NOTES ON A LONG GARDEN LEAVE
The Work of Nicolas Manenti
Sunshine Wong, May 2012
The Interludes, 2001-2002
Leaving a job may not mean that all ties with your company are neatly severed. To ensure confidentiality of company information, you can be subjected to a paid but workless period upon resigning, a so-called "garden leave" during which you are only an employee by contract but do not render any services. Berlin-based French artist Nicolas Manenti worked the graveyard shift as a security guard, as if he were put on perpetual garden leave: a member of staff only nominally, without the opportunity to produce anything.
To be in a place depleted of activity with only the traces of absent colleagues (empty chairs, mute telephones, tea-stained mugs) as company, Manenti began to perfect the art of killing time. Dressed in a clerk's uniform of shirt and tie, he reclines on desks in seductive poses, answers a phone that never rings, and stomps down the fluorescent-lit hallway like a supermodel. The tragicomic white-collar antihero emerges for the first time in the video shorts, Interludes (2001 – 2002): "It's what makes Clark Kent, Clark Kent. Not Superman," Manenti insists.
The bureaucentric vein has since become a staple his work, with an ever-expanding cast of characters. Each of the 9-to-5ers in the Save our Jobs composites (2008-2011) have been resketched by hand from stock photos and re-imagined in absurd or perverse professional situations. In a fell swoop of light, ironic gestures, he transforms the office – ordinarily regulated by hierarchy and constant performance anxieties exerted from the top down – into a parody of itself.
Extending beyond the camp interpretations of our modern day work environs, Manenti also delves into labour as such, personally undergoing mind-numbing, repetitious activity as a method of contemplation.
Company holidays stamped chronologically on an endless roll of fax paper (Betriebsferien, 2011) clearly hearkens to On Kawara's iconic devotion to timekeeping. Where his grave statements of date and time betray Kawara's concession to their exactitude, the stamped durations in Manenti's piece are, despite his best efforts, prone to error, undermining the idea of precision by its very attempt.
Similarly, Guy Debord's La société du spectacle – a seminal text on mass media and the death of authenticity – is copied over by hand, reducing it to an illegible replica of itself (La Société du Spectacle copied over itself, 2008 - 2010). In it, he foretold the dominance of images and reproductions over the real. Representations would flourish, much like how the three office plants of Angenagelt (2008) is a cruel attempt to flatten and reduce reality.
This is an artistic process that both relies upon and subjugates reality, a tension that reappears in many of Manenti's installation pieces. Perspektiven (2007) shows a conference room in disarray, with every piece of furniture in a useless state: a legless chair, a teetering table with papers spilling onto the floor, and a flipchart used as a virtual dartboard for markers. The usual components found in a workspace are present but amok, believable but irrational.
Summarising Manenti's practice was never going to be a simple task. His work could be mistaken for being an easy punchline attacking our workaholic sensibilities when in fact it offers a layered, dialectical critique on social order. Parrying our perceptions on greatness, authenticity, and industriousness with wit, the joke's ultimately on us.