Kasper König, the chief curator of art biennale Manifesta, has stunned the art world with his admission that this year’s festival, due to be held in St Petersburg at the end of June, may not go ahead because of the difficulties of working in Russia. In a damning interview with German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle last week, König said the Russian staff had not been paid for almost two months.
He said: “They don’t have unions looking out for them there. And quite honestly, I’m allergic to situations where I have to act as a go-between between the two systems: Manifesta on the one hand, with its American-positivist perspectives, its missionary-like position bordering on religious — and the Russian side with its strategy of dragging on everything, not filling promises and so on. As a result, with a month to the exhibition’s opening, we’ve reached an impasse: nothing’s happening.”
In the interview, König was particularly critical of the of the “gay propaganda” law which came into effect in Russia in 2013. Since its decision to hold the biennale in St Petersburg this summer, Manifesta has been beset by trouble, with close to 2,000 cultural figures from across Russian and Europe signing a petition for a change of location in protest against the anti-gay law.
While some have considered Manifesta’s decision to hold fast to their plans evidence of tacit complicity with Russia’s political decisions, König asserted the opposite. “The ink on my contract was still wet when that appalling anti-gay law was passed," he said. "It became clear to me that I was working in a country where there is no civil society.”
Lamenting the Russian tendency to "react passively" to changing events in the country, König said: “I think it’s unfortunate that things are trivialised and there is no conflict. Conflict would actually be very positive because it could lead to change."
Calls for a boycott were renewed earlier this year, with a second petition signed by artists protesting against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Russian art collective Chto Delat, who were set to participant in this year’s biennale, pulled out, citing König's decision to put “art over politics”. However, König told Deutsche Welle that a boycott only makes sense if someone stands to lose from it: "Putin's government couldn't care less about Manifesta."
Adding to a chorus of voices who have criticised Russia's increasing clampdown on freedom of speech, König finally said: "I’ve stopped watching Russian television – I can’t stand the brainwashing anymore so I’ve started to protect myself from certain things.”