Michel Houellebecq and the Zurich Fire Brigade Are Among Unlikely Artists of Manifesta 11

Tess Thackara
Apr 5, 2016 9:00AM

The European biennial Manifesta has announced comprehensive plans for its 11th edition, set to open to the public on June 11th in Zurich. Titled “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures” and curated for the first time by an artist, Christian Jankowski, with the help of Francesca Gavin, co-curator of the biennial’s historical section, the three-month-long series of projects will feature a roster of 30 international artists, including French author Michel Houellebecq, Mexican multimedia artist Teresa Margolles, and infamous Italian provocateur Maurizio Cattelan.

Rendering of Pavillon of Reflections for Manifesta 11. © ETH Studio Emerson. Photo courtesy of Manifesta.

The biennial will focus thematically on the human workforce, and each of the artists selected to participate will collaborate with Zurich professionals—ranging from literature teachers to chefs to health workers—in a “joint venture,” invoking business parlance that indicates separate parties co-producing a new asset. For her project, Margolles will unite transsexual sex workers from Zurich and Juarez, Mexico, over a game of poker, during which they’ll discuss their respective working conditions. The controversial writer Houellebecq will respond to media speculation around his health by collaborating with Zurich doctor Henry Perschak, who will conduct ECG, MRI, and blood tests on him, culminating in the exhibition of X-rays of his brain, recordings of his heart, and invoices from these procedures. Cattelan’s collaborator, or “host,” as they’ve been dubbed, is a Zurich-based Paralympic athlete.

Among other highlights, French artist Marguerite Humeau will team up with a robotics engineer; Catalan artist Carles Congost will collaborate with the Zurich Fire Brigade on a pyro-musical performance in honor of Tina Turner, who lives in Switzerland; and American artist Mike Bouchet will take as his subject the city’s sewage system, no less, in a work titled The Zurich Load. Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, the original home of Dada—which celebrates its centennial this year—will be transformed into a working environment in which artists and laborers engage in joint performances. Those in search of spectacle will find it in the form of the Pavilion of Reflections, a specially constructed floating platform on Lake Zurich that will be equipped with a large-scale LED screen playing films that follow the development of each project, as well as theater seating, a swimming area, and a bar.

It should come as no surprise that Jankowski, whose wide-ranging practice typically takes an anthropological approach, has chosen to expand the biennial beyond the art world’s often hermetic confines, giving it a social practice bent. For past projects, Jankowski has worked with Silicon Valley venture capitalists, televangelists, and professional magicians, among other communities, collaborating on works that mine the particular vernaculars and performative modes of each group. Manifesta 11’s relatively diverse grouping of participants—at least in terms of profession, age, and gender—suggests that the art world can look forward to a decidedly democratic biennial, even if it is still occurring within the elite setting of Europe’s tax haven.

Tess Thackara


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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019