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The organizers of Manifesta continued to denounce calls for a relocation or boycott of the biennial at a press conference yesterday in London. The 10th edition of the roving contemporary art biennial is scheduled to open in St. Petersburg next month, but the Russian government’s oppressive policies towards homosexuals and its annexation of Crimea have prompted ongoing debates over whether the exhibition should move out of the country, and if it stays, whether artists should boycott it.
Curator Kasper König has previously expressed his commitment to keeping the show in Russia and his distaste for artworks that are “cheap provocations … just making a particular political statement,” and yesterday in London he confirmed that position, as The Art Newspaper reports: “‘The Hermitage is defending the territory of art,’ he said. In that context ‘cheap provocations’ or ‘hysterical art’ would be politically ineffective.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, where much of Manifesta will be held, also spoke at the conference. Artinfo quotes him as saying: “Our conception of the exhibition should not be changed by political events … We have to show that there are things that are more important than politics.” He went on to advocate “putting art back in the ivory tower.”
The two men’s remarks contrast somewhat with those of Manifesta Director Hedwig Fijen, who, in a March statement on the biennial website, couched the exhibition in fairly explicit, albeit vague and universal, political terms:
The ‘dilemma of being engaged or disengaged’ is not only present in the current context of the Russian Federation but our critical engagement should also be proved in West European locations such as Zurich where Manifesta is hosted in 2016, and possibly in future host cities of Manifesta. We fight for artistic freedom, and we support curators and artists to investigate the sites of the Biennial and discuss the importance, sensitivities, and relevance of the proposed projects. We challenge the dialogue with the public and we discuss the relevance of the Biennial not only for the artistic community but also in relation to how it affects the daily lives of the general public. We offer training opportunities for those who are enthusiastic to be involved in a project like Manifesta so that the legacy of our work continues after the Biennial has gone. We are engaged with those communities that are stigmatized and need solidarity.
König has said that his original invitation to participating artists “guarantees artistic freedom, however within Russian law.” As if in evidence of this, he spoke at the conference yesterday of a project by artist Marlene Dumas for which she “initially planned a series of drawings of famous homosexual men, including Oscar Wilde and Tchaikovsky, but has decided, after conversations with the curator, to expand the series to include famous heterosexual men too,” according to TAN. König also said that he had invited three artists who had withdrawn from Manifesta to still participate, “either by visiting or contributing to one of its events,” and two had agreed. Polish artist Pawel Althamer, whose first solo museum show in the US recently closed, and the art collective Chto Delat are among those who have announced their boycott of the biennial.