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Hedwig Fijen: "The Hermitage's view is that Catherine the Great in her time collected contemporary art"

Andreas Trossek (4/2013)

Andreas Trossek interviews Hedwig Fijen, founding director of "Manifesta".


The main venue for the 10th edition of the "Manifesta" biennial will be the State Hermitage Museum in the city of St Petersburg, which is only 320 km away from Tallinn, where we are now sitting. Why St Petersburg?

People expect "Manifesta" to always be the same, that we focus on young artists and peripheries, and we always have to deal with these assumptions. This time we chose St Petersburg because it's also a border city. It's in the extreme West from the Russian perspective, very European. Yet it's also in the extreme East for us. For example, we asked ten curators from Western Europe: have you been to St Petersburg, which is one of the historical art capitals of the world? And they said no-no-no...

So we thought, what city can we use for the anniversary because this is the tenth biennial and it's important for us. Here we want to go back to the original idea of "Manifesta". We want to find out two things: what has happened in these 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and after being in an industrial building so many times we thought we need to do a museum show. Everywhere in Europe people come to us with offers: here is an industrial area, will you please do a show here. For example, we were taken to Narva during our current visit in Estonia, and we loved it very much. But to do the same concept and venue all over again will not work.

So that's why we focused on what kind of museum would be interesting. And in this context St Petersburg is very interesting, because Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director, really wants to change the museum and wants to focus on contemporary art. Moreover, his view is that Catherine the Great in her time collected contemporary art. Now there is such a negative contextualisation for contemporary culture and contemporary art, maybe also because art after the Berlin Wall was also a bit difficult...

Are you sure that's really the case in Russia where there are many oligarchs that also famously collect contemporary art?

This is exactly the problem. There are many oligarchs who after the fall of communism started collecting contemporary art, but the serious development and serious understanding of the notion of contemporary art was hindered in the 1990s and 2000s because commercialism immediately took over. There was no audience for contemporary art, it was not developed; there was no serious criticism, no art academies. There were many anarchistic places in the early 1990s but after two or three years it all dissolved because they couldn't get funding.

The curators were driven to the commercial galleries where they actually exploited artists who in my view really never had the chance to develop their vocabulary. Alongside the market, they always needed some kind of a provocation, a sensation, so they could feed the audience. However, all this was focused on Moscow and not so much on St Petersburg, which was left as a kind of blank site.

Aren't you also describing a certain general tendency here? It is as if the artist is almost compelled to cause a scandal in order to be noticed in the first place. And maybe later he even receives an award like the Voina group received an award from the state – after their infamous "phallus" stunt.

I think there is a gap between what the state thinks contemporary art is and what serious artists and art historians think it is. And maybe here "Manifesta" could come in and attempt to create an opening for dialogue. Of course, we cannot guarantee success. So what we will do here is work within the context of the traditional museum, and secondly, we work with one of the most iconic curators in the world.

Why did you choose Kaspar König? He has worked as the director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne so he knows European and Russian art in the Cold War era.

"Manifesta" has used upcoming curators in the past but for this edition we selected an experienced artist-curator. We selected Kaspar König because of his ability to curate overviews and build art historical narratives. He's an artist-curator so he will work from the perspective of the participating artists. He's currently researching what he's going to do, so there is no fixed theme or slogan for "Manifesta" yet. The exhibition and programme will start on 28 June 2014.

Why didn't you choose a curatorial team this time?

Because we never do what we are expected, we just do the opposite!

What does the Hermitage expect from you?

The Hermitage expects us to instigate a discussion in St Petersburg on what the notion of contemporary art in a changing society is and how the museum can start, possibly in a serious way, developing and redeveloping this discussion. Because after "Manifesta", the museum's modern art wing will be opened and there will be a section for contemporary art.

So actually that is their main interest: to have "Manifesta" in the Hermitage in order to promote their new modern and contemporary art sections?

I still have the perception, naive as it may be, that Piotrovsky really wants a discussion about what contemporary art is and what it can mean. Because what he has seen so far has been art that's always contested and criticised. And he has said to politicians that Russia needs this discussion. So we need to see how this works.

There is also resistance; let's not say that this is an easy job! People all over Russia will come to St Petersburg and they have huge expectations. However, "Manifesta" can't change the world, let alone a museum that is 250 years old and celebrates this proudly in 2014. Secondly, the cultural differences and language differences are so huge that we might need ten more years or a whole generation to start this discussion. But I think "Manifesta" can facilitate something, we have some experience in that, and we can also generate something.

"Manifesta" has been around for nearly 20 years now with the first edition back in 1996. In your opinion what has been the backbone of "Manifesta", something that hasn't changed?

First of all, "Manifesta" is not an institution. Having said that, of course, we have grown a little mature – we are not some new little kid on the block any more, we have 20 years experience. Meaning that even though we are not an institution, we are an institution! And the fact is that one way we are different from anything in the world is that "Manifesta" is always changing locations. So whole cities are selected, there are always connotations with the venue. We always ask where Europe is in the political, social, cultural context right now.

I would also like to get the obvious question out of the way: why St Petersburg, why not Tallinn?

This is an interesting question – 1993 was the first time I came here. Then in 1998 there was serious discussion to get Tallinn and Helsinki together. I thought that at that time it would have been the perfect framework. Why? Because of the whole Nordic/Baltic context – the development of contemporary art in this region was really starting up and "Manifesta" could have been helpful. Then we started again in 2004 and even last year we discussed doing it in 2018. I think Estonia's a very good country to do "Manifesta" in and I hope, especially after just seeing Narva, that maybe we could do it in 2020.


Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of the KUNST.EE quarterly.

"Manifesta", the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is a roving European pan-regional contemporary art biennale. 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of "Manifesta", which was initiated in response to the new social, cultural and political reality that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War. The list of Estonian artists, who have been selected to participate in the event includes Jaan Toomik (1996), Inessa Josing (1998), Ene-Liis Semper (2000), Külli Kaats (2004) and Visible Solutions (2012).

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