This report from Manifesta 10’s Public Program appeared in the Art & Performance Notes of PAJ:
Pavel Braila, The Golden Snow of Sochi, 2014. Courtesy Zagidullin Rustam
En route for St Petersburg on July 17, I heard the news about the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, claiming 298 lives. The tragic incident colored my brief stay in the city and lent an added urgency to the Public Program of Manifesta 10 that brought me there in the first place. The host city funds the roaming European biennial of contemporary art, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. This seriously limited the organizers of the main event – led by veteran curator Kasper König – in their ability to voice criticism over Russia’s role in the 2014 Crimean crisis. As the conflict culminating in the annexation of Crimea in March escalated, the organizers were taken to task for their lack of resolve, amid calls to boycott the event.
IN THE AGE OF GEOPOLITCS: MANIFESTA’S PUBLIC PROGRAM
It fell to the somewhat peripheral yet vital Public Program to “respond to the current social-political circumstances, its conflicts and complexities, and the place of art within them.”  Speaking on the very evening of the plane crash on a panel alongside Russian artists and provocateurs Afrika (Sergei Bugaev) and Pavel Pepperstein at the Anna Nova Gallery, the Public Program curator Joanna Warsza bemoaned the lack of discussion surrounding the events in the Ukraine: “It’s business as usual,” she pointed out. No stranger to controversy herself, Warsza was, together with the notorious Russian art group Voina, part of artist Artur Żmijewski’s curatorial team for the unpopular 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, which, to their credit, did provoke debate.
Facilitating discussion and encouraging the exchange of ideas under politically fraught circumstances is what the Berlin-based Polish curator set out to do in the context of Manifesta 10. As Warsza explained that evening, she felt strongly that the political thing was to carry on, even though she shared some of the reservations made public by Chto Delat?. This locally-based artist collective withdrew their participation from Manifesta 10 in March, after the foundation announced its decision not to cancel or postpone the event as had been the case with the second Kiev Biennale earlier that year (postponed until 2015); the public program of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, annulled in the wake of the Gezi Park Protests; or indeed Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus, which was called off three months prior to the planned opening in 2006.
Designed to foster a sense of collectivity in a place where it is viewed with some suspicion, the context-responsive commissions, time-based events, performances, talks and discussions staged in public spaces across the city over the biennial’s four-month duration as part of Manifesta’s Public Program, could be viewed as an exercise in “soft power.” Joseph Nye’s influential concept, which in international affairs designates the power to co-opt rather than coerce through cultural and economic clout, as opposed to military might or sanctions, appears in the title of Bucharest-based artist Alexandra Pirici’s Soft Power: Sculptural Additions to Petersburg Monuments (2014) – one of ten projects specifically commissioned for the Public Program.
A counterpoint to the main exhibition, showcasing the work of international artists from anywhere and nowhere, Warsza’s Public Program had a resolutely Eastern European focus. Unlike König’s largely unchanging exhibition, spread across the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building of the Hermitage, the more dynamic Public Program availed itself of various picturesque venues, historic monuments and public spaces dotted around the city, starting with St Petersburg’s Vitebsk Station. Inaugurated in 1837, making it Russia’s oldest railway station, the romantic building – with its lavishly decorated Art Nouveau interior, grand staircase and ornate piano hall – acted as a hub for the Public Program.
More than that, Vitebsk train station’s destination board, indicating daily departures to cities on Russia’s Western periphery – in Central Europe, the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus – lay behind the seductive curatorial concept Warsza came up with for the Public Program. Barring one or two exceptions, notably Ragnar Kjartansson, Warsza decided to invite artists who hail from cities that can be reached by train from Vitebsk railway station: Lado Darakhvelidze from Tbilisi, Deimantas Narkevicius from Vilnius, Kristina Norman from Tallinn, Alexandra Pirici from Bucharest, Alevtina Kakhidze from Kiev, and Pavel Braila from Chișinău. These cities are, as Warsza put it in a video introducing the public program, at once geopolitically far away and yet close by – close enough, in any case, to be accessible by train.
OF FRIENDSHIP, OR RAILWAY CATERING
Staged inside the beautifully restored Jugendstil piano hall, all mirrors, wooden fittings and painted panels, Pavel Braila’s Railway Catering “Prietenia” (2014) rested on an elaborate fiction. Prietenia, meaning “friendship” in Romanian, is the name of the overnight sleeper train that arrives into Vitebsk Station from Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, every day around noon. For Railway Catering… Braila got his mother and other relatives to prepare traditional Moldovan dishes, the idea being that these (along with some Moldovan wine) would make their way from Chișinău to St. Petersburg on the sleeper train, using the restaurant car’s catering facilities.
At 11.56am a small group of us, gathered on the platform, watched the sleeper train “Prietenia” pull into the station. Does it matter that the food that was meant to have arrived on the train was actually prepared locally in a St. Petersburg restaurant, rather than by Braila’s relatives in his hometown? Be that as it may, appearances were kept up. The train did arrive on schedule. The artist then made his way with a bag full of provisions across the station and into the piano hall, in which an expectant crowd was gathered.
Inside the lavish interior of the piano hall that used to be a waiting room for first-class passengers, a table had been laid out and women in fetching colorful headscarves that could pass off as Moldovan dress were standing behind it, ready to serve the food. A speech or two later, we were feasting on delicious placinte cakes stuffed with cabbage and carrots, as well as sermale cabbage rolls, served warm and washed down with red Moldovan wine (which may have actually arrived on the “Prietenia” train). As if to dispel any lingering doubts as to the food’s provenance, a video showing the artist’s mother rolling out the placinte dough to the sound of Euro pop and world music was projected on a loop. Intended for all the senses, the performance went down well with the public.
An older work by the Chișinău-based artist, Eurolines Catering or Homesick Cuisine (2006), anticipated the Manifesta 10 commission and explored similar themes, albeit using a different mode of transport. It too involved the preparation of typical dishes from Braila’s hometown, subjected to a nomadic regime on a trans-European bus journey. For Braila, whose parents and relatives studied in Russia, food is a way of keeping the vital connection with one’s homeland. Bringing and sending food parcels to Russia, often on the train, was common during the Soviet era, when Moldova was a major supplier of fruit, vegetables and meat.
Railway Catering “Prietenia” could not have been more timely. Braila’s performance took place on July 19 as a temporary ban on imports of all plant products from the Republic of Moldova – including those transported in luggage and hand-luggage – was about to come into effect on July 21. This “protective measure” was made in response to the country’s perceived drifting into the sphere of European influence. Two days later, Braila’s piece would have been effectively illegal. As it was, the titular “Prietenia” (“Friendship”) took on an ironic ring.
And yet, as far as the artist is concerned, people will maintain the connection to their country through food, ban or no ban. In this respect, Braila’s piece resonated with the Georgian artist Lado Darakhvelidze’s commission, Transformers Petersburg (2014), which quite literally mapped out St. Petersburg’s fruit and vegetable markets, from the wholesale to the small street markets, charting where their produce came from in the former Soviet republics and at the same time celebrating the resourcefulness of the Caucasian and Central Asian immigrants selling them, in spite of precarious work and living conditions.
WINTER’S TALES: CHRISTMAS TREES AND GOLDEN SNOW
No single work commissioned for the Public Program had more incendiary potential than Kristina Norman’s sculptural installation Souvenir and the accompanying video titled Iron Arch (both 2014). In the wake of the fatal shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane flying over eastern Ukraine, which marked a new low in the Russia-Ukraine relations, the gesture of installing in the midst of Palace Square a Christmas tree that openly referenced the one erected in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kiev on the eve of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution took on a new meaning.
This was not lost on the Hermitage’s director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who, two days after Souvenir had been unveiled on July 20, issued a statement warning that “disturbances can be borne out of innocent entertainments”. But the public sculpture, if it stimulated debate on social media, did not result in any disturbances or protests in a square that had witnessed more than its share of political turmoil and bloodshed. Neither is that something to which the artist had aspired. In an interview with Andreas Trossek, Norman voiced her views on the subject: “I do not think the aim of an art event should be organising revolutions. If there is no potential for revolution in the society, no artist or biennale can instigate it.”
The full implications of Souvenir – a term usually referring to a smaller version of the thing itself that one brings back from travels – as a piece of Maidan surreptitiously brought into Palace Square become apparent when watching Norman’s video Iron Arch (2014). On a visit to St. Petersburg, Norman was struck by the visual parallels between the two main squares, both of which are organized around a central column, have a prominent arch in their midst and a national art museum among their notable buildings; the video was her attempt to make their topographies overlap by grafting an imaginary Maidan onto Palace Square. Maidan is channeled through the sensibility of Kiev-based Alevtina Kakhidze, one of the artists commissioned to make new work for Manifesta’s Public Program. Kakhidze, who witnessed the public protests of Maidan first hand, gives a tour of the phantom square of her memories by drawing analogies with her immediate surroundings in the deserted Palace Square, where Norman films her walking at dawn.
On its own, the skeletal green metallic structure, etched out against the green-azure exterior of the baroque Winter Palace housing the Hermitage Museum’s collection, was something of a riddle. To overcome bureaucratic hurdles, Warsza had presented the project as a “winter themed sculpture in front of the Winter Palace.” Appended to the tree, a notice penned by the artist explicitly alluded to the “escalating conflict, growing distrust and aggression between Russia and Ukraine” which turned a tree ordinarily associated with family gatherings, friendship and love into “a symbol that calls for a cease fire and peaceful negotiation”.
The sheer oddity of a Christmas tree erected in front of the Winter Palace, admittedly, but in the height of summer was matched by that of Braila’s The Golden Snow of Sochi (2014). Scheduled to take place shortly after the official unveiling of Souvenir, the performance unfolded against the backdrop of Norman’s Christmas tree. Braila was keen, in fact, to stress the connection between the two “winter-themed” artworks, likening his metaphorical “barricade of snow” to those of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and pointing out that the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi coincided with the events in Kiev.
Billed as a “midsummer action painting outside of the Winter Palace,” the piece was provisionally titled Cold Painting. But the name given to the installation housed in the General Staff Building, the Public Program’s headquarters, stuck. In its static version, The Golden Snow of Sochi consisted of a mini-fridge containing glass pots labeled with the Olympic rings and filled with 20 liters of natural snow brought from Sochi – if we are to believe the artist, that is. The 98 pots stood for the 98 sets of medals that had been won in as many competitions at the Sochi Winter Olympics, in which the host nation topped the medal table.
A large table, supported on wooden trestle legs, had been set up in the middle of Palace Square in preparation for Braila’s performance. Its reflective golden surface kept with the gleaming cupolas and gilded details of the buildings and monuments in and around the city’s main square. After what seemed like a long wait, with nowhere to seek shelter from the blazing sun, a convoy of four black Mercedes sedans drove across the square and pulled to a stop by the table. Four young men sporting suits, sunshades and white gloves in a parody of the slick dress code favored by Russia’s political leaders, stepped out, opened the rear doors of the largest vehicle containing bags of refrigerated snow, and proceeded to discharge their contents onto the golden table. Against the pale gold surface of the table, the “Sochi” snow had momentarily turned to gold. A snowball fight broke out, spontaneously, in which young and old took part, until the last of the snow had melted away.