Not another article about Kyiv as the new Berlin? No, or, well, not really! . . . On the occasion of the Future Generation Art Prize, a $100k award sponsored by Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk, Alexander Scrimgeour wonders about how the twentieth-century phenomenon of international contemporary art changes under the pressure not of corona or climate change, but of good old-fashioned geopolitics.
Victor Pinchuk’s success in promoting “international contemporary art” in Ukraine is indubitable. Through the activities of the PinchukArtCentre in the heart of Kyiv, the collateral events he sponsors in Venice, and the Future Generation Art Prize, now in its twelfth year, the Ukrainian oligarch is truly a champion of art. The first show I saw at the institution’s Kyiv home base, in 2010, was “Sexuality and Transcendence,” with Koons and Murakami et al., shiny hollow rabbits and spurting semen; since then, the right’s perception of the alignment of contemporary art with what it rejects as morally, aesthetically, or politically distasteful has only become stronger, even as its shock value has receded.
Meanwhile governments have fallen and there is an ongoing low-level war in Ukraine’s Donbas region; as I write, many analysts are warning that Russian troops currently amassing on the border may mount a ground invasion of the country early next year. Although there is no longer a Soros Center in every major Eastern European city, contemporary art feels like an ideological front not only in a culture war between progressive and reactionary forces within Ukraine but also between Putin’s Russia and Europe, considered either an outgrowth of Western imperialism and degeneracy, or as a marker of modernity and cultural belonging.
In the tenth century, Vladimir the Great, aka Vladimir the Baptiser, forced the residents of Kyiv to Christianize en masse in the Dnieper River. His son Yaroslav the Wise set up schools and furthered the transformation of the city into a major cultural centre. Is PinchukArtCentre more like the former or the latter? It depends on whether the universalist claims of contemporary art are thought to be akin to those of early Christianity, imposed on the populace from above, or whether art is seen as a vehicle for enlightenment ideals of education and progress. Neither is entirely the case, but the sense that something is actually at stake is pervasive, because something actually is – geopolitically and culturally.
The Future Generation Art Prize is generously funded and cosmopolitan in outlook. It connects Kyiv to what is happening elsewhere, with a diverse list of artists most of whom would probably not otherwise show in Ukraine. But it is also a case in point for the art world’s dubious meritocracy. An open call for artists under 35, more than ten thousand applicants from almost two hundred countries, and, not least, gatekeeping by an international curatorial jury reflect the established art world’s current interests, among them themes such as cultural memory and postcolonialism, queer politics, desire and technology. It mixes names from the “famous in the art world” version of Hollywood’s star system with “emerging” newcomers whose inclusion gestures to a wish to include the global periphery.
So in spite of its talent-spotting premise, the exhibition has, for example, what a friend described as the “Bortolozzi corner,” with the duos Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings and Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff. It also features an expansive installation of turn-of-the-millennium East German décor and videos by Henrike Naumann, another of the artist’s compelling deep-dives into interior design and collective psychohistory. Other somewhat familiar figures – to a Berlin audience –include Rindon Johnson, Mire Lee, and Alex Baczyncski-Jenkins. One slot is pre-booked for the winners of the PinchukArtCentre Prize (a companion award restricted to Ukrainian artists), Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Khimei, whose video How It’s Made (2021) aestheticizes the vestiges of industrial manufacturing still taking place in a building undergoing renovation for the “creative economy”. Its closing scene bids farewell to the Soviet heroization of a hard-working proletariat with a nod to the Lumière Brothers’ and Harun Farocki’s iconography of workers leaving the factory.
Further highlights include Ho Rui An’s fascinating multi-panel video documentary about the Hong Kong textile industry, Lining (2021), and Agata Ingarden’s deconstruction of the sanitary illusion of the white cube, accomplished by removing the walls and ceiling of the room housing her installation Rescue Dummies (2021). Windows retrieved from a disused office building in Kyiv are jerry-rigged into enclosures for props and costumes used in a video performance, itself shown on multiple monitors, in which “Emotional Police” supervise oddball arty types known as “Butterfly People”. As in their concurrent presentation for the Preis der Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Henkel and Pitegoff showed the trailer for Paradise, a satirical/political sitcom exploring labour relations and reflecting their experience running Berlin’s TV Bar. The work itself was on view elsewhere, in nightclubs and drinking establishments around town.
how much of the future actually still depends on the military conflicts of empires, and how much ultimately depends on forms of soft power, the combined forces of crypto and techno and art?
It’s in these locales, outside the professional art world, where Kyiv comes into its own. From the feeling of self-empowerment that accompanied the Euromaidan protests, which led to the toppling of the government in 2014, the city has become a site of blossoming youth and club culture. There is an air of dissident celebration in spite of everything, and a willingness to do the work to make things happen, as at the charming new art space Dzherelo, a repurposed inner-courtyard pump house where the club and art scenes intersect. This past September, the New York Times published Rosa Lyster’s celebration of Kyiv as “the pandemic’s party capital.” Kyiv’s markets, kiosk culture, and nightlife are still far enough away from capitalist-consumerist homogeneity to allow the city to be seen, romantically, as a beacon of the neo-bohème. But by necessity, such a view precludes realpolitik: the ongoing poverty in the country, its unstable currency, its battle with corruption, and a mass exodus of young people, especially to Poland (which has, in spite of its government’s hostility to immigration, become home to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the past five years), all now compounded by the risk of a Russian invasion. While the current war in the east feels in many ways distant, there is a “war tax” on Ukrainians’ wage slips. Would it really help if Kyiv were to become the “crypto capital of the world” (a moniker again proposed by the New York Times)?
At the prize-giving – a predominantly online event on the evening of December 8 – the main award went to Afghan artist Aziz Hazara for his five-channel video installation Bow Echo (2019), showing young boys blowing into plastic trumpets while battling high winds on a hilltop outside Kabul, their individuality jostling against broader metaphorical interpretations. Nobody at the ceremony made any geopolitical analogies. Pinchuk himself joined the event via video-link to share his conviction that “art is the most revolutionary force in the world” on account of how artists can tap into the subconscious and so “change this world with a very crazy unpredictable future”. This hopeful view was a reminder not only that we should probably be less jaded, but also brought to mind an advertisement I saw elsewhere, at Kyiv’s M17 Contemporary Art Center, for a so-called Club of Collectors, reading: “Being in cooperation with like-minded people, saturating yourself with the colour of bold ideas, you will not get lost in the context of modernity… Feel the opportunity to make choices, creating a world of modern culture.”
The framing could be: how much of the future actually still depends on the military conflicts of empires, none of which will last forever, and how much ultimately depends on forms of soft power, the cultural front whose vanguard might, somehow, still be corralled together from the combined forces of crypto and techno and art? The answer in the short term is obvious on one level, but not on that of attitude, or commitment. Vibe check. The server at one of the mellow, welcoming bars where the Henkel/Pitegoff work was on view had a tattoo across the front of her neck reading NO FUTURE.
“Future Generation Art Prize 2021” remains on view at PinchukArtCentre, Kyiv, until February 27. A version of the exhibition will be installed in Venice during the Biennale next year.
ALEXANDER SCRIMGEOUR is Spike’s Editor at Large.