Saint Petersburg's famed Hermitage at night. (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Saint Petersburg’s famed Hermitage at night. (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Manifesta 10, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art scheduled to open in the summer of 2014 at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, has received its fair share of publicity these last several weeks: a newly appointed curator, Kasper Koenig, a celebrity-filled artist roster, including the likes of Marlene Dumas and Ilya Kabakov, and, perhaps less conspicuously, calls for a boycott of the biennial altogether.

In response to Russia’s recent anti-gay laws, Irish art curator and critic Noel Kelly posted a petition on urging that “Manifesta 2014 reconsider St. Petersburg as their next location,” in order to “send a message to the Russian government that such draconian measures will not be tolerated.” Manifesta organizers responded swiftly: “to withdraw Manifesta 10 would mean to ignore contemporary voices and emerging generations of Russia,” further insisting that the biennial must remain in St. Petersburg, on the grounds that doing so would encourage “engagement, dialogue, debate and education.” A neutral nod to Kelly’s call but unsurprising, given the country in question and the oft need to tread lightly under political circumstances.

While the discussion surrounding the petition has caught the attention of a number of international news outlets, the mainstream Russian media has offered almost no coverage on the subject. Typing “Манифеста” (Manifesta) into Channel 1‘s search bar produces zero results on the subject. Indeed, the channel is Russia’s most-watched TV news station and also considered a pro-government pseudo-propaganda platform by many experts — likely reasons for the lack of Manifesta news. Other mainstream outlets, like Rossiya K, which focuses on cultural topics, features articles announcing plans to hold Manifesta in St. Petersburg, but are devoid of any references to Kelly’s petition.

That being said, a slew of posts and articles have popped up elsewhere within the country, though largely on the margins, in blogs and cultural websites, and more often than not, in support of keeping Manifesta in Russia. The Facebook page for the Hermitage XXI Century Foundation, an initiative charged with updating the museum’s collection with contemporary art, has posted several statements in favor of holding the biennial in St. Petersburg.  “Everyone who demands that Manifesta is not held in Russia, in St. Petersburg,” discusses one post, “also demands the continuation of the cultural isolation of the Eastern European countries … Manifesta will become that bridge, giving us the chance to have an expanded cultural platform that exists outside of borders and outside of politics.”

Statements like these, including a counter-petition written by Lizaveta Matveeva, are fairly innocuous. But they do beg the question of whether it will be possible (and preferable) to have a dialogue that is neutral. Further, what would an “apolitical” dialogue even entail? As recent news has shown us — Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky — a voice in the wrong direction could certainly put you in a very difficult spot.

In a more nuanced piece of writing relative to the others, Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat  (“What is to be done”), a group of artists and thinkers based in Russia, derides Manifesta organizers for their neutral stance on the issue. He writes:

Instead of a declaration of solidarity with the LGBT community, with all of those who are persecuted in Russia (from migrants to the members of art collectives sitting in prison), we hear that Manifesta will not participate in any propaganda, instead it will attempt to maintain a neutral space for dialogue. There is no such thing as a neutral space for discussion in Russia today — you are either on the side of the repressive conservative ideology machine, of cheap entertainment and mind-wasting of the creative class, or you are fighting to develop a viable alternative to all of this.

Having claimed neutrality, is it the case that Manifesta organizers find themselves unintentionally complicit in Russia’s homophobic policies? Is this neutrality an early warning sign that Manifesta will not in fact be a neutral space for discussion?

Anna Matveeva, in the introduction to her interview with Koenig following a September 9th press conference, brings these issues slightly to the forefront. More specifically, she alerts the reader to Koenig’s promise that he will not censor works chosen for the show, while also noting that Manifesta’s organizers have promised to behave “properly,” as they are guests in St. Petersburg.  And this point — that Manifesta, as an organization, will have to behave in a certain way — is perhaps the most telling. For it implies that it will be difficult for Koenig to bend the boundaries, that it may become impossible to present works that are controversial, which could incite the type of “discussion” Manifesta organizers purport they’d like to have.

So at the end of the day, it is fairly clear that Manifesta 10 will remain in St. Petersburg: press conferences have occurred and artists already invited to show their work. Let’s just hope, then, that once June comes, we aren’t presented with something diluted.

Editor’s note: All translations, apart from the Vilensky statement, are the author’s own.

Ever since Hannah Yudkin was a little girl, she’s had a penchant for Soviet culture, odd foods, short stories, and French artists. Her 4-year stint at Barnard College and 3-year tenure at the Columbia...