teisipäev, juuli 01, 2014

Invading the Manifesta 10 Invasion

This edition of the biennale is about the art of making compromises, finds anthropologist Francisco Martínez

FIG 1 My friend Ksenia in front of Aslan Gaisumov's Elimination - presented in the parallel exhibition of the Cadet's corpus

Once in Russia, the bus driver turned the mic on and said a laconic ‘congratulations’, which was succeeded by senseless expressions in a language that does not have a dictionary. Probably, he just forgot to turn the mic off, but this liminal experience, at the border between Narva and Ivangorod, made me think about three never ending debates in art practices: 1. Object or effect, what has the primacy? 2. The right to the non-sense. 3. Does the aesthetic phenomenon have a purpose?

St. Petersburg, the city hosting this edition of the European biennale, is a good place to explore the limits of non-sense and the limits of rights. Perhaps this is one of the most interesting points of Manifesta 10 – the way art is looked with suspicion from all sides.

Most of the assessments I heard about Manifesta 10 were not positive. Anders Härm describes it as ‘poorly curated’. Maria Arusoo shares that the exhibitions did not fulfil her expectations, since ‘Manifesta should not act as a museum, it should risk more’. Also Andres Kurg considers that the quality is quite unequal, with some good pieces but a low average level.

FIG 2 Marlene Dumas made a series of ink portraits of great men that happened to be gay

FIG 3 Erik van Lieshout's project for Manifesta focused on the mysterious cats who live in the basement of the Hermitage to dispel rats

Manifesta 10 is not about experimenting, but about the art of making compromises, some of them awkward, as the ‘+16’ signs on the videos warning Russian teens of ‘pervert’ European propaganda. Constrained by political and economic circumstances, the organizers tried to play safe and make compromises on many fronts, managing to include just a few provocative ‘gestures’.

Outstanding works with ‘activist’ touch are Erik van Lieshout and Marlene Dumas’ contributions. M. Dumas prepared a series of delicate ink portraits of great figures, whose achievements can be celebrated above their identification as homosexual men.

Otherwise, E. van Lieshout’s project is so far the most commented among all the art works. At the basement of the Hermitage, there have been cats here since the days of Catherine the Great, keeping the mice down. Van Lieshout spent weeks there building better living quarters for these felines (that obliquely reference to the Pussy Riot). The highlight of this installation is a video in which the Dutch artist shows his subterranean adventures with animals, ghosts and staff members of the great Russian museum (the director appears admitting that he does not like “cats or dogs. Or people”).

Frank Ammerlaan (Dutch artist, currently participating in an exhibition in KUMU) explains it in this way: “Van Lieshout’s work evolves around social and political themes; he is not shy depicting Putin or hinting at Pussy Riot in his large installation. Through a reconstruction of the basement tunnels, mounted with drawings and photographs, you find the video work where the artist himself is the entertaining protagonist asking all sorts of anthropological questions about his role in The Hermitage at Manifesta”.

Other piece that I liked a lot, in spite of not being complete, is Aslan Gaisumov’s ‘Elimination’ (located in the fantastic Cadets’ Corpus, parallel program). This installation is composed of metal gates from Chechnya strewn with bullet holes and lit from behind. As the description explains, gates are a sign of status in Chechnya, designed to be a source of honour (in this case with Olympic motives). The material remaining speaks up forgotten stories in an archaeological way, confirming, once again, that war has no respect for local traditions, people and plans.

I went to the biennale willing to learn from supposedly vanguardist and transgressive ideas; also to get a glimpse of what is going on in contemporary art. After a long and intense weekend visiting exhibitions (well, partying too), I have the feeling of having missed something.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to attend the lectures about ‘art as domestic resistance’ and ‘street poetry’ organised within the Public Program at Marata 33/7 (we were stuck two hours in Narva processing a new visa for me). Also, due to my no skills in Estonian language, I could not learn from the two hours discussion about Manifesta that took place on the bus, coming back from Piter to Tallinn.

FIG 4 Discussing Manifesta 10 on the bus, on the way back

In Narva, the bus driver unexpectedly decided to play on the bus TV an old documentary about the magnificent beauty of Leningrad. Maybe, he was tired of musings on the future of art; or perhaps he just wanted to remark, once again, the threshold of this rite of passage. Later I was told that this already seems to be a common pattern among drivers that go to art events, since in the previous excursion the chauffeur delighted the passengers with several seamen’s songs as if the bus were a karaoke.

My experience visiting this sort of events is very small, so during the weekend I had the feeling of not seeing enough, in spite of running from one spot to another. I have not been in the Hermitage for ten years, so it was grotesque that I dedicated my visit to find contemporary pieces spread out all over the museum, rather than calmly enjoying the collection. Even worse, I did so in an accelerated way: since I had just 45 minutes to see that part of the biennale, I grabbed a volunteer (Alyona) and asked her to help me in my hopeless endeavour. Consequently, I felt like taking part of Alexander Sokurov’s film ‘The Russian Ark’ (2002), yet in a 3x speed, surrounded by people that approached these pieces as a joke and with attendants shouting ‘No photographs!’ and ‘No touching!’ when one comes too close.

In a way, Manifesta 10 might seem to function as a tribute to the Hermitage’s 250 years anniversary – a birthday piñata adapted to the needs and priorities of the museum. But the interplay between foreign expectations, local needs and political and economic circumstances is richer than this. Also, the exhibitions have benefited from being hosted in unique venues.

FIG 5 Ivan Plusch's Process of Passing - Ruins of the Soviet and Post-Soviet eras in 18th century interiors - Displayed at the Cadets' Corpus

In the opinion of Olga Temnikova, it is not possible to understand this Manifesta without paying attention to self-censure, economic issues (local staff had to work without payment for two months) and diverse traditions and expectations. In this sense, Andres Kurg notices that press releases by Manifesta 10 are different in Russian and English language and that the main curator, Kasper König, demonstrates a wide ignorance of Russia and local codes in many of his statements (“the ink on my contract was still wet when that appalling anti-gay law was passed”; or “I was working in a country where there is no civil society”).

This process of translation, negotiation, or interplay, it is exemplarized by a colleague of mine in St. Petersburg, Vladimir, who has progressively changed his view on the biennale:

- The first evening, in a non-officially programmed event, he presented Manifesta 10 as an example of colonialism, accusing the organizers of exhibiting dead Russian artists that would not have agreed in participating in this sort of event and blaming them also for bringing their own crew without establishing much dialog with contemporary local creators.

- The second day, we randomly met in the General Staff building, and then Vladimir acknowledged that there is some ongoing negotiation, which has more value than the quality of the works exhibited. Later, at night, in the official opening organized in the Hermitage (a party with free cocktails of Beluga vodka), Vladimir substitute the word ‘colonialism’ for ‘celebration’.

For Vladimir, Manifesta 10 is being an invasion, yet invasions are not negative in absolute terms. The political and artistic implications within the Russian society are yet to be seen, but this is only one of the many points of interest of the event.

In this regard, I agree with Rebeka Põldsam that to judge Manifesta 10 as toothless and nail-less is naive and vain, since exhibitions have value even if not solving the end of the world crisis. Hence, I prefer the exercise proposed by Rebeka: ‘what if it was in Estonia?’, acknowledging that this Manifesta is particularly close to us (both geographically and culturally), and that these exhibitions are not just another stardust show, but an engaging and inspiring event, an example of negotiation and trans-location that might encourage Estonian artists and institutions to organize the biennale of contemporary art in 2018 or 2020.

Furthermore, the participation of artists like Kristina Norman and the Rundum group, as well as the visit and contacts established through initiatives like the trip organized by the Estonian Centre of Contemporary Art (Thanks Solveig!), help to re-draw the Manifesta 10 territory and, in a way, the art scene of St. Petersburg.

I met people from Estonia in most of the events and places associated with Manifesta 10. In the case of Olga Temnikova, I encountered her at least in 15 different places – almost 5 times per day. In this sense it has been an invasion of the invasion.

Of course, there were also dispiriting points as, for instance, to be forced to suffer police controls and ‘be part’ of the official activities organized for ‘Day of Young People’ at the Palace square, where rappers, skaters and basket players were hired (by the City Hall?) to celebrate youth. But, in a way, this was part of the experience of being in St. Petersburg, as the expensive prices, the canals, and the lively nightlife.

Russia is quite a poly-logical country, and Manifesta 10 is obviously affected by that. Within the biennale, there are not only different worlds coexisting but also parallel galaxies. I noticed that, for instance, in the Garage party that I attended with Andres, my friend Ksenia and Frank’s crew. Good looking people, cool DJ’s, expensive drinks (Andres was unlucky to pay all of them), photographers all over the place... Moscow high-society after all, that considers a coincidence to meet in the art-fashion parties, independently if taking place in London, Berlin or Piter.

FIG 6 Selfie at the Garage party - courtesy of Andres Kurg
FIG 7 Garage party nearby a Giorgio Armani shop - courtesy of Andres Kurg
Overall, to be contemporary is linked with not feeling good with your contemporaneity, with the world we live in. In other words, a search of something else that does not exist at the moment. If we take this way of discerning, most of the works exhibited in Manifesta 10 were not contemporary. Indeed, Henri Matisse (exhibited at the General Staff Building) seemed to be more contemporary than many of the ‘fresh’ contributions. Likewise, when facing certain works (as for instance, those by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe), I rhetorically asked what the f*ck is this stuff doing here. Also, the never-ending glorification of the 80’s underground art in Leningrad was annoying, becoming a bit tiring, if not stinky. Yes, Kuryokhin, Novikov, Tsoi and Grebenshikov were great, but one cannot feed oneself for 30 years always with the same meal. Indeed, this might be a symptom that art practice has not moved forward much from that time in Russia. Or perhaps, it is rather a sign of Manifesta staff’s colonialism and the lack of knowledge of what is going on nowadays in that city, in that country.

All in all, Manifesta 10 deserves a visit, particularly by those living on the other side of the Narva River. Besides the list of big names, such as Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Thomas Hirschhorn, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter and Kazimir Malevich, we can also find artists such as Pavel Pepperstein, Lado Darakhvelidze, Ivan Plusch or Deimantas Narkevičius, as well as parallel events with different degree of artistic interest and critical engagement. Is that enough? Probably not, but it is worth to see it and to host it. Let us believe that art resides in the attempt, and not always in the result/product.

FIG 8 Gerhard Richter Ema, Akt auf einer treppe exhibited in the Hermitage yet forbidden by Facebook pornography policy
FIG 9 Ugolovnik by Pavel Pepperstein

I almost forgot it, but during the weekend we have also talked about the non convenience of boycotting and about Chto delat? This Russian art group had the difficult task of taking a single final position, caught in between the demanded coherence of critical discourses, the political decisions and practices of Putin’s regime, the binary approach of Western institutions and the diverse expectations of its members and audience. In this regard, most of the people agree that communication and interaction function better than boycott; likewise, Manifesta 10 serves as a platform to engage, participate and contrast ideas, even if a limited and contradictory one. In this sense, I take it as a social laboratory, particularly valuable because of the ongoing negotiations between local and foreign agents and the cultural implications of this interplay. Let us remember that Crimea, Anti-LGBT Laws and Political repression are hardly discussed in Russian institutions and media; and let us not forget that Manifesta 10 provokes reflexion and debates, not aggression.

This biennale of contemporary art brought to my mind thoughts on transgression, on an escalating sense of obsolescence, on the need to defy traditional classifications and free from power structures, on the need of awkward compromises in order to make visible what has been silenced, on the anxiety of not seeing enough, on re-creations, expectations and the expiry date of art-works, on the process of living, on repositioning ideas, on borders as transition, on the value of connections and mobilization (rather than conflicts and insensitivity), and, overall, on the contradictions of cultural work.

We arrived in Tallinn at midnight. Walking home under the rain I felt I had learned about contemporary art and not only.

FIG 10 Kristina Norman's Souvenir, courtesy of K. Norman

* This article is a quick description of the trip to the opening of Manifesta 10, organized by the Estonian Centre of Contemporary Art. The biennale of contemporary art features over 50 artists from nearly 30 countries and is complemented by an array of performances, public programs, and education projects. For more information, visit Manifesta home page.

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