I am not an art critic, so I will leave topics like the engagement of art and politics to the professionals. In this post I will share with you my experience of Manifesta 10, which I enjoyed and frankly, the main achievement of Kasper König is that the biennial is happening despite the controversy and the current political situation. There will be two parts of the story: first I will give you a glimpse into the exhibition in the General Staff Building, where I – unlike many journalists and professionals (who started viewing the exhibition from the wrong side on the second floor) – took a guided tour. In the second part I will tell you about our quest to find 15 works in 350 rooms of the Winter Palace and New Hermitage.
Following the guide, who knows better (as we realized later upon discussing the exhibition experience with one journalist, who found it exhausting to find his way around), we start our tour through the General Staff Building from the third floor with Bruce Nauman’s seven-part installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which shows interior views of his studio in Galisteo, New Mexico, made at night using an infrared camera.
Unable to get the experience of the studio and plunge into silence (I wish I could sneak in there at night and be in the room all by myself) we roll on chairs to the next room, where we see the documentation of the Lada Kopeika Project by Francis Alÿs, commissioned by Manifesta 10. The story began in the days when Francis and his brother dreamt of driving their Lada (a Soviet car model) to the border of the USSR. Their first attempt failed when the car died somewhere around Germany. Thirty years later the dream came true. We see edited documentation of their journey from Belgium to St. Petersburg – a short road-trip movie capturing the moment of the Lada Kopeika’s final stop when it crashes into the tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace.
In the next room Vadim Fishkin offers the experience of a shortened to a two-and-a-half minutes day, which would be the result of traveling at the speed of light. We stand inside the “capsule” and the guide suggests imagining that we would have a day this short. What would you do then?
We meet Alexandra Sukhareva next to her installation It is, You Don’t and talk about her work, which assembles found objects, silver and bronze mirrors, photographs, and letters from World War II archives in a hexagonal space.
Originally König planned to exhibit works of Austrian artists Maria Lassnig along with Eisenman and Dumas at the Winter Palace, but after the death of the artist in May of this year, curator decided to make a little retrospective in a separate room of the General Staff Building.
We admire her “body awareness” paintings and watch an animated film from 70s.
We pass collages by Henrik Olesen, in which he creates a digest of sorts from the chronicle of current events, and stop in the room with “cocktail” sculptures by Ann Veronica Janssens, where everyone and their dog make a snapshot because of the mirror effect. The guide dispels misconceptions and explains that some of the sculptures are filled with transparent paraffin oil or with water, methanol, and oil. Then she goes into details about light diffraction and loses me to photographing other people taking pictures…
Viewing Rineke Dijkstra’s video is accompanied by sighs and pitying comments. One collector jokes that every morning starts with such exercises for him. Unfortunately, after getting a glimpse we have to run further, so I don’t have the chance to see the jump from persona to personality and from self-consciousness to unself-consciousness as the text in the catalog says.
The last installation we see on the third floor includes Prie-Dieu and Raven Row made by Marc Camille Chaimowicz in 2010.
Upon arriving on the fourth floor we have two choices: To the left are five rooms with Matisse, which Kasper König moved for good from the Winter Palace to the General Staff Building, using it as a bridge between the Hermitage and contemporary art. We go to the right and enter another room with Olivier Mosset’s paintings inspired by early abstraction. Then photographer Wolfgang Tillmans tells us about his trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg between 1999 and 2014. He installed photographs taken during his four trips to Russia, interspersed with examples of his abstract works.
Passing photographs and video works by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe we find Austrian painter Otto Zitko sitting next to his work and enjoying a juicy apple. We ask him about the future of his artwork as it is literally painted on the wall. It is courtesy of the gallery after all. We will see how the dismantling goes, he says. The linear painting covers the walls in two rooms, but on one there is a portrait and a quote, the first of that kind in Zitko’s work.
We walk into a dark room with a video by Wael Shawky and watch the History of the Crusades, recounting events that unfolded over a period of four years (1096-99), played out by two-hundred-year-old marionettes. Next we see Boris Mikhailov’s series of photographs, which record the everyday life of the protestors’ camp in Maidan (Kiev, Ukraine).
We see Otto Zitko again, but this time in the video work by Josef Dabernig. His work River Plate presents a microcosm of society in a fragmented, black-and-white narrative of the body. Knees, shoulders, feet, and bellies articulate a concentrated human presence in contrast with a claustrophobic background of cement, stone , rain, and water.
We were told that we can and actually should sit on the installation by Klara Lidén; benches are made with carton, paper, and other stuff as a complement to the video. To create this commissioned for Manifesta work Klara attended a dance class of the Hermitage Theater. The video documents the lesson and the interaction of the artist with the ballet dancers.
The guide tells us that the most common question of the previous groups about the next installation is: “Is it the paper that covered the wall leftovers after Otto Zitko’s red drawings?”. No, it is not. Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s installation accompanies the text in which the artist describes her vision of art. She compares it to a rope tied in a knot and laid on a table: “A thing devoid of any real meaning can be called an art object.” I would find myself coming back to this room twice, I liked it, yes.
Searching for the elevator we come across the room with Pavel Pepperstein’s works. Matryoshka is beloved by visitors as a background for selfies and posts in social networks.
The first thing we see on our next new floor is the famous Louise Bourgeois handkerchief, which has grown giant for the installation The Handkerchief’s Opera by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. An Alice in Wonderland like experience (the catalog says it is exactly what the idea of the author was).
I must say, König expertly mastered the huge space in the General Staff Buiding.
The next room has two huge screens showing the documentation of a performance that took place on Palace Square: Volunteers were invited to stand on stools that have had their legs sawed down according to each person’s height. The resulting row of heads forms a straight line opposite the Winter Palace. Accompanied with patriotic Russian music, it gave me the creeps, but it looks impressive.
We are lucky to bump into Erik van Lieshout, who is giving an interview next to his tunnel. He tells us about six months in the Hermitage basement with Hermitage cats for whom he not only created comfort living conditions, he also launched the small exhibition with their participation. We watch a 17-minute video documentation, which I find one of the best works so far, and it seems I am not alone as one collector starts negotiating the price of the video piece with Erik’s gallerist who happened to be in our group as well.
The mess in the light at the end of the tunnel is a detail of the 20-meter installation Abschlag by Thomas Hirschhorn (another favorite of mine). We see six rooms, all furnished with the usual attributes of a St. Petersburg apartment: sofas, coffee tables, TV, etc. The only difference from real life: the paintings on the walls; the artist hung original works by Russian Constructivists on the walls: Malevich, Filonov, and Rozanova.
I pass Timur Novikov’s fabrics and hear a very familiar sound. First I think it is some kid playing a cartoon on his phone, then I realize it is Juan Muñoz installation Waiting for Jerry. “The 1940s US-American cartoon Tom and Jerry embodies what I most admire in art: exacting technique added to an arcane symbolism in such a balance that is rendered invisible for the spectator,” says the artist’s statement.
As I walk by the stairs to the exit I hear some journalists discussing the show: “What is the general concept? Is there any?” I don’t know, I couldn’t find it, neither in press release nor after seeing the exhibition. Hedwig Fijen said that this biennial is not made for the professionals but for the general audience, to educate and introduce contemporary art. In that sense I think they succeeded: Many artists have never been shown in Russia before, and Manifesta’s Facebook page proves the public interest with pictures of long queues for tickets.
Stay tuned to the Blog, the second part will be online soon.