What an event! Almost a century after the October Revolution – which not only shook the world but also triggered what Walter Benjamin called the ‘politicization of aesthetics’ – the international art scene meets in St Petersburg. But this encounter has nothing to do with the revolution whose aesthetic impact large sections of the art world still refer to today. This is the 10th edition of Manifesta, the itinerant European biennial conceived in 1996 in response to political changes in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the explicit objective of bringing together contemporary art from Western and Eastern Europe. And it’s chief venue, of all possible places, is the State Hermitage Museum, a complex which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary. Work is shown in the newly renovated and restored General Staff Building and the Winter Palace, the former residence and seat of power of the Tsars, and home to their impressive art collections: buildings, then, that symbolized power, injustice and arrogance, all of which the revolution sought to strip.
Presenting contemporary art with supposedly critical and emancipatory content in spaces that carry such a heavy historical burden, and within the context of a society currently undergoing rapid de-democratization, is a challenge not everyone is equal to. Hence the choice of Kasper König as curator, a warhorse on the international art scene, who hoped to disrupt the overpoweringly negative connotations of the St Petersburg venue through direct interventions in the Hermitage collection and by selecting powerful works by respected artists. Whether or not he has made a success of it is questionable, however – the exhibition’s few truly impressive works do indeed deal with hopes and illusions awakened by the October Revolution.
In the 1970s, in a conscious attempt to flee the stiflingly bourgeois atmosphere of Brussels, Belgian artist Francis Alÿs and his brother set off for ‘the city of the revolution’ in a Russian-made Lada. They didn’t get far as the car soon broke down. Reactivating this romantic, youthful vision 30 years later, Alÿs once again set off for St Petersburg with his brother in a Lada. On arriving in the city, and after driving round the grounds of the Winter Palace several times, he merrily crashed the green car into a tree in the building’s gardens. Now the car is rusting away in the courtyard and, inside the palace itself, a video matter-of-factly documents the trip (Lada Kopeika Project, 2014), before it ends on a final, brutal frame that declares ‘kill the illusion’.
Abschlag (Deduction, 2014), Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s engagement with the legacy of the Russian Revolution, also involves brutal endings. In a covered courtyard, he erected a three-storey replica of a Soviet-era residential building whose outer wall lies in ruins, as if in the aftermath of a bombing. In the set of near-identical living rooms that remain intact, which look as cramped as rabbit hutches, Hirschhorn installed original paintings, on loan from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, by legendary revolutionary artists: Pavel Filonov, Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova. Less violent but no less unequivocal is the video Egalité (Equality, 2007–14) by Russian artist Elena Kovylina. It shows a row of people in front of the Kremlin in Moscow on a snowy day, standing on stools of different heights so that their heads form a straight line; shivering with cold, they sing the leftist anthem ‘The Internationale’. On a banner, Russian artist Pavel Pepperstein quotes the title of Malevich’s 1922 treatise Bog ne skinut (God is Not Cast Down), which warned of the consequences of unbridled materialist thinking (Bog ne skinut, 2014). (His warning was in vain; the essay remains almost unknown.)
The most accomplished intervention at the Hermitage is by Tokyo- and Berlin-based Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi. The artists of the October Revolution wanted to bring art into the homes of ‘simple people’ (something also alluded to in Hirschhorn’s installation), and around a rather bombastic crystal chandelier, Nishi has built a homely living room (So I Only Want to Love Yours, 2014), a space-within-a-space sitting on stilts, thus bringing together two worlds with precious little in common. In contrast, Gerhard Richter’s painting Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) (Ema, Nude on a Staircase, 1966) seems at home in the splendour of the Hermitage. It hangs, framed by majestic columns, on the back wall of the Tsars’ Large Throne Hall. König wanted to use contemporary art to challenge the Hermitage’s imperial claims. But is a work by a man who once commanded the world’s highest price for a painting by a living artist the right vehicle for subversion? Might the opposite not be the case? Does art not serve here, as it did under the rule of the Tsars, to provide an aesthetic ennoblement of political ambition? Might this not be an instance of what Benjamin called, in contrast to the ‘politicization of aesthetics’, the ‘aestheticization of politics’?
In the light of Russia’s recent LGBT-hostile legislation, there has been much art world commotion surrounding Marlene Dumas’s ink-and-pencil portraits of renowned gay men who were pioneers in their field – including composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes (Great Men, 2014) – and Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, which include a cartoonish scene of two women having sex (It Is So, 2014). But in reality, displayed in a cramped attic space, their presence feels tokenistic. Wolfgang Tillmans has taken a different approach, deliberately avoiding any direct allusions to sexuality in his room (incidentally one of the best in the show). Instead, his selection of pictures taken during visits to Russia – discarded trousers, a naked leg, dreary apartment blocks – concentrates on the theme of what he calls ‘non-communication’.
Non-communication is the concept that best describes this Manifesta. König proudly presents strong artistic positions that, from a Western perspective at least, are among the best contemporary art has to offer – for which he deserves respect. But this is just one viewpoint, and one cannot entirely dismiss Kovylina’s pointed objection, raised in an interview in the run-up to the opening, that this Manifesta is dominated by ‘NATO artists’. Even in Western Europe, there are now various viewpoints being acknowledged, changing the canon of art history. Did Poland not have Tadeusz Kantor who, like Joseph Beuys, influenced whole generations of artists inside Poland and beyond? And when people talk about figures like Louise Bourgeois, why is there usually no mention of the outstanding Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow? When they speak of Bruce Nauman, why not of Andrei Monastyrski and Moscow conceptualism? And why is the Russian painter Erik Bulatov not as well known as Richter? These artists belonged to the same generations; the influence they exerted in their respective countries was comparable. As well as vitalizing a still-sluggish dialogue, juxtaposing the works of Eastern European artists with those of their Western counterparts might have given the citizens of the Eastern countries the impression of being accepted at last (and on home turf, too) as equal partners. What a missed opportunity!
Instead, the opening in St Petersburg was attended by a horde of German- and English-speaking curators, critics and other cultural producers, who for days tramped through the Hermitage, examined the ‘Western’ icons installed there, before disappearing again, some with the self-righteous feeling that the Russian public had been given a lesson in the meaning of freedom and Great Art. Just imagine the reverse situation: the Louvre celebrates its 250th anniversary, Russian-speaking curators arrive, their command of French not even extending to bonjour, bringing art works from Moscow and Vladivostok … Perhaps this makes it slightly easier to understand the less-than-obliging attitude of most of the Hermitage staff that drew such bitter complaints from some art world visitors.
During the biennial’s opening discussion, which was chaired by Russian-born Bulgaria-based curator and critic Iara Boubnova, Hirschhorn repeatedly staked a claim to absolute ‘truth’ – and this in front of an audience including many Russians, whose language has two words for it (istina and pravda). In this context it was quite brash, to say the least, to use the term so unthinkingly. Just as unthinkingly, Dutch critic Hans den Hartog Jager sang the praises of living in freedom in the West. When this sparked unrest in the back rows where the Russian-speakers were sitting (the front rows were reserved for the visiting, mainly Western professionals), with loud protests calling the state of freedom in the West into question, the disturbance was suppressed on the grounds that the debate had not yet been opened to the floor. So much for freedom, communication and the voices of local people which, even when they are raised, have little chance of being heard.
During the press conference, König said that the Wall is back. And it’s true, the Wall, not least in the wake of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, is rising before our eyes with ominous speed. But what part are Western Europeans, so dominant in this edition of the biennial, playing in the creation of such a wall by organizing this kind of event? Maybe that could be the theme of the next Manifesta.