The Hermitage has always been a place for contemporary art, and debates about art. This claim was made by Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, as he welcomed those present at the press conference for Manifesta in St. Petersburg. Sitting alongside the chief curator Kasper König and director Hedwig Fijen from Manifesta, he addressed the press and other guests during the opening of the 10th instalment of the biennial. In order to corroborate the somewhat surprising claim with empirical evidence, Piotrovsky mentioned that in 1919 the Winter Palace hosted a large-scale exhibition of the most recent art trends, and went on to conclude: “This is not the first time we work with contemporary art.”
In many ways Piotrovsky’s somewhat absurd, but certainly humorous welcome set the tone for the press conference, which was conducted in a vast amphi-like staircase covered in travertine marble and permeated by a great deal of glossy geometry. Sitting on cushions in a Christo orange hue it was difficult not to be impressed by the surroundings. The huge building, located right across from the Hermitage, was home to the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs during the Tsar rule. In 2008 work began on converting the eastern wing of the building into a new museum for the Hermitage Museum’s modern collection; the result of the process is a hyper-elegant museum building that is inaugurated with this biennial.
The fact that the work leading up to the new museum has been a long and arduous process become clear when Piotrovsky mentioned, in an aside, that when the building work commenced the interior looked like Thomas Hirschhorn’s contribution to the biennial, Abschlag. Hirschhorn’s work fills one of the inner courtyards of the new museum, forming a kind of “remnant”, albeit newly made, of a decaying past. The work is a replica of a Soviet block of flats full of kommunalkas – communal flats were up to seven families were crowded together in tiny rooms, sharing the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and telephone as part of a “new collective vision for the future.” The façade, hanging as rubble down across the building, has been struck of the rest of the building. The art on the walls – paintings by Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko, Goncharova, Tatlin, and other figures from the Leningrad avant-garde, described by Hirschhorn as testaments to the utopian and dystopian struggle in which the artists took part – is exposed, but hangs so high that it is barely noticeable.
However, “exposure” would hardly be an apt description of the press conference as such. Rather, the event was one of careful evasion. Even so, Hedwig Fijen, who took the floor after Piotrovsky, went straight to the heart of the controversy: “Should we leave Russia, or stay?” The answer was clear: we should stay and allow the citizens here to gain access to a rich multitude of different voices and artistic modes of expression, said Fijen. With this statement she repeated the message that König and Piotrovsky have offered over the course of the last months: Resistance can only happen from within; withdrawing will change nothing. As Piotrovsky said in an interview with the German TV station ARD just before the biennial was opened: “Demanding a boycott is idiotic. No-one in Russia wants a Manifesta. Putin does not need a Manifesta. This is not the Olympic Games.”
This attitude has been symptomatic for the management’s overall handling of the recurring criticism prior to the biennial’s opening. Criticism that began after the Duma had passed the law banning “gay propaganda”, and after the Irish artist Noel Kelly launched a petition urging the biennial to cancel, postpone, or relocate to another city. The final alternative was probably the least likely of them all, for 3 million out of the biennial’s total budget of 4.5 million Euros are provided directly by the host city. The pressure mounted even higher in late February when Russian troops took the Crimean peninsula and a new petition asked the Manifesta management to postpone the biennial until the Russian troops have withdrawn from Ukraine. In March the St. Petersburg-based artists’ group Chto Delat pulled out, followed shortly afterwards by the Polish artist Pawel Althamer.
Fijen then pointed back to the historical background: “Manifesta was born out of the fall of the Berlin wall and the new opportunities this created for moving around Europe,” she pointed out, and went on to say that what the Iron Curtain had created was a divide and a sense of scepticism. Kasper König built on this point when he finally spoke: “The Wall is back,” he stated, accentuating the importance of never becoming insular in one’s mindset; rather, one should aim to demonstrate how complex and beautiful the world really is. König’s aversion against simplified political matrices became even more evident after the press conference: during a guided tour for a smaller group of members of the press he pointed out that he is highly sceptical of ideologies.
“The intention was to create an exhibition without a manifesto,” stated König during the press conference. “This does not mean that you do not have an idea,” he elaborated. Indeed, it gradually became clear that in spite of his fierce resistance to the instrumentalisation of art, König actually believed that Manifesta 10 was political; a claim that was corroborated as one began to study the exhibition. The most eye-catching feature is the large number of LGBT-themed works, which form a reply to Putin’s politics of repression against the LGBT community. However, the exhibition also contains work that addresses Russia’s aggressive intervention in the Ukraine. This is particularly evident in e.g. Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of Ukrainian citizens barricading themselves in on the Maidan Square in Kiev during the months prior to the massacre – a work commissioned by Manifesta.
In view of the many protests heard prior to the opening of the biennial, one might have thought that a barrage of queries would have met König, Fijen, and Piotrovsky when the assembled audience was allowed to ask questions. This was not, however, the case. It seemed as if König’s somewhat resigned attitude towards the biennial’s political implications had rubbed off on those present. The most potent, but also most obvious question was asked by a journalist from the Finnish YLE, who wanted to know what König had to say to those artists who believe that the biennial should have been boycotted. König had no fully prepared message, but related that Chto Delat had been invited during “a very interesting and highly political exhibition” in Bergen (Bergen Assembly). König also said that he disagreed with Dmitry Vilensky’s simplifications, and with the fact that he announced his boycott on Facebook without contacting Manifesta first. A rather more surprising moment came when König directed the room’s attention towards another potential boycott – that of the press – by asking this question: “Where is the New York Times?”
A more confrontational attitude was taken by a Russian-speaking journalist, who asked Piotrovsky whether the museum would set up a satellite branch on the Crimean Peninsula, and also wished to know how many Russian artists had withdrawn from the biennial. Piotrovsky responded to the latter question by stating that the State Hermitage Museum is a global museum and that is does not matter where people come from, before he went on to drily inform the assembly that the museum actually used to have a Crimean branch – prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The biennial management was finally asked what criteria they had applied when selecting artists.
“It just happened. It was a very intuitive process,” said König. “However, many ideas proved too costly and too complicated to be realized. The road leading up to the final exhibition was extremely tough,” said the curator, but also paraphrased Goethe’s saying: “If stones are put in your way, you should know that you can make beautiful things with stones.” Fijen soberly added that the selection of the biennial’s 56 auxiliary projects, which feature many Russian artists, was done after an open call that resulted in 200 submissions.
Piotrovsky then noted that there were no more questions, adding – with a certain measure of self-deprecating irony – that perhaps their answers had been so brilliant that no more rounds were required.