Last days of Manifesta in Russia - interview with Hedwig Fijen

By Anna Savitskaya - Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Last days of Manifesta in Russia - interview with Hedwig Fijen

Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art is about to end. How did it all go, what are the initial results and the overall impression of the event - read the interview with Hedwig Fijen, the director of Manifesta.

Last days of Manifesta in Russia - interview with Hedwig Fijen

Manifesta 10, 2014 at The State Hermitage Museum in the City of St. Petersburg

28 June – 31 October 2014

Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art is celebrating its 10th edition in Saint Petersburg, Russia. For this special edition Manifesta is hosted by The State Hermitage Museum. Saint Petersburg has a long-time relationship with the West and claims to be a historical bridge between the two parts of Europe. In this regard, no other Russian city can fit the format of the European Biennial of Contemporary Art that well. However, Manifesta had a chance to experience a whole bunch of obstacles on its way to organize the Biennial. Hedwig Fijen, the director of Manifesta, shares her thoughts about the Russian edition of the Biennial.

Artdependence Magazine: Manifesta aims to establish closer dialogue between cultural and artistic environments of different European courtiers as well as to create links between them. Did you achieve your goal with Manifesta 10? Did you manage to bring Europe and Russia closer to each other?

© Natalya Chasovitina, courtesy Manifesta

Hedwig Fijen: We should be modest in these aims and they are too generic, we have always regarded the project as a collaborative, reflective, experimental and learning process for both sides, the Hermitage and Manifesta 10, in which both institutions share their experiences and learn from each other as critical friends. Our intention is to bring people together, but also to leave something behind.  This project is not about short term impact, or introducing the notion of contemporary art into a historical museum and presenting art to Russian audiences but also about reaching out to the public though other channels with a more lasting effect, facilitating an innovative conceptual framework to the staff of the Hermitage and the introduction and changing of pedagogical methodologies of how to deal with visitors and audiences, so that participatory work becomes core, sustainable and embedded in all aspects of our collaboration. Art exhibitions like Manifesta 10 can inspire, can give a new vision of how to articulate one's own life in relation to a changing society, full of conflicts, paradigm’s and contradictions.

Second: It would be too vain to opt that a biennial as an art event would bring two countries closer together.  We have modestly being trying to create a worldwide, meaningful discussion about the urgency of cultural events in dealing with boycotts, censorship and the complexities of working in countries where there is no 100% security to human rights. Manifesta is not a multi-lateral social economical collaborative project, which has real influence on a global scale. Sometimes we have to say: we are just an art event. Don’t overestimate the influence and power of art in changing the geo-political structures and presuming that artists have so much influence on world politics.

Winter Palace © Pavel Losevsky -, courtesy Manifesta

AD: The main location of Manifesta was the State Hermitage Museum: The Winter Palace and The General Staff Building. Did the atmosphere of such respected and acclaimed museums help in the perception of contemporary art and how did the Russian public receive this mix of the historical collection and Manifesta works in these venues?

HF: During the Manifesta 9 in Genk, Belgium we learned that the dialogue between heritage, contemporary art and the history of place attracts a completely different audience than the typical contemporary art professionals. This is what we are looking for. It's not true only the Winter Palace and the newly opened GSB are venues for Manifesta, there is also a large program of Public Performances responding specifically to the current political issues in Russia, taking place across the city. We are excited by how Kasper Konig has composed this biennial exhibition, which is so precisely curated in terms of scale, media, language, musical composition and interaction between works. The unsurpassable quality of the Hermitage collection in combination with the extraordinary works of art of Manifesta is certainly a public attraction without becoming a populist teaser. It’s a remarkably poetic and accessible show, focused on the perception of Russian audiences.

     © Rustam Zagidullin / MANIFESTA 10, courtesy Manifesta

AD: Although St. Petersburg was chosen to celebrate the milestone 10th Edition of Manifesta the preparation and organization did not turn to be easy. In one of the interviews Kasper Koenig even mentioned that there is no civil society in Russia and that Manifesta was not welcomed there. Was it a moment of despair? Did you ever consider cancelling the biennial?

HF: Yes, that was a moment of personal despair, Kasper Konig is not very experienced in curating biennials outside of the safe haven of Western countries and understandably sometimes the everlasting NJET was too much for him. He mentioned the unfriendly attitude in the context of the Hermitage where decisions are taken from the top down and staff is not informed. Kasper had the feeling that not all 2000 curators in the museum were as happy as we thought to receive Manifesta in their Museum, especially because they had never worked with living artists and newly commissioned work. I suppose Kasper might have expected the Hermitage to act as any other international museum, which it is not. We were desperate because the Hermitage never worked with cash flow problems and as a state museum is also not accustomed to work on a project basis. Only 12 days before the opening the cash started to come from the City,  so until that point we had to manage Manifesta mostly on the basis of pre-financing loans. This was very complicated and almost killed the reputation of Manifesta. In this aspect Kasper and I have different opinions on how to deal with the press and how to involve the press as a pressure tool. His remark about the lack or non-existence of civil society in Russia, I agree with partially, since in many aspects the respect for the democratic principles of a civil society is not always present, but I would not generalize this. I do not know Russia well enough to judge it personally in this way. Yes of course there was a constant fear that Manifesta would be forced to close or withdraw or give in to the pressure of call for boycotts. Even monitoring the geo-political developments day by day, I cannot say where we might have reached the boundary. Russian intervention in Ukraine?  It’s happening now almost. The more call for boycotts the more I resent this option as not applicable for us since we have chosen to work in Russia in just this period. Happily the participating artists are supporting us.

Francis Alÿs, Draft for Lada Kopeika Project, 2014,
Collage with gold leaf, 11.5 x 13 cm, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery.
New commission for Manifesta 10, courtesy Manifesta

AD: When opening Manifesta 10 in Russia you were well prepared in juridical field to fight back all possible accusations. Were these special measures undertaken only in Russia? Did the status of the Hermitage Museum help you in this?

HF: Yes indeed a special team of legal advisors was organized but that did not help us in protecting us against the "legal tigers" in Russia. It it mostly dealing with a complete different culture of decision making processes, burocracy, the lack of transparency and corruption that makes one nervous. One needs nerves of steel to survive in this country. Having said that, artistic autonomy as far as it exists was guaranteed and that was the utmost reason why we could have left, but we were not bothered by specific censorship rules except for legal conditions such as self-applied age restrictions. Manifesta 10 did not shy away from the taboes of Russian civic society. The Director of the Hermitage Dr. Michael Piotrovsky gave us the necessary protection from within the Hermitage. He uses to say in public that the Hermitage is not the Kremlin, which in a way is true. I am not sure that in contemporary Russia an exhibition and a Public Program like Manifesta 10 would be allowed unless in place like the Hermitage. I was also personally surprised that the city of St. Petersburg did not interfere at all in our artistic processes and did whatever it could to support the logistical execution of the program socially in the Public Program taking place in the parks, stations and cinema’s of St Petersburg. This was quite remarkable and it is frequently not possible in other cities to have the permissions for such interventions.

Marlene Dumas, Pjotr Tsjaikofski, 2014. Ink on paper, 44 x 35 cm.
Photo credit: Bernard Ruijgrok Piezographics
Copyright and courtesy: Marlene Dumas, Manifesta
Commissioned by Manifesta 10 Saint Petersburg, Russia.

AD: Did you take part in selecting artists and artworks for each biennial? Or is it purely the authority of the curator?

HF: I lead in selecting the curator and I have a direct say in the venues and spaces. It is my role to create a context in which a curator can work, all the preparation such as the location of the host city, the institutional context, the thematic context. For the outside world it seems that we start two years in advance but in reality it takes 4-6 years preparation especially in countries like Russia.We are working with a specialized team of international professionals who work in Manifesta biennials and incorporate local specialized colleagues one year in advance in the team. To start from scratch every two years would otherwise be impossible. Also the aspect of capacity building is becoming more and more prominent since many cities see it as an advantage to have Manifesta as a protagonist in its city even if we are acting as a parasite from within.

Gerhard Richter, Ema, Akt auf einer Treppe (Ema, Nude on a Staircase), 1966. Oil on canvas
, 200 x 130 cm. Museum Ludwig (ML 01116, Cologne).
Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, rba_d000275. Courtesy Manifesta.

AD: The concept of Manifesta is to invite a non-local curator, so that the curator finds oneself in a completely new environment. What is the idea behind this and what are you trying to achieve by this?

HF: Through experience we have seen that an external international curator is much more free in analyzing local scenes but in this case we needed an iconic figure who could stand up in this context, who has enough stigma and was able to proove how to deal with the complexity of involving newly commissioned works in the contested public space in contemporary St. Petersburg, working in dialogue with the historical museum collection and having had experience with composing large scale art historical narratives. There are not so many curators who combine these skills. Kasper Konig does: he was the right man in the right spot. Every biennial edition requests a different profile and analysis of whom we need for the job. In the meantime, Manifesta has dealt with an entire generation of curators which was very exciting...I should write a book about it.

AD: The Russian and first of all the St. Petersburg art scene is considered to be rather conservative, oriented towards academic and classical modern art. After visiting Russia several times, working with Russian team, and talking to the people what is your opinion of the Russian audience now?

HF: The Russian contemporary art scene is mostly based in Moscow and then it is still very fragmented with only a few private institutions. In St Petersburg the emphasis is on literature, classical music and ballet rather than contemporary culture, although in the nineteenth century St. Petersburg was more the center of the experimental interdisciplinary scene than Moscow. We are not addressing one monolithic audience but a diversified group of people of different ages and backgrounds and mostly our mediation strategy is based on allowing people to freely ask questions about the notion and meaning of contemporary art. Our mediation specialist from London is mostly focussed on implementing new pedagogical methods and involved in attracting a young generation of mediators and training them for a future capacity in the Hermitage than in traditional guided tours. We have had the most touching reactions from individuals participating in Family Days, Veterans Days and retired and homeless groups who came to see and work in the biennial program. We hope that the Manifesta 10 is inspiring for the different grass root contemporary art organizations to start their own projects after we have closed. Also we expect some impact from the Parallel Events where local artistic practices have been shown.

Pavel Pepperstein, The Convict, 2013
Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 200 cm, 2013
©Pavel Pepperstein, Courtesy Nahodka Arts & Pace London, Manifesta

AD: Each time you chose a European city for the new edition of Manifesta. Before St. Petersburg you selected mostly peripheral or contested cities and never organized events in the museums of such scale.  Upcoming Manifesta 11 will be in Zurich. Did your priorities change? What are the criteria of choosing a city?

HF: There are not really strict criteria. Being both a historian and art historian I am interested in looking for geographical and political areas and regions which are representing part of the changing radical history in many different aspects of our European continent or in case of the Hermitage, represent a part of the history of museum collecting and exhibition making. I was also interested in how a biennial could invade an almost byzantine institute such as the Hermitage, which is itself very interested in how the notion of contemporary culture is changing, how audiences perceive a museum in a rather conflicted society.

What is important and mandatory is the fact that every Manifesta should be radically different in terms of its experimentation and research, albeit that we always keep researching the changing DNA of European culture as a sociological phenomena.

When reflecting on the context for this Decade edition we came to the conclusion that Manifesta 10 should reflect upon the origins of its existence, namely the creation of a bridge between East and Western Europe and how in the last 20 years we were able to respond to the changing notion of different geo-political perspectives. 

AD: Thank you, Hedwig Fijen, for such an open and sincere interview! We wish you success with Manifesta!

More about Manifesta.

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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