The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Arsenale 2012 press conference
“Ukraine will have its own biennale!” Art Arsenal announced at a September 9 press conference. David Elliott will curate the first Kyiv biennial exhibition of contemporary art, the theme of which will be: “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art.” Obviously, the relevance and necessity of such an event for Ukraine is another story. We should, however, take a closer look at the environment in which Arsenale will take place, predict what impact the local institutional background will have on the character and outcomes of this international art event and vice versa – model the potential effect Arsenale will have on the institutional development of contemporary art in Ukraine. Without claiming to exhaust the issue, I will try, so to speak, to analyze some of the “soil samples” of the foundation under the future Arsenale biennale. 

I should start by pointing out that Arsenale can be considered the “first biennale” in Ukraine only by a stretch of the imagination: Impreza was held in Ivano-Frankivsk every two years from 1989 til1997; Ukrainian House in Kyiv (which later housed Art-Kyiv) hosted the Kyiv International Art Festival for several years starting in the late 1990s; GogolFest, an international contemporary art festival, was launched and held twice at Art Arsenal. As clich? as it may sound, history is worth knowing and the laws and trends of the global biennale genre should be considered. In other words: a case study would be a good exercise for those wishing to avoid common mistakes.

There are currently more than 200 art biennales worldwide; the oldest, most famous and definitely paradigmatic is the Venice Biennale, first held in 1895. Remarkably, back then, Venice was going through hard times, economically and socially, and was on the sidelines of world art processes. A large-scale international exhibition was intended to put Venice back on the global art scene. That is what happened, but the whole city was put back on the art map as a myth, not just its art community or even Italian art in general. As Viktor Misiano noted during his lecture at Art Kyiv Contemporary-2010 at Art Arsenal: a biennial is a manifestation of globalization. It is a phenomenon in which the globalized world of the 1990s, the world in which after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed that the neoliberal model of progress had finally prevailed, recognized itself. But despite the hopes, a biennial doesn’t attract the attention of the “big world” to the local artistic context, it doesn’t promote dialogue between them; moreover, it can deplete the resources of the local soil, warns Misiano.

Now of course Impreza wasn’t a glamorous event where the neoliberal world would have recognized itself. But the spirit of destroying boundaries and stereotypes, a neophytic openness to things new, along with a wave of interest in post-totalitarian countries made Ukraine’s first biennale more than just a local event. The fact that this event was held in a closed “cold war” city is worth something. Those were difficult economic times, but the political and emotional effect (Impreza was born along with the new state) had a chance of securing financial support and institutional sustainability had the management been better. A catalogue wasn’t even printed after the second Impreza. But you can’t say that the organizers sat around twiddling their thumbs: an auction was held between the second and third biennales, money was raised, and some of the works were put in museums. However, this wasn’t enough; the organizational start was weak. “The biennial exhibitions, in my opinion, weren’t an alternative, but rather an unconscious attempt to continue the agony of the Soviet Union-wide exhibition system, which is why each of them sooner or later became self-exhausted through self-repetition. The flawed system of inviting artists, conservatism in selection of works and a biased awards system meant that there were few artists participating that worked with new forms of art. And then there were the failed sales pitches. All this led to an in increasing loss of authority in art circles. This is what unites all these early initiatives,” recalls Anatoliy Zvizhynsky.

Perhaps the problem with Impreza and subsequent initiatives was that most of the actors in the contemporary art process were formed in an institutional structure that was imposed by the environment rather than developed naturally. I’m referring to the system in which the artist had to be part of the ideological totalitarian machine. In return, he could work independent not only of the market and its laws, but also free of basic organizational worries. From the point of view of art history, the late 1980s – early 1990s was the period of the Big Bang, the birth of new Ukrainian art from nothing. But none of the institutions from the Soviet era had been disassembled or transformed. Isolated new structures followed the course set by the previous system. Soviart, created in 1988, didn’t change the situation much; it only somewhat modernized practices that were inherent to Soviet structures, kind of like cooperative cafes somewhat refined the Soviet food service industry.

Definite progress lay in the fact that the large collective exhibitions were international, thus overcoming the monopoly by the Soviet art center of presenting Ukrainian artists to the world, circumventing the usual ideological and bureaucratic filters. Principles of western management seeped through these holes in the “curtain.” But while the cultural paradigm changed, almost nothing changed in the system of art education and training, especially with regard to how to navigate a world that is rapidly changing and becoming more complicated. The situation still hasn’t changed much.

I am dwelling on this so much because the New Wave (Generation-87) wasn’t just born on the streets of the Paris Commune, but also at the Union-wide base in Sedniv as part of the activities of the youth section of the Union of Artists of the USSR. After all, Savadov and Senchenko were featured “at full length” at the All-Union Exhibition “Youth of the Country” at the Moscow Manege - the exhibition hall of the Union of Artists of the USSR. The next generation to bear the imprint of the new institutional conditions came only in the late 2000s, and unfortunately today its representatives still do not play a significant role in decisions that affect the future of the artistic environment.

So at the start of the euphoric and depressive 1990s, artists remained the key players in the art space – artists that joined informal groups with affiliated art experts. Institutions were weak and trust in them low. Naturally, distrust in institutions extends to institutional practices: planning, organizational structure, collective and public decision-making, negotiations, etc. A low level of social capital generates a sort of “natural exchange” of resources and information.

Particularity, enhanced by a complex of domination, appeared in the work of the first art galleries, especially those that opened in the early 1990s. And, by the way, once both tendencies were successfully tamed, there appeared such productive events as the Cultural Heroes festival that included not just Kyiv, but also Odesa, Ivano-Frankivsk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Lviv (organized by the Association of Art Galleries, Association of Art Experts, and the Inter channel, with Marat Guelman and his Kyiv gallery appearing between the lines).

Revival and diversification of the rather flat institutional landscape of Ukraine began thanks to the Soros network (Kyiv and Odesa Centers for Contemporary Art (CCA)). This was the first institution to show Ukrainian audiences Jannis Kounellis, Ann Hamilton, Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, Joseph Beuys, Ilya Kabakov, Andy Warhol and others. A major component of the work of the CCA, which declared the aim of increasing interaction between the art community and society, were numerous workshops and trainings. The grant program provided support for fresh events, particularly the Ivano-Frankivsk Impreza. Many participants of the art process still remember the invasion by Ukrainian art historians, critics and journalists of the Venice Biennale and the 2001 Manifesta organized by CCA.

Along with modern management tools, the old CCA offered the local artistic context a lens formed in very different geographical latitudes. Apart from the European-style educational projects, the awareness and promotion component was lacking (it appeared only towards the end of CCA’s residence at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy; worth mentioning is Jerzy Onuch’s “Revolutionary Experimental Space” that gave rise to the REP Group, and the “Lectures in the Corridor” series, that provided an impetus for other initiatives). Here I agree with Bohdan Shumylovych, that the activities of this center (in its Soros-funded format) didn’t lead to a revolutionary change in the heart and minds of Ukrainian consumers, and so contemporary art continued to be perceived as something playful, dumb, provocative, or even aggressive.” [1]

And despite the prestige factor behind their seeming support of contemporary art, present day officials in the cultural sector have very similar perceptions about contemporary art. The Soros Center of Contemporary Art, in its best times, didn’t really understand the importance of its own reputation, believes Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta. The same mistake, in her opinion, was later repeated by PinchukArtCentre (PAC), which continues to exhibit a very patronizing attitude towards the homegrown artistic environment. Recall that the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, which runs PAC, began 2003 with a major exhibition pretentiously titled “First Collection.” This suggested that the collection would become the foundation of a Museum of Contemporary Art. Previous initiatives, including Soviart, which back in 1999 announced the creation of a museum using its own collection, weren’t taken into account. And so, once again, the topos of post-Soviet domination with notes of revanchism prevails over the ethos of network partnership, conditioned by the logic of the development of a post-informational society.

And now about the semantics and magic of names. The exhibition “Farewell to Arms” rolled out by Pinchuk in 2004 at the Old Arsenal across the street from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra turned out to be the prologue to the end of the dream of a Museum. In 2005, Arsenal, with the status of a Ukrainian Louvre, became an experimental space of sorts. It was not without revolutionary expropriation by expropriators. Now to the semantical magic of names. Arsenale quite clearly connotes the paradigmatic Venice Biennale as well as the local Arsenal. As for national participation in this event, we, again, have a rich tradition. As you know, Ukraine’s participation in the 49th Venice Biennale (the first on the state level) was largely provoked by Jerzy Onuch, who replaced Marta Kuzma as the director of CCA, and his attempt to propose his own curatorial project “The Best Artists of the 20th Century) (authors: Ihor Dyurych and Ihor Podolchak) actualized the intrigue that wasn’t merely an episode, but an epoch and style in our cultural space.

In the end, Olga Melentiy, Serhiy Panych, Valentyn Rayevsky, Arsen Savadov, Yuriy Solomko, Oleg Tistol, headed by Viktor Sydorenko, went to Venice instead of the “Masochists” Dyurych and Podolchak. And you can’t say that this was a revolt by retrogrades against modernizers. The moment of truth, in my opinion, was the following statement by Oleg Tistol: “As for the situation surrounding the Ukrainian presentation – yes, this was a battle between artists and bureaucrats. That’s all. With bureaucrats, in the broadest sense. Who’s Onuch? A careerist, a failed artist that wanted to become a curator. We didn’t like this – we were vain. We had a common curatorial idea. We laughed. We joked. We conceived it, brought it, built it. Artists created it, you understand. We are all artists in this team, and you cannot offend an artist. Artists don’t even need to be managed. We can be curators ourselves. I was a curator twice, and I can say that it was boring – I didn’t like it. Curators are quite limited in a sense: they can’t draw.” [2] It follows that the near sacred status of an artist is based solely on the fact that “they can draw.” The ability to think, communicate, build conceptual designs isn’t necessary….But this isn’t the only point. Despite experts’ warnings in the 2000s, a transparent and effective mechanism of selecting participants for such high-profile events was never created, and criteria for understanding, evaluating and strategizing the art process were never developed. Does that mean that once again we have no other option but to import complete “nodes” and “structural elements?”

This is the soil on which the Art Arsenal team will have to build Arsenale. But in this situation, acting as the sole founder of the Kyiv biennale – given the rather saturated institutional space of the early 2010s – Art Arsenal is performing a separating rather than consolidating function. Again there is growing intrigue over who will be selected to curate Arsenale and how. During the press conference the organizers didn’t express any clear and convincing principles. Moreover, the status of the organizers is somewhat paradoxical: the State Directorate for Affairs and its subordinate government enterprise “National Cultural-Art and Museum Complex "Mystetskyi Arsenal." The de jure state enterprise, albeit with such a splendid name, is only the directorate responsible for building the future Complex. But a clear idea of what should be built - a Museum with expanded services or an Art Center with a museum component – was never presented to the public.

It would be good if Arsenale became the impetus for formalizing the clear organizational structure, and the conceptual and legal status of the number one cultural construction site in Ukraine. This is the bare minimum and also an optimistic scenario. After all, there remain risks of new divisions and confrontation in the artistic environment in the struggle for resources – and not just financial, but also informational. A precedent was set when the press conference at Art Arsenal was held as the same time as the opening of the Oleksandr Hnylytsky exhibition at the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU), even though the public had been given advance notice of the time and date. For institutions such as NAMU (which in recent years has actively worked with contemporary art) and the newly created multi-functional art complex with the offensive name “Art Arsenal” it is obviously better to be partners given the nature of our networked world, because competition and elimination are no longer the only factors of success, so are synergy and inclusion…


1. Bohdan Shumylovych. „Visual irony and ukrsuchart” // Аz-art №3 – 2011

2. Participation in international events. (“Open World” newsletter, International Renaissance Foundation). К.:, 2001. – pg.15.