Leading representatives of the State Hermitage and roving art biennale Manifesta yesterday underlined their commitment to holding the event this summer during a conference held at King’s College London. The event, Can Contemporary Art Mix with old Masters?, featured defiant talks from Manifesta curator Kaspar König and State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, in the company of other high-profile figures in the international art world like star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Exploring the past and future of art, the talks centred round the relationship between contemporary art and art history.
The biennale will travel to Russia this summer to take up residence in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, displaying a number of works from international artists including artist and writer Pavel Pepperstein, Austrian artist Maria Lassnig and Russian philosopher and graphic artist Timur Novikov. Committed to exploring Europe’s psychological and geographical territory, Manifesta seeks to feature the work of international artists who go beyond the artistic subjects and techniques currently in vogue.
Both König and Piotrovsky tackled the calls to boycott Manifesta, which began as soon it was announced that the biennale would go to Russia. Initially these protests were motivated by widespread condemnation of homophobic laws in Russia, but calls for a boycott have since redoubled following the Russian government’s controversial actions in Ukraine. All the speakers, including head of the British Museum Neil McGregor, touched on the tensions between contemporary art, government and censorship. Noting that “contemporary art is not liked in Russia, including by the government,” König argued that art should be valued for its ability to test politics, society and censorship.
Piotrovsky, who has led the St Petersburg institution since 1992, reiterated his belief that contemporary art must be free from restrictions and censorship, illustrating his point with pictures from recent exhibitions at the Hermitage. Piotrovsky made particular reference to The End of Joy, a controversial exhibition by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman held at the Hermitage 20/21 in 2012. The exhibition — and in particular one work, Hell, a series of vitrines filled with toy-soldier Nazis — shocked many visitors and provoked a legal inquiry from the general prosecutor’s office because of its alleged “extremist content”. At the time Piotrovsky was staunch in his defence of the exhibition, calling it “an outstanding exhibit that is both scary and funny”. Yesterday in London he suggested he would be equally unwavering in his commitment to Manifesta’s artistic freedoms this summer.
The speakers attributed determination to continue with the event shown by both Manifesta and the Hermitage as evidence of a desire to maintain St Petersburg’s tradition of open dialogue with the west. A city built on marshlands by 18th century Russian Tsar Peter the Great, St Petersburg was created as a ‘window to the west’, with much of its architecture designed in the style of European cities. Making reference to Russia’s increasingly strained relations with Europe and America, Piotrovsky suggested that Manifesta could mitigate growing divisions: “Of course Manifesta won’t change Russia. But it’s a little bit against the normal traditions of Russia. Russia is very close to isolation. And we want to help break off this accruing isolation. We are St Petersburg. We have a historical mission to keep doors open.”
Among the programme at Manifesta this year will be Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov, whose latest project is inspired by a visit to Kiev’s Maidan Independent Square, and South African artists Marlene Dumas, whose work features images of gay internationally recognised cultural figures, including those of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde. Manifesta 10 will take place between 28 June and 31 October in St Petersburg.