Searing photographic images from Kyiv’s Maidan protests, 16 great homosexuals and a Lada Kopeika crashed into a tree in the cobbled courtyard of the Winter Palace. Not since it was stormed in 1917 has the main venue of the Hermitage witnessed such an assault. For its 250th birthday and grand opening of its new General Staff Building galleries, the illustrious museum has embraced all this and more as part of its hosting of Manifesta 10, the nomadic European Biennial of Contemporary Art.

This is our pick of a complex, eye-opening festival that both reconfirms St Petersburg as Russia’s artistic ‘window on the West’ for the 21st century and is nostalgic for a time when the hopes of perestroika burned brightly.

Lada Kopeika Project by Francis Alÿs, Winter Palace courtyard

Francis Alÿs, Lada Kopeika Project: The iconic image of Manifesta 10 is the crashed Lada, representing both the fulfillment of a teenage dream by artist Francis Alÿs to drive from his native Belgium to Russia, and the bursting of that very same bubble. In one of the galleries of the General Staff Building, a branch of the Hermitage across Palace Square, three short films capture the crash as it happened alongside Alÿs’s documentation of the journey, its inspiration and the artistic fruits it bore.

Abschlag by Thomas Hirschhorn, General Staff Building

Thomas Hirschhorn, Timur Novikov and Erik van Lieshout: The soaring central corridor of display halls in the General Staff Building, created by throwing a glass roof over the interior courtyards, houses a series of titanic installations. Among them are 24 textile works – hanging like the flags of a United Nations of artists – by Timur Novikov from the 1980s, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s astounding Abschlag, where the Swiss artist has figuratively torn down the walls of the building to reveal the reality inside. Intimacy is resumed with Erik van Lieshout’s Basement, a witty and provocative celebration of the Hermitage’s army of 'aristo-cats' (the herd of cats which have lived in the basement of the palace since the reign of Empress Elizabeth).

Great Men by Marlene Dumas, Winter Palace

Matisse and Marlene Dumas: A key concept of Manifesta 10 is the dialogue between the classic and the contemporary. Visitors to the Winter Palace hoping to see Matisse’s iconic Dance and other works instead find Marlene Dumas’ delicate watercolours of great homosexuals, including Tchaikovsky, Gogol and the young Russian man who lost his eye in a homophobic attack in St Petersburg in 2013. Meanwhile, some 40 paintings and sculptures by Matisse look splendid in the General Staff Building’s new galleries – the first time the Hermitage’s full collection of Matisses have been hung together. This will be their new home eventually, along with the rest of the Hermitage’s collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.

Woman with Dog by Katharina Fritsch, Winter Palace

Katharina Fritsch, Joseph Beuys and Tatsu Nishi: Dotted around the Winter Palace, waiting to surprise visitors, are other Manifesta 10 commissions. Katharina Fritsch’s sculpture Woman with Dog dallies in a rococo-revival crimson and gold state room; Joseph Beuys’ Economic Values installation of East German groceries is stacked on iron shelves beside paintings created during the lifetime of Karl Marx; and Tatsu Nishi’s Russian Living Room rests high on stilts to incorporate one of the Hermitage’s glittering chandeliers.

The Theatre of War, Second Act, Time Out by Boris Mikhailov, General Staff Building

Boris Mikhailov, Wolfgang Tillmans and Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe: Photograph, film and video play a prominent part in Manifesta 10 and provide some of the most political commentary on contemporary Russia and its surrounds. Boris Mikhailov’s dramatic photographs plunge the viewer into the heart of the protests in Ukraine’s capital. Wolfgang Tillmans trains his camera on Moscow and St Petersburg today, while Russian performance artist and art photographer Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe is represented both at the General Staff Building and in a fascinating retrospective of his provocative, playful works at the Novy Museum.

Process of Passing by Ivan Plusch, First Cadets' Corpus

Process of Passing by Ivan Plusch and What Do We Hear When We Look: The Monroe retrospective is just one of the many events that are part of Manifesta 10’s Parallel Program, a fringe festival of art scattered across St Petersburg. The ones not to miss are those being staged in the First Cadets’ Corpus building. This vast, partially ruined building on Vasilyevsky Island is hosting several installations including the monumental Process of Passing by Ivan Plusch and the group shows What Do We Hear When We Look? and Generation START.

Younits – self-expression spaces, Erarta

Erarta: Also hosting Parallel Program shows is Erarta. This museum and commercial gallery is one of the best places in Russia to get an overview of the country’s diverse and exciting contemporary art scene.  Works on display include Random Coincidences, by the Blue Noses Group from Siberia, and Anderstanding the Ather, a celebration of the St Petersburg musician Sergey Kuryokhin. Around the corner, at the Kuryokhin Modern Art Centre, drop by the fascinating Grrr Jamming Squeak show, where you can make a free recording of music mixed with animal sounds.

Casus Pacis (Motive for Peace) group show, Street Art Museum

Street Art Museum: Do not leave St Petersburg without making the journey out to the industrial zone in the east of city, location of the amazing new Street Art Museum (SAM). For its first public exhibition in the abandoned sections of the Sloplast laminated plastics factory, SAM is hosting Casus Pasis (Motive for Peace), a show by 60 mainly young Russian and Ukrainian street artists dedicated to the centenary of WWI as well as the more recent conflict in Ukraine. View works by the likes of Russians Pasha 183 and Timofey Radya, 685 from Ukraine and Spanish artist Escif.

Further information

Check the websites of both Manifesta 10 and the Parallel Program for full details of all exhibitions and events being held in St Petersburg until 31 October 2014 – new things are happening each week. It’s a good idea to buy a two-day entry ticket (US$25.95) to the Hermitage in advance online.

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