Phantoms and Dreamers in the Wonderland

© Larissa Babij
Group SOSKA "Dreamers" (2008), Sergiy Bratkov "Princesses" (1996)
The presentation of Ukrainian contemporary art in the exhibition “ЯКЩО / ЕСЛИ / IF” at the PERMM Museum of Contemporary Art in Russia – the first such comprehensive display outside Ukraine’s borders – was a political act. In my mind, the initiative of Moscow-based curator Ekaterina Degot immediately raised suspicions. How will a Russian (outsider) curator approach the task of presenting Ukrainian art in her native country? How will the exhibition address – overtly or subtly – the long, asymmetrical shared history of the two neighboring countries? What is the significance of an exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art in a provincial Russian museum apropos the current ambivalent political relationship between Russia and Ukraine? One of my Ukrainian friends suggested that this was an example of colonial politics: in this case, Russia familiarizing its citizens with the cultural landscape of its southern neighbor in preparation for a full-scale takeover.

However, the exhibition in PERMM was far more complex, and like any solid work of art, open to various interpretations. Degot had spent some years familiarizing herself with Ukrainian contempoary art before delving into more intense research to prepare for the exhibition. She initially envisioned that the exhibition would be largely based on painting, especially the Ukrainian New Wave of the 1980s-1990s, but her investigations opened a scene more diverse in media and generational representation of artists. “IF” sets out to characterize the multiple vectors of artistic activity leading up to and since the 2005 Orange Revolution. It is divided into four thematic sections: “Maidan” (political art and art in public space), “Wonderland” (critical reflection on the idea of national identity), “Phantoms” (visionary painting), and “Dreamers” (socio-emotional background of Ukraine today). In addition, on the second floor of the museum, three “chapters” of “Histories” (Marat Guelman’s foundational painting collection, Alexander Roytburd’s collection of na?ve and conceptual art, and an overview of the Kharkiv school of photography) provide a conceptual base for the contemporary works displayed below. Overall, the exhibition features around 100 works by 30 artists.

A visitor entering the museum is immediately confronted by the publicly oriented works grouped in “Maidan” and “Wonderland.” The artworks in “Maidan” demonstrate the inescapable interrelatedness of societal and personal life. Zhanna Kadyrova’s Monument to a New Monument (2006-2009) is a meditation on post-Soviet public space, littered with monuments but without those that would reflect the current national situation. Nikita Kadan’s Procedure Room (2009-2010) presents a series of dishes decorated with illustrations of common torture methods used by police, revealing the relationship between hidden government policy and the individual human body. The R.E.P. group’s Super Sale (2008) addresses the massive migration of Ukrainian laborers to Poland. The works in “Maidan” take the forms of common everyday objects: plates, graffiti, public monuments, television commercials, as if to perpetuate the Soviet tradition of using public art to convey socially beneficial messages.

The works in “Wonderland” explore the role of ornament and visual symbolism in shaping contemporary Ukrainian culture both at the local and global level. Volodymyr Kuznetsov laconically fuses the traditional symbol of Ukrainian folk culture with a sign of the Ukrainian elite in VIP-Car (2007), an old BMW decorated with a flowery embroidery pattern made of bullet-holes. Roman Minin paints miners in various settings: at work in the coal mines, beside rap stars, and in a contemporary icon praying to the Virgin Mary. While the artist sees miners as universal figures digging for the meaning of life, his images particularly resonated with the Perm audience because this region, like Minin’s native Donbass, is heavily engaged in coal-mining. Western Ukrainian Igor Pereklita’s I am a Bandera Girl, I am a Ukrainian Girl! (2007) combines visual techniques used in propaganda posters and religious icons, depicting a woman in an embroidered blouse with a rifle and hand grenade and the slogan “Death to Muscovite occupants.” The painting – which becomes especially provocative when displayed in Russia – presents a completely different, though equally relevant, side of Ukrainian identity politics. The diversity of images and technical approaches to the works in “Wonderland” echo the cacophony of forces, ideologies and stereotypes underlying the unstable Ukrainian national identity.

In the large gallery, the separation between “Maidan” and “Wonderland” is vague, for the thematic issues of public space, national identity and social-political mechanisms that affect individual citizens are all intertwined. Together, the two sections present Ukraine’s public image – one of political chaos and perpetual construction of national identity – as it is seen from outside, only the works demonstrate that these issues are also of great concern to resident artists. The adjacent galleries present the more introspective, personal suffering of two generations of Ukrainian contemporary artists. Even in the private meditations of these artists, the overarching structure of being a Ukrainian citizen permeates each work.

“Phantoms” consists primarily of paintings and photographs of the generation who founded contemporary art in Ukraine, including the late Olexander Gnylytsky, Arsen Savadov, Vassily Tsagalov, Andrii Sagaidakovsky, Ilya Chichkan. Personal reflections on everyday life in Ukraine – already somewhat absurd – are slightly distorted by each artist’s individual approach. Gnylytsky painted objects like chairs and curtains with a deep, haunting sensitivity to color, bestowing metaphysical significance to mundane artifacts of the Soviet and post-Soviet domestic landscape. An installation by the Institution of Unstable Thoughts (Gnylytsky and Lesya Zayats) called Media Comfort (2006) reproduces a room with a sofa, lamp and plate, upon whose surfaces are projected various images in a trance-inducing rhythm that disturbs the viewer’s initial expectations of stability.

In contrast to the surreal, painterly images presented in “Phantoms” that imbue scenes of everyday life with fantasy, the works of younger artists in “Dreamers” use photography, video, and objects to document their process of dreaming for material wealth and security, freedom to travel, recognition in other countries. This section presents the history of unfulfilled dreams: the documentation of Alevtina Kakhidze’s arduous attempt to obtain a visa to visit a friend in Australia (Invitation to Australia, or The Museum of One History, 2002); SOSKA’s images of teenagers masked in the universal uniform of emo subculture (Dreamers, 2008); Sergey Bratkokv’s photographs of women holding sperm from the reproductive clinic labeled with names of royalty (Princesses, 1996). These works use artifacts of everyday reality to convey the sense that young Ukrainians, who are all too aware of their compromised political and social standing in the world, still have the power to dream.

The “Histories” section, enriched by interviews with the three featured collectors in the exhibition catalogue, offers a broad narrative insight into the processes which set the course of the development of the Ukrainian contemporary art scene. Education and information exchange happened at a local, interpersonal scale, mostly through personal experimentation and communication, with little support or intrusion from institutions (Ukrainian, Soviet or otherwise). To illustrate grassroots activity, Degot highlights the artistic community in Kherson, represented by maverick artist Stas Volyazlovsky and the “Totem” Studio, who produce multi-media works and local festivals far from Ukraine’s more celebrated cultural centers (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Lviv). Valentin Diakonov of Russian Kommersant speculated that, in contrast to Russia, the underdevelopment of art institutions in Ukraine gives artists the freedom to try out different media and approaches, not seek affiliation with one particular school, tendency or institution, but rather mix things together to produce a unique Ukrainian product.

In spite of – or because of – the curator’s outside position, “IF” was genuinely representative of the Ukrainian contemporary art scene, in all its contradictions, assertions and self-doubt. Through all the thematic sections one can trace the strong connection between the artist’s personal vision and the overlying national situation. According to Degot, the exhibition is really about Ukraine. “IF” presents a picture of instability at the level of daily existence and at the greater level of national politics and identity. The artworks show that it is possible to find equilibrium only in a moment that is always teetering on the verge chaos. Degot sees the instability of Ukraine’s political situation, especially in relation to Russia, as fruitful for art production.

The curator’s introductory text established her intention of using “IF” as a lens though which to reflect on contemporary Russia, and the exhibition did not propose any static position of Ukrainian art apropos the Russian context in which it was displayed. I did not observe any condescension toward Ukraine and its art or colonial politics in play in PERMM. “IF” presents a window onto the Ukrainian art scene which the Russian audience (or any audience, if the exhibition were to travel) can interpret according to their own wishes. Local visitors were forced to confront their own stereotypes about Ukrainian culture. They saw that the people who they considered to be full of joie-de-vivre, hospitality, love of life, song and dance, also had a dark side. Many visitors were surprised by melancholic dream-images and some were offended by more aggressive artistic reflections on Ukraine’s marginalization in regard to the rest of the world. Some visitors saw the Ukrainian artists as representatives of their own distinct political and cultural climate, while others discovered similar concerns between the artists and themselves.

When I visited the exhibition in June, the people I spoke to – mostly museum-affiliated – were excited about Ukrainian contemporary art. They showed me the traces left in public space by artists like Minin and Hamlet Zinkovsky. They recalled with delight Alevtina Kakhidze’s presentation of The Most Commercial Project Ever (2008) in a local fashion boutique. In contrast to a pervasive sentiment in Ukraine, also present in the art world, that desires an outside authority to come and show us how it’s done, to take care of us, bring us into union with either Europe or Russia, the artists represented in “IF” testify to the fact that art can be born in any atmosphere. They don’t fall back on excuses like “if we had more institutional support, funding from the government, a vibrant art market, more up-to-date education…” These artists work within the given situation, producing art that genuinely represents its context, and thus has the potential to change it.

I imagine that the curator wanted to share this “we can do it” attitude and a sense of possibility with her Perm audience. This fits with the general spirit of the PERMM Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2008 as part of a greater agenda for cultural development in the city of nearly one million residents, spearheaded by museum director Marat Guelman. Perhaps if “IF” were to be shown in Ukraine, it could have a similar energizing effect on the local population. When asked in an interview whether the exhibition would travel to other venues, Degot replied that so far nothing had been planned. However, if an invitation from a well-funded institution in Ukraine were to appear… 

First published on  ART Margins.

Роман Мінін "День Шахтаря" (2008-2009)Олександр Гнилицький, Олеся Заяц "Media Comfort" (2006)Група SOSKA "Мрійники" (2008), Сергій Братков "Принцеси" (1996)Жанна Кадирова "Пам'ятник новому пам'ятнику" (2006-2009)Володимир Кузнецов "VIP-Car" (2007)Сергій Солонський, Без назви (1993)