Manifesta 10: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art

Gleb Napreenko

June 29, 2014
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
June 28–October 31, 2014

Just as the individual is born into language and, per French philosopher Louis Althusser, is interpellated by ideology, any contemporary art show is born at the behest of financial and political considerations into a world already filled with expectations for it. As a result, the big question is the surplus statement it makes, what it brings to the already formed field of ideology, politics, and economics, and whether it can somehow transform it. From the moment it was announced it would take place in St. Petersburg, Manifesta 10 has been surrounded by numerous expectations and scandals, but, alas, the surplus meaning that the show has itself produced is minimal. Amid the epic debates about the feasibility of boycotting a biennial slated to take place in a city (and, later, a whole country) whose lawmakers had passed a scandalous homophobic law, and the recent rows sparked by Russia’s imperialist actions in Ukraine, curator Kasper König’s main project comes off as insipidly proper, although it makes room for discussions of both homophobia and the Ukrainian crisis. The show apparently wants to respond to all the demands made of it right off the bat, but so gracefully that no one is ruffled. As a result, it inadvertently comes to serve the ideological and political fields that brought it into being.

Originally, the theme of Manifesta’s tenth edition was the encounter between art history and contemporary critical art practices within the context of an old museum, the State Hermitage Museum. This agenda has been reduced to a series of elegant but non-obligatory interventions that fail to form any particular discursive picture. Perhaps the most profound piece about the museum is Osaka-based artist Yasumasa Morimura’s Hermitage, 1914–2014 (2014), a series of photographs based on drawings of the empty rooms of the Hermitage made by two Soviet artists Vera Miliutina (1903-1987) and Vasily Kuchumov (1888-1959), who were also museum employees during the Siege of Leningrad when pictureless frames hung on the walls after the evacuation of the collection. The other interventions are merely apt reactions to particular rooms, works, or realia at the Hermitage complex, which nevertheless neglect to question the museum as a whole, just like the curatorial project itself. For example, Scottish artist Karla Black mirrors the Winter Palace’s excessive luxury with her installation, Nature Does The Easiest Thing (2011), which is fashioned from cosmetics, while Rotterdam-based Erik van Lieshout’s The Basement (2014) deals with the Hermitage’s famous cats that dwell in the museum’s basement and exterminate rats.

König has likewise farmed out the political issues—homophobia, Ukraine, the post-Soviet situation—to particular artists, living or dead, who have been made “responsible” for them. For example, renowned St. Petersburg artists Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (1969–2013) and Timur Novikov (1958–2002) are, predictably, the point men for homosexuality included in the exhibition. And Amsterdam-based artist Marlene Dumas’s “Great Men” series (2014) threatens to invert political correctness: in aggregate, her hand drawn portraits serve as a mass grave of all manner of St. Petersburg gays—from nineteenth-century Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky to Novikov (again)—who are all united in an iconostasis based solely on stigmatization. What does the work add to this previously belabored fact about the personal lives of these cultural heroes? Basically, nothing. Likewise, the contemporary art interventions König has pulled off in the Hermitage tell us nothing new about contemporary art nor the Hermitage: the exhibition only pleasantly reconfirms what we already know.

Because of the show’s structure, in which individual statements on topics that had to be addressed add up to a neat, relatively neutral whole, the current Manifesta has unwittingly become a testing ground for Russian state cultural policy vis-à-vis contemporary art and sensitive domestic and foreign policy issues. It is as if the sound level and format are being carefully gauged in order to determine the extent to which you can talk about anything you like, with anyone you like, without endangering the hegemony of the Putin regime. Are subtle, intellectual artists who have never shown in Russia your thing? Here they are. Want to discuss Crimea? Who is stopping you? Social inequality? Let’s talk about it. Homosexuality and homophobia? They are important issues for us, let’s discuss them. Only don’t make a racket, please. We are decent people, after all, and the bottom line is not to encroach on culture’s autonomy from the political sphere.

The spin doctors in Putin’s Russia have at least learned the main trick of modern ideological design: divide your target groups. Have one cultural product—more European and more fashionable—for tourists and the intellectual pretensions of the middle class; and another product—simpler and more patriotic—for the masses. I do not know who is at fault here—the municipal authorities or the exhibition’s press service—but I did not see any Manifesta banners anywhere in St. Petersburg. It is as if the city were hiding the show from the general public. Certainly, those who need to know will find out about it, but let ordinary folk carry on with their lives—they needn’t get all riled up for nothing. At the Hermitage itself, the social gap between ordinary visitors and those who have come to look at contemporary art is striking. The majority of visitors move along the usual routes past the Rembrandts and Van Goghs, while only the people with orange press badges give Manifesta’s interventions the time of day.

The current Manifesta’s root problem is its failure to mediate. The exhibition’s moderate tone might be appropriate for mediating within society, horizontally, but now it smacks of maneuvering among the different power groups—the organizers, the politicians, and the professional critics. We still have the promise of Manifesta’s public program, organized by Joanna Warsza, Artur Żmijewski’s associate curator at the 2012 Berlin Biennale. Only time will tell whether this program, which has just started, can be a real mediator in the public debate.

There is, however, one object at the exhibition that has provoked incredible enthusiasm among the rank-and-file public: a 1970s, unmodernly bright green Lada “Kopeika” sedan, which has been crashed into a linden tree in the Hermitage courtyard. Visitors having nothing to do with the world of contemporary art climb into the car to get their pictures taken, have a laugh, and discuss the fact that such cars are not made anymore. The Lada is part of Francis Alÿs’s Lada Kopeika Project (2014) commissioned for Manifesta 10. He and his brother had once planned to drive a similar model from Belgium to the Soviet Union, which they imagined was an alternative to western capitalism. The car broke down along the way, and the trip was called off. This crashed car is a sign of the collapse, the breakdown of something essential to life—the dreams of youth, belief in the reality of an alternative—a sign the audience seemingly intuitively picks up, because it directly concerns their own past. Alÿs’s project is one of the few in the exhibition that reflects on its own stance toward Russia. Its gaze is deliberate, and that is why people are compelled to respond to it. (For the exhibition, Alÿs completed the trip and the video documentation can be viewed in the complex’s General Staff Building.) As someone who lives in Russia, I, for example, want to respond, because for me Manifesta, after all, affords a view of Russia from the West. However, as a whole, this edition does not seem to give much thought to the act of looking at the Hermitage, at St. Petersburg, at Russia, and instead treats the exhibition like an assignment whose performance must get excellent marks. And so Manifesta and its curator have deprived themselves of the opportunity to engage with the residents of the very place towards which they have directed their gaze and have, thus, failed to produce a dialogue among them. Ironically, it was exactly that level of engagement this nomadic biennale had always declared as its objective.

Translated from the Russian by Thomas Campbell.

LGBTQ+, Ideology
Identity Politics, Russia

Gleb Napreenko is a Lacanian psychoanalyst, and a member of the New Lacanian School and World Association of Psychoanalysis. He also works as an art critic and theorist; together with Aleksandra Novozhenova he is the author of The Episodes of Modernism (2018, in Russian). He lives in Moscow.

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June 29, 2014

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