An interview with Kasper König
“It’s what you don’t do”

The tenth edition of the Manifesta, the European biennial with continually changing exhibition venues, will be held 2014 in St. Petersburg. The curator is the German exhibition organizer Kasper König.

Kaspar König in St. Petersburg, Foto: Manifesta Kaspar König in St. Petersburg, Foto: Manifesta | © Rustam Zagidullin Mr König, you’ve organized many exhibitions in the United States and still more in Europe; what especially attracts you to St. Petersburg?

In 2014, the Hermitage is celebrating its 250th anniversary, and when I was asked to submit a proposal this interested very much right away. I was of course immensely fascinated by the Winter Palace, in whose rooms you almost get lost. The Hermitage has incredible collection departments, which, while somehow seeming “Russian”, are absolutely universal: excavations from Siberia, medieval paintings, fantastic Greek vases, Roman sculptures … Amnesia is the really big issue here. First, this complex of buildings seems almost timeless, almost magical; second, it’s beautiful to see what happens to artists who come here for a few days: they seem to forget everything; suddenly no one wants any more to communicate quickly with the rest of the world via Twitter.

You experience this nowhere else so authentically as here, including in the New Hermitage by Leo von Klenze, where all the display cabinets are still preserved and you can see the whole presentation form of a former epoch. St. Petersburg was then the “Window to Europe”. If you were to style all this today purely rationally, according to Western criteria and museum standards, the whole Hermitage would be up the spout, would lose all its charm and enchantment. I have the feeling that its director, Dr. Piotrowski, knows what it’s worth to preserve all this and not to organize it according to consumerist points of view. For me, this exhibition is an exciting if also precarious challenge. You can’t tell how the political situation will develop. At present it looks as if you can register for the Manifesta on the internet, buy a ticket for the Hermitage and the exhibition, and thereby also receive a visa in a relatively non-bureaucratic manner. This alone would be a sensation, no matter how good or bad the exhibition may be.

Is the list of artists already settled?

Yes, as good as; there will be some 50 contemporary artists. In addition, there will be a “public programme”. The combination of these events will be undertaken by the Polish art historian and curator Joanna Warsza. She has studied closely the role of public spaces in the countries of the former Soviet Union. By “public”, people understood more projects that went back to a private initiative of artists. These events and art happenings, which will also take place outside the venues for a wider audience, want to create a dialogue between the two positions of the informal and the official, cast a glance at the historical background and go into local peculiarities. Interesting in this connection is also the contradiction that public monuments in Russian are regarded not as art works, but rather as a part of state representation.

Is there a dialogue between the holdings of the museum and the Manifesta exhibits?

Not consistently in an illustrative sense, but in the case of three or four exceptions. There is, for example, this up to now very hidden sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, a many-breasted mythical creature, half beast, half human. It is made of a rubber material that is simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. I’d like to place it in a constellation with 20 other objects attributed to the utopian Piranesi and brought to St. Petersburg under Catherine the Great. We’d like to place the installation Wirtschaftswerte [i.e., Economic Values] by Joseph Beuys, a shelf full of consumer goods from East Germany around 1980, opposite or nearby a picture by Caspar David Friedrich. This would be rather a rupture than an illustration. I’ve invited three artists to use the space where Henri Matisse’s Dance has been displayed: Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas and Nicole Eisenman. They are three painters from three generations who work with the body, in the broadest sense, not as an object but as a subject.

And Matisse’s series, which is so popular among visitors?

This part of the Hermitage is a popular destination and in summer alone has a million visitors every month. We’d like to show Matisse’s 26 pictures in the newly converted General Staff Building. On the one hand, this is extreme and radical, but at the same time it has a civic continuity. It’s very magical and marvellous. No one would make the detour for contemporary art. Unlike previous Manifestas, which were reserved to young artists, this one is about a certain sustainability; and it’s also about making clear what contemporary art can be.

In an interview, you dedicated this Manifesta to Billy Wilder’s East-West comedy 1, 2, 3. Would you like to convey complex themes of contemporary art with a comparable irony and lightness of touch?

That would be nice, of course. In such exhibition constellations you shouldn’t get into the situation of wanting to censor yourself. You have to approach many things with a playful openness and never become too full of a sense of mission. We’ll be here for only a short time and we’re not pursuing a missionary project. We can offer only an additional stimulus to visiting the Hermitage, which is already incredible. Beyond this, for me, it’s always about the essence of art. Organizing exhibitions is a making aware, an act that requires a special design. It’s what you don’t do – not what you do. What you do emerges from the work.

Kasper König (born in 1943) in Mettingen (Westpahlia) was co-founder of the Verlages Gebrüder König – Köln – New York (i.e., Brothers König Publishers – Cologne- New York). His work as an exhibition organizer includes Westkunst. Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939 (i.e., West Art. Contemporary Art since 1939) in Cologne (together with Lazlo Glozer) (1980) and inbetween (1999) during the World Expo in Hanover (with Wilfried Dickhoff). He teaches at various universities, including the art colleges of Halifax, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. From 1989 to 2000 he was rector of the Städel School in Frankfurt and founded the Kunsthalle Portikus. From 2000 to 2012 he was Director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Kasper König lives in Berlin.


The Manifesta is a European Biennial for Contemporary Art, which has been held in various cities since 1996 under changing curatorship. Previous exhibition venues have been Rotterdam, Luxemburg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, San Sebastián, Nikosia (cancelled), Trentino, Murcia/Cartagena and Genk (in Limburg). After St. Petersburg, the next venue will be Zurich in 2016. Sponsor of the Manifesta is the non-profit organization IFM, International Foundation Manifesta, based in Amsterdam.