The classical museum and contemporary art

© Serhiy Trinichenko

Conversations about the museumification of contemporary art in Ukraine have been going on for the past twenty years, but neither a state contemporary art center nor museum has been created. The PinchukArtCenter is a private foundation that focuses on presenting global art brands in Ukraine. Art Arsenal is in the making, still searching for its format and for technical reasons can’t form a collection. And so a certain level of responsibility for the museumification of contemporary art falls on the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU), which is forced to react to processes in the artistic environment and, figuratively speaking, be at once the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou. But how and to what extent? This was the topic of the roundtable “How a classical museum should react to contemporary art” organized as part of the Days of Contemporary Art at the National Art Museum.

When raising this topic for discussion, the organizers were guided more by practical, even pragmatic, reasons than theoretical ones. There’s no need to further problematize the matter – it’s clear it needs to be addressed. For the National Art Museum of Ukraine, reaction to contemporary art is an important topic in the context of the museum’s development plans – expanding exhibition space, and as such – a review of its concept. But for the museum, a clear concept is something like the DNA from which the body of the museum space develops and without which the pragmatism falls apart like beads without a thread.

While searching for a core idea, the organizers of the event were faced with the need to align two fundamental problems that shape the relations between contemporary art and the classical museum in a specifically Ukrainian situation. The first relates to the legitimization of contemporary art (which, by its very nature, goes beyond the boundaries of traditional notions of classical art, its aesthetic categories and clear division of sculpture, painting, graphics) through it presentation in a museum. The second focuses on museumification: recording, archiving, preservation, representation through a permanent exhibit.

The roundtable was in the format of an expert discussion among researchers and curators of leading Ukrainian museums, critics and art historians, namely: Larissa Babij, art critic; Oksana Barshynova, head of 20th century art department at the National Art Museum of Ukraine; Olena Holub, art critic; Nikita Kadan, artist; Yulia Lytvynets, chief curator at the National Art Museum of Ukraine; Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta, manager of the “Impulse-Idea-Innovation” program of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation for the Development of Ukraine; Mykola Skyba, deputy general director of NAMU; Maryna Skyrda, deputy general director for research and education at NAMU; Vita Susak, PhD in art, head of the department of 19-21 century European art at the Lviv National Art Gallery; Yaroslav Sukhan, director of the MS2 Art Museum in Lodz, Poland; Kateryna Chuyeva, department head, Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Art; Nadiya Yurchenko, chief curator at the Sumy Art Museum.

Museumification is a form of social legitimization: if an artifact is displayed in a museum, this means it’s worth attention, and if it’s part of a collection, this means its symbolic value is sufficient to justify the financial cost of its preservation, study and popularization. It can be described as the transformation of relations from initial, at times harsh, reactions to mutual resonance. For a long time, contemporary art wasn’t deemed worthy of being presented in a museum space, or kept in a “sanctuary of art”. Creations by contemporary artists were seen as regrettable misunderstandings, taunting tradition. But it should be recognized that art was in the process of a difficult search, between the deconstruction of outdated ideologies and visual canons to the creation of a “great worldly style.”

The museum, as an institution that saves various artifacts from the effects of time, is incapable of eluding its effects on its structure and content. The museum has undergone changes in various historical eras: a sanctuary for collectors, university of good taste, Kunstkamera of amusing stories and things, office of visual propaganda. Today, leading museums of the world aren’t just an embodiment of memory, they are a place where a person or a certain community can see and understand themselves within the context of a dynamic modernity. For each of these paradigms, as with each epoch, there is a particular museum model. Ukrainian museums at some point in history fell behind the “caravan of progress”, got lost in time, became a “suitcase without a handle” (which is difficult to carry and can’t be thrown out). Collaboration with contemporary art is one way to return to its time and resonate in it. The history of relations of classical museums of Ukraine (its conceptualization was a topic of discussion) is rather long, but superficial and fragmented.

For a number of reasons – the availability of funds (then from the state budget!) for the procurement of works, professional management – the first art museum in Ukraine to show interest in contemporary art was the Sumy Art Museum. Much of this is thanks to the museum’s competent management – Serhiy Pobozhiy, who was in charge of research, and Nadiya Yurchenko, who manages the museum till today. Granted the purchase of works by Arsen Savadov, Oleksandr Roytburd and others didn’t have much of an influence on the positioning of the Sumy Art Museum; the purchased works are rarely exhibited and don’t affect the concept of the permanent exhibit.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the Khmelnytsky Art Museum was actively involved in contemporary art. The reason being its poor collection of classical art, given that the institution was created only in the mid-1980s, and the museum’s desire to become a main cultural center in the city. The permanent exhibit is expressive, offbeat, and in general reflects the dynamic of the artistic process of the 1980s - 1990s. However, the contemporary wasn’t conceptually singled out and there was a gradual bias toward national romanticism.

An important project for Ukraine’s museums was “(Re)animation” (curator Vita Susak), which is part of the permanent exhibit at the Lviv Art Gallery. Artists such as Yevhen Ravsky, Vlodko Kaufman, Volodymyr Kostyrko, Olena Turyanska and others were invited to participate. The project’s success lie in the understanding of the work of a museum, key elements and stereotypes of perception, such as attitudes towards originals in a time of mass reproduction, rethinking the role of labels, new interpretations of “eternal” themes.

There have been occasional exhibits of contemporary art at the National Art Museum of Ukraine since the early 2000s (for example, Viktoria Burlaka’s curatorial project “Children of Trash”, Oleh Holosiy’s exhibit, and Ihor Podolchak and Ihor Dyurych’s project “Time of Philanthropists”), but the museum’s clear positioning regarding current artistic practices developed a little over three years ago.

A milestone in this context was the museum project “New Wave” (2009, curator Oksana Barshynova) as a result of which the “1987” generation was given the status of classics and their work became part of the history of Ukrainian art. From a symbolic and expositional perspective, this exhibit was more an example of the influence of a classical museum on contemporary art than vise versa. However, this can be considered a groundbreaking exhibit for the perception of the museum. As Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta noted during the roundtable, at the start of the 2000s NAMU was a rather conservative institution, and the name of the person responsible for 20th century art at the museum was unknown among the art community. Today this name is clearly identified by the art community - the department of 20–21st century art is headed by Oksana Barshynova, the curator of “New Wave”.

The unexpectedly interesting interaction between an interactive project in the museum context took place during Olesya Ostrovka-Lyuta’s curatorial project “Great Surprise”. Altough conceptually the project set out to draw public attention to the problem of tuberculosis, the curator and artists of the R.E.P. group managed to explore the museum space, finding and bringing into focus a number of hidden (in the literal and figurative sense) pockets and bundles of memory. In particular, there is the oversized sculpture from the school of social realism that for technical reasons couldn’t be moved from the exhibition hall to the storage area and had to be covered with fake walls. The artists, with the consent of the museum staff, made windows in these partitions and opened the viewers’ eyes to the phenomenon of museum palimpsest, which speaks more about the state of society that this museum represents.

Nikita Kadan of R.E.P. characterized this state as “culture of euro renovation” when the supporting base of a social structure remains unchanged and is only decorated according to the “spirit of the times”. This condition rests in the incomplete modernization project. Society hasn’t undertaken major reconstruction of what was left after the soviet period, having been limited to cosmetic repairs of the façade. And the museum is the foundation on which this glamorous construction rests. The artists noted that NAMU is one of few instructions in the post-soviet space that opposes this trend.

The impact of “Great Surprise” on relations between the classical museum and art community was that it legitimized not just the name (which became a major component of “New Wave”) but also practices. As Ostrovska-Lyuta pointed out, the museum had the guts to change the way texts were used in the permanent exhibit. As a rule, the viewer blindly believes and seeks the literal interpretation of what he’s looking at, and here they used the texts to play games with the viewer and forced him to look at not so paradigmatic subjects in the paradigmatic works of Ukrainian artists.

A discussion arose in connection with this exhibit regarding “forcing out” ideological complexes. Proceeding from the statement of the fact that in the early 1990s “ideologically excessive” works were removed from the museum, Nikita Kadan suggested that ideology not be limited to social realism, that religious painting, especially iconography, be also considered in this context. Given that religion today is becoming “an aggressive figure of influence” this review is relevant, thought risky, and the museum as a fundamental institution shouldn’t always take such a risk. Consequently, Nikita Kadan believes that instead of removing “ideological excesses” these works and the phenomenon of religion should be viewed from a different angle, differentiating fetishes and symbols. I must say that the museum is already working in this direction. During the dialogue with representatives of FCCA the concept was developed of the project “Cultural Background” that will include creative intervention in the permanent exhibit, particularly the icon halls.

Another important aspect the discussants touched on was the giving of contemporary art into “good hands” (as Nikita Kadan called it). In the early 1990s this was the “hands” of George Soros, later Marat Guelman (back when he was working as a political advisor to the ruling party), and then Victor Pinchuk. The problems of “taming art” became notably salient during the last two Venice Biennals. The lack of a sensible position by officials responsible for making decisions regarding contemporary art resulted in an excessive staginess and emasculation of meanings in the official Ukrainian pavilions. The museum as a public institution, obviously, could play a significant expert role, but the “good hands” are firmly holding what “lies in temptation’s way” in state cultural policy and is gradually being expelled from the public space into the zone of private interests.

The NAMU exhibit of video-art greats Beuys, Paik and Vostell (curator Daryna Yakymova) showed a change in strategy of working with the museum space.

It was no coincidence that this exhibit was associated with the start of a new project by Larissa Babij “Hostage in NAMU” that began with a performance by Oleksandr Lebedev “Pilot Beuys”. This was an attempt to study time in the museum space and the performance space. According to Larissa Babij, the latter is a polar phenomenon to the essence of a classical museum, which, typically stops time for the artifacts it collects, preserves and exhibits. It’s what Daniel Buren once called the external effect of immortality. In this sense, a performance is something that opposes the concept of a museum as a mausoleum of culture and injects into it the pulse of life.

Performance influences the museum space, disrupting the established conventions – above all the subjectivity of the viewer and objectivity of an exhibit. The projects proposed by Larissa Babij were interesting in that they worked with the anatomy of a museum space, dissected into into optical axes like in crystal. This was expressed during one of the performances curated by Larissa Babij “Let’s agree that you don’t see me and I don’t see you”. For three days in a row, eight hours at a time, TanzLaboratorium performer Larysa Venediktova was a museum piece in the halls of NAMU.

But this wasn’t a silent subject like a painting or sculpture, but one alive and full of energy, with potential hidden agendas. The conceptual time of the performance flowed slower than the time needed for a museum exhibit, therefore what happens in this flow of time loses the properties of flow, breaking up into separate actons that can be observed in still-frame mode. Forced lines of relationships that emerge between the visitor and museum “sag” for some period of time, current conventions are weakened, and there is a symbolic provocation to change or eliminate them. Of course this causes some discomfot for the viewers and museum custodians that forced them to seek new conventions among all the agents of the museum space.

During the discussion, which was gradually joined by museum staff, it was concluded that what’s special about any contemporary art projects implemented in a museum space is that a museum, unlike a gallery, can never offer artists and curators an environment that is indifferent to the concept of the project. Any artistic intervention in a museum comes into contact with hidden voids, layers of memory which by definition can’t be ignored. The museum sets certain restrictions on the viewer and artist but these limitations are more real than the apparent freedom of galleries and art centers. After all, life isn’t a tabula rasa – its space isn’t sterile. And perhaps because of the clash with artificial museum limitations imposed by its anatomy and layers we can better examine some obvious aspects of historical and social processes. The museum in this sense is a kind of metaphysical observatory through whose lens we see the “dark matter” of life.

Notable in this regard was the dispute among Larissa Babij, Nikita Kadan and Kateryna Chuyeva, who explained the reasons why the Khanenko Museum’s refused to allow the Eidos Foundation to carry out one of the projects of the program “Art Apriori” (not just because of the reluctance to risk the attitude towards the museum by its regular patrons and the museum’s uncertainty that the artists and curators were willing to accept the limitations imposed by the museum) and in looking for the answer to the question should museums always weigh their well-established reputation and the public that supports them for the sake of modernization and invited them to reflect on whether when working with a museum of more importance for the artist and curator is self-expression or work with the museum content.

As for the risks a classical museum takes by allowing an artistic experiment onto its territory, Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta rightly noted that by sticking to the status quo museums as cultural institutions risk even more. In a society which lives by the eternal present day and erases the sharp distinction between “high” and “low” culture, the museum can’t remain the radio that delivers the pathos of a brighter future in a harsh reality without starting to interact with it. As for self-expression, Nikita Kadan believes this is everyday practice, opposite to self-repression, which leads to various psychoses. But in art you have to be a professional that works with signs that catalyze different streams of meaning, and thereby equips the space of culture. And if an artist is fixated on self-expression, his role as a communicator and reagent of meaning will be ineffective.

In opening the discussion on the museumification of contemporary art, Vita Susak noted that the conversation on this topic began a year ago during the conference “The Power of Art”. It must now enter a practical dimension and come up with concrete recommendations because current practice is ahead of methodology. Recently, there was a discussion among the staff of the Lviv National Art Gallery over why they should add to the museum collection works made by Yuriy Charyshkinov using computer graphics. The deciding argument in favor of this step was that there will soon be many more such works and the museum simply can’t ignore this phenomenon. Another issue discussed during the roundtable, despite concrete examples, also led to some theoretical generalizations of reasons, mostly financial, why objects of contemporary art rarely make it to a museum for permanent storage (the example of cooperation between NAMU and OTP Bank to replenish the museum’s collection remains exceptional, but let’s hope that with time it becomes a precedent).

The museum curators were interested in the museumification of performance, an action that takes place in real time, here and now, and then disappears. Documentation of the performance can be kept by the museum, but not the action itself – virtually all the discussion participants agreed on this. For example, the museumification of the results of performances or recording of artifacts in electronic format. Here the role of the museum can be legitimacy. Jarosław Suchan described in detail the legal, ethical and market aspects of this process using the example of his experience with MS2.

The master class by Jarosław Suchan at the conclusion of the roundtable illustrated the direct connection between the level of intellectual saturation and conceptual structuring of museum projects and their practical success. To overcome the crisis it faced after the 1980s –1990s, MS2 started by reviewing its mission and conceptual positioning. A rather decisive step for the museum associated with constructivism and avant-garde was the project, which revealed the political bias of abstraction, which as opposed to the figurative, for a long time was considered far removed from politics.

The main way MS2 curators work with artifacts is through their reinterpretation. Museum staff seek first and foremost to release the potential accumulated in the works. The extent to which the result of such efforts can be emotionally and intellectually persuasive is evidenced by the documentation of a recent exhibit at MS2 that reproduced psychoanalytic experience through structuring the exhibition space. In building a permanent exhibit, Jarosław Suchan believes it’s important to step away from the chronological principle and focus on an approach based on what is important for the modern recipient.

For example, the permanent exhibit space in the new MS2 building was divided into four sections, each described by a triad of concepts that the authors believe are important for society. The following structure emerged: construction, utopia, politics; eye, image, reality; body, trauma, prosthesis; object, fetish, fantasy. The artifacts in these sections don’t illustrate ideas, the pieces were selected so that through their reception the viewer has a dialogue with these concepts. And this approach unlocks the research potential of art and the museum.

The National Art Museum of Ukraine is grateful to the Polish Institute in Kyiv for its fruitful partnership.