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Maidan Voyage

24 May 2014

A WEEK before Ukraine’s anticipated elections, PinchukArtCentre, located in central Kyiv just a few minutes walk from the city’s Maidan Square, opened coinciding solo shows by three young Ukrainian artists: Nikita KadanZhanna Kadyrova, and Artem Volokitin. Collectively titled “Fear and Hope,” the presentation, curated by the center’s deputy artistic director, Bjorn Geldhof, addresses recent political activity in the region and the structural and psychological changes it has effected. Perhaps surprisingly given the media’s spectacularization of the nation’s revolutionary unrest, few international journalists were in attendance for Pinchuk’s vernissage. But for the ones who were and for the crowds of arts enthusiasts who came that night and throughout the weekend, it was evident that Ukraine is the locus of a deep and urgent cultural discourse, one pointing to how truly complex the relations between art and the power structure that facilitates and/or censors it can be.

PinchukArtCentre plays a central role in this discussion, so it was fitting that the weekend began with its generously hosted opening. Presided over by Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist Victor Pinchukand his wife, Elena (founder of ANTIAIDS), the party drew a mostly local through impressive mix of guests, including Masha Tsukanova, the editor-in-chief of the newly launched Vogue Ukraine; art dealerIgor Abramovich; and the GM of Shell Ukraine, Graham Tiley. Festivities continued next door at Ca’del Bosco, where the bar’s freakishly beautiful clientele, largely shod in towering heels, sipped cocktails to a mix of Euro-trance and mainstream American protest songs of the 1960s.

When I returned to PinchukArtCentre the next morning, a line down the block had already started to form—mostly people in their twenties and thirties cueing up to check out the new work by Kadan, Kadyrova, and Volokitin, as well as a show by Alevtina Kakhidze, “TV Studios / Rooms Without Doors,” kicking off a new PinchukArtCentre initiative in which a young Ukrainian artist is invited to re-consider work made by an older compatriot. Kakhidze, for her part, had selected a 1998 installation by Vassily Tsagolov, extending his critique of mass media’s hold on Soviet society—a dynamic that apparently persists in post-Soviet Ukraine as the majority of citizens still claim television as their primary source for news. Also on view at Pinchuk’s six-story venue was a solo show by Belgian artist Jan Fabre. To see these three efforts side by side—a presentation of work by emerging Ukrainian artists, another connecting that generation to the one before it, and finally a show by a major international figure—was to better understand the institution’s strategy for establishing a platform for contemporary art in a part of the world where very little internal critical art writing exists and where politically subversive gestures can easily land you in prison. By bringing in big-ticket (if frequently played) names like Fabre, Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, etc., the center has established itself (among Ukrainian officials, at least) as an essentially unimpeachable institution that, were it to be censored, would only reveal the government’s provincialism.

Just a short taxi-ride away, a world-class demonstration of said provincialism was on display at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Titled “Inventory of a Dictatorship,” the show, organized by Art Ukraineeditor-in-chief Alisa Lozhkina and artist Alexander Roitburd, filled the entire first floor of the venue with the abandoned possessions of Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. (The locale was all the more poignant given that the courtyard of this regal, if embattled, nineteenth-century building served as a key site for pro-revolutionary forces during the height of Kyiv’s unrest this February.) Featuring a representative selection from the hundreds of millions of dollars of personal property the ex-leader left behind when he fled Mezhyhirya (his Versailles-like private estate outside Kyiv) earlier this year, the exhibition offers a grotesque mix of orthodox bibles and Hermès goods, gilded porcelain knickknacks, hunting trophies, soulless Impressionist painting, and official portraits, including one of the former first lady styled afterAleksey Antropov’s iconic depiction of Catherine the Great. Given the government’s history of cultural censorship, perhaps no better gesture of resistance could be had than this patent exposure of Yanukovych’s alarming bad taste.

Traveling on to Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Art Arsenal that evening for the city’s Night of Museums, it was evident, however, that it may take more than ousting a national leader to culturally enlighten the powers that be in Ukraine. The exhibition on view in this state-funded venue, while largely inclusive, most resembled New York’s Armory Show if all the partitions were removed. But moreover, there is the issue of the Arsenal’s director, Natalia Zabolotna, who made news last summer for having commissioned a mural by Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov for a show on the “civilizing effect of Christendom,” only to deem the piece an “unforgivable crime” against the motherland. (The mural included a cartoon-like Last Judgment scene with Jesus—flanked by a Chernobyl fireman, a Pussy Riot member, and others—ushering corrupt clergy and shady oligarchs and their expensive cars and whores into a black pit of hell.) Zabolotna, apparently in an effort to save the Arsenal from closure by the government, ordered that the mural be over-painted in black—and so incredibly, and without the artist’s consent, Zabolotna destroyed Kuznetsov’s work, which then remained on public display at the Arsenal for the duration of the show. “By some magic working in reverse […] all came true,” observes Cicada Press editor Anastasiya Osipova in Circling the Square, an excellent primer on recent events in the Ukraine. “Zabolotnaya’s [sic] own monument to censorship—her black ‘square’ to which Kuznetsov’s scene of popular uprising [...] was reduced—reminds us uncannily of the scorched blackness of Maidan after the battle.”

As these things go, no doubt Zabolotna’s gesture only increased the visibility of Kuznetsov’s message. And indeed on Saturday night, the young artist was the subject of a survey exhibition across the road from the Arsenal at the city-funded Lavra Gallery. Curated by Rainald Schumacher (who—talk about complicated alliances—is also co-organizing the film component of this year’s much-contested Manifesta 10, which opens next month at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg), “A Silence of Stars” presented the artist’s early drawings alongside new murals made in dialogue with recent events in the region.

For those in from out of town, the rest of the weekend was largely spent playing revolution tourists, circumambulating the various sites across which Kyiv’s uprising unfolded: the bare pedestal of the freshly toppled Lenin statue; the ornate twelfth-century Mikhailovsky Monastery that, during the fighting, functioned as a field hospital; the makeshift Maidan street “museums” displaying battered motorbike helmets, shields of reinforced PVC, and the fixings for Molotovs; and countless tire barricade/monuments, still functional but now painted Ukrainian yellow and blue, with many doubling as memorials to the “heavenly hundred” citizens shot down by Yanukovych’s special berkut police.

“It falls to art,” Osipova writes, speaking as much to the Russo-Ukrainian struggle as to abstract ideals, “to field an active defense of life from the violence of myths, and narrow binary oppositions invented with concrete political interests in mind.” As Maidan and indeed the Ukraine beyond waits to see what happens next, one thing is for sure: No simple determinations of good and bad, left and right, heaven and hell are to be had.

Author: Сaroline Busta