Guest post by Sonja Hornung
If Manifesta 10 has a curatorial focus, it came into being through conflict. Dubbed the ‘Manifesta without a Manifesto’, Europe’s roving biennale opened late June in St Petersburg. Manifesta 10 has been shaped by conflict: not only armed conflict between Pro-Russian Separatists and the Ukrainian government, but also an oppressive set of homophobic laws introduced last year in Russia, compounded by rising rates of violence against its LGBT community. Amidst calls for boycotts from the international, Russian and Ukrainian artists and activists, Manifesta 10’s curatorial agenda arose out of a series of on-the-fly statements from curator Kasper König, parallel responses from its director Hedwig Fijen and side-notes from Mikhail Piotrowsky, host of Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg’s legendary Winter Palace, the Hermitage Museum.
The whole situation is a public relations disaster. Kasper König underlined the importance of ‘artistic freedom’, complexity and richness, urging participating artists to sidestep ‘cheap provocations’ and avoid ‘just making a particular political statement’. Hedwig Fijen, on the other hand, used a rhetoric of ‘engagement’, seeing the work of Manifesta as one of ‘debate, negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy.’ Compressing König’s and Fijen’s arguments together is a little like forcing together two misfit pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The pressure of the boycott situation forced some skillful PR cement gun action. The subtext of the press releases was something like this: in Manifesta 10, contemporary art comes from a place of autonomy, complexity and freedom, but at the same time, it justifies its presence by provoking some sort of dialogue, by pushing change on the ground.
Previously I have discussed the reasons for boycotting the Sydney Biennale, suggesting that although it may not have immediate concrete outcomes, the boycott interrupted the art world’s publicity machine and addressed the disgust many artists felt when it was revealed the Biennale’s private sponsor was making business out of the detention of refugees. In St. Petersburg I was surprised to learn that Manifesta 10 and Sydney Biennale share the same PR team. They certainly didn’t have an easy job in either case.
PR disasters are great. They’re the only time when advertising possesses the rare quality of honesty. The fine line strung between by König’s instistence on artistic (and curatorial) autonomy and Fijen’s push for a more site specific approach is a tightrope walked by all biennales. Global art events must maintain the freedom demanded by global contemporary art, but they must also address the local scene. Without local relevance for St. Petersburg, Manifesta 10 would just be about power: the implementation of power within the art world, and the instrumentalisation of cultural freedom to legitimise Russian state power. In order to avoid this, contemporary art must promise change on a local level. It must have an emancipation project.
This is why press on Manifesta 10 tends to focus on the overtly political art, regardless on whether it approves of or damns the biennale’s presence in St. Petersburg. Nicole Eisenman’s paintings of lesbian sex. Marlene Dumas’ portraits of Great Gay Men, tastefully retitled Great Men for the St. Petersburg authorities. The reenactment of Marilyn Monroe’s death, impersonated by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe in delightfully trashy drag. Wofgang Tilman’s suggestively homoerotic photographs. Images of these works were distributed in the lead-up to the Biennale via the press mailing-list. Such works touch pressure points relating to gender politics inside Russia rather than the war outside – with the exception of Boris Mikhailov’s social realist snaps of the Euromaidan protests. Yet in the scheme of the sprawling exhibition, political provocations appear as carefully placed afterthoughts.
Far more present in my thoughts as I left St. Petersburg was a work by Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinkckx, who painted sheets of paper red and then stuck them face-down to every available wall surface, a wistfully hermetic gesture. In her statement, the artist wrote: ‘Art and power have nothing to do with each other.’
The tension between autonomous and emancipatory art is no stranger to Western art. It has its origins in the role of the artist in the Enlightenment, perhaps most lucidly expressed by German playwright Friedrich Schiller. In a series of letters written in a state of utter disappointment about the failure of the French Revolution, Schiller argued that humanity, constrained by the necessity of having to feed so many mouths, was simply not yet ready for freedom. When Kasper König calls for the importance of artistic freedom, he is (knowingly or unknowingly) drawing on the Schillerean tradition. For Schiller, freedom is play, and play is the true expression of what it is to be naturally human – before necessity and law intervene. Pure, purposeless play is the activity of the artist, who occupies a state of ‘aesthetic liberty’ autonomous from the necessity for survival, the daily grind. Accordingly, many states, Russia included, have legislation protecting artistic freedom of expression, allowing artists (in theory) to say and do things that are not permitted in normal circumstances to the average citizen. Most artists, when you ask them, consider artistic freedom to be different from the political freedom of the everyperson. The rest of humanity can only aspire towards this state by contemplating art, the product of pure play. Thus the freedom of the artist becomes a pedagogical tool for anticipating the universal state of liberty to come.
In the post-post-modern condition embraced by the artworld mainstream, Enlightenment thinkers such as Schiller (and by association König) may appear old-fashioned, elitist or patronising. However, Schiller’s conception of the pedagogical role of art remains embedded in the Western conception of artistic freedom. In this line of thinking, art’s apparent ability to sit outside of power justifies its appeal to the ethical betterment of humanity. Piotrowsky, who invited the Biennale to the Hermitage, reiterates this thinking when he says: ‘a person’s conduct is usually regulated, not by the prosecution office or the police, but by the person’s good taste. And good taste is often defined precisely by art’
Perhaps art might define good taste, but more often than not, good taste defines art, and the most controversial works of art are tamed by the most controlling narratives of taste, the signifier of cultivation. Estonian/Russian artist Kristina Norman’s work Souvenir was commissioned by Manifesta 10 for its Public Program, curated by Joanna Warsza. Norman has made a giant steel Christmas tree, a copycat monument citing the Christmas tree left half-built during the Euromaidan protests in Kiev last November. Out of place and out of time, the sculpture stands awkwardly in the quiet of the Winter Palace square, impeding on St. Petersburg’s own civilised silence about the escalating situation in Ukraine. Norman’s gesture brings the symbol of resistance against Russian expansionism back to the symbolic heart of Russian power. However, on the day the Christmas tree appeared in front of the Hermitage, the museum posted the following incredible misinterpretation on its website: ‘Maidan caused chaos. We hear the alert spoken in the language of art: be aware! Disturbances can be borne (sic) out of innocent entertainments…The unfinished Christmas tree near the festive holiday is an alert, a reminder…how a merry square has turned into a plug-ugly dump.’
What happens to Norman’s tree throughout the duration of Manifesta remains to be seen. As an uprooted symbol it is volatile: it may provide the empty framework for protests to come, or perhaps it stands in for the impossibility of protest at all. The Hermitage’s response shows that the moment artistic freedom is claimed on a platform provided by oppressive power, it courts being instrumentalised by that power.
In the above-mentioned interview, which was first published in Russia’s Money Journal, Piotrowsky continues: ‘I believe Manifesta in St. Petersburg will help to improve the global image of Russia.’ If the emancipatory mission of Manifesta 10 relies on a set of assumptions drawing on the Schillerean role of the artist, this mission is invested in the flailing legacy of liberal ideals, and their link to state power. The historical legacy of the Enlightenment has gained new currency as it is subsumed to the PR campaigns of governments. In a June report about the ramifications of the Ukraine conflict, the ECFR noted that Putin ‘presents an essentially illiberal vision of world order that he claims to be more realistic, based on spheres of influence…a direct opposite of Western ideas of liberal order.’ Meanwhile, other non-Western countries perceived that ‘the West enjoys an unjustified position of privilege in the international system’, simply using Liberal ideals as a front while it pushes its own interests through international financial institutions and outsourced conflicts. This narrative is having an impact: it forecloses the slow but steady rearrangement of global finance, with the BRICS nations recently forming their own, smallscale version of the West-dominated IMF and WTO banks. Discourse of a Western liberalism debauched by territorial and economic interests is also shared by the intellectual Left in Europe, North America, and Australia.
So long as its appearance is controlled in the right way, the freedom represented by the artist can be put on a pedestal to divert a crisis about the nature of political freedom itself, in both non-Western and Western states. As we look to Sao Paolo for the next biennale and to UAE for the opening of a complex of international museums on Saadiyat Island, questions raised by the instrumentalisation of art are only going to become more urgent.
While the art system is certainly affected by such ideological shifts, it seems it is only half-aware of them. Manifesta 10’s firm belief in the infallibility of artistic freedom appears to be a mutual and willfully naïve cover-up in the context of Russia’s ambivalent (to say the least) attitude to the catastrophic war in Ukraine and the EU’s slowness to react. Either that, or Manifesta is clinging to a nostalgic reiteration of the emancipatory vision of liberalism. The fact that so many art critics have swallowed Manifesta’s PR campaign, despite its contradictions, suggests such nostalgia is certainly rife in the art world. However, as Ekaterina Degot points out in her recent text on the fetishization of freedom and censorship in Manifesta 10, in reality ‘this whole system of mutually beneficial relations between several social and political groups is based on a mutual understanding shared by all sides involved of the rules of the game.’
The boycott itself, the ultimate act of refusal, is indicative of artists’ wishes to remain separate from corporate power and the whitewashing of crimes of the state. This stands true not only of Manifesta, but also of the Sydney Biennale and Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition at Israel’s Technion Institute. Boycotts, in this final sense, are the last cry for a clean platform for artistic expression. But although Manifesta 10 proposes to open dialogue about change in Russia, it hardly expects itself to be changed by the local Russian scene. The one reliable promise of Manifesta is continuity itself: the two-yearly rhythmic institutional blip of the biennale. Boycotts might therefore best be understood as an opportunity for contemporary art to revise not its PR, but its fundamental self-understanding. Perhaps it is possible to build a ‘clean platform’ yet. Or, perhaps the notion of contemporary art needs to be reformulated so that the ‘clean platform’ is no longer required.
Tired Atlas is the name of the performance made by Russian collective Chto Delat‘s School for Socially Engaged Art. The School provides a group of outspoken young artists and activists with an unorthodox education in an underground antifascist bar in the heart of St. Petersburg. Although Chto Delat withdrew from Manifesta 10, its students decided to participate, in an irregular sort of spontaneous, last-minute manner, in the Biennale’s Public and Parallel Programs. For their performance, the students chose the portico of the New Hermitage, an imposing piece of neo-Baroque architecture. A row of enormous, black figures hold up the roof of the portico, mimicking the pose of the Greek Titan Atlas, who was condemned by Zeus to bear the celestial bodies. The Atlasses tower over the street, blocked by around 250 onlookers who gathered in anticipation of the performance. This was the only time I saw a large public gathering during my week-and-a-half-long stay in St. Petersburg. Each student came forward, took the position of an Atlas, shouted out their experience of the oppression of the state, and then joined their colleagues, forming a massive, trembling orgy of unstable Atlasses: a crumbling pedestal. The performance was nervy and rough and nobody cared, because it was honest. The sense of collective trust was palpable. Strength in anonymity. No PR.