Art Review – October 2014
It stinks. Visitors to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg hold their sleeves and tissues in front of their noses, even though the rickety windows are already letting in the summer air. Conservation requirements for Old Masters aside, what this metal shelf with rusty cans of tomato paste, yellowed flour bags and canning jars from the GDR is doing here – in front of it a plaster block lubricated with pork grease – is not clear, neither to the visitors nor the attendants. Even the chief curator of this section doesn’t know what to do with Joseph Beuys’s installation, *Wirtschaftswerte* (Economic Values, 1980), especially considering that it is placed in the middle of Biedermeier motifs from the nineteenth century. Passing by the work, he asserts that it is not in fact art, and asks whether the lenders from S.M.A.K. in Ghent read the Bible. Now he wants to know whether the grease vapour damages the paintings – and hopes for a yes so that this foreign object quickly disappears again. However, in 1980 Beuys made it a prerequisite for his work to be shown surrounded by paintings that were created during the lifetime of Karl Marx (1813–83).
The seventy-year-old German curator Kasper König came up with a similar concept for this Manifesta. This year the nomadic biennale celebrates its 20th anniversary – parallel to the Hermitage’s 250th – which is why König placed works by Susan Philipsz, Karla Black and Gerhard Richter between Flemish still-lifes, Greek statues and the tsar’s throne. However, not only are the tourists confused, but Manifesta’s audience also wanders around aimlessly as the museum refuses to put up direction signs or explanations. Manifesta wasn’t even allowed to specify the room numbers in its catalogue. And this despite the director of the Hermitage having approved König as curator and pushed the city to pay more than €3 million for a show that aims to focus on ‘Europe’s changing cultural DNA’ since the Cold War. St Petersburg had been chosen before Russia established new cultural guidelines in April 2014, in which there is talk of ‘global competition’: ‘Russia… should be viewed as a unique and independent civilization that leans neither toward the “West” (“Europe”) nor the “East”.’ Yet it has been clear ever since the imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot in summer 2012 that artistic freedom is defined somewhat differently here. The ink on his contract had just dried, says König, when last summer the antigay law was enacted – which was joined by the anticurse word law shortly thereafter. Artists and curators worldwide pleaded for withdrawal, however König remained firm: now more than ever, he suggested, artists should not walk away from oppression. In this respect it is astounding that this Manifesta is even inaugurating new exhibition spaces in the Hermitage – in the General Staff Building across from the Winter Palace, where contemporary art will probably be shown in the future, whereupon one asks how this will look when those critical of the Kremlin end up in jail. However, here, of all places, queer art by Henrik Olesen, Klara Lidén and Wolfgang Tillmans is now displayed, and a transvestite film by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe couldn’t be more explicit. The Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov was allowed to arrange his moving photographs from the Maidan demonstrations on the walls and in the display cases. For Erik van Lieshout, however, enough was enough; he had to remove the ‘fucks’ from the subtitles of his film installation (The Basement, 2014): for six months, as the work documents, he provided the famous cats in the catacombs of the Hermitage with sleeping places and medicine. Unquestionably a lot of what is here not only cleverly reacts to the sociopolitical situation but is also of excellent quality, yet it does not result in the ‘Research Biennale’ that the Manifesta wants it to be.
König mainly relies on established ‘NATO artists’, as the Russian-born Elena Kovylina states it. With her film documentation of a performance, Egalite (Equality, 2014), she addresses the longstanding desire for equality that drives revolutions: a line of people stands on stools of different heights so that they all appear to be the same height. One can become engrossed in such images, as in Rineke Dijkstra’s film (Study with Marianna at Children’s Ballet School of Ilya Kuznetsov, 2014) about a small, increasingly weary ballet dancer.
However, strung together in two state supportive institutions – one of which resembles a sterile conference building wrapped in luxurious
historical clothing, the other an ornate casket from the era of Catherine the Great – the course remains oddly soulless. Although König stresses that he is just a guest in this country, there is no dialogue between him and his environment, but rather a monologue. Only the Lada car that Francis Alÿs drove into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace evokes interaction: cheering teenagers squeeze themselves inside, as if into a time capsule. It seems as if Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky gave his colleague König the runaround with this – using him to show the public that contemporary art is not so dangerous, that it can even look merely strange or funny if not explained or pointed out – at the very least to avoid any trouble after the departure of the Manifesta team. After all, he had already stood up to the Kremlin many times, as when Putin wanted to bring Rembrandts from the Hermitage to Moscow.
The show includes some very fine, subtly political works; others – like Marlene Dumas’s watercolours of gay cultural figures, including Tchaikovsky – are just didactic. On the whole, though, one might get the impression – reinforced by the audience seeming to move blithely through, untouched – that Western contemporary art, in this context, is just harmless or annoying. And this thought might give one goose bumps: Manifesta began when the ‘wind of change’ was blowing through Europe and curators started looking at previously hidden young artists from Eastern Europe. Today, Russia itself takes the wind out of Joseph Beuys’s sails.
© Gesine Borcherdt