Kasper Konig, the German curator of Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, has been talking about how the political situation in Russia, and artist boycotts of the exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum, have reinforced his belief in the importance of art.

Speaking to Artspace, Konig says: “The political situation is so complicated that art is not necessarily going to be able to change the world, but at least it can show things being as complex as they are, and not in a stupid way of simplifying it.”

Konig admits that, while he always knew that taking on the role of curating Manifesta in Russia was going to be a fraught with issues, the reality has been even more challenging than he expected. “It became quite clear that I was going to work in a society that is not a civil society, that doesn’t have a clear structure, and that is very precarious. However, I did not know how precarious it was going to be.”

He continues: “Shortly after I signed the contract [to be Manifesta 10 curator], this very ridiculous anti-gay-propaganda law was passed, then the annexation of Crimea started, and then the country went into a kind of military momentum of annexing a large part of the Ukraine.

“It became more and more complex, but by then I was already quite far ahead… and it became quite clear that it was very important to go on and make the exhibition a good exhibition of good art, and not try to deal with the daily political issues.”

In the interview, Konig goes on to describe how important the support of Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky has been in navigating the political pressures of Putin’s Russia. “I think he’s a fantastically open-spirited man, he’s an orientalist, and he’s a great diplomat. Basically, he’s the most significant figure of the exhibition. He made it all possible, but he never defended it in specifics. He just made it possible, that’s all.”

‘Misguided’ boycotts

Konig also discusses his disappointment at what he believes are misguided boycotts by some artists, including Pawel Althamer, Artur Zmievsky and the Ukrainian artist Yuri Leiderman, who has accused Konig of being a collaborator “in the way in 1938 the Nazis would collaborate with Chamberlain”.

Describing an encounter with Leiderman, he says: “I was going to shake his hand, because I know him, and he said, ‘No, I’m not shaking your hand. You are horrible person.'”

The Manifesta exhibition at the Hermitage, which continues until 31 October, includes work that clearly challenges the Russian political establishment. Wolfgang Tillmans has described his two-gallery installation as “probably the gayest show I have done”, while there are also other works that take a strong anti-homophobic stance.

Other featured works include Thomas Hirschhorn’s Abschlag installation, which creates a life-size bombed-out building with works from the Hermitage collection by Russian painters such as Kazimir Malevich hanging from it.