• Review

  • September 3rd, 2014 09.03.2014

    Manifesta 10: St. Petersburg


    Manifesta, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, began in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain to form a bridge between the East and West. The nomadic exhibition has finally crossed into Eastern territory on its twentieth anniversary, taking up residence in no less a venue than Saint Petersburg’s fabled Hermitage Museum. The General Staff Building, masterfully renovated to become the new home for the museum’s five-year young contemporary department, serves as the main exhibition venue. The airy, unadorned halls in the space provide a marked contrast to The Hermitage’s history-laden baroque Winter Palace, where select Manifesta projects infiltrate the permanent collection.

    Unlike previous iterations organized by curatorial teams, the tenth iteration of Manifesta 10 was placed in the capable hands of Kasper König, who introduced a primer on contemporary art throughout the Hermitage in favor of imposing a pointed conceptual statement. The resulting exhibition is diverse but intuitively coherent. Over fifty exhibited artists range from formally concerned Ann Veronica Janssens and Joëlle Tuerlinckx; abstract painters Olivier Mosset and Otto Zitko; politically engaged projects by Boris Mikhailov and Wael Shawky; to pillars of postwar art Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Katharina Fritsch, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

    In the central General Staff exhibition, five soaring halls with large-scale installations provide an axis. Timur Novikov, a leader of Saint Petersburg’s ’80s and ’90s underground avant-garde, gracefully occupies one hall with a small retrospective of his textile compositions Horizons. Unable to secure fine art materials as a non-official USSR artist, Novikov instead used everyday materials such as cloth and window treatments. Large color-field panels inhabited by isolated, lyrical elements such as a sun or tiny penguins in an arctic landscape, the Horizons are particularly effective in their expansive installation.

    Thomas Hirschhorn’s visually-arresting five-story installation ABSCHLAG appears to become part of the General Staff interior with the façade removed. Fallen rubble exposes six Communist-era “Komunalka” rooms, which are realistic save for the Constructivist paintings hung within each interior (a hard-to-secure loan from the Russian Museum). In this city of façades, and with Russia’s current political murkiness, ABSCHLAG’s domineering size does not overshadow its poetic, multilayered meaning.

    Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout’s more comical—but no less metaphorical—project in the adjoining hall investigates a quirky tradition of the host museum: the Hermitage cats, introduced by the mouse-weary Empress Elizabeth I. The felines have borne witness to political ups-and-downs: the good days of imperial rule, when each fat cat had an assigned caregiver, the hard times of the Soviet era, and the 900-day Leningrad siege when the cats perished. Numerous Manifesta 10 artists paid homage to The Hermitage and Saint Petersburg itself, but van Lieshout wins the prize for intimate knowledge of the museum’s foundation and staff after spending two months in the basement decorating the cats’ quarters.

    Manifesta 10 features a surprising number of formally minded artists for a biennial born of political crossfire, having withstood calls to boycott Russia from Western LGBTQ and pro-Ukrainian activists. König intentionally invited several aesthetically focused artists in response to “a lack…in the current Russian art scene.” Political messages crept in. Abstract painter Olivier Mosset presented large “ready-made” monochromes, only weeks later remarking that his chosen colors are a nod to Pussy Riot. Surprising everyone, on the last day of installation Otto Zitko digressed from his signature unending line, inserting his first figurative work—a quote of Käthe Kollwitz’s “No More War.”

    Painting runs heavy throughout the exhibition. In the Winter Palace, König replaces the installation of Matisse with canvases by robust female painters Marlene Dumas and Nicole Eisenman. Originally intended for this space, Maria Lassnig’s small-scale retrospective instead occupies its own hall in The General Staff due to her passing this year.

    In the Winter Palace, gallery-wide presentations make a stronger impact, than individual works minimized by the labyrinthine galleries filled with Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Intelligently installed projects by giants like Gerhard Richter and Katharine Fritsch are too subtle for unacquainted visitors—and König’s pairing of Louise Bourgeois with Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a starting point for his curatorial concept, is a side-note in the Ancient Galleries. A notable exception is Susan Philipsz’s sound installation, a 12-channel piano recording that floods the Hermitage’s immense former entry stairway—reveling in the space instead of hiding in it.

    Another exception is Francis Alÿs’s project, Lada. Led by his youthful dreams of an escape from bourgeois society, the Belgian artist convinced his brother to drive their Lada to the USSR, but engine failure quickly impeded their ambitions. As his Manifesta contribution, Alÿs finishes the journey by driving to Saint Petersburg in a new Lada, and crashing into a tree in the middle of the Hermitage’s iconic Winter Garden. For the most part, the Russian public missed the poetic undertones of the work, instead disapproving of vandalism on the museum’s hallowed grounds.

    Russia itself seems torn—having begun the journey to a free society, but finding unexpected bumps difficult to navigate. Classically trained eyes find even the most established artists’ work within Manifesta 10 both challenging and shocking. At a critical time when neo-conservatism is palpable in the host country, Manifesta’s organizers chose to engage in open dialogue rather than disengage through boycott, offering an optimistic glimpse of hope that East and West will not destroy delicate bridges.

    MANIFESTA 10 at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg runs through October 31, 2014