“WHAT DO YOU GET someone for their 250th birthday?” bellowed Manifesta’s curator Kasper König, employing a tone that suggested he had a few choice ideas. He was addressing a crowd gathered in the ballroom of Saint Petersburg’s Hotel Astoria to celebrate the opening of the itinerant biennial’s contentious tenth edition, sited in one of the world’s most illustrious museums, the State Hermitage, which was marking an impressive two-and-a-half-century anniversary.
Cutting a dapper figure in his tux, König certainly didn’t look as battle-weary as he sounded. It was no secret that the exhibition had encountered its obstacles, weathering not one but two international boycotts—the first in the fall of 2013, a response to the notorious legislation against “homosexual propaganda”; the second in February 2014, an expression of outrage against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Further misunderstandings abounded when the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky—who fancies himself as manning the last bastion for contemporary art after a criminally uninspired 2013 exhibition of the Chapman Brothers came under fire for offending religious sentiment (the cardinal no-no in today’s Russia)—somehow found it flattering that a biennial known for homing in on Europe’s trouble spots would show such interest. Manifesta, meanwhile, quietly maintained its stance on freedom of expression in areas of “political non-alignment,” tiptoeing over one of several leviathans in the room.
International headlines had no such hesitations, double-dipping on Russia-bashing, with a special focus on homophobia. Never mind that the propaganda law has had but one official casualty, or that comparatively little ink was spilled over potentially more alarming laws (such as one that subjects personal blogs or social media platforms to the same restrictions, regulations and liabilities as media outlets). As far as Manifesta’s public was concerned, if the exhibition were to continue, it had an imperative to speak out. The scene in Saint Petersburg, however, was embarrassingly tranquil. Visitors who thought they were flocking to the front lines were met with little to do but soak in the city’s elegant drowsiness. Clutching their orange tote bags, they smiled wryly at König’s toast, though one got the sense most were still deciding whether they were relieved not to have been beaten up en route to the party.
“This edition of Manifesta has been born from a Shakespearean dilemma and questions about whether to engage or disengage,” Manifesta Foundation president Hedwig Fijen admitted afterward in a toast of her own. “Kasper was the right man at the right time.” While none would dispute that the esteemed König has more than earned his stripes, it was also true that some of the curator’s recent struggles were directly linked to his refusal to cater to today’s 140-character reactionaries. His invitation to artists included a statement cautioning that the biennial could likely be “misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation” and urging participants not to “resort to cheap provocations”: “The environment and the possibilities for this exhibition are very rich and it would be a mistake to reduce our possibilities down to the level of just making a particular political statement.”
Not surprisingly, this equation of politically engaged art to self-righteous back-patting proved provocative in itself, prompting more than one artist to reconsider participation. Always quick to the bullhorn, the collective Chto Delat? was the first to withdraw, and Paweł Althamer and Artur Żmijewski would disappear from the roster shortly after. (Other names—including Cyprien Gaillard and Cindy Sherman—would also drop, but these were presumably casualties of budget considerations, not geopolitics.) When asked about Chto Delat? at the press conference, König didn’t mince words: “If you ask me, their understanding of politics is a bit simplistic, like on that American television series Desperate Housewives. They feel the political situation is so severe that art doesn’t mean anything anymore. I told them, if that’s how you feel, OK, then do what you have to do. If you leave, it’s sad, but don’t tell me what I have to say or do.”
“If anyone is guilty of cheap provocations, it’s Kasper,” one curator grumbled as we made our way through the General Staff Building, the Hermitage’s newly renovated neighbor to the Winter Palace. Destined to house the museum’s blockbuster collection of twentieth-century paintings, the monstrous complex (several smaller buildings forged into one, Frankenstein style) was given over entirely to Manifesta. In what was surely König’s most radical and revelatory gestures, the curator moved the Hermitage’s storied Matisses into their new home ahead of the gun, so that showstoppers like The Arab Coffeehouse and two versions of The Dance mingled with works by Wolfgang Tillmans and Olivier Mosset. König then filled the freshly vacated galleries in the Winter Palace with paintings by Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman, interrupting the stream of Picassos, Gauguins, and Van Goghs to the chagrin of many of a tour guide. Dumas won early applause for her cloying series of watercolors, now titled “Great Men” (the original middle modifier “Gay” was theatrically axed in concession to the propaganda law), though it was clear Eisenman’s charming, awkwardly angled portrait of two women having sex (we just see the tops of two heads, clenched hands, and knees askew) was also there to cause some trouble.
Left: Garage Museum director Kate Fowle with artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz. (Photo: Trevor Paglen) Right: Curator Ekaterina Andreeva with Gennady Pliskin at the Hermitage General Staff Building.
For a so-called “Manifesta without a manifest,” König sure spent a lot of time trying to poke the eye of the sleeping giant. Witness the many gasps over the tribute to the ever-ebullient Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, who took on the image (and surname) of his favorite heroine, Marilyn. The presentation of his works was one of two miniretrospectives of the Northern Capital’s brightest lights (the other being of Timur Novikov) guest-curated by State Russian Museum’s Katya Andreeva. Andreeva had covered the same territory with a far more compelling show last month at the London nonprofit Calvert 22, but to Manifesta’s international audience—overwhelmingly ignorant of the city’s recent cultural history and of its homoerotic New Academy—the inclusion of two openly gay Russian artists was lauded as a triumph for freedom of expression. Never mind that both artists are now deceased and unable to speak for themselves. “Dead artists don’t bite,” shrugged artist Andrey Khlobystin, another veteran of the scene.
A lack of context seemed to plague the biennial, especially when it came to those works that intervened directly into the imperial collection of the sprawling Winter Palace. The tourists streaming by Joseph Beuys’s 1980 work Wirtschaftswerte—a series of commercial shelves plopped amid the Dutch landscapes with solely its title for explanation—registered only bewilderment. “Don’t pay attention to these!” one guide barked at a set of Louise Bourgeois drawings. “It’s all just temporary.”
“They told me they expect two million people to see the exhibition, but I suspect that has nothing to do with how many people actually make it to this room,” artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz lamented, during a requisite break for the World Cup. In the labyrinthine layout of the Winter Palace, even the most dedicated Manifesta-goers struggled to locate which rooms the aggravating, abstract exhibition map indicated. There was little to no signage within the museum itself, and it was no use asking a passing Piotrovsky: He was busy escorting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas around the grounds. Maybe they were able to find the Karla Black?
“The Hermitage has not been so accommodating,” one Manifesta team member confessed in a definite understatement. König was less tactful. His acid-laced toast at the opening cocktail would have raised more eyebrows, had his translator not been so quick to camouflage the curator’s less discreet observations, transforming a phrase like “this curious, truly byzantine museum, carrying on as if in a fairy tale” into “this marvelous, fairy-tale-like museum.” But there was no disguising König’s comparison of Manifesta as a “wonderful, do-gooding organization” to the Hermitage as the institution of “Nyet Nyet Nyet!” As for Saint Petersburg, it’s a city “so stuck on its own tragic history that it doesn’t seem able to properly devour it, to chew it up, and spit it out.” Taking a thoughtful look at his champagne, the curator concluded: “But this happened, so let’s drink.”
König wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings. “I’m not here!” one international artist said, waving me away as he crossed the Palace Square in the company of Moscow curator Daria Parkhomenko. Others owned the opportunity to visit Russia, regardless of politics. Francis Al˙s’s proposal saw the artist and his brother reviving a thirty-year-old dream of taking a Russian-made auto, the Lada Kopeika, from Brussels to Leningrad. The epic road trip ended symbolically with a mild crash into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace, where the car remains. From what Al˙s had observed, today’s Russia is afflicted with “collective apathy.” “There’s a passive resistance to culture here. It’s not like people are going out of their way to oppose things, but there are just a hundred tiny obstacles to clear before anyone can do anything.”
This attitude did not deter Manifesta 10’s curator of public programs, Joanna Warsza, who considered the boycotts a call to mobilization. “We should take them into account as part of the public’s response.” She noted the particular complexity of her position as someone responsible for not just a project, but a whole program. “Withdrawal was a possibility, but it would have had to be a collective decision.”
Warsza developed her program using the destinations board at the city’s Vitebsk Train Station. “You don’t have London or Paris,” Warsza noted. “You have Vilnius, Chișinău, Tallinn, Kyiv, and Warsaw.” Recruiting artists like Slavs and Tatars, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Kristina Norman, the public program did not shy away from political gestures: Deimantas Narkevičius organized a concert of war songs by a choir of Cossacks (the much-romanticized minority, now perhaps best known for whipping Pussy Riot); Pavel Braila filled a minifridge with snow brought in from Sochi, the subtropical climate that miraculously hosted the Winter Olympics; and Alexandra Pirici set the monuments of Saint Petersburg to human scale, by planting performers in and around such postcard staples as the Bronze Horseman and the Finland Railway Station Lenin.
Local artists Ilya Orlov and Natasha Kraevskaya used their commission to explore some of the near-abandoned revolutionary museums, such as the Sarai Museum in the outlying town of Razliv, where Lenin was purported to have hidden for a few days in the summer of 1917. Once receiving 500,000 visitors a year, in the post-Soviet present, the museum would be lucky to get 50,000. Orlov and Kraevskaya enlisted Moscow-based curator Ilya Budraitskis—who was dismissed from his post at the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia last fall after staging an exhibition drawing parallels to the events of 1990–91—to deliver a lecture on the fate of outdated ideological monuments.
The lecture took on a special resonance within the context of Manifesta. After all, if the boycotts accomplished anything, it was to call into question whether there’s still a place for “do-gooding” in today’s art world. With political pendulums swinging across the continent, Manifesta may very well find its work cut out for it in 2016, when it retreats to “civilized” Switzerland.
Left: Manifesta 10 artist Thomas Hirschhorn with Manifesta's Sepake Angiama at the Hermitage General Staff Building. Right: Artists Henrik Olesen, Anders Klausen, Klara Liden, and Wolfgang Tillmans at the Hotel Astoria.
Left: Dealer Ursula Krinzinger with Manifesta 10 artist Erik van Lieshout. Right: Manifesta 10 artist Alexandra Pirici.
Left: Manifesta 10 artist Boris Mikhailov. Right: Artist Trevor Paglen with dealer Johann König. (Photo: Liz Mulholland)
Left: New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni with High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani. Right: Curator and Vienna Art Fair director Christina Steinbrecher.
Left: Chto Delat?'s Dmitry Vilensky and Olga Egorova with students from the School of Engaged Art. Right: Manifesta 10 artist Elena Kovylina.
Left: Artists Wolfgang Tillmans, Kasia Korczak, and Payam Sharifi. Right: Curator Josef Backstein.
Left: Curator Andrei Misiano at B152 Tearoom. Right: Blue Noses' Alexander Shaburov at Erarta Galleries of Contemporary Art.