The European art biennial Manifesta is hosted by St. Petersburg this year. Until the 31st of October the Hermitage presents works of international contemporary artists, curated by Kaspar König. His choice of this year’s place had been strongly criticized and the beginning of the Ukraine crisis has continued to aggravate this debate.The American artist Sean Snyder and the Ukrainian cultural scientist and professor of Cultural Studies at the national University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Olga Bryukhovetska, reflect on the Manifesta and the power of contemporary art in the light of the Kiever Majdan protests. The text was published first in the magazine of contemporary art and culture „frieze“ no 164 (June, July, August, 2014).
‘It is by refusing to turn Russian money into cultural capital that we can get the point across that Putin’s policies are beyond the pale,’ wrote Jonathan Jones in a Guardian blog entry entitled ‘Let’s Hit Putin where It Hurts – All Artists Must Boycott Russia’, posted in early April. In fact, by that point, discussions around a boycott of the Kasper König-curated Manifesta 10 – slated to take place in Saint Petersburg from 28 June to 31 October – had been ongoing for several months, initially prompted by the Russian authorities’ oppression of dissidents and lgbt rights activists, and subsequently fuelled by events in Ukraine, with Russia punishing the country for the democratic victory gained during the recent Maidan protests in Kyiv. While the Polish artist Paweł Althamer, the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi and the Saint Petersburg-based collective Chto Delat? have already declined to participate, the evolving situation in Ukraine compels everyone involved in Manifesta 10 to take a stance on whether or not to collaborate with Russia’s rich and powerful.
The word maidan – square – has come to define a revolutionary, self-organized people defending their rights. Since 1989, when students demanding Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union occupied Maidan, major protests have always taken place here. In a bid to inhibit mass protest, the square’s lavish open spaces – typical of late-Soviet design – were remodelled in the early 2000s: kitschy sculptures were installed and glass domes rose up from the new underground shopping mall, impeding movement. These precautionary measures failed dramatically, however, when allegations that the election of the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had been corrupt resulted in the Orange Revolution of November 2004.
The latest Maidan protests, which began on 21 November 2013, saw the site reconfigured as a stronghold for protesters, who occupied the square with tents and tyre barricades. Art was a significant presence from the outset, with students from the nearby Kyiv Conservatory carrying a piano into the square and playing Chopin for the crowd despite freezing temperatures. The protestors, a number of whom were artists, designed posters, painted helmets and graffitied slogans around the square. Continue reading