KOLJA REICHERT Valentin, why do recent culturally-significant Russian buildings seem like they’re based on shopping malls? The expansion of the General Staff Building at the Hermitage, for example: one enters the galleries via a huge staircase; every hall seems eager to outdo the other.
VALENTIN DIACONOV Nikita Yavein’s reconstruction of the Hermitage suggests that we bow down before a vision of a great and distant European culture. What Kasper König, the curator of Manifesta 10, set out to do – and what is visible in most of his decisions – is to challenge this behemoth: a place where time has stopped and eternity rules; a monastery where the chosen and underpaid few tend to the flame of Great Art.
KR Hans-Peter Feldmann’s colourful department store-style replica of the Venus Tauride, then, is quite a gesture (Venus Medici, 2014). Actually the role of the jester, in all its political potential, might describe how König has tried to challenge the surroundings, oppositions and dogmas – be it Russia’s present day conservatism, activism, or a Western know-it-all manner. Juan Muñoz’ mousehole installation Waiting for Jerry (1991), Francis Alÿs’ Lada rammed into a tree in the Winter Palace’s courtyard, Lada Kopeika Project (2014), Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s performative takes on representations of gender and power (e.g. Tragic Love, 1993)… And the most anarchic of them all, Boris Mikhailov, who once again sabotages high art conventions with his overpainted Maidan photographs (The Theater of War, Second Act, Time Out, December 2013, 2014) Instead of looking for rights and wrongs, König has tried to open up common grounds for play.
VD What else could he do? His situation (and most of the artists’) is lose-lose. He puts Maidan on stage and on the walls and everybody says it’s not enough. He rebuffs attempts to showcase ‘real political issues’ and people say he’s a coward. The only way out is to shift the topic of conversation. The previous Manifesta in Genk, Belgium, was all about obsolete forms of industrial production; this Manifesta is concerned with outmoded parameters of discourse and knowledge production. The Hermitage, like most Russian museums, is dozens of years behind in terms of research methods and trends in art history; its dominant discourse has progressed only slightly from Soviet times. The Hermitage still ‘invests in the divinity of the masterpiece’, to borrow Barbara Kruger’s classic phrase – a way to establish a narrow yet safe ‘corridor of genius’. Koenig’s choices are mostly aimed at undermining this, most visibly through Feldmanns’ Venus, Marlene Dumas’ Great Men (2014) (a series of portraits of Russian LGBT artists and activists, from Tchaikovsky to Anton Krasovsky – a journalist who apparently lost his job after coming out on a cable TV show), and, of course, Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation ABSCHLAG (2013).
KR Hirschhorn adds amusement park-style spectacle to the show. Right after it, you enter Erik van Lieshout’s tunnel of collages and scribbles about the Hermitage cats, The Basement (2014). A classic example of ‘Biennial art’: find a local curiosity and make work about it. For Klara Lidén and Rineke Dijkstra, it was Saint Petersburg’s ballet tradition. In Van Lieshout’s case it was the palace cats that have guarded the Hermitage from mice and rats for decades. Are his tongue-in-cheek references to Pussy Riot productive, clandestine gestures or just cheap, nonbinding jokes?
VD I heard from the Hermitage employees that Van Lieshout’s piece is the most reviled artwork in the show. For them it turns the museum inside out, exposing its sentimental and slightly schizophrenic underbelly. That is precisely the reason my colleagues and I, who have taunted the Hermitage for years for its conservatism, love this work so much. It ties in perfectly what König’s trying to do with the museum – Van Lieshout introduces another rhythm inside this machine: that of its animal population. The Pussy Riot references have lost a lot of fire since the two members have been released, but it’s worth considering, this may be the only time the band’s name will ever appear in such an institution. Other choices, which would seem no-brainers in any other part of Europe, are actually anathema to the type of programme Hermitage sells to the masses. Gerhard Richter’s iconic Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966), for example, is a painting of a photograph taken with a flash, a device forbidden in the museum.
KR To me, that Richter looked surprisingly banal in the midst of the Winter Palace. The interventions in the collection didn’t convince me. For a non-contemporary art audience, I can hardly imagine what Karla Black’s peacocky, ephemeral installation (Nature Does the Easiest Thing, 2011) or Tatzu Nishi’s Russian living room on stilts (So I want to love yours, 2014) is supposed to add to the experience. Though perhaps it was to be expected, I was a bit disappointed to see many predictable artist selections in König’s show, and few surprises from Eastern Europe or Asia – mostly safe bets like Timur Novikov or the New York-based artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Elena Kovylina’s absurd mass performance video Egalité (2014) was a nice exception. Because Kovylinas ostentatiously presented apology for Putin complicates the discussion. This was the chance for Manifesta in these times: to trigger and moderate debates among contradicting conceptions of art and society.
VD There is a general lack of strategic and theoretical thinking about what contemporary art can mean in Russia, what its ‘role’ can be in culture at large. Where there are no fundamentals to explain what contemporary artistic production might mean here, the easiest answer is to adopt big shiny models that objectify art as a quirky, fun way of thinking about the world. That’s what the Hermitage’s politics regarding contemporary art have been from the start – the partnership with the Saatchi gallery is a prime example. So even this Manifesta is pretty radical for the museum. Maybe Kovylina could be a rallying figure, but there’s a paradox: her newfound love for all things conservative (both politically and in family life) is too right wing for the Hermitage to align with.
KR So we have a museum show, with established positions taking centre stage. So far, Manifesta’s aspiration has been to act in the interest of regions at the margins of attention, to promote cultural dialogue (or welcome gentrification, as in Murcia, Spain, 2010, or in Genk 2012). Or at least to supply artists with occasions to work in new contexts. Now it succours a globally reknowned institution in a metropolitan centre, providing it with media attention and the currency of criticality.
VD In terms of cultural production, Saint Petersburg is not that dissimilar from Genk. It still has no museum of contemporary art, only a handful of galleries and the cult of Timur Novikov in the place of real understanding of postwar art and its subsequent mutations. Let’s not forget that the public programme of this edition, curated by Joanna Warsza, meets all the criteria of past Manifestas: sociological, political, in the street and tackling issues that are hushed up by the media: immigration, revolutions in Eastern Europe including Ukraine, etc. Warsza is smart and up-to-date so what she is doing sits perfectly with Manifesta’s original goals.
KR Absolutely. König made a great choice inviting her.
VD Warsza’s contribution is much more important and media-savvy than König’s. Estonian artist Kristina Norman, for example, brought the skeleton of a Christmas tree similar to the one that was on Independence Square in Kyiv before the latest anti-Victor Yanukovych uprising. This work provoked a damning reaction from the Hermitage’s director Mikhail Piotrovsky and started a discussion on social media. But even mute artworks without clear messages can affect you – some slightly, some profoundly. Granted, with the rise of activist art and increasing cynicism of the art market it has become harder to sustain the connection to art’s humanitarian (or existential) value.
KR There is the room of Maria Lassnig’s work. It’s wonderful, especially Adam and Eve with Mirror (2007), and Wolfgang Tillmans’ two rooms are great too. They have a lightly dissident sensitivity that sticks with you.
VD For me Tillmans’ aesthetic is devoured by the marketing cult of trashy, androgenous youth. Lassnig is quite a different matter: her paintings explore sexuality but abstain from the showy materiality of, say, Lucian Freud. Maybe they are the perfect bridge from the Hermitage’s treasures: naked young people – through Cubist and Fauvist lens by Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne – to the present day. If one thinks of Lassnig’s subjects as the aged youths of Matisse’s Dance and Music (both 1910), it all starts to make sense.