Postponed Futures is really quite something. In a year when London’s saturated with exhibitions about the Russian Revolution in its centenary year, the show’s curator, Nikita Kadan, has forged a different response. He shows a Ukrainian exhibition, political and thought-provoking, which reminds us not to forget what’s going on amid the celebrations: a war in Ukraine with Russian involvement – which, to date, has not only resulted in persisting violence, but has also seen the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Kadan’s approach to this crisis is much more subversive than the easy, blatant statements about Ukrainian nationalism or the anti-Russian sentiment that may come to mind. The artist-curator’s exhibition consists of works from two private collections – James Butterwick’s and Vladimir Tsarenkov’s – and juxtaposes the ‘old’ Ukrainian avant-garde from the 1930s with a new one, emerging from the current conflict. The works by the contemporary artists – Lada Nakonechna, Mykola Ridnyi and Kadan himself – stand in relation to those by their ‘forefathers’: Maria Synyakova, Semyon Zaltser and Vasyl Ermilov to name a few.
And yet, as the story of the exhibition goes, the contemporary representatives work with a different future in mind… No matter the extent to which Stalinist authoritarianism oppressed the Ukrainian avant-garde in the 1930s, its artists were clearly looking towards a better future. This positivity can also be read in the works on display here, as Synyakova and Zaltser’s simple watercolours tell us about a happy peasantry in colourful, folkloric images. Their contemporary Ermilov also works on paper, producing constructivist collages with a geometric design where image titles like ‘Palace of Pioneers and Octobrists’ proclaim a belief in what’s to come.
By contrast, Nakonechna, Ridnyi and Kadan’s works tell us about a ‘postponed future’ in times of conflict, where the main goal is to overcome the struggles of the ongoing war. At the same time, their retort to their predecessors is that a utopian future is still far off. In the most explicit link between past and present, Kadan’s sculpture Victory reconstructs Ermilov’s Monument to the Three Revolutions, showing its idealism as a ‘reality of catastrophe’ by placing cups from a house destroyed in the current conflict in the Donbass region onto a clean, white pedestal. Meanwhile, Nakonechna’s commissioned works Grad I and II not only make use of the name of the gallery hosting the exhibition, but also play upon the dual meaning of the word ‘grad’ in Ukrainian, meaning ‘hail’ on the one hand, and a rocket launcher system ‘used in the military conflict zone in the east of Ukraine’ on the other. Nakonechna has googled the word and documented the image results in photographs on display in the gallery. At the opening night, she also showed a livestream of her running about in the streets, pretending to shoot passers-by with her camera.
Postponed futures isn’t an easy show by any means. It requires participation by the viewer and an effort to engage with the subject matter. At first sight, the exhibition’s curation seems quite complicated in its juxtaposition of ‘classic’ artworks, contemporary sculpture and film, but Kadan has provided a solution to this: an excellently composed guide to lead you through the exhibition, providing not only dates and short biographies, but also critical essays by both modern and contemporary writers. This additional information helps you think, and guides you in the right direction – until it becomes clear that Kadan has pulled together an intriguing selection of works, some of which have never been shown in London before.
Even more importantly, he also places them in relation to each other so that they tell of the past and future, and ask questions about the position of art as a political medium – its outreach, and its functions then and now. Though perhaps typically ‘avant-garde’ in the traditional sense of the word, Kadan as curator and as artist renews the 1920s/30s cultural pledge to be critical in a succinct and exciting manner. If you comply with the curator’s demands to engage with the show, Postponed Futures is one of the most exciting shows in London right now – and the best relating to the Russian Revolution by far.
Postponed Futures can be seen at GRAD (Gallery for Russian Arts and Design) until 24 June 2017.