Я не много знаю об искусстве…
This week I was intending to write a quirky yet insightful and (ofc) devastatingly humorous piece on Russian cuisine but fortunately/unfortunately, was too bluddy inspired by my visit to the 10th Manifesta festival — a nomadic biennial of contemporary art which is currently taking place at Petersburg’s Hermitage. So here’s my regrettably ignorant take on the exciting project and it’s surrounding politics.
The decision to host the Manifesta in Petersburg was one surrounded by controversy and difficulties. The city is seen by many as the origin of the ‘homosexual propaganda’ laws and the home of Russia’s anti- western conservatism. Much of the international art world called for a boycott in solidarity with the country’s homosexual population — though without wishing to sound controversial, I wonder at the logic of blocking a cultural event such as this from reaching a country that’s so clearly sliding back into an illiberal abyss. Surely Petersburg, more than anywhere, is in need of some stirring contemporary art?
The festival also had numerous problems working with the Hermitage which, as the age-old paragon of the classical aesthetic, is notoriously obstinate in it’s artistic direction.
Despite these challenges, curator Kasper König and his team managed to create a politically relevant exhibition which shocked without crudeness and engaged the visitor with genuine subtlety. It affirmed Petersburg as a world centre of arts and culture and countered Western preconceptions of Russia as some kind of uncivilised, eastern hell-hole. The obvious difficulties the team had faced seemed to lend the exhibition a freshness and cheekiness that many contemporary art exhibitions (in my, admittedly limited, experience) lack. I suppose the ability to upset the Russian authorities with such ease made the whole thing more exciting than it would be in London, where it’s literally impossible to shock anyone.
A prime example was Van Lieshout’s recreation of the Hermitage basement, which was filled with cheeky nudes and pisstakes of Putin. In an audacious attempt to avoid censors, the artist had crudely scribbled over nips and norty werds, drawing attention to the silliness of the system. He spent months living with the Hermitage cats, creating better conditions for them in a symbolic and practical gesture. A video of this endeavour is the centrepiece of the recreated tunnels and this bizarre little dutch man’s interactions with the Hermitage staff is just a delight to watch. When asked if he thought art could change the world he replied that he’d certainly improved the living standards of these furry workers and the underground pussy riot is now something of a ‘cat palace’.
Also on display was a retrospective of Russia’s foremost Monroe impersonator, trans hero and key component of Petersburg’s New Artists movement of the late 80s, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. Despite the artists’ long and varied the career König focused primarily on his Monroe characterisation, apparently transfixed by this facet of his work. Surprisingly, Monroe’s was one of the rooms unbesmirched by the 16+ label, despite it’s obvious challenge to traditional gender norms. I’m sure u can all guess at my gr8 enthusiasm for V. Monz, the photograph below is part of his ‘Tragic Love’ piece, a collection of photos depicting the doomed romance between the ‘new monroe’ and some guy she saw in the park..
The 16+ ratings were interestingly placed and seemingly had very little logic to them. One artist’s work had been considered challenging to ‘family tradition’ apparently because she displayed the vulnerability of the male form. Were the authorities concerned that the sight of this chubby, enraged, middle-aged man might turn us all gay? I wondered who was enforcing these laws and how they’re quantified.
Marlene Dumas was predictably restricted for her beautiful watercolours of famous homosexuals and accompanying descriptions of their trials and triumphs. The piece was originally entitled ‘Great Gay Men’, but the ‘Gay’ was dropped for the Manifesta and the piece was shoved up in a little 3rd floor corner of the Hermitage. Along with Tchaikovsky, Gogol and Eisenstein she’d included Alan Turing — the british war hero and computer genius who accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison after he was found guilty of ‘homosexual acts’ in 1952. A reminder of our own barbaric past and an antidote to western smugness. For me, this was one of the more powerful responses to Russia’s infamous homosexual propaganda law because of it’s simplicity and truth.
Ultimately I’m not sure what insights I took away from the exhibition, apart from a new found lubov for 1980s underground soviet art (said no-one ever) and a few nice piccies to blu tac onto my wall. I think it gave me a sense of how sharply divided people here are. On one hand are the russian stereotypes, the scary aliens who make it into channel 4 documentaries and express unfathomably ignorant and hateful opinions. On the other are the friendly open-minded people that we’ve encountered since living here. I don’t doubt that the first group exist in spates, but I’m glad for the sake of the second (and for myself) that Petersburg was able to host such a gr8 event.