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Francis Alÿs Lada “Kopeika” Project. Brussels—St. Petersburg 2014

Set in the Hermitage and curated by a seventy-years old star curator, Manifesta 10 is different from all earlier editions of this roving biennial. The show in St Petersburg does not really make clear why this strategic repositioning has been chosen.

To celebrate the opening of Manifesta 10 last Friday, the Consul General of the Netherlands in St. Petersburg organised an informal brunch at his residency overlooking the Neva river. Hedwig Fijen, director of the roving biennial, was running late. The Palace Square that connects the General Staff Building and the Winter Palace of the hosting State Hermitage Museum had been completely closed off due to a festival of street sports – this on the day of the public opening of Manifesta 10.

The situation seems symptomatic of the troublesome process leading up to the biennial, which met with several calls for boycotts and petitions to cancel the event after the Russian government approved new anti-LGTB legislation, the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and increasing political tensions in Ukraine. In extent, the biennial had to face the often-conservative, bureaucratic institutional environment of the 250-year-old Hermitage Museum and the host city of St. Petersburg, with its history of preferring more settled and bourgeois forms of art over contemporary artistic expressions.

Gerhard Richter Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) [Ema (Nude on a Staircase)] 1966 Oil on canvas 200 × 130 cm Collection of Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

Hermitage & Winter Palace

The situation also seems symptomatic of the pragmatic and persevering approach of director Hedwig Fijen and curator Kasper König, who gathered a team of local and international staff to help them navigate the precarious environment of Russian legislation and sentiment. From the outset, the management of the biennial has stressed its commitment to the biennial as a catalyst for local and international dialogue, and the historical legacy of the biennial as a platform for cultural exchange.

The question remains what this international dialogue or cultural exchange should be about. In spite of the political unrest between the East and West, the curatorial strategy of König mostly surpasses a direct response to the current political tension and chooses instead to present more personal narratives of artists and their relation to the Russian context.

Instead of political confrontation it opts for a more playful way of reflecting on the situation, such as in the work by Francis Alÿs, who smashed his green Lada Kopeika into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace.

Francis Alÿs Lada “Kopeika” Project. Brussels—St. Petersburg 2014

In Alÿs’ teenage years, his brother proposed to escape their boring Belgian bourgeois hometown by driving their Lada to Russia, the other side of the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, their attempted escape ended somewhere in Germany, where the engine of the Lada died and the brothers had to return home. Thirty years later, Alÿs has invited his brother for a second journey from Belgium to St. Petersburg, where he settles the score with his teenage experience by crashing the car into a tree in front of the entrance to the Hermitage.

Where the Lada of Alÿs presents a strong visual statement within the surroundings of the Hermitage, the other contributions of Manifesta 10 within the old premises of the Winter Palace rather take the form of a subtle infiltration into the permanent collection display of the museum. More politically interesting are the works by Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas and Nicole Eisenman, who have occupied the rooms where the work of Henri Matisse is usually displayed. Where in the work of Matisse the female nude presents the most important motif, the works by Lassnig, Dumas and Eisenman react to this position from three different generations and incorporate the question of gender in their work. This especially holds true for the Great Men series by Dumas, which consists of a gallery of portraits of well-known and allegedly gay men of the twentieth century within the cultural Russian society. An interesting reflection of the local situation which appaers to be so different what the western visitor is used to: the works by the three female artists are all rated 16+ and are not accessible to younger visitors.

Marlene Dumas, Detail from "Great Men" (James Baldwin) 2014 16 drawings

General Staff Building

The first exhibition hall in the General Staff Building immediately roots you within a specific local art history, showing Timur Novikov’s Horizons, co-curated by Ekaterina Andreyeva of the State Russian Museum. Novikov, a central figure to the avant-garde of the nineties in St. Petersburg, leads the visitor to more Western approaches to the East, such as the monumental work ABLSCHLAG by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, which shows a partly-collapsed three-story Soviet apartment building, revealing works by revolutionary Russian constructivists including Malevich and Filonov.

Thomas Hirschhorn with his work ABSCHLAG, installation view

The Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout introduces the public to social-political aspects of museum life by means of both the ridiculous and deeper historical references. The artist spent four months in the basements of the Hermitage, where Catherine the Great introduced cats to deal with the palace’s mice problem several centuries ago. Van Lieshout engages with the animals in his known hyperactive but critical way, even alluding to the ‘Minder, minder, minder’ [ed: Less, less, less] anti-immigrant statement of the right-wing Dutch politician Wilders. Could the artist be referring to the fact that it’s a pussy riot in the basements of the Hermitage?


Despite the political and bureaucratic resistance that Manifesta 10 faced in organising a biennial in Russia, the curatorial approach of Kasper König, in which the intuitive dilettante meets the star curator, as well as the enfant terrible, results in a layered exhibition that incorporates both Western and Eastern perspectives, as is the case on the third floor of the General Staff Building, where the work by Wolfgang Tillmanns is juxtaposed with that of Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe and Boris Mikhailov.

This still leaves the question whether these two perspectives actually enter in dialogue.

Wolfgang Tillmans St. Petersburg Installation 2014 Installation Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Germany

Avoiding political confrontation, König has chosen art in which the artistic commentaries to recent Russian politics have become a sort of visual riddles. For example, the abstract monochromes by Olivier Mosset deal with the association of colours – there are usually two in every work – and its relation to colour as a ready-made. However when Emily Evans, who assisted König in writing the exhibition proposal, points me towards an image of the Russian band Pussy Riot, Mosset’s colours suddenly gain a socio-political significance.

But what does such a reference mean when it needs to be explained by an assistent-curator?

Olivier Mosset Untitled 2014 Acrylic on canvas Each: 300 × 300 cm Courtesy Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich, Switzerland; Campoli Presti, London, England

It can be argued that in choosing both an established ‘artists’-curator and an array of internationally renowned contributors, the 10th edition of Manifesta merely presents a list of big art names. The question arises what is left of the self-assigned task of Manifesta to experiment with innovative curatorial concepts and its historical ambition to present new artists from East and West.

Not representing its experimental past, what is Manifesta 10 reflecting? A more established future for the biennial which is acceptable for a wider audience?

Not representing its experimental past, what is Manifesta 10 reflecting? A more established future for the biennial which is acceptable for a wider audience?
The truth is arguably that without the presence of a curatorial mastodon like König, this exhibition probably would have been a hard act to pull off within the Russian context. Moreover, as König mentioned during the press conference, he curated Manifesta 10 primarily with a Russian public in mind. Where the selected artists might be considered usual suspects from the perspective of the frequent biennial goer, this does not necessarily hold true for the visitors of the State Hermitage Museum, who are confronted with several overwhelmingly strong works by some of the most talented artists working today.

In that same press conference, König explained some of the difficulties he had faced during production, and still is facing. He admitted that, thus far, the institutional structure of the Hermitage still not yet fully acknowledged the presence of Manifesta. It shows that within the context of St. Petersburg, there is a different set of rules to play with.

König still has the ambition to engage with them over the coming months, hoping that in the end the exhibition will be fully accepted in the institution and the city. Whatever we might think of the political aspirations of this year’s edition of the biennial, the enduring fighting spirit of its seventy year-old curator is something to admire.

Yasumasa Morimura Installation view, MANIFESTA 10, Winter Palace, State Hermitage Museum 2014

Guus van Engelshoven is Coordinator Public Programme & Research , de Appel arts centre Amsterdam

Manifesta 10
Sint Petersburg
28 juni – 31 oktober

Guus van Engelshoven

is a writer and editor

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