A month ago, the fate of Manifesta10, the European art biennial that was set to open in St. Petersburg on June 28th, was still undecided. Some artists were boycotting the exhibition, others were dropping out, staff was not being paid, Manifesta’s curator Kaper Koenig (clearly unhappy with the operation) expressed serious doubts that the show would actually ever open to the public. But the show opened on time, and as planned – or so it seemed.
“Despite the provocations, Saint Petersburg became a center of contemporary art” – proclaimed the cover of The Petersburg Times, a daily paper published by the city government – the same government that provided a large chunk of the show’s budget (around 4,3 million dollars).
It is not exactly certain which “provocations” the paper is referring to specifically (in recent years, the term has basically become a universal tag for all behavior and ideas out of line with the official regime), but it is has long been clear that Manifesta10 wasn’t exactly looking to provoke.
In interviews, Koenig made a point of the biennial being a guest of the city rather than an intruder, or, as he later formulated, of making a Manifesta “without a manifesto.” This Manifesta was discreet by choice.
The show in the General Staff building, a new wing of the Hermitage rebuilt to house Contemporary and Modern art (when we say ‘new’, we mean it – some walls were literally being painted while the first guests were roaming its halls), boasted a list of participants one could encounter at any other international art exhibition – Baibakov Art Projects alum Thomas Hirschhorn, Maria Lassing, Dominique Gonzalez – Foerster, Francis Alÿs, Bruce Nauman, Wolfgang Tillmans, plus some Russian additions like Vlad Mamyshev – Monroe, Timur Novikov, Pavel Pepperstein and Sasha Sukhareva. Many of the international art-world stars have never been shown in the city before, and it seemed like there was a special effort to give both the artists and the audience their space.
In addition to the main exhibition space, some works from Manifesta were integrated in the Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage’s permanent collection. Here, Manifesta’s presence felt a bit forced. Works by artists such as Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Tatzu Nishi and others were not easy to locate; many were shown in spaces that felt peripheral – a delicate installation made of face powder by Сarla Black, for example, was hiding behind a closed door. Reflecting this general attitude, museum guards seemed skeptical and unimpressed – when approached for directions, the typical reply was “yes, I think saw something over there, near our Caravaggios.” The Hermitage, with its imperial past and encyclopedic collection, provides endless possibilities for interpretation, subversion and interrogation. But in the case of Manifesta, the opportunity was missed – most of the artists, and the Hermitage itself, seemed disinterested.
When it came to the politics – Ukraine, ‘gay propaganda’, nationalism, etc. – Manifesta made a point of ticking off all the “big issues”. There was a full room of photographs that Boris Mikhailov shot during the protests in Maidan square; a series of portraits of famous homosexuals by Marlene Dumas; an installation by Erik Van Lieshout focused on the cats living in the Hermitage’s basements with numerous references to Pussy Riot. But at times it seemed that the show was making little effort beyond acknowledging the issues that everyone knew it simply could not ignore.
Generally speaking, the exhibition succeeded in bringing important contemporary artists to a city that sees little contemporary art (and we hope attendance rates will show that people appreciate the effort). Yet this Manifesta left the impression that it could have taken place anywhere else. Given the show’s location in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2014, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Posted by: Polina Dubik