The German curator Kasper König was asked last year to curate Manifesta 10, going on now in the venerable, 250-year old Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He agreed to before Russia’s anti-gay propaganda reared it’s head, and before the aggressive annexation turbulence. While the roving Manifesta has historically been a contemporary art biennial dedicated to exploring intellectual and cultural issues between Eastern and Western Europe, this particular context has proven one of the least safe grounds for exploration and dialog.
König’s curatorial vision was to show art that is relevant and necessary with only the highest quality of work to live up to the hallowed halls of the Hermitage. While he claims he was not trying to be original or provocative, he has successfully pulled off one of the finest examples of a Trojan art horse I’ve ever seen.
By Trojan art horse I mean using art to slip out meanings for an unsuspecting audience – when they think they are looking at one thing, in fact they are looking at something very different. If done well the effects are to give the viewer a new slant on the universe. All very exciting.
I believe König’s Trojan art horse was simply to take out all three Matisse paintings the Hermitage reserves for popular viewing and moved them to another building. He then replaced the well-trodden and highly anticipated spot to highlight three women painters. Like Matisse the painters chosen explore the body, but less as a subject and more as an object. The painters are Marlene Dumas, Nicole Eisenman and Maria Lassnig.
The artworks by these women chosen for the Manifesta installation subtly and blatantly reference sexuality and gay living/lifestyle with neither judgement or adoration – simply as is. Perhaps the Nicole Eisener painting of two women having sex is incredibly provocative for the conservative viewership, however it’s very playful in it’s execution (Philip Guston meets Alex Katz meets Dana Schutz). The Matisse room by the way, was previously the “ladies in waiting” room when it was functioning as a palace for Catherine the Great.
Examples of other work chosen for this Manifesta also seem very playful. Even Thomas Hirschhorn’s Abschlag piece where he replicates what looks like a bombed building within the walls of the museum could inspire a giggle versus horror, considering the giant aesthetic mess that’s been made, and the play on scale and context. Also he’s dangled in the rubble Russian Utopian paintings from artists such as Malevich. A fine example to ignite the discussion – what on earth is art’s place in these times of unraveling, destruction and chaos? What is idealism’s place in the universe in these times?
Throughout the planning and installation process König had to deal with Russian staff not being paid, artists making very public boycotts, and generally making things work in a perhaps cold and unwelcoming environment. And König is 70-plus. Inspiring truly.
When asked in an interview if he finds political artworks to be effective, his response is telling. Citing artists such as Erdem Gunduz in Istanbul and Bansky, he believes that political artwork is mostly effective when it’s outside of the museum.
Right now art has become so preoccupied by the fruits of success and the market and so on, and I think it’s important to turn back to these basic questions, to go back to what art means to somebody….. So the political situation is so complicated that art is not necessarily going to be able to change the world, but at least it can show things being as complex as they are, and not in a stupid way of simplifying it. – Kasper König
The State Hermitage Museum in the City of St. Petersburg, RUSSIA
Open: 28 June – 31 October 2014, Preview Days: Press 26 June 2014, Art professionals 27 June 2014
If you are curious there is a nice article here with Kasper König on Manifesta 10.
“St. Petersburg’s mainstream art scene is relatively conservative, oriented toward the canon of academic art and major moments of the classical modern. We are trying to avoid the inflationary tendencies of the current global art scene and re trying, in a playful way, to find out what is needed in this context and what is plausible and challenging within the Hermitage. We hope to attract visitors to Manifesta 10 for whom it will be an initial first-hand experience with contemporary art. – Kasper König”