Roving art biennial Manifesta, one of the biggest events of the art world which opened last week in St Petersburg, was hit by another act of protest last Friday at its host site, the State Hermitage Museum. Ukrainian artist Masha Kulikovska wrapped herself up in her national flag and lay still on the steps of the museum’s General Staff Building in protest against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March this year. Accusing the biennial of “shutting their eyes to the glaring problem of political aggression towards another nation, while taking money from the Russian state,” Kulikovska’s unexpected act of protest is only the latest in a series of artistic actions against Manifesta, which receives sponsorship from the St Petersburg city government, in light of Russia’s controversial position on LGBT rights and Ukraine.
Speaking to The Calvert Journal, Kulikovska condemned this year’s Manifesta as “a censored exhibition”, which, she alleges, fails to deal directly with the social and political developments in the host country. She said: “My gesture at the Hermitage was a silent and symbolic protest against Manifesta, a forum for which political and protest art are inherent, but that has now shut its eyes to glaring political problems, with no artistic expression dealing with the state of human rights or the plight of the LGBT community. Moreover, the biennale’s leaders have taken money from the state, which pursues an aggressive policy against another peaceful government.”
Kulikovska, born and raised in Crimea, was scheduled to participate in Manifesta’s parallel programme, but withdrew in response to the crisis in Ukraine.
No stranger to acts of protest, Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen addressed calls to boycott earlier in the year, with a statement released in March saying: "We fight for artistic freedom [and] we are open to all critical statements at large. In regard to the complex situation in Ukraine and Crimea, Manifesta supports all those groups that fight for peaceful and non-violent solution...Manifesta cannot and will not accept censorship and self-censorship. Our work is one of debate, negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy, that does not shy away from the conflicts of our time."
Since the anti-gay propaganda law enacted last year in Russia, Manifesta has come under fire from a number of figures in the art community, who called for the biennale to protest against the law by boycotting its host in Russia. Calls for boycott were renewed earlier this year, with a second petition signed by artists protesting against Russia’s position on Ukraine.