Manifesta 10: Contemporary Art Biennial Not To Be Missed

With only a month left in the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, art-lovers must be wondering if St. Petersburg is going to see anything like this in the coming years. Recently, different social spheres have increasingly come under control of the government and there will be no surprise if the policy in the arts sphere is also tightened. Although a lot of the venues of Manifesta 10 were only operating during summer, you still have a chance to have a look at the main exhibitions of the biggest art event of this year.

In St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia, exhibitions are opened every week, but Manifesta 10 is without a doubt something special, something that the city has never seen before. Although we have a lot of museums, relatively few of them show modern and contemporary art. For an average St. Petersburg citizen, a museum is a palace with gorgeous chandeliers and 19th century portraits. Art is associated with sculptures of Apollo or paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, sadly the most modern thing many St. Petersburgers has ever seen is a Van Gogh or a Picasso, and the only contemporary art they experience are their child’s paintings.

St. Petersburg’s mainstream art scene is relatively conservative, oriented toward the canon of academic art and major moments of the classical modern”, – said Kasper Konig, curator of the Biennial. “We hope to attract visitors to Manifesta 10 for whom it will be an initial first-hand experience with contemporary art”.

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Photo by René Bosch

Organizers were aware of the situation in local art scene, so the main aim of Manifesta 10 was to introduce contemporary art to the St. Petersburg audience and that has lead to  its major defect: there is no general topic or idea of the whole biennial. The media has called it the “Manifesta without manifesto”. Instead Kasper Konig brought a lot of big names; Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Marlene Dumas, Louis Bourgeois and Thomas Hirschhorn among many others.

The whole concept of Manifesta is quite unique. It moves every two years and usually takes place not in capital cities, engaging a whole new curator group every time. Manifesta was first held in Rotterdam in 1996, and after that moved to Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt and other European cities. It doesn’t always choose easy places; in 2004 it tackled the strong Basque identity of San Sebastian, and in 2006 it was scheduled to take place in Nicosia, a city unofficially divided between two countries, but had to be cancelled. The idea behind choosing St. Petersburg was to set up a dialogue between east and west, to work with the concept of the “window to Europe”.

Photo by René Bosch
Photo by René Bosch

The preparation and opening of the Biennial was not easy. Petitions and protests against it were caused by St. Petersburg’s recent anti-gay propaganda law and the situation in the Ukraine, while a few artists even refused to participate in the exhibition. It is remarkable that finally both topics were represented in the main program: Marlene Dumas created a series of portraits of famous gay man called “Great man” while Boris Mikhailov made a photo story about people on Maidan in Ukraine “The Theater of War, Second Act”.

Manifesta 10 is not about politics, it is more about the dialogue between sophisticated contemporary art, the classical masterpieces of the Hermitage museum and St. Petersburg’s conservative audience. I invite you to take part in this dialogue that touches the eternal topics of life and death, the role of art and the artist and the nature of humankind.

Main venue – The Hermitage and General Staff Building

Kasper Konig has used the space of this major city museum in order to create a dialogue between contemporary and classical art. Imagine coming upon granite blocks in the Greek sculpture hall or a wooden house built around the Hermitage chandelier. The Manifesta intervention aims to attract attention of those who didn’t come especially for the contemporary art and make it a hard task for those who are specifically searching for Manifesta exhibits in the huge space of the museum. So if you are up to this quest – go to the Hermitage’s main building.

The General Staff Building, on the contrary, is totally dedicated to contemporary art. The space of the venue is no less impressive than that of the exhibition. Recently renovated, it has been turned into an ideal place for exhibiting modern art.

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Photo by René Bosch

You can see a huge installation by Thomas Hirschhorn showing the typical post-soviet house cut-off  with the original’s avant-garde masterpieces inside. The Cat Tunnel, built by Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout, who spend 6 month living with famous Hermitage cats, and massive Handkerchiefs by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in a theatre-like space are only a few examples of installations that can impress not just with their intellectual depth but also with their size and scale.

Alongside the installations, abstract paintings and modern photography, you will find three halls of Henri Matisse’s works. Paintings that were revolutionary a century ago now seem so classical in comparison to the other exhibits. Perhaps in 100 years time, these crazy pieces too will be classics.

Admission fee: Hermitage – 400 (students – free), General Staff building – 100, Opening hours: 10am-6pm every day except Monday; Wednesday 10am-9pm. Open daily tours in English at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm on weekends. 

First Cadets’ Corpus – the main venue of the Parallel Program

While a lot of well-known international artists are being exhibited in the main program, a parallel program features mostly local Russian genius. So, if you are curious about Russian contemporary art, this is the right place to go.

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A slightly ruined and scary building, a former Cadets’ Corpus is a perfect background for experimental art that cannot yet be put in a museum like the Hermitage. The photo project, “Twelve Thinking Photographers” from the Moscow School of Photography and Ivan Plusch’s installation “Process of Passing”, are among some of the most significant ones, while some other works can be mistaken for a bunch of garbage in the corner.

Address: University Embankment 15. Admission fee: free of charge.

More information: manifesta10.org

NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA

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