pair of very strange shapeless sculptures of rope and yarn by the artist Judith Scott, who was born with Down’s syndrome. Here is also a work by one of my favourite contemporary artists, Pauline Curnier Jardin, who had her breakthrough at the Venice Biennale in 2017 with her carnivalesque video installation Grotta profunda (The Moody Chasm), a subversive reinterpretation of the Christian creation myth, Saint Theresa’s ecstasy, and Plato’s cave allegory. Here, she shows the video Qu’un Sang Impur (Just an Impure Blood), which is a kind of remake of Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love, 1950). Genet’s book portrays a homoerotic relationship between two prisoners from the perspective of a sadistic prison guard. Curnier Jardin has replaced the young handsome men with older women who fall into a trance and caress themselves. Eventually, through a series of flesh and blood rituals, the women free themselves from both the prison guard’s gaze and the heteronormative age-fascist ‘meat market’.

It is curatorial genius to show this revolutionary prison exodus in the same room where people were once chained to the walls. I’m reminded of a joke about a man who is locked up in a psychiatric clinic and starts knocking on the door: “Have you gone crazy? Open! You have locked yourself in!”

Arthur Rimbaud, Photographies, 1883. Installation view, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.

When I leave this strange place, it occurs to me how appropriate it is that La Vieille Charité now serves as an art museum, since art is probably the last bastion where dreaming, a measure of madness, and mental anxiety still have a place. On the other hand, I am not convinced that works about homosexuality, ‘primitive’ cultures, and Down’s syndrome should be shown together with works about insanity and mental illness.

Thus, this is an exhibition that both represents and produces otherness by confirming a dated boundary between the normal and the abnormal. But there is also a romanticising strand, which suggests that pathology equals genius, an idea that has definitely lost its power in our time, and that deserves to be revived. It reminds me of Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale in 2013, which sought to destabilise the Western image canon by showing contemporary artists along with weirdos and historical avant-garde works. Or Harald Szeemann, who tried a similar approach with Documenta in 1972, where he devoted a large part of the exhibition to the then completely unknown outsider artist Adolf Wölfli.

If there is one thing that outsider art succeeds in, it is pointing out the uniformity of contemporary art. At the same time, there is always a risk of admiration inadvertently becoming marginalisation. I dream of a new wave of artists who, like the Surrealists, are interested in psychiatry, their own mental illnesses, and those of others. We need to continue to challenge our notions of normal and abnormal, illness and health, because we live in a more neurotic and paranoid time than ever before. However, Manifesta 13 would have benefitted from delving deeper into these issues, because unfortunately, as a whole, it adds up to a quite conventional and competent exhibition that moves in a little too many different directions.

Anna Boghiguian, Untitled 1, 2, 3,  2019. Installation view, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020. Photo: Jeanchristophe Lett/Manifesta.