Saint Petersburg

Thomas Hirschhorn, ABSCHLAG (Felling) (detail), 2014, mixed media and paintings by Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, and Olga Rozanova. Installation view. Photo: Egor Rogalev.

Thomas Hirschhorn, ABSCHLAG (Felling) (detail), 2014, mixed media and paintings by Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, and Olga Rozanova. Installation view. Photo: Egor Rogalev.

Manifesta 10

Thomas Hirschhorn, ABSCHLAG (Felling) (detail), 2014, mixed media and paintings by Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, and Olga Rozanova. Installation view. Photo: Egor Rogalev.

AS A STUDENT OF MODERNISM in the 1980s and ’90s, I was taught that the genre of manifesto literature, rich in declarative sentences and visionary ambitions, had petered out before my time; I was reading great prose in a dead language. Then came 1996, and Manifesta. Cleverly feminized, corporatized, and maybe pluralized, “Manifesta” as a title revived a modernist keyword—an emblem of the collective and rebellious—while acknowledging the institutionalization of a modernist ethos in contemporary times. “You will not find paintings or monumental sculptures. You will not see a traditional presentation. . . . Get acquainted with the many interesting museums in Rotterdam and the work of numerous challenging, still relatively unknown artists from all over Europe,” read the brief for its first iteration, whose organizers (a five-member team spearheaded by Katalyn Neray) had taken on the theme of migration. With the tenth installment this past summer, it was only natural to expect a celebration of this peripatetic European biennial’s persistence, even at the expense of some of its initial insurrectionary spirit. The transformations to those founding tenets were nevertheless surprising.

Manifesta 10 was less dispersed than its previous incarnations, and housed largely in a single, great museum, the Hermitage. Likewise, the curatorial teamwork that has animated other Manifestas gave way to direction by a solitary commissioner—who is, moreover, no brash upstart but rather the veteran Kasper König. Most significant, one could not argue that this edition consisted of “relatively unknown artists”: Francis Alÿs and Gerhard Richter were among the living participants, joined by such late colleagues as Louise Bourgeois and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Under these circumstances, the Manifesta-tested practice of “invading” older museums seemed less a confrontation than a convocation. This tactic did sometimes achieve dramatic effects: Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, for example, was hung at the center of a small, lovely gallery, flanked by bacchic chariots in wood and ivory by the eighteenth-century Bavarian carver Simon Troger—painterly shock and restraint paired with diminutive sculptural flamboyance. Tatzu Nishi, meanwhile, built a room within a room—a domestic interior oppressively furnished in shades of scarlet—to enclose one of the iconic Winter Palace chandeliers.

More problematic was an emphasis on equally baroque fantasies about the Bolshevik Revolution. That was an age of manifestos, to be sure. But it is hard to see what is gained by romanticizing events of a hundred years ago, still less as foreigners visiting the country where those events took place. For Thomas Hirschhorn’s ABSCHLAG (Felling), 2014, the facade of a three-story building within the complex of edifices conjoined as the General Staff Building appeared to have been torn down, and paintings by Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, and Olga Rozanova were hung on the uppermost exposed walls. The installation simply rang hollow: authentic art and ideals brought in as props for theater in its most inauthentic form. To facilitate discussions of Antonio Gramsci among residents of a Bronx housing project, as Hirschhorn did last year, is undeniably to keep the flame alive; to show Malevich et al. from on high to Russians and the art-tourist circuit is to market the flame like a gift-shop lighter. Similar criticism might be leveled at Alÿs’s project, which revolved around the belated (and now well-funded) realization of his teenage dream of driving a Lada, the classic late-Soviet car, from his family home in Belgium to the USSR—a fantasy that “represented the alternative way, the Cause, the Call that our parents feared,” the artist commented in accompanying wall texts. The commissioned joyride, elaborated via two- and three-dimensional art relics (drawings, models, video) of dubious necessity to the endeavor, terminated with a sardonic flourish: After a victory lap in the Hermitage courtyard, the Lada was gently crashed into a tree. At last, Russians can learn what it means to meet deflated ideals with black humor.

The exhibition’s literature insistently proclaimed concern with Russia’s contemporary problems, and much press attention was given to the show’s demonstrative support for gay rights and freedom of expression in the face of crackdowns. Solo presentations by Marlene Dumas and Nicole Eisenman were indeed convincing in this regard, partly for the quality of the works—a cogent, beautifully drawn single series on “Great [Gay] Men” by Dumas; a well-chosen survey of paintings by Eisenman—and partly for their succinct installation in adjacent rooms still fresh with the memory of the famous Henri Matisse collection. Two rooms of recent work by Wolfgang Tillmans, in the General Staff Building near the new home of the Matisse paintings, also made a real impact (in terms of gender as well). But signs of contemporary feeling were overwhelmed by a rather unfeeling retrograde air, a tourist-circuit version of Russian history. Jokey paintings by Pavel Pepperstein (a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll; a prison convict drawn South Park style) are merely send-ups of history (whether folkloric or totalitarian). Boris Mikhailov’s practiced insider photographs of fellow Ukrainians protesting in Kiev last winter are obviously current and composed with great sympathy, but their printing at mural size forced an unwelcome monumentality—touted in explanatory materials, again unreflectively, as “recalling the dramatic canvases made by Russian realist painters in the late nineteenth century.” All in all, one had the impression that the curator’s main interest was a nostalgia trip and that this endeavor was less addressed to the present or future than to a fictionalization of the past.

Matthew S. Witkovsky is Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and curator of the department of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.