You are surely aware of what is going on in Russia today. There were the Olympic Games in Sochi, with all the commotion about slave labour, unimaginably high costs and corruption, and the recent occupation of Crimea, now said to have willingly joined the Russian Federation after a referendum. Before that, there was the news about a law forbidding “homosexual propaganda”, in practice forbidding all public information and education on LGTBQ issues, and, of course, the arrest of the Pussy Riot performance group in 2012. Most recently, the Duma passed a law banning swearing in artistic practices such as music, film and visual art. What is less well-known is that this law also prohibits criticism of the Soviet period and of President Putin. From a western perspective Russia’s actions are incomprehensible and cruel. How is it even possible for an international biennial such as Manifesta to take place in this climate?
The host for this year’s Manifesta biennial, Manifesta 10, is the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. To my knowledge, there have been two international calls to reconsider St. Petersburg as the location for Manifesta 10 because of Russia’s “anti-gay law”. Interestingly enough neither of them were initiated by Russian LGBTQ activists or organisations, but by an Irish curator and the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). This makes me wonder whether we, the West, really have the right to act as the big brother. The West tends always to “know best”, and we are unable to see that there are ways of going about things differently. Still, Russia is definitely violating human rights with this anti-gay law, and who is to protest if not everyone and anyone who recognizes that? Chto Delat?, an artist collective that was pre-invited to work with Manifesta, wrote in a statement that “a boycott focusing on the local attack on LGBT rights will not benefit but rather harm both local civil society as well as the potential audience of contemporary art in Russia”. This reveals the need for international support for and exchanges with the people of Russia – something they would not have if Russia as a country, and international events such as Manifesta, were to be boycotted. Of course, there can be other reasons for the general silence of the local actors, but I think this is one of them.
Though the Manifesta Foundation has been subjected to a lot of criticism for staying in St. Petersburg despite the annexation of Crimea, there has been only one petition, as far as I know, to relocate Manifesta 10 because of it. Chto Delat? is one source of this criticism. The collective addressed the curator of Manifesta 10, Kasper König, in an open letter, in which they expressed their concern about the political situation in Russia. Chto Delat? even wanted to offer a new vision of how Manifesta 10 could continue, despite its partial financial dependency on the Russian government, which is repressing its own people, and now also the people of Ukraine. They pleaded with Manifesta and the Hermitage to raise their voices in support of the anti-war protests in Russia.
A local actor on the art scene in St. Petersburg told me that the work and discussion around Manifesta might be more important than the exhibition itself. Manifesta 10 has a chance to shape the discussion about social issues and public space, and this might lead to improvements in the Russian contemporary art scene. Here we have to think about how nomad biennials choose their host cities. It is a process not unlike that of choosing a host city for the Olympic games, but on a totally different scale and in a different context. Despite that, looking at the recent choices of host cities, both the Olympics and Manifesta go where the money is. Manifesta 11 in 2016 is to be hosted by Zurich, and the Summer Olympics in that same year by Tokyo. The main funding for Manifesta 10 comes from the Hermitage, a state institution with Putin’s ministers on its board. Hedwig Fijen, Director of the Manifesta Foundation, claims that the Foundation “challenge[s] the dialogue with the public and we discuss the relevance of the Biennial not only for the artistic community but also in relation to how it affects the daily lives of the general public.” I wonder how Manifesta can reach out to society and the public in the capitalistic straitjacket that it is wearing?
This is partly why Chto Delat? decided to withdraw from Manifesta 10 in March. They felt that their artistic freedom was being held hostage by Manifesta’s corporate policies, and that “neither curator nor institution is capable of rising to the challenge of a dramatically evolving political situation”. Even so, they continue to oppose a boycott, especially against international cultural projects, since a cultural blockade would only further marginalize and isolate the Russian anti-war movement. In their opinion, the aim of Manifesta 10, and any other cultural project, should be to turn “into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies”. According to Dmitry Vilensky of Ctho Delat?, the exhibition in the Hermitage “is completely senseless and out of any relevance”.
Shortly after Chto Delat’s open letter, the Manifesta Foundation released a statement announcing that they will stay in St. Petersburg. They say that the biennial was invited to “investigate the idea of contemporary art and culture in a contested society”, and that they feel it is even more important to do this under the current circumstances. They see cancelation of the event as playing along with the escalation of cold-war rhetoric, and still believe that the biennial is important for international cultural exchange. They made no reply and did not react to the questions asked by AICA, and the proposals made by Chto Delat?.
So far, the most radical thing Manifesta 10 has announced that it is going to do is to remove Henri Matisse from the Winter Palace and show three contemporary female painters there instead. Although thinking about this, it is not very radical at all, the artists being the well-established Marlene Dumas (1953), Nicole Eisenman (1965), Maria Lassnig (1919-2014), and all use the traditional medium of painting. One might think that Dumas’ project, a series of portraits of famous homosexual men, would be controversial. The problem is that Manifesta cannot tell the viewer that these are homosexual men, which makes the paintings no more than a series of portraits depicting men – a totally different artwork.
In conclusion, Manifesta cannot function in the current context. The foundation is basically on the same page as Chto Delat?; They both think that a cultural blockade would not show solidarity with the activists or the people of Russia. However, Manifesta 10 is still, by extension, mainly financed by the Russian government. It is bound to act within Russian law, as are all the invited artists. I do not see how they can address the current issues in Russia, as Russian law restricts artistic freedom and freedom of speech.
The question now is: How can you and I as individuals, actors in the art field, or tourists, take a stand in this political situation? If we decide to go to Manifesta 10, what are we going to do there? And if we decide not to go, what do we do with the time that we would have spent in St. Petersburg? I am convinced that art is one of the few mediums that can remain critical, and truly influence society, be it capitalist western society or the complex situation in Russia. Chto Delat? decided to work on an independent program partly parallel to the biennial “to show that there is some local constituency which has resources and visibility to make a series of events comparable and challenging the hegemony of Manifesta”. Still, they are not totally turning away from the biennial, since their School of Engaged Art is part of the public program. One answer for us could be to take part in local events, rather than going to Manifesta 10, or why not both if we really want to? Just as I was finalizing this text, an interview with Kasper König was broadcast on Deutsche Welle and published in Calvert Journal, in which König admits to having problems with working in Russia. According to Calvert Journal, König said: “Putin’s government couldn’t care less about Manifesta”, something I agree with. However, if the local artists were to get a lot of international attention, that might just stir up the situation.