Signals in the Noise

Art in Ukraine

Hoarding on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) 

Two private institutions dominate the contemporary art scene in Kyiv. In the centre of town is the PinchukArtCentre, currently showing Ukrainian artists under 35. On the other side of town is Izolyatsia, an institution in exile from the eastern town of Donetsk. There are also a good number of galleries and artist-run projects and nightclub-project space combos in repurposed industrial buildings. Alexander Scrimgeour looks for the throughline to his conversations, visits to exhibitions and various other attempts to become a little more informed about the recent past and complicated present of the erstwhile breadbasket of Europe.

 

The opening of the PinchukArtCentre Prize exhibition in Kyiv at the end of February coincided with the fourth anniversary of the end of the Maidan protests, when Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and just over a hundred protesters were killed. An outdoor exhibition showing the finalists of an architectural competition for a “National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and the Revolution of Dignity Museum” was installed on Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti, after which the protests were named). Nearby, another memorial presented photographs and quotations from Facebook posts tracing the history all the way back to a message from the journalist Mustafa Nayyem on November 21, 2013: “Okay, let’s be serious. Is there anyone who is ready to go to the Maidan today until midnight? ‘Likes’ do not count – only comments under this post with the words ‘I am ready.’ As soon as there are more than a thousand, we will organise.” Fast forward to late February 2018, and the cover of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Week was “Who’s fighting over there” with an illustration of a double-headed, Ukrainian and Russian eagle in the Donbas. The first issue of the Kyiv Post newspaper I saw ambitiously proclaimed “Thriving Norway Sets Example for Ukraine”; the second “4 Years On: No Justice,” in reference to how not a single one of the killers of the “heavenly hundred” has been convicted to date.

 

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All this leaves one with a lot to think about – revolution and language and history make metaphor difficult to avoid. Things are still raw, but there is a lot to say, and I was frequently reminded of the perils of categorisation, whether pro-Russian, pro-European, nationalist, fascist, etc., or among a host of more nuanced positions involving, say, the infantilisation of postcommunist nations or the rose-tinted fetishization of a Soviet past that occasionally bubbles up even in London and New York. It’s all complicated, and the nature of this complicatedness means that art becomes a redoubt of ambiguity, as well as a site for, as art-speak would have it, negotiating the country's recent history.

 

"Why does art seem to matter more here than in London or New York or Berlin? One dinner companion said it was because people hated it so much."

 

In the Pinchuk show – a jury-selected grouping of twenty Ukrainian artists under 35 – allegory was almost everywhere. Dmytro Starusiev’s Three Sisters’ Story (2017) was two sets of triptych-like photographic abstractions, but its title is an established term referring to what they call in German a Dreiländereck or “three-country corner”: the “three sisters” being Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia. But what, exactly, does that mean here, what is the implication of the work? As an outsider visiting for a few days, I can’t presume. The artist spoke about it being too early to theorise, and of a big cultural rearrangement that meant “we live in a different reality.”

 

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But sometimes seeing everything through the lens of Ukraine’s recent history seemed too reductive. It was hard, for example, to determine the roles of chance, fate, and democratic self-determination in Anna Zvyagintseva’s graphite floor sculpture Scratches (2018), replicating the squiggles of people testing pens in stationery stores. Among other works that bypassed oversimplification was Mykhailo Alekseienko’s Startup Troeshchyna (2018), a display documenting a series of exhibitions and interventions in the artist’s late grandmother’s repurposed apartment. Sasha Kurmaz’s destroyed white cube with videos and modified photographs, A Chronicle of Current Events (2017–18), on the other hand, was unabashed about its subject, if not the consequences to be drawn; the partition at the entrance showed a photograph of a wintry forest behind the words “Your sacrifices were in vain!” 

 

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But perhaps the most telling work – and a highlight of my experience of “artistic research” so far – was a KTM-5 (2017–18), a work by the duo Revkovskiy and Rachinskiy revisiting a tram accident that killed 34 people in a small Eastern Ukrainian town in 1996. With Soviet-style wall panels explaining the technical background, tram simulator screen recordings, historical footage, and staged photographs, this was research into history, blame, suffering, responsibility, victimhood and systemic failure, all tied to a concrete event that was long enough ago to have become approachable in a new way. One of the videos shows the two artists knocking on the ex-tram driver’s door. When she eventually opens the gate, she says only: “I don’t talk about that anymore. What’s past is past.”

 

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But is the actual lesson, or the actual choice, to recognise instead that the past is always still with us? Or that it is anyway (almost?) impossible to eradicate? (Ukrainian nationalists are sometimes called Banderites, after Stepan Bandera, a WW2-era Ukrainian quasi-fascist and figurehead of the struggle for the country’s independence, who was killed by the KGB in Munich in 1959.) At the same time, the present is pressing force. The curatorial platform Izolyatsia moved to Kyiv from its home base in Donetsk after its building was taken over by pro-Russian rebels in 2014. According to the institution, pro-Russian separatists have not only blown up artworks under the pretext that it was “perverted”, but also used the building as a prison and tortured people there.

 

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At the 2015 Venice biennial Izolyatsia distributed camo capes with the #onvacation hashtag (in reference to the reason given for the sudden presence of Russians in eastern Ukraine) and invited people to upload selfies of themselves wearing them in the pavilions of countries they deemed to be occupying other nations. In the Kyiv shipyards, the institution is now running a residency and events program and a coworking space, as well as an exhibition program. In answer to the question of whether it’s realistic to plan on a return to Donetsk, I was told: “As soon as it is possible we will go back; it’s important we are among the first to return.”

 

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Why does art seem to matter more here than in London or New York or Berlin? One dinner companion said it was because people hated it so much: a handful of exhibitions – those thematising gender, for example, or critiquing the official historiography of the Maidan – have been attacked by thugs. But perhaps it’s also, more importantly, because art offers a way to work through complexity. If that is a given in Ukraine’s history and any attempt to describe its present, it matters all the more. (An interviewee in a video shot in Izolyatsia before its demise speaks about how important it was because there was only a “very thin layer of intelligentsia” in Donetsk.) Sometimes this is about identity and belonging, a westward orientation, the desire to be part of something – whether a conversation, an “art world”, a historical context –  that isn’t a nation or an ethnic group. Sometimes it’s about something else, something more philosophical, or even: more spiritual. The artist Alina Maksimenko, in an exhibition at the club/café/exhibition space Closer, presented an atmospheric installation about history and time, with two videos: black and white footage of her father celebrating his graduation (filmed from what seemed to be a Super-8 projection, with whirring projector sounds), and shots of water and fields and a distant lighthouse. Accompanying it was a quotation from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “No one shall be forgotten who was great in this world…”

 

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At the Ukrainian National Museum on the last day of my trip I saw an exhibition of Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, filled with moving depictions of suffering. Organized by German curator Heike Stockhaus, the show was on view in Minsk in 2017 and is due to travel to Saint Petersburg later this year. But this being the Ukrainian National Museum, the responsible parties felt it was important to omit this information, no matter how intrinsic this act of bridging is to the project as a whole. Kollwitz’s revolution cycles always end in failure. Is it too easy to say instead – whether a century after the events of 1917 or four years after the Maidan – that it is too early to tell?

 

ALEXANDER SCRIMGEOUR is Spike’s editor at large. He lives in Berlin.

 

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Thanks to Nadya Vatulyova, Alex Rashevska, Valerie Schiller, Daria Shevtsova, Kateryna Lazoryshynets, Nikita Kadan, Mykhailo Glubokyi, Heike Stockhaus, Olga Bryukhovetska, Sean Snyder, Iuliia Kryvych, Mykola Karabinovych, Agnieszka Gratza, Ben Gilbert, Anna S. and many others.