The interdisciplinary artist Petro Ryaska lives and works in Transcarpathia. He works with performance art, painting, drawing, and writing. For these actions, he draws on his love for the region where he lives, from his interest in sports, as well as his research into questions of identity, gender relations, and critical art. Engaged in curatorial and non-curatorial practices, Ryaska founded the international contemporary art residency Sorry No Rooms Available, located in the Uzhhorod hotel “Intourist-Zakarpattia.” Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Uzhhorod, a city bordering Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, has become home to a large number of internally displaced people (IDP), and the residency grew into a safe haven for artists from a variety of Ukrainian cities. Amina Ahmed, editor at Ukrainian online magazine Your Art, talked to Petro Ryaska for V/A – on the prerequisites for the establishment of the residency and the challenges it faces in times of war.
AMINA AHMED “The Transcarpathian tradition of painting is the horizon beyond which Ryasks managed to look: the line which he managed to cross.” This is what Kateryna Yakovlenko wrote about your work in an article for Your Art. Would you agree with her assessment?
PETRO RYASKA I am not familiar with all the practices and experiences of Transcarpathian artists—because the way they’re portrayed and represented is somewhat incomplete. The definition of a “Transcarpathian school” appeared in Moscow in the 1950s when someone wrote an article, and it was either a political move or the result of the exhibition of Transcarpathian artists at an all-Union exhibition, where artists from the region were only selectively represented. There is something called the “Transcarpathian school of landscape,” but you need to understand that there was censorship during the Soviet Union. Landscape painting in particular became popular because it was less censored than other free practices of the artists in the region at the time. But local artists were not limited to that kind of “landscape” painting. The so-called school of Transcarpathian landscape painting can be perceived as a political project: a landscape painting movement curated by the government. So I wouldn’t say that I exceeded the school’s abilities. Transcarpathia has a really strong painting tradition—and maybe that makes it harder for other media and practices to take hold. Therefore, artists who paint, even if those are modern paintings, may partially not accept other media. For a new tradition to take effect, it has to be created—and probably by more than just one artist alone.
AA What is your approach to landscape painting then. How are you trying to re-imagine it?
PR However, it is possible that Kateryna’s statement refers to my private practices and to what I learned at the university. There was a lack of disciplines at the university and my own practices for the past ten years have consisted primarily of communicating with artists and visiting museums. Nonetheless, I was lucky with my university lecturer Viacheslav Prykhodko—he taught us how to think, how to be intellectual artists.
I create landscapes beyond the medium of painting. My practice includes performance, organizational experiences, curatorial and non-curatororial experiences, and my communication with other artists. It also includes my research – researching the landscape in its historical and political dimensions. But most of all my practice is a practice of actions. Actions, and video actions in particular, gave me the freedom to be present in this landscape.
AA Who or what has influenced these practices?
PR After graduating from university, I was a student for at least another ten years as I learned from everyone I spoke with, and they all influenced me in one way or another. And I think that goes both ways. Conversations about art are a mutual experience in that way; they’re an enrichment through dialogue, a sculptural-informative-educational model.
But of course—what you like has an effect on you. The NO!art movement which emerged in New York in the 1960s, founded by Boris Lurie, was important for me. I was not so influenced by the art of this movement as by the possibility of alternative thinking, the possibility of being in opposition to conformist traditions. In Ukraine, we had “Kruzhka Esmarkha” (Esmarch cup), a group founded by Oleg Suslenko, Viktor Melnychuk, Ruslan Tremba, and Ivan Nebesnyk. Mykhailo Khodanych was often their special guest. The name of the group derives from a special device for an enema. One of the members of the group said that they did not produce, but rather just pooped art. This is just the case when you make art without wanting to produce it. You can also note the influence of the Polish school on me, especially the video performances of Robakowski and the performance lectures of Janusz Bałdyga in the UAP classes of the Gaude Polonia scholarship.
AA Tell us about the contemporary art scene of Transcarpathia. How would you describe it?
PR We have almost no contemporary art publications. Take, for example, the gallery Korydor (Corridor), which has existed for 20 years in Uzhhorod. It is an informal center for alternative contemporary art. I have collaborated with the gallery, most actively from 2013 until 2015, when I organized curatorial and non-curatorial practices and exhibitions, including “Tymchasovi vystavky” (Temporary Exhibitions). This project is very important for me and we are trying to make a publication about it ourselves; we’ve been working on it for seven years. Although you might be able to find some fragmentary information about the Korydor gallery, there’s nothing comprehensive on it.
The 1990s were an important period for the arts in the region with artists such as Pavlo Kovach, the founder of the Korydor, and Gabriel Buletsa becoming active. Pavlo made performances, and Gabriel was engaged in poetry and objects. Later, the “Pop-Trance” group appeared, which had a number of exhibitions. In our history, there is also a history of self-publishing, thanks to people like Andriy Stegura or one of his regular collaborators, Vadym Khabaruk. Of course we need to mention “Vidkryta Hrupa” (Open Group), the festival of contemporary art “Bereznevi Koty” (March Cats), and the festival of synthesis of art “Ekle.” The “Rotonda” Art Assembly gathered artists, poets, and musicians. It was supervised by Vik Kóré; and Anton Varga, Pavlo Kovach (junior), and Yuriy Biley were responsible for the artistic aspect. These festivals had educational programs; super interesting poets from Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and other countries; plus a variety of artists and performers that attended the festival. As long as I have been living in Uzhhorod, since 2004, there have been almost no systematic exchanges regarding contemporary art with artists from Slovakia, Hungary, or Romania. In practice, we only have a connection with Lviv because it is close to us. Personally, I went to Lviv a lot, to the “Shkola Perfomansu” (School of Performance).
AA How did your residency project get started?
PR I’d been thinking about starting an art space in the Public Service Center building for quite some time. In 2014, the war erupted and the rental situation in Uzhhorod changed a lot: The space I had originally wanted to use was already occupied. Still, I wanted to realize the project, the energy for it continued to accumulate. After returning from a fellowship I passed by the “Intourist-Zakarpattia” hotel and I understood that something had to be done about it. From the time when I was a student I remembered that the hotel rented out rooms for workshops in exchange for one painting per month. When I opened the hotel’s website, I found this poetic phrase “Sorry, no rooms available,” which became the name of the residency. It could have been a one time project but I wanted to create something for others.
The residency continues to be an artistic initiative—as it has been from the beginning—but more and more it is growing into an organization with different responsibilities. It is no longer limited to creating purely artistic values. An artistic initiative needs an infusion of material resources. It can’t be irresponsible, like a non-curatorial experience when you initiate something and don’t have to pay rent, etc. Non-curatorial practice combines several areas: giving an artist freedom of authorship and freedom of action. The curator, after all, is actively present, often dominating. It is important for me, as an artist, not to spoil the experience. At some point, I realized that when I organize residencies, it is also fulfilling for me as an artist; as I conduct various types of research and, at the very least, document things. Even though it might seem to be something peripheral or ephemeral at first, at a certain point the residency became something non-peripheral: it eventually became an integral part of the culture; part of a broader ecosystem that influences artists from Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv…
AA How has the current situation changed the residency?
PR Now you don’t think about your ambitions as an artist; you don’t see yourself as someone who is in opposition to something or someone. Now, there’s another responsibility, one that is considering things bordering on matters of life and death. When an artist arrives at the residency, the most important thing is that they’re alive. Many artists and cultural practitioners ended up in Uzhhorod. We tried to find accommodation for everyone, but due to the large number of internally displaced people, that was very difficult. The residency worked in emergency mode: two participants lived in each room. And when the prices for apartments rose sharply, we were able to negotiate additional rooms with the hotel.
This expansion of our mission was also made possible by the presence of Serhiy Klymko, the founder of the Kyiv Biennale and the Emergency Support Initiative. He funded our initiatives in the initial stages. Then we were able to fundraise for the renovation of additional rooms, and we received support from the New York Union, in particular through the assistance of Betty Roitburd, as well as from private individuals and the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund. It is also worth mentioning the physical labor of the participants and organizers who repaired the rooms at that time of emergency. I’m very grateful for their help.
AA In your opinion—how relevant is art right now? What is its mission?
PR I talked to Bella Logacheva, an artist from Kharkiv, the other day. In our call, I offered her to come to Uzhhorod for a residency. Bella replied: “I can’t leave Kharkiv, I have to continue teaching art here,” and she added: “I must photograph what happens here.” Bella talked about the horrors, the shelling, which she and all Kharkiv residents have been experiencing, about destroyed buildings, about living and working in a shelter, about people’s deaths. She talked about this new evil reality and the memory of it. A memory that will be shaped by the images she creates. At a time of war in Ukraine the question of the importance and the role of art is open. Does art have an audience at the moment? How essential is art, both to the artist and audience? I’m not sure. But we all strive to be free; we want to live in a democracy. This is what we fight for. And art just keeps us going.