Art as Advocacy: Subversion at International Art Show Manifesta 10

After much international disagreement over whether or not the “roving European Biennial of Contemporary art” Manifesta should be held in its chosen location for 2014 in St. Petersburg, Russia in light of Russia’s recent LGBT-related human rights abuses including the “anti-propaganda law” that has been widely publicized in international media, International Foundation Manifesta released a response last August that they would maintain St. Petersburg as the site for Manifesta 10. The Foundation stated that “[they] believe it is vital to play an active role in this dialogue” on progressing the narrative and human rights of LGBT people in Russia, and that “[o]n principle Manifesta cannot and should not only perform in the ‘safe haven’ of the West… This inevitably involves dialogue with those with whom we may disagree.”

This response may have been a contributing factor to many of Manifesta’s participating artists choosing the route of subversion rather than boycott that had been suggested (and that, in the end, some had chosen). An article by The Guardian examines the queering of this international yet intentionally Russian art space piece by piece, from Marlene Dumas’s collection of portraits paired with quotes called Great Men which examines gay men who have made contributions to cultural history while facing discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, to Wolfgang Tillman’s photography exhibition which he references as “the gayest show [he has] done” in the article.

Upon farther inspection of Manifesta 10’s website, queer themes seem to pervade the art show and directly confront Russian culture, including a “lecture-performance” called The Tranny Tease (in English) on Turkic languages spoken in Russia and former Soviet states performed the group “Slavs and Tartars.” (Russian language description and information available here). Marlene Dumas’s Great Men shows a Russian audience the faces of Russian success, from Tchaikovsky and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, contextualized not only by their successes but also by their sexuality and subsequent oppression. Manifesta 10 is not just a island of queered space situated temporarily and impotently against Russia’s vast expanse. In these moments, it is a direct engagement with and aggression against a country that can celebrate Tchaikovsky as a countryman but criminalize mention of his sexuality. It is in these spaces where art can uniquely engage with and challenge cultures of oppression — in Russia and beyond.

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