Biennial Contemporary art Museums Russian Federation

Manifesta curator defends biennial at the heart of the Warsaw Pact

Art vital as other bridges between Russia and the West are "being burned", says director of the Hermitage

Kasper König, the curator of Manifesta 10

"To boycott or not to boycott," is not the question, Kasper König, the curator of Manifesta 10, stressed at a conference in London yesterday, 30 April. The curator of this year's edition of the nomadic European biennial of contemporary art, which is due to open in the Hermitage in St Petersburg on 28 June (until 31 October), pre-empted the inevitable question about the artists who have withdrawn by saying that the political importance of holding the first Manifesta biennial in a "Warsaw Pact" country went beyond the crisis between Russia and the West caused by the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.

"The Hermitage is defending the territory of art," he said. In that context "cheap provocations" or "hysterical art" would be politically ineffective. Manifesta is part of the Hermitage's 250th birthday celebrations, so he hoped the works chosen, or specially made, by international artists ranging from Francis Alÿs to Marlene Dumas, would help visitors grapple with complex layers of history that are embedded in the walls of the great museum. One of the Hermitage's great works of Modern art, Henri Matisse's The Dance, 1909-10, is being moved to be part of Manifesta. It and contemporary works, several of them created for the biennial, will be found in rooms in the Winter Palace among historic art, as well as in new spaces in the General Staff Palace and in the original Hermitage building nearby.

The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who was a fellow speaker, said that when contemporary art is being "attacked on all sides", as is the case today in Russia, it was right that art is put into an "ivory tower". He reminded the audience that few in Russia welcomed Manifesta. "It's not like the Olympics," he said.

Piotrovsky said the importance of holding Manifesta outweighed the risks. He described how a Hermitage director had been fired for merely allowing staff, who were artists, to show their own work in a space that was closed to the general public. He said that as well as Russia's controversial anti-gay propaganda laws, there were new laws against obscene language as well as one against offending religious feelings. "The situation is a little dangerous," he admitted, which sounded like an understatement. But when "bridges are being burned" between Russia and the West, it was vital that other bridges are kept open, he said.

König, who is German, and formerly ran the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, said that subverting Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, is more appropriate in this context than adopting a simplistic "activist" stance. He cited a new work for Manifesta by the South-African-born, Dutch-based artist Marlene Dumas. She initially planned a series of drawings of famous homosexual men, including Oscar Wilde and Tchaikovsky, but has decided, after conversations with the curator, to expand the series to include famous heterosexual men too.

He also referred to a choral work created by the Lithuanian-born artist and film-maker Deimantas Narkevicius, which will be sung by a Cossack choir. The point, König said, was that not all Cossacks are reactionaries who "whip Pussy Riot members in the street".

The curator said that he had invited the three artists who had withdrawn to still take part in Manifesta, either by visiting or contributing to one of its events, and two have agreed, stressing the importance of dialogue over dogmatism. Another artist, Oleq Kulik, who was born in Kiev, had pulled out but is now back in the biennial, König said.

As well as the 57 artists taking part in Manifesta 10, around 250 artists, mainly Russian or from countries in Eastern Europe, are involved either in associated events or in the 50 installations in sites 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.

The conference was organised by the Russia Institute, King's College London.

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