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Postcard from Kyiv

5 October 2017

The past cannot necessarily be reasoned with, nor simply erased. In Kyiv, a city of turbulent history, this is not simply a conceptual question but a pressing political problem. Recently I visited the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC), a collective of artists, activists, curators and researchers based in central Kyiv. I sat in their second-floor office and watched CCTV footage on a mobile phone. On 7 February 2017, 15 men entered the gallery with their faces concealed. They assaulted the guard, destroyed the exhibition, and left. They were never identified. You can watch the video on YouTube. For me – a coward – to watch such violence, in the very space where it took place, was an unsettling experience. It wasn’t the first time either: some of the team were attacked in the street in 2014, from when director Vasyl Cherepanyn is yet to fully recover.

Why is this happening? In February 2013, the Maidan revolution forced the hugely corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. The following month, Putin annexed Crimea. The new government of Petro Poroshenko – also considered corrupt – has embarked upon a policy of ‘decommunisation’ as part of a social and political pivot away from Russia, towards Europe. In addition to removing monuments and changing place names (in Kyiv, Leninska metro station is now Teatralna), new laws have branded the Soviet Union ‘criminal’. Ukraine’s communist parties are banned from elections. As Soviet-era architecture is swept aside by developers, many believe that the policy has also fuelled tolerance of violence. ‘Ukrainian right-wing radicals feel more confident than ever to attack and destroy whatever they do not like,’ says VCRC’s Anna Tsyba.

In response, a counter-current of artists, activists, academics and researchers is attempting to rethink Ukraine’s past in more productive fashion. In 2015 VCRC along with curators Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer, helped to organize the ‘School of Kyiv’, a new biennial with an international scope, which saw exhibitions and event taking place in multiple locations across the city. Politically astute artists such as Sasha Kurmaz see the city as site of complex tensions between competing interests. By Holosiivska metro, artists occupied a vast, dilapidated former film school ahead of September’s Gogolfest festival of theatre and performance. Nightclub Closer hosts art exhibitions in a ribbon factory built in 1896 – when Kyiv was part of the Russian empire.

Housed in a river-side shipyard, IZOLYATSIA (relocated after its first space in Donetsk was seized by pro-Russian separatists) combines exhibitions with studios and impressive printmaking and photography facilities. A new residency programme has just launched in partnership with the British Council. For ‘Social Contract’ Izolyatsia commissioned four temporary works for a pedestal left empty after the removal of a statue of Lenin, also a site of execution during the Nazi occupation. Artist Isa Carrillo installed a column of healing herbs to cleanse the sins of the recent past with the soothing myths of pre-modernity. When the installation was vandalized locals helped to repair it.

More officially, the state-funded Mystetskyi Arsenal – a multipurpose arts complex which hosted Ukraine’s first biennial in 2012 – hosts exhibitions in a vast, vaulted former arms warehouse. An exhibition of work by 67 young Ukrainian artists, selected from an open call, opens there this month titled ‘Today, which never happened’. In Sofiivs’ka Square, Darya Koltsova’s temporary installation commissioned by the International Red Cross highlights the plight of the families of those missing in the conflict in the east of the country. Constructed from reclaimed doors and window frames, it also – quite literally – reframes one’s view of the city outside. Meanwhile, the UK’s Sara Nesteruk is showing animated films in the Holodomor Victims Memorial, which commemorates the Soviet-instigated famine/genocide of 1932–3 which killed at least seven million.

A desire to rethink the past informs much of the work at Kyiv’s best-known arts institution: the PinchukArtCentre. Founded and funded by Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk, the centre opened in 2006 in a six-floor building by architect Philippe Chiambaretta. In its early years, some exhibitions leant on celebrity associations (works from the Elton John collection, Sir Paul McCartney’s paintings). Others brought major names like Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami to Ukraine for the first time or championed home-grown talent. More recently, under curator Björn Geldhof (since 2015 also Artistic Director at YARAT, Baku, Azerbaijan) there has been a shift to more politically engaged programming. Geldhof has also overseen the launch of two art prizes for artists aged 35 or under: the PinchukArtCentre for Ukrainian artists and the international Future Generation Art Prize. A provocative text piece by Kurmaz adorns the roof of the adjoining Besarabsky Market: a commission for the 2013 prize, which translates to something like ‘don’t philosophize, have sex’.

Author: Tom Jeffreys
Source: Frieze