A Manifesta without a manifesto: contemporary art in St Petersburg
Manifesta is a nomadic European biennial exhibition of contemporary art that sets up camp in a different European city every two years. In 2012, Manifesta 9 was held in Limburg, Belgium, and considered the theme of modernity and modernism in post-industrial Europe.
Manifesta 10 is hosted by St Petersburg, Russia. And the theme? Well, that's the elephant in the room.
Russia's current reactionary political context overshadows the exhibition – particularly its expansionism in the Ukraine and the outlawing of "the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors" and its potential implications. Many followers of contemporary art were reluctant to come, and many more pointedly stayed away.
Founding director Hedwig Fijen's catalogue essay asserts that, "Manifesta 10 will not shy away from addressing these issues". But it mostly does.
Curator, Kasper König, writes in the catalogue:
This is a Manifesta without a manifesto. Its goal is not to make a claim or pronounce a truth. It is contra-cyclical, refusing to be swept away by the times", and "not a revolutionary storming of the (Winter) palace".
As it turns out, Manifesta 10 walks a tightrope between satisfying outside expectations that it confront Russia's aggressive drift to the right while operating within legislative restrictions that are not going to lead to the exhibition simply being shut down.
That aside, in many respects, St Petersburg's Manifesta is no different from other similar biennales: the exhibition is at times underwhelming, but is punctuated by moments of magnificence.
The mainstay of the exhibition is at the State Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building, across Palace Square. This is an enormously significant public space for world politics – it was here the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution began, which would shape global politics for seven decades.
König, the curator, presents a solid contemporary art show at the General Staff Building. At the Hermitage, he attempts something more difficult, by attempting to synthesise contemporary art with the historical collection of this 250-year-old museum.
It's a current trend in contemporary art to place installations in historical museums, in the hope that the museum provides interesting new contexts with its old artefacts.
One of the earliest successful examples was Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, 1992, which took objects from the collection of Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and presented them in ways that drew attention to the brutality of slavery, which was the unspoken counternarrative to the museum's usual story of colonial Maryland society.
When it's done well, adding art to history can be explosive; but this is rare. Often the juxtapositions are perplexing, such as some of the installations at the Musée de la chasse et de la nature in Paris, itself an anachronistic artefact from a time when big game hunting of now-endangered species was an acceptable, even desirable pursuit.
For the Manifesta installations at the Hermitage, the greatest hurdle is the museum itself. The Hermitage, like other great European museums founded during the Enlightenment, is overwhelming.
The Winter Palace is so enormous that the Manifesta installations are extremely difficult to find. The baroque and rococo-revival Palace is also overpoweringly opulent.
In such rich historical contexts, it takes a certain lateral thinking to present contemporary art in a way that does something truly interesting. When Jeff Koons's baroque sculptures were shown at the Palais de Versaille, his tongue-in-cheek works took on a different reading, which temporarily enriched them and their new-found old context. In moments like those, something special and almost magical happens.
In far too many cases in Manifest 10, the Hermitage installations do battle with the Museum and Palace. One example is French artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz's installation, which is undermined by the practicalities of its museum context. His work sucks, with its caption and red-handed "do not touch" sign.
A parasol that is meant to be included on the floor, has simply been removed, possibly because it presented a trip hazard. German sculptor Katharina Fritsch's Woman with Dog, 2004, suffers similarly.
The figures made of shell-like forms should have resonated with interesting effect with the Rococo-revival boudoir interior, but kept behind a red rope and blighted with its caption, it was set up to fail.
Other works, such as Gerhard Richter's iconic Ema, 1966, a photorealistic painting that references Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, sits awkwardly in its new context. Yasumasa Morimura's work is nicely site-specific. He recreates Vera Miliutina and Vasily Kuchumov's drawings of the removal of art works from the Hermitage during the second world war for safekeeping.
Morimura's recreated drawings include himself as these female artists. The works are beautifully conceived, but installed in their specific sites, Morimura's photographic prints are presented almost apologetically on stands.
Manifesta does have a few successes at the Hermitage.
There is something surrealistically beautiful about Lara Favaretto's gouged blocks of concrete installed amongst ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Susan Philipsz's The River Cycle (Neva), 2014, is a sound work on the main staircase of the Hermitage.
It is atmospheric and resonant; however, as a piano sound work it is difficult to imagine it not working in this setting.
Francis Alÿs's crashed car, a Russian Lada, in the courtyard of the Hermitage provokes curiosity. And the explanation is given at the second main venue, the General Staff Building, where Alÿs's video work shows this green car driving through Palace Square and the gates of the Winter Palace.
It cuts to the Lada then circling the Hermitage courtyard before slamming into a tree. It is so deadpan that a room full of usually po-faced international contemporary art pilgrims cracked a laugh.
In this and other cases, the General Staff Building provides further context to some of the works struggling away in the Winter Palace. Yasumasa Morimura's preparatory works make more sense of the works simultaneously being overwhelmed just across the Square.
Every successful biennial needs its feature spectacle, and Manifesta 10's is found in the inner courtyard of the General Staff Building. Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn's Abschlag, 2014, is indeed spectacular. He creates real-scale the collapsed side on a St Petersburg apartment block, revealing the interiors of six apartments high up in the cavernous atrium.
Below these exposed half-demolished apartments, a tangle of metal, concrete, wires and debris is rendered almost entirely in cardboard and packing tape.
Hirschhorn creates a scene of destruction on a calamitous scale. The interiors of the apartments are furnished with austerity, but each apartment includes an original Constructivist painting by Kasimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov or Olga Rozanova, the culture treasure amongst the detritus of what appears to be the aftermath of a bombing.
Other works are much more subtle but just as beautifully executed, such as Juan Muñoz's Tom & Jerry-inspired installation, consisting of light leaking into a darkened space through an arched mouse hole and a sound track of cartoonish sound effects and incidental music. It initially appears to make light of conflict, but the fighting we can hear on the other side of the wall is disturbingly unseen.
Boris Mikhailov, Ukrainian-born and Berlin-based, directly addresses the political situation in the Ukraine in his photographic work The Theatre of War, Second Act, Time Out, 2014, but does so on a very human scale by articulating more subjective and individual emotions and anxieties.
Deliberately avoiding the photojournalistic frame, the subjects of Mikhailov's photographs seem like ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Similarly, the "gay propaganda" issue is addressed directly in some works, such as Nicole Eisenman's It is So, 2014, which depicts two lesbians locked together in sexual congress, abstracted enough perhaps to not be considered explicit. The very inclusion of St Petersburg-based transvestite artist, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, is particularly pointed.
In the Hermitage, Marlene Dumas's Great Men paintings are her trademark "naïve" style portraits taken from second-hand sources, but the political message is clear. She presents a series of portraits of gay men who have made major contributions to world culture, many of whom have a direct association with St Petersburg.
Dumas's work seems fairly innocuous; but the presence of the "16+" restriction sign, allowing the work to conform to the new homophobic laws, actually completed the work. It demonstrates to some extent how this new legislative reality impacts on cultural expression and lives of the LGBT community in Russia.
No doubt many in the west will be critical of Manifesta 10, that it has not made a more strident stand on the Ukraine situation and Russia's "gay propaganda" laws. But in a country where you can find yourself locked up for accidentally taking photographs of the wrong building and in a city whose streets are conspicuously patrolled by dead-eyed uniformed men with guns and night sticks, battles have perhaps been picked judiciously.
Perhaps Pussy Riot performing in the Hermitage courtyard would have only reaffirmed what has already been seen. And, rather, it is the very cautiousness of Manifesta 10 that says the most about Russia in 2014.
MANIFESTA 10 is underway in St Petersburg until October 31. Details here.
Kit Messham-Muir does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.