Imagine rush hour in the metro… When we enter the Hermitage Museum we immediately get lost in the crowd of tourists. We stare at the map in the catalog for a while and decide we can find everything on our own. We fail on our first attempt to find the Lara Favaretto sculptures and maneuver through groups of art history lovers back to the beginning. A friendly Manifesta volunteer is there to help with navigation. She tries to get a normal map of the Winter Palace with room numbers, but there are none left. Now it gets interesting. Contemporary artworks are somewhere in the 350 rooms of the Hermitage; we have some two hours until closing time and a very vague idea where they all are. The map in the catalog is absolutely useless, and if it wasn’t for the volunteer we would never make it. Armed with room numbers of each piece we start our quest.
Contemporary art hunters can be easily distinguished among the crowd here: They tend to move faster and in smaller groups, wearing orange badges, and they smile conspiratorially if they spot you in the crowd. Our first find is in the Hercules Room of the New Hermitage. But not all visitors find Lara Favaretto’s installation beautiful. I hear a man wondering together with his wife: “Is this supposed to be here?” Fascinated by Favaretto’s sculptures we continue on. The next treasure to find: works by Louise Bourgeois. High five to my friend, it feels a bit like winning in a game of hide and seek. Sculptures and drawings from the past and present construct another link between the fanciful baroque fantasies of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the hybrid characters of one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, Louise Bourgeouis. Catherine the Great was a passionate collector of Piranesi and assembled one of the most complete collections of his works. That was 250 years ago. Today, the exhibition in Gallery 131 is a key part of Kasper König’s curatorial concept for Manifesta 10.
Run, run, run – further, faster. We slow down next to the main staircase of the New Hermitage (the building’s entrance until the 1917 October Revolution, when it was closed to the public) because we hear a beautiful sound. It is the twelve-channel piano recording The River Cycle (Neva) by Susan Philipsz. My friend pulls me out of my hypnosis, we can’t stay forever here, she says. But I could!
Now we are on the second floor. The most perplexing labyrinths are here. The room with Karla Black’s work is accessible only from the Knights Hall. After going in circles for a while we ask a keeper for directions (in the Hermitage there is one granny for each room, most of them with an understanding give us directions, but some are really annoyed by the contemporary art invasion). Finally we manage to find horses with armor and feel quite excited about seeing the next piece – the sculpture Recognisable Defence by Karla Blank.
Somewhere between Raphael, Goya, and other Italian and Spanish masters we find Yasumasa Morimura’s photographs. There are several works in different rooms, and they are not that easy to notice as it is hard to get through the crowds of tourists. Upon closer inspection we notice that the frames are empty in the photographs of the Hermitage. During World War II one-and-a-half-million artworks were removed from the Hermitage collection for safekeeping; through the drawings of Vera Miliutina and Vasily Kuchumov there is a record of what the museum looked like without any of its art on display. Morimura selected drawings to reproduce through photography. He dressed up as a wartime artist, posed in the rooms of the Hermitage and had himself photographed. After the photo shoot he manipulated the image, erasing the paintings from their frames to make the photograph appear to have been taken during the war.
Someone comments that the iconic Gerhard Richter painting Ema should stay in Hermitage for good because it fits perfectly here.
We wander around seeking more of Morimura’s photographs, and despite the recommendation of the volunteer to visit these rooms at the end after viewing the exhibition on the 3rd floor (don’t ask why, I don’t remember) we find Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s intervention with paper flowers and framed letter correspondence to Kasper König in the former music salon of the Winter Palace. We are in the Emperor’s opulent private quarters, and there is a large crowed of people in the room we are about to enter. The sculpture Woman with the Dog by Katharina Fritsch is the most beloved artwork of the public (judging by the amount of pictures taken in the short time we were there).
I feel a bit like being in the Godard movie Bande à part (where they run through the Louvre) while we speed up and pass the Romanov’s halls. Another high five. Tatzu Nishi has constructed a temporary but well-furnished living room out of wood around a chandelier. We hear a friendly keeper explaining the idea behind it to young Russian sailors, and they nod saying, “Aah, now I understand.” A priceless experience. Visitors can experience a typical Russian living room and get the feeling of a home within a museum. When we leave the house we are lucky to bump into Tatzu Nishi himself.
3rd floor, three artists and about 20 minutes left. Not so bad. One woman asks me if it is worth spending the last minutes of her visit on the 3rd floor, and then a keeper interrupts me screaming: Attention, Matisse was moved to another building, don’t waste your time here. Crazy! We mix with the big group to avoid conversation with a Matisse lover. In these rooms Manifesta 10 presents a short retrospective of Nicole Eisenman’s work from the past ten years, brought together under the general theme of big city life.
Next to Eisenman’s lesbians having sex are wonderful portraits of famous gay Russian men by Marlene Dumas. Clearly the screaming keeper is not thrilled by the newcomers to this room.
The 3rd floor is the easiest to solve in our quest, and the last piece here is the installation Wirtschaftswerte (Economic Values) by Joseph Beuys from 1980.
We exhale as we walk to the exit and see The Convict by Pavel Pepperstein, the last artwork on our list.
Happy and satisfied we leave the building and can’t stop talking about the great experience and the little moments of confusion we had.
Manifesta 10: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art at THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, St. Petersburg. June 28–October 31, 2014