Nikita Kadan – a young conceptual artist from Kiev, Ukraine – is nationally renowned for his social art projects. In 2014 Forbes listed this 31-year-old as one of Ukraine’s 25 most successful artists, based on the commercial success of some 20% of his fine art pieces. But it’s Kadan’s non-commercial works, exploring human conflict and the transformation of urban space, that have made his name and shaped his heated political rhetoric in art. As with the works of many emerging artistic groups in Ukraine today, Nikita’s art too stems from the revolutionary counter-culture that’s gained momentum over the critical past few years. Kadan’s latest exhibition at East London’s Waterside Contemporary observes the transformations which took place in Ukraine’s capital city as the protests evolved. The result is a series of watercolour paintings and installations, which stand on the uncanny boundary between destruction and innocence.
His Limits of Responsibility exhibition is very small, and noticeable at once for its horticultural theme. A green vegetable patch sits in the middle of the sterile gallery space. Barren white notice boards are mounted over the patch and seem unimportant at first, yet the sparseness of other displays quickly prompts one to reconsider them. They are, one suspects, a message from the Soviet past – such notice boards appearing frequently in socialist pamphlets, as a means of showcasing agricultural achievements. Indeed, Ukraine’s notorious drive to break away from the ghosts of Soviet ideology perhaps inspires the deliberate blankness of the displays: a denial of instructive language, a blatant erasure of Soviet authority and voice (even for matters as trivial as gardening) to a state of tabula rasa and new beginnings.
The theme of gestation and new life appears openly in other displays too. A series of recent photographs from Kiev, cluttered with mounted barricades and rubble, are peppered with rather infantile cut-outs of vegetables, leaves and shoots. The colours and shapes of these simple images once again remind one all too strongly of the encyclopaedic style of Soviet textbooks and educational materials. It’s with these very remnants of Soviet schooling that Kadan seems innocently, childishly to seal the images of Kiev’s destruction into a journey towards new beginnings. The peculiar feature of these works is their instructive neutrality and simplicity, despite the sharp social issues raised. I would imagine many viewers who grew up during socialism might feel lured into nostalgia about Soviet domesticity and the more anodyne side of socialist life only to be whipped into sobriety by the acute, implied claims to a new Ukrainian identity.
Another series of watercolours, resembling from afar Gray’s anatomical illustrations, surprises upon closer inspection with the merging of horticultural, anatomical and urban elements. Femurs and pelvises transform into carrot tips and leaves, as the botanical parts in turn creepily transform back into human bones. The persistent clash of mortality and birth, the animate and inanimate is clear in Kadan’s recurrent merging of antipodal stages of the life cycle. The question of life and death has indeed heavily preoccupied Kiev throughout these revolutionary years.
When Kiev’s central square, Maidan, became occupied by protesters in 2014 it quickly turned into a self-sustaining campsite, with its own kitchen, sleeping and socialising areas and large vegetable patches, assembled over concrete and cobblestone, sprouting garlic, onions and radishes in the historic centre of this Eastern European Jerusalem. It’s this seemingly trivial aspect of Maidan’s life cycle – vegetable allotments – that’s at the heart of Kadan’s Limits of Responsibility. Sadly, the Waterside Contemporary is a much humbler space than one might have expected for the artist’s oeuvre: certainly here, in a studio-sized gallery amidst the local Food & Wine Stores of East London, Kadan’s work feels under-represented and, possibly as a result, underdeveloped too. If revolution is a great time for the development of art, then perhaps London’s hipster hub, Hoxton, is – compared to Ukraine’s turbulent reality – just a little tame.
A final artefact stands shyly in the dark back corner of Waterside Contemporary. Here an automated carousel slide projector shoots out images of Kiev’s changing cityscape with the eerie regularity of a machinegun. It seems that despite all the intoxicatingly familiar repercussions of blame the thousands of lives at stake in this conflict are indeed counted and taken by the robotic indifference of an inanimate machine. So I leave wondering where the limits of responsibility for all these sacrifices really stand and, indeed, what the limits of representing them are too.
Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility runs until April 4th 2015 at the Waterside Contemporary Gallery, Hoxton.