Manifesta in St Petersburg: Preparations for the main Biennial of the year

In Saint Petersburg, preparations continue apace for Manifesta, the magnificent Biennial of contemporary art. Maria Semendyaeva spoke with the people making it happen and ascertained the chances of Manifesta being canceled. 


Photo: Anton Akimov

In February 2013, it was officially announced that the biennial Manifesta 10 will be staged in St Petersburg in the summer of 2014. Manifesta is the third most important European contemporary art event after the Venice Biennial and ‘documenta’ held in Kassel.

A year ago, all Russian artists and critics were looking forward together to taking part, and Governor Georgy Poltavchenko had earmarked 142 million rubles, with the State Hermitage its main partner. Both the Hermitage and Manifesta celebrate important anniversaries this year: the museum is 250 years old, while the Biennial is being held for the tenth time.

Manifesta was first held in 1996, but, in ideological terms, the Biennial really came into its own with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Europe after the Cold War. Manifesta essentially differs from other biennials in that it does not have a permanent host city. Every two years, the exhibition is held in a new city, and most works are created by the artists there and then, depending on the context; in other words, Manifesta strives to turn contemporary art into an interface that unites all the cities that have taken part. This year, its main project will be shown in the halls of the Hermitage’s General Staff Building. This initially seemed an extremely bold combination as the Hermitage is one of the oldest and most respected museums in Russia. No matter what new halls may be opened in the General Staff Building, for most people the Hermitage is primarily associated with the immutable classics and not contemporary critical art.

From the very outset, the conservative public of St Petersburg railed against the Manifesta being held there, as did many radical art voices of the European art world. But if the former were shocked by the incursion of what they regarded as non-traditional art in the halls of this most traditional of museums, the latter demanded that Manifesta be transformed into a protest against the law banning the promotion of homosexuality in place in St Petersburg. Mikhail Piotrovsky dared to defend the Biennial by insisting that ‘for the Hermitage, contemporary art is a natural if complex continuation of age-old traditions’.

However, after the events in the Crimea, the situation has again deteriorated with Manifesta being attacked by radical Russian artists. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot declared that Russia was not the right place for the Biennial, while artists from the art group ‘Chto Delat?(What is to be done)’ canceled their participation in the exhibition, with others following suit, in particular the Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovskaya. The artist Dmitri Vrubel, who lives in Germany, added his voice to those demanding it be called off, and the site set up a petition calling for its cancellation. However, other Russian artists seem in no hurry to refuse to take part, such as Elena Kovylina and Pavel Pepperstein, who are part of the main project, or Olesya Turkina, who is included in the public program.

Reactions to the protest in the Manifesta office were mostly restrained, with statements to the effect that the Biennial was especially needed against such a complex political backdrop because art provides a space for dialog. As was to be expected, this led to the Biennial organizers being accused of conformism and wanting to use the money provided by the Russian government to the detriment of their own reputation.

At a press conference on 25 March, Manifesta chief curator Kasper König explained how Manifesta’s main project in the General Staff Building would look, with all indications suggesting that the conflict can be expected to escalate. If, prior to the events in the Crimea, the main discrepancy was the very presence of contemporary art within the walls of classicism, then the current geo-political stand-off is the main topic of the Biennial, with all the painful questions from the newsstands being transferred to the museum. For instance, Boris Mikhailov’s photographic project ‘Theater of Military Operations’ features pictures from Kiev’s Independence Square taken by the great Kharkov photographer specially commissioned by Manifesta. Or in pictures by the French artist Marlene Dumas, who prepared portraits of famous gay historical figures, among them Tchaikovsky, especially for St Petersburg.

In the General Staff Building, there will be other works that impress by their sheer scale: Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation that rises several stories, Cindy Sherman’s huge portraits in the form of characters from the Russian avant-garde theater of the 1920s. Apart from the General Staff Building, in the Hermitage’s historic buildings, works by Louise Bourgeois will be cheek by jowl with works by Piranesi, the Hall of Heracles will host the massive minimalist sculptures of Lara Favoretto, and Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi will build the interior of a typical Soviet apartment around a huge palace chandelier. There is a lot of interest in these works, all more so as the main project will be accompanied by public and parallel programs, which are frequently even more interesting than the main project. There still remain people calling for Manifesta to be boycotted, including both conservatives and radicals. It is odd indeed to hear calls for the largest event in the contemporary art world of St Petersburg to be canceled being articulated by radical artists and critics. However, the louder those artists such as Pussy Riot demand a boycott of the Biennial, the stronger will be the belief of those civil servants whose hair curls at the mention of ‘contemporary art’ that Manifesta has to be supported. Whatever your view, the chances of the Biennial being called off are now almost zero.

Kasper König, curator of the Biennial

Photo: Anton Akimov

Photo: Anton Akimov

I’ve had to work in various political situations but I’m unable to draw parallels with what is happening today. For me, this serious case of historical amnesia is a new experience. I was one of three people invited for this position, and I had my own expectations of St Petersburg. I was intrigued by the city’s beauty, in which there is a kind of melancholic sadness. But, at the same time, it is a cliché with regard to the whole of Russian culture. Even though we have a first-rate Russian team, if we had more time we could have gone deeper into the subject, and Manifesta would have had a real Russian momentum.

Maria Isserlis, coordinator-in-chief

Photo: Anton Akimov

Photo: Anton Akimov

The official opening of Manifesta is on 28 June. The Biennial is divided into 4 main parts. Firstly, there is the main project curated by Kaspar König. Two-thirds of the main project will be in the General Staff Building and one third in the Winter Palace so that ordinary visitors to the museum can find out about the Biennial and visit the General Staff Building opposite. The second part of Manifesta is a public art program. This project is being overseen by Joanna Warsza from Poland. Her artists will create projects directly in the urban space, which will take the form of both performances and permanent exhibits for the duration of the Biennial. Thirdly, there is an extensive educational program, in which we are going to work with schoolchildren, students and adults. The Biennial’s parallel program is not directly connected with us, and the projects for it will be selected by a special jury. In all, the St Petersburg Manifesta involves about 30 people, both Russians and Europeans, on staff. We have already been visited by about 28 artists who sent us their projects, which will be constructed here, on the spot. 70-80 percent of the cost is coming from the city’s budget, with sponsors providing some more, while there is also some money from international foundations.

Sepake Angiama, coordinator of the educational program

Photo: Anton Akimov

Photo: Anton Akimov

We are organizing a unique platform for the whole summer: the Manifesta Dacha, at which people can take a break and get to know contemporary art without needing to leave the city.
On Saturdays and Sundays, we will have family programs and programs specially for children which, in my experience, parents have great fun taking part in. One of the unique projects this year is the route we are organizing from Finland to St Petersburg. I hope we can have a round table with the participants and involve them in discussions concerning the problems of borders in the contemporary world. We are also planning to launch a program in public transport, for instance, on buses.

Joanna Warsza, curator of the public program


Photo: Anton Akimov

The idea of a public program arose around Vitebsk Station, the first railway station in Russia to be connected to Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Most artists involved in the program have come from cities that can be reached from Vitebsk Station, such as Tallinn, Vilnius, Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest and so on. It is my cherished dream as curator to gather together artists from the Post-Soviet space. Vitebsk Station is not where all the performances will take place, it is simply a symbol of the link between East and West. Particularly in the current geo-political situation, such a link becomes vital so that communication is not broken. This program will answer many questions that concen people in relation to the political situation. For instance, the Georgian artist Lado Darakhvelidze will work in one of the city’s markets, with his theme being how the staff of markets and restaurants organize themselves, based on his own memories of the war in Georgia. The New York-based artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles will work in the waste transportation system, where garbage is being collected. She wants to meet representatives from this sector here, in St Petersburg, and discuss the possibility of sending artists over here for artistic residences at a waste collection station. Ragnar Kjartansson will have a project right here in Vitebsk Station, at which he will play 24 hours a day the phrase ‘Sorrow Conquers Happiness’ with a piano in the hall. We also have a project in a former communal apartment which is dedicated to apartment art as a form of domestic resistance. Of course, this is a public project, but the private dimension seems to me to be very important in getting an understanding of the public one. The curator of this project is Olesya Turkina. All the artists taking part in the public program will, in one way or another, react in their work to political events, with one of the main participants in my project being the Ukrainian artist and activist Alevtina Kakhidze. 

Katya Gavinskaya, assistant to the coordinator-in-chief

Photo: Anton Akimov

Photo: Anton Akimov

Without the help of the Hermitage, we would never have been able to do anything, but it is a bit difficult working with them, theirs is an entirely different logic, a different world. I don’t mean anything bad, it’s just specifics. Colleagues from abroad really don’t get this communication, but gradually everything has worked out, we just had to get the logic of what they were saying, though what that is remains a secret. You have to stick to the rules. Many of the museum people joke that there is a ‘special Hermitage language’, and I recall that we even had a semi-serious workshop on how to write official letters to the Hermitage in the language of the Hermitage. One of our colleagues checked all the letters for a while to ensure there were no mistakes.
I believe that our greatest advantage is that we are working without wasting words. Many new colleagues who go home at 9 when most people are still at work ask, ‘Er, I feel a bit uncomfortable, but can I go home?’ Everyone gets this mood. It might sound extremely banal, but if we can change something in the minds of 10 or 100 people, we have achieved something very important.
The coolest and most amazing thing is that we feared many artists would want to back out now, but actually they are staying.

This is a translated version of the article by Maria Semendyaeva originally posted on

2 thoughts on “Manifesta in St Petersburg: Preparations for the main Biennial of the year

  1. Marlene Dumas is not a French artist, though born in South-Africa who moved to the Netherlands in the 1970s and considered Dutch.


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