A frank discussion “about this”

© artpoint.scm.com.uanaplashkuPhoto by Andrey Logvinov Skepticism – that’s what I felt after reading the announcement of the Donetsk Goes Contemporary exhibition that opened on November 11 in Ukraine’s mining capital. The promising press releases left me wondering: “Damn, what kind of image-building project is this?”
Judge for yourself. The organizer is none other than System Capital Management (SCM) – the wealthiest corporation in Ukraine, a textbook example of the power of capital. Three letters that you won’t see on a fence but will often read in economic news and stock exchange reports. What’s there to say, it’s the number one economic and political giant in our latitudes. And as Victor Pinchuk’s business empire proves, patronage of contemporary art is a great way for large corporations to affirm the status quo. Art becomes a representation of economic might.

Surprisingly, despite all its power, SCM still doesn’t have an “umbrella” institution like PinchukArtCenter to represent it in the cultural sphere. The exhibition was organized on behalf of the corporation, the same way they sponsor events on city day. And all this takes place in Donetsk, where nobody will argue about SCM’s almightiness. Here they talk about the company and its owner with admiration. Criticism is confined to the kitchen.

And notice the date. Donetsk Goes Contemporary coincides with the 11th anniversary of SCM – its birthday. What does this mean? Is the exhibition a corporate party? If so, then you can easily imagine the curator as toast-master, the artists replacing live music. After all, you give present, make toasts and deliver greetings on a birthday. And you never start debates or voice protests. As you know, the rowdy guy that says too much is either appeased or told to get lost.

In other words, a maximum space of loyalty was created. Did the organizers set this tone deliberately? Probably not. But one way or another, you felt a certain boundary that it wasn’t a good idea to cross.

Why is all this context important? The point is that the curators and artists were supposed to work with the local context. By the way, the exhibition was curated by Berlin-based Belarusian artist Andrei Loginov and Belgian Steve Schepens. They already distinguished themselves this summer with a joint project at the Lviv Art Center ESc, working with the context of the “cultural capital.”

So, after living in Donetsk for ten days, the Ukrainian and foreign artists, who had never been to the mining capital before, had to show how they saw the city and its public space.

“Donetsk today isn’t just an industrial giant. It’s a modern metropolis, open to new things. Visions. Art. Projects. Donetsk is young, courageous, ironic. <...> Can Donetsk inspire? <...> [Donetsk] is new. Unexpected. Strange. Splendid” – that was the tone of the press release written by SCM’s PR directors. Esteemed artists: create projects, play, surprise, delight as far as the imagination allows.

But it’s hard to see Donetsk as being ideal. It’s difficult to remain a naive spectator of the victory of capitalism in this city. And it’s near impossible to be captivated by it. Here luxury restaurants and hotels live side by s ide with the crumbling homes of the workers. Smoke from the pipes of the metallurgy plants billows relentlessly above the skyscrapers in the gentrified city center. Mines scattered throughout the city occasionally collapse, trapping dozens of miners in their depths. Kilometers of outdoor advertising, parks covered in prairie grasses, monstrous shopping centers, dilapidated trams, cold backstreets. The city seems like a cluster of nerves and conflicts.

Artists are invited to Disneyland, but end up in Harlem. You have to be blind not to see it. Although there is another way to turn one’s back on the problems – be a PR manager, you’ve already too used to lying, adjusting reality for your customer.

The curators faced the difficult dilemma of not becoming PR managers or toast-masters. It’s much easier to not ask for it, make cosmic projects, limit yourself to the study of the business ghetto and pathos of Donbas Arena. Recall the recent opening of the Art Donbas municipal gallery and you immediately understand how far squalor and ironic overtures can go. What prevented them from putting up a portrait of Michel Platini this time?

Under such conditions, professional reputation and recognition isn’t enough to make a serious project, one that you won’t be ashamed of. You have to agree that this requires courage, which both Steve Schepens and Andrei Loginov weren’t lacking.

What a surprise it was to see accurate expressions, strong and, importantly, true images on the 20th floor of the Green Plaza skyscraper. Things that you want to say about Donetsk but are so difficult to express in the local language.

The only artist there was no doubt about was the leftist Spanish provocateur Santiago Sierra. His style is to force people from the social “bottom” to do absurd, and even terrible things. Of course, for a fee. But the minimum they are willing to accept. He tattooed a line on the back of guest laborers, forced ten poor men to masturbate, bribed two drug addicts with heroin for his own experiments. It’s art exploitation, for which professional moralists repeatedly bust his chops.

Sierra’s Donetsk work “Afghanistan War Veteran Standing in the Corner” is part of a global project. He has relegated veterans to stand in the corner in galleries in the US, UK and Australia. Today he experiments with veterans throughout the world. More precisely, he is experimenting with the audience. Here’s your society, here are you morals!

Sierra does nothing illegal. He exploits. Unlike capitalists, he does this honestly and openly. Today we remember the Afghan veterans only when they tear down fences around parliament and refuse to notice them when they stand next to use. But in a gallery space the old grey officer is like a cold shower. Viewers couldn’t last even two minutes in “his” room.

What a helluva great choice of space! The elderly officer is standing in a room in a skyscraper with a view of the industrial zone, pipes of the Donetsk Metallurgy Plant, mines and homes of the poor powdered in snow. You won’t find better scenery for Sierra’s live installations. Exploitation of art and reality overlap, creating a powerful visual connection.

On the other side of Green Plaza is the Donetsk business center. Here, in a dark room with no source of light, Serhiy Bratkov’s installation is exhibited. This is one of those works that I must mention. Bratkov exhibits the city, its panorama. The view of skyscrapers, malls, pompous parking, and exotically expensive cars stuck in traffic jams. The artist’s only addition is the projection of the full moon in the corner of the room that seems to hang over the hell of the concentration of money.

“...The full moon brings money – you hear the artist’s recorded voice say. - And money is health. Money is love. It’s trips to museums. Velvet theater boxes. Contemporary art. Collecting. Expensive cars. Restaurants. Relaxing on a yacht in the vast Pacific Ocean. The ocean calms for money. The sun shines for money...”

Money. Do you want to talk about this? Donetsk is truly lacking in frank discussions “about this.” Trade unions, investigative journalists – it’s not about modern Donbas. It’s not acceptable to look into businessmen’s pockets here, and you certainly shouldn’t ask about the origin of their wealth. A city where initial capital was once accumulated now affects the lives of everyone in this country. It too is being transformed, overgrowing with luxury and bliss for the chosen ones. Admittedly, without Bratkov’s statement, a discussion about Donetsk would be in vain. Or banal and dishonest.

And finally there’s “The Feast of Trimalchio” - an hour-long video by the Russian group AES+F. It is, undoubtedly, the third most powerful work in the exhibition. In “Satyricon” Trimalchio is a freedman who organizes lush orgies and bacchanalia with exotic dishes and heavenly comfort. A rich fool who pretends to be a philanthropist and patron of muses. The video is made in the style of a commercial, with the images polished until they shine, with grimaces and poses more unnatural than Renaissance paintings. Glitz, glamour, punctuated anticipation of disaster.

The video made in 2009 was a perfect match for the Donetsk context. Freedmen who became slave-owners. It’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Here at the SCM exhibition, in the very heart of capital, it reads surprisingly well. What a fucking candid allusion to the man whose-name-you-can’t-say-aloud. It’s a gesture worthy of respect.

Incidentally, it’s symptomatic. The playful “football” project by Ukrainians Ihor Gusev and Nata Trandafir is like a black sheep against the works by Bratkov, Sierra, Schepens, Loginov and Rodewalt - it has no effect. Originating from the infantile 90s, it’s probably the one work that doesn’t fit with the atmosphere of the exhibition. While domestic art continues to play with colorful trinkets, foreign artists are turning out to be far more sensitive to our realities.

“Maybe SCM thought we’d make them a nice image-building project,” Steve Schepens admitted behind the scenes. “We tried to make something more poignant. I’m convinced Pinchuk would have been too afraid to bring these artists. The same Santiago Sierra and his veterans. Why? Because Pinchuk is afraid of political art. And I didn’t want to hide from politics.”

There on the 20th floor, a strange but obvious question arises: Can it be that in this local atmosphere of “unity in silence” only art dares to speak openly about conflicts and problems? Neither the press nor public are able (afraid?) to violate the space of loyalty. Why does art succeed? And this despite the numerous limitations that should restrain the artist, keep him within the boundaries of “decency” and corporate ethics.

Perhaps it’s much simpler than that. Perhaps capital is looking for space for elegant and refined criticism by making it impossible in other areas. Perhaps capital just loves to be lightly shellacked on the ass?