Focussing on Ukrainian contemporary art at this moment of crisis, the symposium ‘Ukrainian Art Now’ at the Courtauld Institute centred on the events of Maidan, with insights too into the cultural situation in Eastern Ukraine.
The first speaker Roman Minin, an artist from that very region around Donetsk, showed his images of miners in various media, the most impressive being beautifully coloured stained glass windows and paintings making use of socialist pictorial language, portraying miners in an iconic light, filled with references to local culture. Minin’s work was produced before the war, but his speech emphasised art’s ability to give a different outlook on life in a region he defined with the binary opposites of corruption and honesty, alcoholism and sober judgement, communism and Christianity. The picture he painted of Donbass – even pre-war – was bleak, as he emphasised that conflict there was nothing new, that people had always struggled and had a hard life. His assertion ‘no one cares about us’ was juxtaposed with a sense of pride, which people manage to uphold despite all their struggles. Still, Minin had to admit that his work wasn’t well received there, his exhibition closed down. As we learned that Ukrainian contemporary art was wanted neither by local institutions nor by a population marred by the effects of the post-Soviet era, we became aware of a sense of failure: culture maybe could have – should have – helped to unite the country, but didn’t.
Nikita Shalenny showed a different approach to the situation with his funny yet brutal photographs of Berkut fighters, the special police forces responsible for killing civilians during the Maidan uprising. Shalenny introduced the Berkut as instruments of corrupt power, charting a spiral of conflict in his exhibition, which asked ‘When will we stop killing and start creating?’ and slowly moved the focus from eastern Ukraine to Kyiv and questions of aesthetics and revolution.
The predominant part of the symposium was devoted to the exhibition ‘I am a Drop in the Ocean: Art of the Ukrainian Revolution,’ which took place in Vienna’s Künstlerhaus last spring. As curators Alisa Lozhkina and Konstantin Akinsha introduced it, we saw how kitsch objects from ex-President Yanukovych’s Mezhigorie estate were juxtaposed with the culture and artefacts created by people protesting on the streets of Kyiv, inspiring poster art, shield painting, and performance art. We were given a glimpse into what it was like to be there, on Maidan Square, with the short screening of ‘Art Born on the Barricades.’ There, the art of the ordinary people, steeped in myths of nationalism and Christian allegory, was emphasised in various forms of music, dance and impromptu performance, contrasted with the ‘perverse fantasies of the kleptocratic regime’ of Yanukovych and his allies – and subliminally hinting at an oppressive Russian regime with similar values.
In a way, the comparisons drawn seemed a bit too straightforward, a bit too simple, to be taken at face value. Yet, this also underlined just how recent the event is – impossible to evaluate from a distance and, more importantly, not to become emotionally involved in.
While some distance from the topic was restored with Pavlo Kerestey and Susanne Clausen’s performance-based work, the concluding panel discussion confirmed how inspirational the revolution had been for the production of a new Ukrainian art- until questions took a sharp turn away from the focus on culture: with raised voices and increased tension, attentions turned full force to the war. Does the West really not pay any attention to current events? Will there be an even greater war? Will the West get involved? Suddenly, it seemed, all the suppressed thoughts of what’s happening now – the ‘Russian danger,’ the devastating effects of war on ordinary people – came to the surface, ending the symposium with uncomfortable questions, lots of them, about responsibility and reality.
Apart from showing the cultural inventiveness of people undergoing great social change, ‘Ukrainian Art Now’ made something all too clear: the situation has now moved from revolution at the centre to war at the periphery. And while the revolution inspired, the war now paralyses.