Interview Dr. M. Piotrovsky about Manifesta 10

Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, Monroe, from the StarZ series, 2005. Courtesy of XL Gallery

Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, Monroe, from the StarZ series, 2005. Courtesy of XL Gallery


The famous biennial leaves the European Union for the Hermitage

Text: Zhanna Vasilieva

When Mikhail Piotrovsky, welcoming the decision to hold the tenth Manifesta at the Hermitage in the year of its 250th anniversary, said “the key aspect of Manifesta-10 for us will be the theme of the Hermitage and its legacy in the contemporary context,” he could never have imagined just how right he would be.

The context proved to be more than just heated – it was tragic. And the old truth of antiquity: “When cannons speak, the muses are silent” became relevant once again. After the events in the Crimea, several artists (from Holland, Germany and Russia) appealed to the organizers of Manifesta-10 to postpone this major European biennial in Russia, as “participation in cultural events in Russia at this time means the legitimization of and agreement with Russian aggression against the democratic nation of Ukraine”. But the joint statement of the Manifesta Foundation and the biennial curator Kasper König, published in response to the petition, confirmed that Manifesta, which is scheduled to take place from 28 June to 31 October, will go ahead. The organizers of the exhibition believe that “stopping the work of the ‘Manifesta-10’ foundation in preparing the biennial could be perceived as a continuation of rhetoric in the spirit of the ‘cold war’, and will not be a worthy response to the whole complexity of the present geopolitical situation”.

It is not hard to see that the question as to what constitutes a “worthy response” of art to geopolitical challenges is swiftly moving from the aesthetic sphere to the sphere of ethics. But is the rejection of aesthetical expression in this situation the only ethical choice? The director of the State Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky reflects on this.

The news that Manifesta-10 would be held in St Petersburg was initially greeted with enthusiasm in Russia. The very idea of celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage, which has the richest collection of art in Russia, with an encounter with the most radical European biennial, which tries to keep its distance from renowned artistic centers, and rather looks for fresh venues to create a new “cultural topography”, to use the current expression, looked unexpected and bold. What does Manifesta mean to you? Why did you offer the Hermitage as a venue for modern art on its anniversary year?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Why are you surprised that the Hermitage is making an encounter with modern art one of the central events in its anniversary year? Catherine the Great, to whom we owe the foundation of the Hermitage, liked the modern art of her time very much. We also see an interest in modern art as a natural and complex development of these centuries-old traditions.

Now for the second aspect. Does it have to be said that in St Petersburg viewers do not often get the chance to encounter a presentation of modern art by the world’s finest curators? Manifesta, along with the Venetian biennial and Documenta in Kassel, is an artistic event of international scale. But if we are talking about ordinary viewers, their opportunities to attend exhibitions are much fewer than for professionals. Manifesta in St Petersburg is a unique opportunity for them to broaden their ideas about modern art and its possibilities.

Dialogue involves, at the very least, the ability to listen to the other person. But it turns out that there is a problem with this. Aren’t you afraid that Manifesta may be visited by Cossack “patrols” acting as critical rapid response detachments and “ordinary religious believers” whose deepest feelings have been offended?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: If you’re afraid of everything, then there’s no point in holding exhibitions. For example, in Kazan we had an exhibition dedicated to the Olympic Games. We displayed classical statues of Olympic victors. Naturally, they did not compete in Adidas or Nike tracksuits, but without any clothes on at all. The curators, looked over the list of classical sculptures, and asked me if people would understand us properly…

Do you mean whether people would understand the ancient Greeks properly? Did they want to put clothes on the sculptures? Along with Michelangelo’s “David”…

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course, it all sounds like a joke. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed. Three hundred years ago, when Peter the Great brought the Tauride Venus to St Petersburg and forced his boyars to look at it, the sculpture needed to be protected by guards. Peter taught them the language of European culture. You may question his teaching methods, but today it is the choice that Peter made that is being questioned. Jokes about whether people may misunderstand us if we display “nude” sculpture are about a refusal to understand the language that lies at the basis of the Russian culture of three centuries. It is not the only language, but it does lie at the basis. Three hundred years ago Russia, thanks to Peter, made a choice in favor of Europe. At the end of the day, without this choice, St Petersburg and the Hermitage would not exist. If we return to the idea of boycotting Manifesta… It is hard to imagine a better gift to those who would like to fence Russia off from any trends of modern culture.

But as far as I understand, the curator Kasper König has been given rather strict conditions to work in, and it is highly questionable as to which modern trends will actually reach the banks of the Neva.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: What do you call strict conditions? Our agreement was that his contract “provides artistic freedom insofar as it does not contradict the laws of the Russian Federation”. We have rather strict laws, but that is a given. Would you like me to ask him to initiate changes to these laws? What position will we be putting him in, in this case? Incidentally, in long interviews that he gave to German newspapers, he spoke about this quite specifically. In the sense that he doesn’t want to act like an officer of occupying troops in a foreign country.

His position is between the devil and the deep blue sea… But he hopes to avoid self-censorship.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: The Hermitage will definitely not carry out the role of censor. As for Kasper König’s position, in his latest statement he said: “We don’t want to display something that would constitute a cheap act of provocation. We have been given major opportunities. It would be a mistake to see them as nothing more than a chance to make some political statements.” I think that this is a very clearly defined position. We want to create a wonderful artistic event.

But this position is somewhat reminiscent of asking modern art to return to the ivory tower. Doesn’t this bother you?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: In that case, the now common invasions of modern art into museum spaces, whether they are the Albertinum in Dresden or the Museum of Art History in Vienna, should also be regarded as a return to the ivory tower.

Conversely, for example, the exhibition of Lucien Freud at the Museum of Art History in Vienna shows the museum moving into the relevant space of modernity.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Then why is displaying works by Joseph Beuys in the Matisse rooms of the Hermitage, which is one of the things that Kasper König plans, a flight from modernity? For this question itself to have any meaning, then we must have a firm concept of the boundary between the museum territory, art and everyday life. If this boundary does not exist, then there is nothing to cross, and nowhere to move to. You can erase the boundary and put an arbitrary “door” in a wasteland. Do you think that it will indicate an “entry” or “exit”? It will be a place where you can dump rubbish, or at best put up a scarecrow to frighten away birds. My position is simple: there is a territory of art where certain rules apply. And we are trying to protect this territory.

But that still means that art is still being used for political goals.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: How can we speak of using Manifesta in any way? It’s not the Olympic Games, after all. The Russian government does not actually need Manifesta. The government is actually better off without this Manifesta. Calls for a boycott undermine an event that is in the spirit of St Petersburg, which became our “window on Europe”. It undermines the European orientation of Russian culture. There are more alternatives to this today than we previously thought. There is a great deal of talk today about a return to the “cold war.” I would remind you that artists and artistic figures were weapons in the “cold war.” From both sides.Today we know very well how this was done.

But why did the “Chto delat?” (What is to be Done?) art group “took a very difficult decision” and refused to hold an exhibition in the Hermitage during the period of Manifesta?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Why do you think that only artists are afraid of being manipulated? The leaders of Manifesta also have these concerns. No one likes to have harsh pressure put on them. Read the interview with Hedwig Fijen, the director of the international foundation, which was published on the site. She says that one simple thing surprises her. “When Libya or Iraq is bombed, no cultural events in New York are cancelled, and there is not even much of a fuss made about the connection between culture and international politics. But as soon as something of this kind takes place in Russia, Africa and other places, there’s always a scandal.” We certainly don’t intend to postpone the biennial, as at these moments it is important to have an active presence and an influence on public opinion, using the cultural tools that we have at our disposal. Presence, and not isolation – that is the only method of influencing events.

This is essentially about preserving cultural ties. It is certainly not a fact that they will endure. When politicians divide people, art should still connect them.

As far as I know, you did not sign the letter by cultural figures in support of the events that took place in the Crimea.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I never sign collective letters. When I am asked to express my opinion, I express it personally. I have already given my opinion on this matter.

Preserving bridges and cultural connections is very important today, especially because the situation is not at all conducive to this. For the Hermitage, “cultural ties” are very specific things. We have 9 archeological expeditions working in Ukraine, seven of them in the Crimea. We have seven long-term agreements on cooperation with scientific institutes of Ukraine and the Crimea. We are going to work on ensuring that all of our expeditions take place, and exhibitions are opened… Including Manifesta-10. This is what lies in our power.