The Hermitage’s Mikhail Piotrovsky on hosting Manifesta

The museum director talks about politics, cultural life in Russia and holding the biennial in St Petersburg

In stormy waters, a good captain turns his boat to meet the waves obliquely. Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, would be adept at the helm. Just when you think you have him pinned down to a position, he switches tack.

Who can blame him? The occasion of our meeting was a conference held in April at King’s College London entitled, “Can Contemporary Art Mix with Old Masters?” It is an issue that has thrust the Hermitage into the eye of a geopolitical storm.

The seeds of the crisis were sown last year when Piotrovsky agreed to allow the Hermitage to host the 10th edition of Manifesta, the roving contemporary art biennial starting later this month. The announcement coincided with a period when Russia’s international reputation had dipped to a new low. The arrest of punk group Pussy Riot in 2012 was followed by anti-gay legislation that banned the “propaganda” of “non-traditional sexual relationships”, prompting widespread condemnation of President Vladimir Putin. And this was before Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As Piotrovsky stood up to speak about Manifesta, he did so in the knowledge that many believe it should be cancelled. (One petition demanding its suspension, which was prompted by the crisis in Ukraine, has 1,900 signatures.) Polish conceptual sculptor Pawel Althamer and the Russian art collective Chto Delat have pulled out, also in protest against events in eastern Ukraine.

Piotrovsky’s speech was realpolitik at its most expert. A slight, impeccably neat man with silvery hair and a black scarf over his charcoal suit, he began with a story about an exhibition of art by Hermitage staff that was held more than 50 years ago. Considered scandalous, it was closed within two days and the director of the Hermitage was sacked. “Too much importance was given to the event,” opined Piotrovsky. “It became political.”

Under Piotrovsky’s tenure, which commenced in 1992 when he took over the role previously held by his father, the Hermitage has stretched both its physical and imaginative frontiers. The new spaces of St Petersburg’s General Staff Building, near the Hermitage, have been dedicated to modern and contemporary work. Meanwhile a network of outposts in cities including Amsterdam and Ferrara – the latter is about to transfer to Venice – have helped the museum reach a wider international audience.

He has encountered opposition along the way. Most recently, in 2013, Piotrovsky was targeted by ultra-Orthodox Christians for mounting a show by the Chapman Brothers, the British contemporary duo known for their irreverent imagery. He quietly points out that during the Soviet era, when religious iconography was repressed, the Hermitage was a “place where religious people could get information about ... the Bible and the New Testament in a proper way ... because all the Bible was painted here”.

He told the audience at King’s that the museum’s collection of military art made it a “unique monument to Russian state history and military victories”. Then, with the aside that he was “not going to speak of political things”, Piotrovsky said that his first act on arriving in London was to visit the Crimean war monument in Pall Mall because “it is so connected with what is happening today from a psychological point of view”. Yet asked for his views on Manifesta’s presence, he spoke of a desire to put art back “in the ivory tower”. It was necessary, he said, to show that there were “things more important than politics”.

So is Piotrovsky a conservative masquerading as a liberal? Or a rebel disguised in counter-revolutionary clothing?

Finally, I catch him alone in King’s College lobby and ask why he agreed to hold Manifesta when he knows that he will be attacked by both conservative and progressive forces.

“I think we must do this because these things must be fought ... Wrong things in the ideology and the psychology of the people. You have to [teach] people not [spend your time] fighting politicians,” he says.

So is art actually extremely political? “Yes, art in general is extremely political.” Then he sidesteps: “Because it explains to everybody that politics is nothing! Art is much more important. Relations between people are much more important than these political things ... Culture has its own rights which [are] different from the rights of the nation and human rights.”

In reality, those boundaries are shaky. Museum walls are porous; what goes in seeps out through the collective consciousness of its visitors.

This year’s Manifesta includes works by the radical German Joseph Beuys and painter Nicole Eisenman, who has been described as making work with an “audaciously queer bent”. Inevitably, it will come under intense scrutiny. The conservatives will pounce on any signs of it undermining traditional values. The liberals will be seeking evidence of work being censored or at least diluted.

How does Piotrovsky liberate freedom of expression from the Kremlin’s grip? All acquisitions require government approval, he replies, as do all temporary exhibitions exported abroad. “What we do inside is up to us until there is some big mistake and somebody will be angry.” He pauses, then adds with emphasis: “Because I can be sacked in one minute.”

Until now, he says, none of his exhibitions has ever been changed. But inevitably there is self-censorship. Manifesta’s curator Kasper König has admitted that one exhibitor, South African painter Marlene Dumas, has retitled her series of male nudes of prominent gay men from “Famous Gay Men” to “Famous Men”, to avoid falling foul of Russia’s anti-gay law.

Asked about this law, Piotrovsky sidesteps again. “The anti-gay legislation is nothing in comparison with the real legislation that we have,” he replies with a hiss of fury. “We have legislation against hurting religious feelings ... and this is terrible ... Gay legislation is just a small part.”

His anger is fuelled by his experience of investigation by St Petersburg prosecutors when he mounted the Chapman brothers’ show The End of Fun, which contained scenes of figures indulging in an orgy of depravity. The result was a slew of complaints from Orthodox Christians who were offended by the show’s depiction of a crucifixion of Ronald McDonald. “[They said] crucifying a puppet is against religious feelings [ ... ] I told them: ‘You are idiots’.”

When he talks of putting art in an ivory tower, what he means is not that it is detached from politics but that it must be protected from it. “There is a territory of art and museum and the rules are different,” he says, emphasising the last word. “You can prohibit things outside the museum on the streets [like] naked figures but you can have them in the museum.”

You might expect a dovelike approach to the situation in Ukraine but Piotrovsky makes no secret of his support for Putin. “I do support the policy of our president. I know him well. [ ... ] He is playing a good, important global game,” he tells me.

His duty now is to “protect the cultural heritage” of the territory at stake. In post-Soviet Ukraine, he says, people built “their terrible cottages over the remains of Greek and Roman antiques”. He has no doubt the same will happen under Putin. “Oligarchs are different and not different.”

Before we part, I ask which work of art he would visit if it were his last day on earth. “I remember them all so I don’t ... ” As his voice trails off, he gives a belly laugh. The museum of the mind is a politics-free zone.

Manifesta is at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, June 28-October 31

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