Over the past few months, the chorus of voices that has condemned the Russian government for its controversial actions in Ukraine has grown ever louder. The most recent call for a boycott has come from Chto Delat, a Russian art collective composed of artists, philosophers, critics and writers. Instead of taking aim at the Russian state, Chto Delat has turned its attention to Manifesta, the nomadic European biennial of contemporary art due to be held at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg this summer.
Despite their stated opposition to boycotts, on 15 March, as anti-war protesters were marching in Moscow, Chto Delat announced that they would be withdrawing from Manifesta 10. In their official statement, the group expressed disappointment at Manifesta’s failure to react to the political crisis engulfing Russia. “Our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies,” the statement read. “Even if you are staging Shakespeare or exhibiting Matisse, the task of culture today is to find the artistic language to bring home that simple message.”
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Their announcement came a week after more than 1,700 artists from across Europe signed an online petition addressed to Manifesta curator Kasper König, urging him to postpone the event to protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine. König replied that the event would go ahead as planned. “To stop our work for any reason other than its literal and practical impossibility is not an answer to the current situation,” he said.
For Chto Delat, König’s statement, published on the Manifesta website, was an unacceptable admission of “art over politics”. In an interview with The Calvert Journal, Dmitry Vilensky, an artist, writer and founding member of Chto Delat, underscored the significance of the State Hermitage Museum as the site for this year’s Manifesta in light of recent events. “The Hermitage was the palace of Catherine the Great, the Russian tsar most famous for the annexation of Crimea from Turkey,” Vilensky said. “It looks like König is completely ignoring the most serious connotation of what the Hermitage actually is — it is a museum which is emblematic of Russian imperialist power and despotism.”
“Our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies”
In comments to The Calvert Journal, Hedwig Fijen, the director of Manifesta, defended the organisation as highly cognisant of the fragile political climate in Russia. “Like any artistic organisation opposing any kind of censorship or self-censorship we are fully aware that this is a moment which requires a critical engagement in the site-specific context where the biennial is taking place, one reflecting all the complexities and conflicts of our time,” said Fijen. “This is not, as expected, a project in which art rules over politics, as stated by Chto Delat.”
Fijen added that Manifesta’s history had been marked by unconventional political contexts, including the timing of its launch in the aftermath of the Cold War. “Manifesta was initiated as a platform for discussion and as a link between the east and west of Europe,” she said. “A central part of Manifesta’s identity is that it should not only perform in the ‘safe haven’ of the west or the former western European countries. This principle remains fundamental to what we do and to a large extent influenced our decision to locate our tenth edition in St Petersburg this year.”
Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (1969-2013), eminent Russian performance artist and a participant of Manifesta 10. Photograph: Ksenia Kolesnikova
Echoing Fijen’s stance is Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum. “We are going to do everything so that Manifesta will exhibit here, because the event will emphasise the European character of our city,” he said. “Manifesta exposes what’s interesting in modern art, it’s not a lesson on how to live.”
Others in the art world are similarly opposed to Chto Delat’s decision to withdraw. Joseph Backstein, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow and artistic director of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, told The Calvert Journal: “I hope Manifesta will be a successful project and that it will give an interesting insight into what contemporary culture means for Russians. It is good because it will present the nature of Russia’s culture to a wide, international audience. It’s a very important event, especially taking into account the difficult political circumstances.”
The traveling biennial, which finds a home in different European capitals every two years, is no stranger to petitions. Last September, a petition with more than 2,000 names urged Fijen to change the location of the biennial to protest Russia’s anti-gay laws passed that summer. In a similar vein, cultural boycotts have characterised the recent political turbulence between Russia and Ukraine, with numerous artists and cultural figures from across Europe cutting ties with Russian artistic institutions.
Despite this, Backstein is sceptical about the practice and its isolationist consequences. “Cultural boycotts are ineffective and do totally the opposite of what they try to do in difficult political situations,” he said. “It’s bad for the international cultural community. Artists, critics and curators will be put in an even more difficult position. The young generations of artists will be in a very bad situation and will become depressed. Isolation will grow and it’s the generation of artists, critics and curators of the future who will suffer.”