Published  01/08/2014

Art and politics/art or politics: the political quandary of Manifesta 10

Art and politics/art or politics: the political quandary of Manifesta 10

Manifesta 10: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
28 June – 31 October 2014

The Life of the Remarkable Monroe
The New Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
6 June – 31 August 2014


It is difficult to escape the topic of politics when discussing art in Russia now. On the level of individual works, this relationship is often heated and contentious; there is little harmony between artists and the powers that be. On the level of large institutional structures, such as museums and blockbuster exhibitions, the situation is more complicated.

Because these institutions depend on public support, they have to conform to the tastes of their immediate constituency: if this support base does not agree with the institution’s choice, a debate ensues. Manifesta 10 is perhaps the most controversial exhibition in its 20-year history, because it is held in Russia, which is plagued by public relations problems, especially since its adoption of anti-gay laws in the summer of last year.

The controversy is political; it concerns the notion of freedom, with protesters citing cases of abuse of human rights and international law by the Russian government. Although these criticisms intensified in March, after Russia announced the annexation of Crimea, they were already in full swing in the autumn of last year, when a petition was circulated calling for a reconsideration of the venue for the biennial.1 Hedwig Fijen, the director of Manifesta 10, and Kasper König, chief curator, had to explain at length their decision to hold fast to their original plan, which they did in the catalogue and in various public forums. Although the wording was different, both said the same thing: after much debate, they decided to stay in St Petersburg because of their belief that art’s educational and humanitarian mission in this particular case should outweigh political divisions.2

At the conference held on the occasion of the biennial, Fijen declared that none of the artists had been pressured politically – they were free to leave at any time – and “the decision to stay was not taking lightly or naively”. She mentioned that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender  movement in Russia had wanted them to stay to avoid further isolation and to keep an open channel, and that, in the end, with all the talk about boycott, only three artists had decided to withdraw from participating in the biennial [the group Chto Delat and the Polish sculptor Pawel Altheimer and his collaborator).3 More to the point, König explained that, in his view, “Art does not exclude politics, but is not ruled by political expediency” and that Manifesta’s presence in Russia is “not an escape from decisive action in politically difficult times, but a reflection about when and where such action is appropriate.”4

The organisers’ insistence on making a distinction between Russia’s present government and its people makes sense when we take a step back and think about the circumstances when this government came to power, which followed the fateful decision of western countries to expand Nato. The decision, taken when the jubilant world was celebrating the fall of communism, appeared to ignore this difference, because, at the time, Russia lost its footing politically, teetering between an unknown and therefore suspicious democracy and a return to familiar but dismal totalitarianism. This fear and mistrust of the Russian people (not its politics or government at that point) resonated tenfold when the majority of Russians made peace with the thought that “a strong man” was needed to return order to their country and defend them against what they saw as western expansionism. It is clear now that the current political crisis, fed by a vicious cycle of recent and past resentments, cannot be broken by art exhibitions, but at least it can be mediated by them through demarcating a territory that allows people with different political allegiances to find a certain perspective on the escalating hype and violence.

If this was the reasoning behind König’s decision to become involved with a major international art exhibition in Russia, then the Hermitage provided him with a perfect setting in which to carry out his plan. Manifesta received a warm welcome there from Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum’s director, and its curatorial team. One of the oldest and richest art collections in Europe, attracting thousands of visitors every day, it became the basis for the biennial’s 55 artists. Fifteen of them dispersed their works among the permanent collection of the Hermitage in the Winter Palace and the New Hermitage, and about half of the rest were installed in the newly renovated General Staff Building across the Palace Square.

At the Hermitage proper, the Manifesta works are displayed in such a way that the visitor encounters them unexpectedly, because they are spread far and wide, in the vast halls of the museum’s two buildings. Among artists exhibited in the Winter Palace, the main building of the Hermitage, Katharina Fritsch’s humorous sculpture of a lady and a dog stands out because it is clearly a spoof on 19th-century fashion made out of 20th-century material (polyester) placed in an 18th-century Baroque setting. In the smaller New Hermitage, Louise Bourgeois’s encaged model of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and eight engravings from the series The Puritan form a handsome ensemble with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings from the Hermitage collection. Scottish artist Susan Philipsz created an enchanting sound installation in the large stairwell of the New Hermitage, where unobtrusive piano music envelops the visitor as they descend the stairs. Another Scott, Karla Black, poured hundreds of pounds of plaster dust on to the floor of the Twelve-Column Hall, located next to rooms containing masterpieces of Flemish Baroque painting. Despite a stark difference in style, the works of Anthony van Dyck and Rubens in the neighbouring room also focus on the ability of their material – paint – to convey sensuousness.

Another impressive pairing/substitution of artists takes place on the third floor of the Winter Palace, where visitors come to admire the famous collections of Matisse and the French Impressionists. The Impressionists stayed in place, but Matisse was moved to the General Staff Building, replaced by two female painters, Marlene Dumas and Nicole Eisenman, who, like their famous predecessor, focus their work on the body. Along with her moving paintings of women in exposed and vulnerable positions, Dumas exhibits poignant portraits of prominent male homosexuals, and Eisenman shows work about the dreary daily lives of inhabitants of an imaginary American city. A Joseph Beuys’ installation crowds a neat arrangement of the 19th-century German painting in the neighbouring suite of rooms with a meticulous display of various products of the GDR economy.

While the Manifesta exposition in the Winter Palace and the New Hermitage is dominated by traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, the General Staff Building emphasises new media, film, and photography. An impressive film programme played on four screens greets the visitor at the entrance. It is located in the lobby and free for everyone. Curated by Nathalie Hoyos and Rainald Schumacher, it offers continuous screening of film and video from the 1970s to the present day, both by pioneers of video art, such as by Steina and Woody Vasulka, and by younger artists.

In the main exposition, for which one buys a ticket, Bruce Nauman has created a room-size video display of his studio. There are also Rineke Dijkstra’s affectionate portrayals of limber gymnasts and ballet dancers, and Francis Alÿs’s documentation of his drive from Belgium to St Petersburg in an old Lada, performed and recorded in fulfilment of his childhood dream to escape the bourgeois society and find adventure in the communist east. Apart from this tongue-in-cheek piece, several works at the exhibition address politically relevant issues directly. Among them is Wael Shawky’s animated restaging of Christian military incursions in the Middle East that took place almost a millennium ago. Entitled Crusades, this filmed puppet show looks at history from the point of view of Arab historians and makes it clear that the aim of the conquest was not religious, but political in nature. Boris Mikhailov shows a series of photographs taken on Kiev’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, during the Ukrainian revolution. Here, we see ordinary people, old and young, united to support a common cause. They are not pictured fighting, however, but waiting for action. With gravity and resolve in their bearing, they show readiness to die for a chance to have a better life. Mikhailov clearly sympathises with them, but does not celebrate their predicament. Because most of the opposition to this Manifesta came from those who condemn Russia’s attempts to suppress this revolution and return the country under its dominance, Mikhailov’s may be the work that makes a visible political reference to the subject, however subdued, under this biennial’s umbrella.

Manifesta’s most obvious political outpost is its public programme, the explicit aim of which is to “critically respond to the current social-political circumstances, its conflicts and complexities, and the place of art within them”.5 Curated by Joanna Warsza, it includes works that engage the city and its population by artists who came mostly from the former Soviet Block and eastern Europe. From the very beginning, Warsza has ingeniously woven the city’s history into her curatorial concept by choosing Vitebsky train station as the structural knot of her programme. The oldest station in St Petersburg is a destination and a departure point for trains from eastern Europe and former republics of the Soviet Union. Thence came Pavel Braila from Moldova, Lado Darakhvelidze from Georgia and the Netherlands, Alevtina Kakhidze from Ukraine, Deimantas Narkevičius from Lithuania, Kristina Norman from Estonia , and Alexandra Pirici from Romania. The Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson and Russians Ilya Orlov and Natasha Kraevskaya may have come from different destinations. As a consequence, Vitebsky station became a venue of the Manifesta’s public programme, a role that suits it nicely, since it is often called one of the most beautiful train stations in Russia. Kjartansson decided to stage performance right there, in an unused concert and exhibition room. In the course of 24 hours, he would perform his song Sorrow is Stronger than Happiness accompanied by an orchestra. This intervention into the life of the station and its customers is part of the biennial’s transformation of the city’s daily existence.

Other artists made themselves noticeable in St Petersburg in other ways. Braila, for example, made arrangements with city authorities to have the cannon of the Peter and Paul Cathedral fire its daily shot not at noon, but an hour later, thereby syncing the time with that of Europe, even if just for a day. Darakhvelidze brought people’s attention to the hidden mechanics of St Petersburg’s public markets and the difficult lives of the migrants from Georgia, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Azerbaijan and Middle-Asian republics, who sell their wares there. Norman installed a Christmas tree in the Palace Square out of season to remind the population of the beginnings of the revolution on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where such a tree became a contested ground between the protesters against the regime and the police.6 The public programme has left its footprint in the General Staff Building as well: at the entrance, the visitor is greeted by a hand-drawn informal-looking map of Manifesta’s international venues and connections, which, apart from the participants themselves and local artists and curators, included artists, curators and art historians from western Europe and the United States – such as Kathrin Becker, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Jonathan Platt, for example, who agreed to take part in Manifesta’s Parallel Program. At the entrance, there is also a detailed timeline of artistic and political events that framed the decision to hold Manifesta in St Petersburg, beginning with the Pussy Riot performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and ending with the exhibition’s opening. A large stand announces daily events taking place on 33/7 Marata Street, where Olesya Turkina and Roman Osminkin curated the project Apartment Art as Domestic Resistance, which also forms part of Manifesta’s Parallel Program.

More politically proactive propositions, such as the call to invite Ukrainian artists to exhibit at the Manifesta made by St Petersburg artist Olga Tobreluts, went unheeded.7 Meeting König’s worst fears, however, Manifesta could not help but become a platform for “political actors … for their own self-righteous representation,” which he tried to avoid at the exhibition proper.8 Under this official rubric must fall a performance by Masha Kulikovska, who on 1 July, shortly after Manifesta’s opening, lay down on the stairs of the General Staff Building wrapped in the Ukrainian flag. Kulikovska’s action was directed against what she described as Russia’s political aggression in Crimea as well as Manifesta’s style, which, according to her, was inappropriately “showing beautiful and comfortable art” in a country that was invading her native land.9 She was not impressed with Mikhailov’s photographs of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, because, she said: “They were rather aesthetic objects and did not expose the tragedy, happiness, and all the mixed feelings that we experienced there.”10 The only work that struck the right chord with her was by Vlad (Vladislav) Mamyshev-Monroe, a Russian artist who died tragically last year.

This statement by Kulikovska attracts attention, because despite signing a “Putin Must Go” petition in 2010, Mamyshev-Monroe was usually not outspoken politically in the sense that he shied away from direct confrontations with powers-that-be or the staging of political protests. How come, then, that an artist who makes her name by staging such protests finds his works most astute and appealing? Taking into account the fact that her explicitly political act was largely ignored by the public and the authorities, what kind of expression is effective in Russia and other conservative parts of the world if it is not explicitly confrontational? In her book Another Freedom, Harvard literary scholar Svetlana Boym argued that, over the course of their repressive history, many Russian artists embraced a view of freedom that differed radically from the one popular in the west. From Alexander Pushkin to Anna Akhmatova and from Dostoevsky to Shklovsky and Tatlin, the notion of freedom brought by the arts differed from liberation brought by political engagement in that it emphasised performative, tragicomic aspects of life rather the ones based on power struggle. It is not that political liberation was not necessary for personal freedom, but it was certainly not sufficient, whereas personal freedom could be achieved through art, even in a politically repressive situation.11 Having come of age in the time of perestroika in the circle built around his teacher, artist Timur Novikov, Mamyshev-Monroe explored the full range of his possibilities as a brilliant impersonator during one of the most liberal periods in the Russian history. Mamyshev-Monroe’s works shown at Manifesta include photographs of his performances in drag, impersonations and reincarnations into various cultural and historic personages from his idol Marilyn Monroe to Jesus, as well as a film about Monroe’s relationship with John F Kennedy and her untimely death.

Vladislav Mamyshev was born in St Petersburg in 1969 at the height of the Brezhnev era. He had a seemingly ordinary Soviet childhood until one day a teacher told his class about the tragic life of Monroe, a story that captured the imaginative student’s heart. After that, the American pop icon became the boy’s idol and alter ego – he learned everything about her life before becoming convinced that he was invaded in part by her spirit. He was expelled from school for doodling on the faces of the members of Politburo, all of them men, transforming them into women. He was expelled from the army, where he metamorphosed into Marilyn for the first time by procuring cosmetics, a dress, and using doll hair for a wig. Back in St Petersburg, he met Novikov, who became, according to the artist, “his mother and father simultaneously”.12 Artistic fame came to Mamyshev-Monroe during perestroika, when his creative group produced their own pirate TV programme, in which Mamyshev-Monroe, directed by Novikov and filmed by Iuris Lesnik, enacted various scenes from the cultural life of St Petersburg, presenting them as alternative news. Mamyshev-Monroe developed an intriguing theory regarding his impersonations: according to him, his identity was divided between the male and the female principles, with the male being ruled by aggressive and domineering impulses, and the female by loving and constructive ones. For him, these diametrically opposed beginnings were personified in their extremes by Hitler and Monroe. His gift, as he saw it, was the ability to be invaded intermittently by personifications of famous individuals possessing varying degrees of female and male principles. Mamyshev-Monroe was so good at personifying others that he was free to imagine himself and then become whomever he wanted pretty much at any moment. In the course of these transformations, though, he was constantly making fun of the status quo and convention, inventing hilarious doubles for familiar images, thereby questioning the seeming normalcy of appearance, and inventing new meanings in the process.

The first retrospective dedicated to Mamyshev-Monroe is organised at the St Petersburg New Museum. Containing more than 300 works and curated by Olesya Turkina and Viktor Mazin, The Life of a Remarkable Monroe includes for the first time a series of works dedicated to specific personas – such as Marilyn Monroe and a star of the Soviet screen in the 1930s Liubov’ Orlova – and subjects – such as the Russian Questions, the Starz, and others. In far more detail than a sparse display in the General Staff Building, the New Museum exhibition unfolds the life of Mamyshev-Monroe through his works, friends, characters, and impersonations. Here we learn about Mamyshev-Monroe’s attachment to “low” forms of art, such as collage, caricature, home-made wall newspaper in visual art and grotesque in performance. Here we see the famous caricatures of Politburo members, which the artist redid in 2002 in colour and permanent marker; photographs of his impersonations of a great number of political and cultural figures; memorabilia from various events, such as a conference in honour of the artist attended by Jacques-François Lyotard; costumes; and films. One film, Pavel Labazov and Andrei Sylvestrov’s 2006 remake of the famous Volga-Volgaof 1938, is being screened continuously. In this remake, the leading role of Dunia Petrova (Strelka) played in the original by Liubov’ Orlova, is visually dubbed by Mamyshev-Monroe. His made-up head, sometimes indistinguishable from the original image and sometimes all too obvious, participates in all scenes and actions, giving an old Soviet classic, rumoured to be Stalin’s favourite film, a completely different flavour. While the original by Grigorii Aleksandrov was a cult and propagandist film, made on the site of a then recently completed Gulag project, a canal that connected the Moskva River with Volga, Labazov and Sylvestrov’s version succeed in turning it into a biting commentary on the role of propaganda in totalitarian regimes. The main tools they used were Mamyshev-Monroe’s brilliant irony and the alteration of the original score by Isaak Dunaevsky, while leaving the remaining filmic structure intact. The remake was a resounding success; in 2007 Mamyshev-Monroe was awarded the Kandinsky prize for playing the role of Strelka as Liubov’ Orlova.

Mamyshev-Monroe’s retrospective is registered as one of the events in Manifesta’s Parallel Program. No doubt, the international biennial’s clout gave this important exhibition more publicity and weight. So, in spite of Manifesta’s difficult start in St Petersburg, the curators and the artists made the right decision to stay: much of Manifesta’s benefit to the city’s population is measured in the unprecedented degree of access to subjects deemed marginal by official politics.

4. Manifesta without Manifesto by Kasper König. In: Manifesta 10: European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Russian edition, published by Koenig Books Ltd, London, pages 24-31; page 30.
11. Agnostic Space: Freedom versus Liberation. In: Another Freedom: An Alternative History of an Idea by Svetlana Boym, published by the University of Chicago Press, 2010, pages 15-17.
12. The Life of a Remarkable Monroe, (Russian edition, by Olesia Turkina and Viktor Mazin. Published by The New Museum in St Petersburg, 2014, page 67.

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