In the third and final installment of her essay Kateryna Botanova reflects on how her understanding of the reciprocal relationship between art and political action has changed over the past few years. She demonstrates how an emancipated and anti-colonial attitude has gained ground in the Ukrainian art scene whose value cannot be overestimated—especially in the current situation. Botanova argues that going beyond mere documentation, symbolic re-iteration, or critique, it is the conscious questioning and reconstruction of stories, gestures, and actions that constitutes the transformative potential of art, which allows it to be an active and indispensable part of a society that is trying to define itself. You can find the first part of her essay (The Elephant in the Room) here. The second part (A Blanket of Snow) is available here.
In a series of lectures and texts about art in Ukraine I wrote after the Maidan events of 2013-2014 and the beginning of Russia’s invasion of eastern Donbas, I decide to explore the notion of ‘the artist as virus’ formulated by Russian philosopher Elena Petrovskaya.
Addressing the increasingly oppressive regime in the Russia of the early 2010s, a local art world turning increasingly corporate and market oriented, and the emotional upheaval of Bolotnaya demonstrations, Petrovskaya analyzed the transgressive artistic initiatives by Pussy Riot and Voina group. Petrovskaya calls them ‘invaders’ who did not comply with an accepted framework for contemporary art, stepping over into the realm of political activism as ‘radical social subjects,’ ‘viruses’ that could infect the body politic because the latter did not register them as subjects, did not recognize them as dangerous. She suggests seeing the artist-as-virus as a catalyst for new social relations: as someone who could trigger transformations without necessarily being aware of them themselves.
At the time I perceived this notion as very productive when applied to the context of post-1991 Ukraine . Artistic and overall cultural life in Ukraine was going through the cycles of political changes instigated by popular upheavals (the three Maidan revolutions), and artists tested and probed reality, often catalyzing the upcoming redefinition of social and political formations. With the start of the global pandemic (when I needed to sum up earlier thoughts in an essay for the anthology on contemporary Ukrainian and Baltic art published last year), the metaphor of the virus became more topical – and challenging. It seemed unavoidable to look at the liminal space that both viruses and artists inhabit.
Similar to the actual virus that exists in the liminal space between life and nonlife, an artist exists in the liminality of the (non)political. And similarly to the COVID-19 pandemic that redefined both our appreciation of life and the gap between life and non-life, over the years Ukrainian artists-as-viruses gradually redrew and rearticulated the gap between the political and the non-political, redefining the notion of what politics was. The history of visual art in Ukraine is a story of a gradual widening of the understanding of what the public realm (together with public interest, public good, and public responsibility) can be. It asks how art can include and even be based on the idea of ‘politics’—not as post-Soviet, dirty, oligarchic business or institutionalized party politics, but as a collective engagement in imagining and enacting democracy.
What was not so clear ten years ago but is painfully obvious now is that the Russian version of the artistic virus monumentally failed to infect the social system and produce any kind of change. The question of whether it was due to the innate rigidness of the power structures in Russia that over the years proved immune to any kind of subversion or to the system of corporate art institutions intrinsically married to the oligarchic and authoritarian state, or, as Petrovskaya put it, of the artists being completely unaware of the transformations they could (and maybe even should) have triggered, is hard to say. But there are radical differences between the artistic discourses and roles of artists in Ukraine and Russia—especially after Maidan and the subsequent Russian occupation of 2014.
Needless to say, the social engagement of art and the artists’ awareness of political transformation did not surface only during the days of Maidan. But it certainly was Maidan, dubbed Revolution of Dignity for a reason, that brought a pivotal change of the attitudes of artists and their positions vis-à-vis the society as well as the overall artistic framework of reference. Not only did the changes in the social fabric and political order become palpable and real; as many noted in the later days of Maidan, an initial feeling of being somewhat lost gave space to acceptance and appreciation of the power of small steps and actions. An initial dilemma of how to be present in a space where history is in the making as an artist or as a citizen gradually gave way to inhabiting both roles at once.
As one large, diverse community, Maidan created the art it needed to survive: graffiti and stencils, spontaneous and situational installations and happenings, lectures, and discussion as knowledge creation, and more. Aside from building barricades, preparing sandwiches, helping at hospitals, and making Molotov cocktails, artists also practiced another form of survival art: the careful and scrupulous, often anonymous documentation of day-to-day activities of this new macro-community, preservation of its faces and voices. It was the art of action, of intervention in the physical and political reality to affect the symbolic one.
Was this an act of transgression, of artists stepping beyond the conventional notions of institutionalized art practices into the realm of openly political action? Or is this kind of language of looking at and analyzing art not relevant as it is presumes a figure of a distant and detached observer when art cannot be distant and detached anymore? What happened during Maidan and then continued through the onset of Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Donbas and beyond was not so much about blurring the boundaries between artistic and social practices or minimizing the distance between political and non-political spaces. It was about accepting and appropriating radical care and solidarity as a driver for any action, be it real or symbolic. It was an act of embracing an insider position towards history that is happening here and now and is never over, can never possibly come to an end. This position, devoid of the luxury of a detached observance, was an act of bravely owning – embodied, injured, enraged – uncomfortable and painful knowledges.
To one of the most prominent African philosophers, Kwasi Wiredu, ‘decolonization’ meant “to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction.”
Extreme care defies detachment. It is always local, rooted, and embodied. Care cannot happen without the acceptance and appreciation of fragility and volatility as core conditions of life. Eight years of war gave Ukraine and Ukrainians – as its citizens, artists included – a renewed sense of self: as a specific cultural and geopolitical locality, as a knot of contested and complex histories, as a multitude of daily experiences of fragility but also agency.
In the years that followed the start of the war, numerous artistic projects fought the binary perception and the othering that wars and conflicts feed off and engaged with the extensive journey of unlearning of what was known about Ukraine’s cultural geographies, histories, and peoples. The practice of unlearning is facing and acknowledging the limits and origins of one’s own knowledge, of dismantling power structures of perception and interpretation. The process of unlearning is a process of becoming a political subject. It is not about forgetting but rather about letting other social and cultural realities, diverse memories of past and present, and different approaches to what art might be enter a shared space of contact and acceptance. It is yet another form of subjectification that makes it possible to imagine different futures.
Out of the Blind Spot
To a large extent, artistic practices in post-2014 Ukraine were immersed in the process of unlearning being seen by the Russian and Western gaze. Where the former placed them in a sort of Kunstkamera of peripheral curiosities, the latter diagnozed a state of permanent underdevelopment of both institutions and discourses. The way out of what I called the ‘blanket of snow’ in the last part of this essay was through extreme care about each and every practice, position, experience, history, and locality in order to develop a different epistemology, a language and imagery that, as the Senegalese philosopher and economist Felwine Sarr wrote, would help construct societies that make sense for those living within them.
There were stories of internally displaced people who had to flee the occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine (through personal experiences and embodied practices of artists like Andrii and Lia Dostliev or Maria Kulikovska). There were people who stayed in the occupied territories not being able or not wanting to leave (Alevtina Kakhidze’s durational project on her conversations with her mother who stayed, which ended whith her mother’s death at a check-point).
There were places, smaller and bigger towns and cities along the so-called ‘line of contact’ (or ‘line of conflict,’ which was a temporary separation line between government controlled and occupied territories) full of histories and stories that before the war were at the periphery of main cultural centers. In 2015-16, these localities became hubs of interregional artistic collaboration, research, residencies, and exchange – pathways for solidarity and decentralized attention to local histories. Amongst them are the self-organized art initiative De Ne De (Somewhere), a flexible horizontal network of cultural actors that over the years created a number of critical projects in central and eastern Ukraine, and Dofa Fund, who organized a series of regional cultural forums to bring together artists and activists from different parts of the country bridging the alleged cultural divide.
The infamous ‘decommunization laws’ of 2015 that, among other actions, banned the presence of communist symbols in public places—which caused the destruction of Soviet era monuments and other cultural artefacts—also instigated a wave of research and review projects dealing with the complex Ukrainian history of the 20th century. Major museums launched series of exhibitions dedicated to forgotten, unseen, or underrepresented names and phenomena: Ukrainian Avantgarde, futurism, modernism as well as the New Ukrainian Wave (artistic movement of 1980-90s). Blind or unarticulated spots of history also came into the focus of artistic practices of artists like Nikita Kadan, Andrej Bojarov, Yevgen Nikiforov, and Lada Nakonechna, among others. This phenomena was called historiographic or archival turn in Ukrainian art. Paradoxically enough, the legislation, that was seen as impeding access to the past, de facto stimulated the intense work on developing an emancipative and empathetic approach to history—and a renewed understanding and ownership of it.
Commenting on the meaning and the aftermath of the current Russian war in Ukraine, Ukrainian philosopher and writer Volodymyr Yermolenko asserted that the Ukrainian fight today is also a fight for owning epistemologies that go against the universalization of globalization. While globalization is, on one hand, about diminishing the role of localities, making different places, interchangeable, permutable, it also, on the other, places them in a precise hierarchy. The war the Ukrainian people are fighting today is about localities, about the feeling of being rooted, connected, caring, and responsible for what is seen and called ‘home.’ According to Yermolenko, one of the main goals of artists and cultural actors is to hold on to people, places, and stories that are inside the war now, not to let them become distant, irrelevant, lost.
This physical and symbolic war for places, for localities people care for is what one of the key thinkers of decoloniality, Walter Mignolo, placed as an anchor to decolonial epistemologies: “‘I am where I think’ and better yet ‘I am where I do and think.’”
Owning a place and choosing to act, not being a passive ‘virus’ but desiring and instigating political and social changes, taking responsibilities and exercising extreme care is what constitutes the Ukrainian decolonial war today, just as it has been for the past eight years. In a decolonial struggle, artists stop being mere observers, detached commentators, ‘radical subjects’ caring only for a gesture but not the outcome. Art ceases to be about healing or forcing dialogues and understandings. Art becomes a daily practice of bearing witness and collecting evidence, of keeping the reality close and reinventing the language that can sustain and endure it.
The two-fold struggle in which Ukraine is finding itself today is one for decolonizing knowledge which is, as Ukrainian artist and researcher Darya Tsymbaliuk recently wrote, “to recenter embodied and uncomfortable knowledge, knowledge as a burden, knowledge as an injury and knowledge as emancipation.”
Kateryna Botanova’s third essay is accompanied by photographs of the long time performance / photographic documentation Licking War Wounds by Andrii Dostliev and Lia Dostlieva. The tank-shaped salt lamp depicted stems from a souvenir shop in Bakhmut in late 2016 – a city that was under occupation by Russian-supported separatists. Salt lamps, as the artists explain, seem to have been an integral part of the city’s souvenir industry; but the tank-shaped lamp only appeared after Ukrainian forces retook Bakhmut. “These tank-shaped souvenirs”, Andrii and Lia write, “are only a minor aspect of general traumatisation of the Ukrainian society caused by the war lasting since 2014. […] One of the many war wounds that we have yet to lick. And we’re literally licking (yes, physically licking this salt tank with our tongs) this particular one, day by day, bit by bit. This slow and quite painful process demonstrates the slow and not necessarily successful re-shaping of the object of trauma.”