Manifesta purposely strives to keep its distance from what are often seen as the dominant centres of artistic production, instead seeking fresh and fertile terrain for the mapping of a new cultural topography.
Celebrating the biennial’s second decade, Manifesta 10 was hosted by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on the occasion of its 250th birthday. The museum was an appropriate location from which to reflect on the relationship between the formerly divided East and West of Europe that had developed in the previous twenty years.
The politically turbulent year of 2014 made this edition one of the most disputed, as it was marked by escalated geopolitical tensions. The government of Vladimir Putin had slowly started to violate human rights within Russia, and had also invaded Ukrainian sovereign territory in Crimea. Then, a civilian Dutch aeroplane was shot down and 300 people died. After Russia introduced its notorious anti-gay law, many international artists, institutions and curators called for a boycott of St Petersburg as host city of Manifesta.
Hedwig Fijen, Kasper König and the team decided to stay, on condition that there was space for critical responses and no censorship. The decision to stay was partly based on the many requests from local social, political and cultural organisations that considered Manifesta to be a catalyst for change. Obeying the boycott and leaving St Petersburg would have meant a failure to facilitate dialogue about the relevance of culture to be an incubator for social change. In its curatorial concept, Manifesta 10 sought to intensify the artistic exchange that had been made possible by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union that marked the official end of the Cold War and to revitalise the critical response to the post-communist period.
The renovated General Staff Building and the Winter Palace exhibited parts of the Hermitage’s historical collections alongside 35 newly commissioned works, with the opulent palace halls creating a contrast with the modern top floor spaces of the Hermitage Museum. This time, instead of offering an encompassing overview of contemporary art, Manifesta chose to reflect on it by connecting it to other periods and cultures; for example, 35 Matisse paintings were juxtaposed with works of contemporary artist Wolfgang Tillmans.
The Public Programme, curated by Joanna Warsza, critically responded to the social-political circumstances of the time, and the place of art within them. Warsza invited artists from cities that used to be part of Communist or Soviet Europe, which were all accessible by train from St. Petersburg’s Vitebsk Station, one of the key venues of the Public Programme. A series of performative projects were staged in St. Petersburg with its cultural, historical and social complexity. They included site-specific commissions, debates, events, pop-up shows and discursive platforms. A film programme devised by Nathalie Hoyos and Rainald Schumacher from Office for Art (Berlin) offered a survey of films by artists from the early 1970s until today. More than 70 films were shown in the General Staff Building of the Hermitage as well as in the waiting hall of the Vitebsk Station.