A Dispatch from “Manifesta 10”
Manifesta 10 at The State Hermitage Museum
June 28 through October 31, 2014
Palace Square 2
St. Petersburg, Russia, +7 812 710-90-79
Manifesta, the European biennial of contemporary art, is held in Western European cities — most recently in Genk, Belgium. This tenth edition, hosted by St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, was housed in the Winter Palace and New Hermitage, the two main buildings of that institution and, across the enormous Palace Square, the city’s main plaza, in the newly renovated General Staff Building. The Hermitage, an encyclopedic museum celebrating its 250th anniversary, is devoted to world art, going up to Post-Impressionism and the paintings by Henri Matisse; another collection of Russian art is in the State Russia Museum. Because visas are expensive, Russia is not readily accessible to many Americans and West Europeans, so the primary intended audience was Russian. There were a great many foreign tourists in St. Petersburg when I visited in late July, but relatively few of them focused on Manifesta.
Some of the artists responded to specifically to contemporary issues in Russian society. Alexandra Sukhareva, who is Russian, presented photographs from World War II archives. There is a video of a Russian dance class by Klara Lidén and a video of young dancers by Rineke Dijkstra. Boris Mikhailov presented photographs of a protesters’ camp in Kiev. The late Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, a gay artist who had been beaten up in the streets, was represented with Tragic Love (1993), a series of photographs of the artist dressed as Marilyn Monroe. Some foreign artists also offered Russian themes. Yasumasa Morimura made photographs based on drawings of the Hermitage when its art was removed during World War II. Marlene Dumas showed portraits of famous gay men including three Russians — Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Rudolf Nureyev. Thomas Hirschhorn, whose Abschlag (2014) was designed for “Manifesta 10,” showed a gigantic collapsed building in which works by the revolutionary Russian Constructivists are installed. Erik van Lieshout presented the story of the Hermitage cats, longtime residents of the museum; they perished during the siege, but today are back in the museum basement, controlling invading rodents. And Francis Alÿs, whose boyhood dream was to travel from his native Belgium to the other side of the Iron Curtain, crashed a Russian Lada, a now-obsolete model of car into a tree inside the courtyard of the Winter Palace.
Facing controversy about Russian anti-LGBT laws and, also, about the country’s action in the Crimea, in interviews Manifesta’s curator Kasper König, who described Russia as “a repressive and authoritarian country,” articulated frankly the difficulties he faced. So far as I could see (I was not able to attend the performances or public performances, which were held outside the central exhibition site), much of the art, including most of the art by non-Russians was the kind displayed at such exhibitions in America. Certainly this is true of Olivier Mosset’s large, handsome monochromes; Ann Veronica Janssens’s very beautiful installations of floating liquids; and Vladim Fishkin’s A Speedy Day (2003), which compresses the twenty-four-hour light cycle into two-and-a-half hours, an effect especially evocative in far-North St. Petersburg, where the summer days are so long. The same can be said of Joseph Beuys’s Wirtschaftswerte (“Economic Values,” 1980), a commentary on food shortages in East German stores; Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage, 2001); Susan Philipsz’s piano recording inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which was played on the main staircase of the New Hermitage. Lara Favaretto’s installation of concrete blocks in the gallery for ancient Greek sculpture; Tatzu Nishi’s temporary wooden living room built around a chandelier in the Winter Palace, creating a home with the museum; and a painting from 1966 by Gerhard Richter made similarly affecting use of the site.
As the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, rightly notes in the catalogue, “Displaying contemporary art alongside the classics is a common occurrence.” The logic of this procedure deserves discussion. In the gallery of the Hermitage devoted to Nicolas Poussin you can see the relationship between his early Joshua’s Victory Over the Amalekites (1625-26); Moses Striking Water from the Rock (1649), painted more than 20 years later; and his Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1655-57), a marvelous example of his late style. Normally we thus find visually connected works in one gallery. When, however, the physically contiguous works are historically distant, imagination is then called upon to identify connections. This is true when Louise Bourgeois’s silver sculpture The Institute (2002) is installed alongside an etching by Piranesi and when Katharina Fritsch’s sculpture Frau mit Hund (“Woman with Dog,” 2004), which alludes to the life of Russia’s historical high society, is displayed in the former emperor’s private quarters. In a challenging variation on this familiar procedure, Maria Lassnig, Dumas and Nicole Eisenman occupied the two rooms of the Winter Palace usually dedicated to Matisse. (His paintings were removed to the General Staff Building.) They too deal with the female body and its sexuality, and so temporarily giving them his privileged place in the Hermitage counted as a political gesture.