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The big question: can art change the world? Eight Manifesta artists respond

1 July 2014
Interviews Jamie Rann

The big question: can art change the world? Eight Manifesta artists respond

Since the decision was announced last year to hold Manifesta 10 in Russia, artists and commentators have been involved in heated debates about the rights and wrongs of making art in politically unsavoury circumstances, about the ethics of boycott and engagement and about the relationship of art and politics. Many even suggested that the presence of Manifesta could help foster change in Russia. We asked eight participants: can art can ever have an effect on the political situation in a country?

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Wolfgang Tillmans
Photographer / Artist, Germany, participant in the main programme at Manifesta 10

If I didn’t believe in art having an effect, I wouldn’t spend my energy on it. But if one probes this statement, then one might conclude that art which serves no purpose is no good — but that’s the total opposite of what I believe. When I talk to students, I define art as something that has no purpose. It can do other things: it can decorate, it can embellish, it can teach, it can change the world, but it’s not a precondition. And I think that’s an important thing to remember when talking about this show. Because, when they talk about it in purely political terms, people are somehow taking away the basic freedom of art. That’s what Kaspar Konig also wanted it to be: besides all the obvious things about this being an interaction with a political system and situation that is not favourable, it was also an expression of the freedom of art and of expression. Half my room is devoted to these new semi-abstract, semi-figurative images of static interference on TV screens, which can be read as a channel being taken off air, as the potential for censorship, a lack of communication, a lack of signal, the lack of communication. I’m in no position to say something definitive about Russia, but devoting this whole room to non-communication is quite a statement.

Boris Mikhailov
Photographer, Ukraine, participant in main programme at Manifesta 10

Art? Probably not. Mass culture, perhaps, television can change the situation. Art doesn’t affect a lot of people. Art influences internal structures and your understanding of what is important, how to look at pictures, how to look at the world; art answers very different questions. I don’t think my work is a political statement, it’s an art project. I went to Kiev to see what was going on, saw it and tried to photograph it. I work on the idea of the here and now; I go somewhere and I find what interests me visually and then other things build up around this image.

Olesya Turkina
Curator, Russia, participant in public programme at Manifesta 10

Yes, art can change the world, but not in the way the modernist avant-garde hoped for. The avant-garde could change the actual situation because back then people hadn’t yet become zombies — they weren’t slaves to the media and to TV; people went to concerts, they listened to music. Now art is the last territory of freedom: if a person’s soul is alive they’ll come to an exhibition and they’ll feel something. But art is increasingly marginal: it can change the situation in a country only in the sense that it remains a little island for people who think and feel. I share the opinion of John Cage, who said we need politicians only for managing the traffic, nothing else. They don’t have any influence on me, for me they don’t exist.

Kristina Norman
Artist, Estonia, participant in public programme at Manifesta 10

I don’t think that art should be an instrument. If an artist wants to change something, it’s good if they try, but it shouldn’t be the main objective. Art is about creating discussion, a diversity of meanings and voices. That can change something eventually, and if it moves something in some people’s minds then that’s good. As an artist, you don’t have to create a revolution, but maybe you can imagine it. And maybe that will lead to a real revolution. I think that being part of something like Manifesta can contribute to some discussion.

Erik van Lieshout
Artist, Netherlands, participant in main programme at Manifesta 10. Van Lieshout spent nine weeks at the Hermitage trying to improve conditions for the cats living in the basement of the museum

Yes, there are a few artists, like me and Thomas Hirschhorn, who try to change the world, on a small scale. That’s the goal, that’s what we work for. We’ve had some success: we renovated the whole tunnel, the whole cat palace is much better now and the museum cares much more about cats. You have the real world and the art world, and you try and make that gap as small as possible.

I work with questions: how can I change things? How can I do something for a small community? One of the questions is: should I do something good for somebody, and not make myself myself rich?

I think art can change things. I think Manifesta can do something. Russian people are very deep: they like to think a lot, to talk a lot, they don’t stop talking, they don’t stop thinking, they want to understand things. But it’s very difficult, because there are brainwashed people in Russia.

When I first entered the cellar, I saw cats, that was OK, and then they took Crimea. I thought: how can I keep working? Everyone in Russia seemed to be so happy about it, and that was hard for me. All the problems we had with each other about the money, about Putin, about politics, about Ukraine and Crimea—we discussed them during the process of the film and we put them in the film. We tried to understand each other on a small scale about the cats, and you can use that as a sort of manual.

Otto Zitko
Artist, Austria, participant in the main programme of Manifesta 10

I don’t know if Manifesta could change something or not. I agree with the statement Manifesta made: nobody in the world cares about art, it’s not really important if artist says this or that. Nobody cares if this exhibition takes place or not… I had this idea to include a famous quotation in my work – “No more war” a reference to a work by Käthe Kollwitz. I worked here for two months and made the final decision to add this quotation in the last two days. This quotation reminds us that one female artist 100 years ago made this statement: “No more war”. Now, 100 years later, this line is still relevant and maybe it will be the same in another 100 years… I think art is political in a way that is different from day-to-day politics. It’s a kind of social language, a special language that I choose to use to speak about things that I would not speak about normally. It’s a special situation in Russia right now, but my work is about all the things in the world.

Alevtina Kakhidze
Artist, Ukraine, participant in the public programme of Manifesta 10

Art can change your ideas about the world — so it doesn’t influence art directly, but obliquely. I tried to step back from politics, but it didn’t work. I live in the countryside with my husband, I grow tomatoes: but whether I use the lead or not when I’m walking my dog depends on politics. And even when we talk about tomatoes, you inevitably start talking about the impact of the global economy, questions of ecology etc. You can know nothing and say you’re not involved in all these political questions, but that’s just because you are naive and have no awareness of the things around you. I sometimes envy my neighbours in the village who, as they say, “know less and sleep better”.

A boycott is an instrument of protest that is used when dialogue isn’t possible. When it comes to Manifesta, the very fact that you and I are talking now shows that dialogue is possible. That’s why I’m not boycotting Manifesta. From the very beginning I wrote that my artistic instincts were working: I’ll sense whether I’ll be able to do my work and then I’ll decide. Until then I keep doing what I do and my final performance at Manifesta will be in a month. We’ll see what will happen today, tomorrow, in the next few days: will I be able to realise my project, the chief question of which is: is there censorship?

Alexandra Pirici
Artist, Romania, participant in the public programme. In her work, Pirici choreographs human intervention in monuments

I think art should definitely strive to change the political situation, but it depends so much on the strategy you want to adopt, how you think things can change, on what level and what kind of duration we talking about. I don’t think that art has direct agency; you’re working on a different level, with subjectivities, with affect and emotion and conceptually with intellect. I consider myself an artist, not a politician, I cannot pass laws, but of course I try to work consciously and reactively with the context.

I’m working with three public space monuments: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Lenin at the Finland Station. I’m interested in the representations of power: I try to add something sculpturally. It’s not really a performance, it’s a sculpture, but with human material, in some sort of tension with the initial monument. For Catherine and Peter I had a clear approach, because their signs are very clear, they represent imperial power. With Lenin it is more complex, because his image has been appropriated, and there is a more complex image of Lenin and I’m trying to somehow resurrect him, or reclaim him somehow on an artistic level.

I’m interested in this narrative of the glorious past that was allegedly so wonderful and needs to be recovered. Also, with this statue of Catherine, you have the empress, the noblemen, the entourage. I was trying to find a place for the regular people to appear.

I want a broader audience and not a regular audience, which is one of the reasons I always like to use very touristic places: people are coming here to take pictures and you are sort of a parasite on that, but in a soft way, that doesn’t trigger any real outrage. But it still creates some sort of friction. It shifts attention from the image of power to the people; you sort of steal attention.