Manifesta: a hard act to pull off
Kasper König organises the roving biennial as Russia, its host, attracts attention for all the wrong reasons
By Javier Pes. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 20 June 2014
Kasper König did not make it to Art Basel this week, but the curator, academic and former museum director has a valid excuse—he is the chief curator of Manifesta 10, which opens next week in St Petersburg. This year’s edition of the nomadic European biennial of contemporary art (28 June-31 October) is unlike previous editions. It is hosted by the State Hermitage Museum as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations, and König has been organising the biennial against the backdrop of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the West.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, has described the crisis in Ukraine as a “big poker game”, and it has inevitably threatened to overshadow the biennial. König and Piotrovsky have also had to contend with vested interests in Russia supporting cultural isolationism and the country’s growing ultra-conservatism. In addition to Russia’s controversial anti-gay propaganda law, there are new laws against obscene language and offending religious feelings. Contemporary art is a tempting target for extremists. “The Hermitage is defending the territory of art,” König said ahead of Manifesta 10, speaking of the risks and responsibilities of showing work by more than 50 artists in the “sacred spaces” of the Hermitage. “It is a super-traditional institution,” the Berlin-based curator tells The Art Newspaper. “I am, therefore, super-sensitive as a guest.”
König has included Henri Matisse in Manifesta. “It’s very pragmatic,” he says, “and radical.” Among the works by Matisse in the Hermitage’s collection are the panels known as The Dance and Music, two of his most important paintings of the period 1908 to 1913 and among the museum’s most famous works of Modern art. Around a million people visit the Hermitage in July alone, König says, and moving Matisse’s works to the General Staff Building will give many of those summer visitors a reason to go there and not just to the Winter Palace.
New commissions for Manifesta include a “road movie” by the artist Francis Alÿs that ends with a Lada car crashing into a tree in the courtyard of the Hermitage. (Police were called by worried onlookers when the final scene was filmed earlier this year.) Marlene Dumas has created a series of portraits that include famous gay men. They range from Tchaikovsky and Oscar Wilde to Alan Turing, the British computer scientist who helped to crack German military codes during the Second World War. Other new work includes a large-scale installation of images, which König describes as “almost Shakespearean”, by the artist Boris Mikhailov, based on photographs he took last December in Kiev’s Maidan square. Mikhailov says they show protesters “before the main, hard and tragic events that took place a month later”.
König is proud that two-thirds of the artists he invited to take part in Manifesta have spent at least a week in St Petersburg, absorbing the character and history of the city and its great museum. One of those who did not get a chance to visit was the late Maria Lassnig, who died in May. Her nudes will be featured prominently. The curator is confident that two of the three artists who pulled out of the main exhibition because of the crisis in Ukraine will still take part in associated events. They include the Polish-born artist Pawel Althamer.
König hopes that Manifesta 10 will not be about fixed and dogmatic positions, and that it will help to foster dialogue between the West and Russia. The Lithuanian-born artist and film-maker Deimantas Narkevicius has created a work that is sung by a Cossack choir. The point, König says, is that not all Cossacks are reactionaries who “whip Pussy Riot members in the street”, referring to an incident during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
König recognises that taking part in the biennial is especially problematic for artists from Russia and from neighbouring countries that were previously behind the Iron Curtain, and respects those who decided not to participate in either the main exhibition or the wider programme. As well as the 57 artists invited to show work in the Hermitage’s buildings, around 250 artists, mainly Russian or from countries in Eastern Europe, are taking part. There will be around 50 installations across St Petersburg, including a space in the ornate Vitebsky railway station. The public programme is being organised by the Polish-born curator Joanna Warsza.
Organising Manifesta in the Hermitage requires a curator with experience and sensitivity to the past—the Hermitage’s walls are embedded with Russia’s history, König says. His career in the art world, which stretches back almost 50 years, and his personal history have stood him in good stead. Born in 1943 and growing up in West Germany, he, like others of his generation, had to deal with the legacy of the country’s dark past. Hitler’s defeat did not result in overnight denazification. In West Germany, he says, “the 1960s was the end of the Nazi period”. For example, he was struck by how German commentary of the 1954 World Cup final in Bern sounded “like something from the Nuremberg Rallies”, except the subject was football, not Nazi ideology, he told Frieze magazine in 2012.
Russia still has to fully confront the trauma of its 20th-century history, König says. Manifesta 10, he hopes, will provide a subtle, intelligent and at times playful antidote to the country’s historical amnesia. With artists of the stature of Lassnig, Gerhard Richter and Bruce Nauman, among others, Manifesta will certainly provide Russians with contemporary art that is a far cry from what König dismisses as “oligarch aesthetic”.
Kasper König, the former director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (2000-12), has been the curator or co-curator of many big exhibitions, including “West Kunst” in Cologne in 1981. In 1977, he co-founded the “Skulptur Projekte Münster”, a show held every ten years. In his 20s, König organised exhibitions of Claes Oldenburg’s and Andy Warhol’s work at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Part of an art-world dynasty, he is married to the Berlin-based gallerist Barbara Weiss. His sons run galleries in New York (Koenig & Clinton) and Berlin (Johann König Gallery), and his brother, Walther König, is a leading art bookseller. Manifesta 10 is the first edition of the biennial to be held in the former Soviet Union. The next venue will be Zurich in 2016.
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