How to map the contemporary Ukrainian art scene? What are its tendencies, discourses, and who are the protagonists who shape it? How could it be presented to a readership that hardly knows it yet? Writer and curator Alex Fisher attempts to answer these questions in a multi-part essay. Kindling, as its title reads, examines the various representations of fire in contemporary Ukrainian art—considering fire as a motif and metaphor. This fourth part of the essay combines two encounters and two practices of kindling in the manner of a vignette. On the one hand, Fisher reports on a residence in the Carpathians, which he remembers not only thanks to a wild night of celebrations but also because of a mysterious arson. And on the other hand, the text is also dedicated to the matchboxes by the artist Viktor Pokydanets: subtle little works that, thanks to their wit and ambiguity, are able to strike sparks of subversion.
“I don’t know where I am but I am home.” This is what Anna Potyomkina, responding to the initiative I introduced in the first essay in the Kindling series, wrote on the back of a postcard depicting prominent sites and landscapes in Ukraine.
She penned this message after we met in passing in fall 2019 in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city of writers in western Ukraine, where Potyomkina works as the founding director of Asortymentna Kimnata (Working Room), a gallery that is part of Insha Osvita, an organization that works with non-formal and continuing education. Potyomkina wrote the message with little hesitation, laying the card on the ledge of a window around the corner from Promprylad.Renovation, a factory-turned-innovation center in the heart of the city, where her gallery was then located. That moment, and that message, started a series of events with compounding effects.
The following summer, Potyomkina invited me to curate a residency for contemporary artists at Khata Maysternya, a cabin in the Carpathian mountains located above a small village named Babyn. The cabin had recently come under the ownership of Insha Osvita, who use it to hold arts and educational initiatives like immersive language study. This has generated local job opportunities in the hospitality sector and increased recognition for the incredible nature in the Carpathians and its elaborate cultural traditions, especially those of the Hutsuls, an indigenous ethnic group. After months of pandemic-related lockdowns, I ‘chomped at the bit’ to temporarily leave Kyiv and develop a programme for two artists. In dialogue with Potyomkina, I invited Clemens Poole, a multidisciplinary artist introduced in Smoke Signals, whose practice is “often specifically concerned with or includes subtexts relating to [his] positionality as an American artist working in Ukraine,” and Katya Buchatska, an artist with a keen interest in arts education whose work spans multiple genres and mediums as well as formats and subjects, incorporating text, collage, and portraiture. The two had not previously met, but I thought their shared propensity for negotiating how ‘things,’ broadly understood, work and how they could be reworked would prove generative when mutually interacting in close proximity with limited distractions over a prolonged duration—in this case two weeks.
In organizing the residency, which took place in June 2020, Potyomkina and my intention was to transcend urban strictures and foster collaborative experimentation informed by the specific conditions of the Carpathians: temporal, social, and environmental. We spent our days hiking, talking, reading Helen Mirra interviews, and screening films, including Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, an iconic work of Soviet cinema set a few villages over from Babyn. I took polaroids; we trekked to Yavoriv to buy lizhnyk (woolen blankets); and woke up at the crack of dawn to spend Saturday morning at the famed Kosiv bazaar, where locals and visitors to the region convene to buy and sell all sorts of goods—from pigs to clocks, from ceramic vases to headstones. In the second week of the residency, we were joined by the sound artist Anna Khvyl and her French then-partner, as well as the polymath Nikita Kadan and artist Dana Kavelina, amongst others.
During the second week, Potyomkina, Poole, Buchatska, and I started discussing whether we should create something together, to mark the occasion of our cooperation in this remote locale. In our discussions, we kept returning to our daily treks in the thick woods and airy pastures in the high Carpathians, treks filled with encounters—with the man making cheese; the woman making wine; the other woman making socks; the deep mud; the sickle left in a semi-abandoned shed; the old engravings on older stones; the sound of sweet music rising from a homestead in the valley; and an abundance of Orthodox shrines, including one with a simple stamped metal cross, which, to my dismay, was no longer there when I returned the following summer. A trait of our treks was our tendency to go ‘off course,’ to wind up in parts unknown, when we weren’t accompanied by the keeper of Khata Maysternya, Sasha Moskovchuk, who joined us when his time permitted and would keep us on the ‘right track,’ or at least on the route that presented the least peril (read: not packed with prickly plants or slick surfaces). Meditating on our tendency to get lost and, sometime later, find ourselves again, Poole and Buchatska, in dialogue with Potyomkina and me, decided to chart their own path, a trail that could comfortably be referred to as the path of most resistance.
What in artspeak is known as an ‘off-site installation,’ the path started at the edge of a fenced-in pasture in the hills above Khata Maysternya. Poole and Buchatska built a trailhead from wood scraps, inside of which they placed a few talismans—three spools of yarn (two blue and one orange) as a well as a moldy loaf of bread. On top of the trailhead, Buchatska painted a red arrow, a ‘blaze’ that pointed/prompted hikers-turned-art patrons to veer/venture into the forest.
What followed was at least a thousand meters of thick woods, through which the artists made their own way, guided by dripping red arrows painted on the trunks of trees by Buchatska with interstices for messages written by Poole, like ‘it gets worse as you get older’ and ‘you should feel guilty for not enjoying this.’ The path, or off-site installation, was named The Desperate Tone is an Act. This was also the title for a later exhibition about the path and the series of events surrounding its realization, and partial destruction, in the long, strange days on either side of that year’s summer solstice.
As I wrote in my curatorial commentary for the guidebook published on the occasion of the exhibition, which took place at Potyomkina’s Asortymentna Kimnata space in Ivano-Frankivsk in August 2020, the plein air installation is “open indefinitely, yet continuously devolves in the artists’ and curators’ absence.” Without delving too much into the details, which are comprehensively recounted in the guidebook as well as documented in a booklet, Poole and Buchatska’s trail proved irksome. For one, its trailhead was hard to locate, as that part of the mountains is not frequently traversed and there is scant network coverage; however, far more problematic, and final, was the fact that it was sealed, in the sense that access to it was denied, soon after its creation, as a result of unknown person(s) burning the trailhead.
It is not clear why someone set fire to the trailhead, though a rumor started circulating amongst involved parties that it might have been destroyed by local people, for representing some form of dark magic, or possibly indicating a real estate developer’s intent on ‘raiding’ their land. Other members of the group pointed a finger at Kadan, as he went almost immediately from the residency to Odesa to prepare Black Books, the exhibition at NOCH Gallery discussed in Smoke Signals, which included burnt objects and references to burning. Alas, no one took responsibility for the act, leading Poole, Buchatska, Potyomkina and me to jointly conclude that “having considered all the evidence, that the place itself, through willful action, or coincidental intervention, sought to heal itself of the horror brought in by [our] group.” (In this case, horror is understood in the sense of frustration—the off-site installation was not user friendly, especially during inclement weather, and offered none of the dramatic vistas that the Carpathians are known for—and intimidation, as the trail seems to have had a provoking effect on its audience and atmosphere.)
In the context of Kindling, I am struck by the treatment of the wooden trailhead, the start of Poole and Buchatska’s off-site installation, with its large red blaze. Semantically, the situation is self-incriminating: someone burnt the blaze. And not only that: someone burnt the first blaze, the one that starts the trail—the blaze that kindles the trail, that reveals its presence, and sustains its attraction. Leveling up this wordplay, Buchatska herself blazed a stretch of the Carpathians, semantically setting it on fire by charting a path through it, a path punctuated by Poole’s remarks. Interpreted as such, the unknown culprit set a real fire to the trailhead that started the artists’ conceptual fire, reducing it to charred bits of board.
Context matters. As the previous paragraph indicates, I see the path, and the circumstances that surround its (un)making, in an alternate light whilst penning the fourth part of this essay series for V/A, homing in on Buchatska’s blaze and its semantic implications for thinking about—and through—site-specific works of art. Recently, Buchatska also revisited the work, two years after its creation. On 9 June, she made an Instagram post about the prophetic aspect of The Desperate Tone is an Act, a post whose caption reads in part: “the red arrows arose from the feeling of horror all around us, inside us. we are in the middle of the carpathian forest: we leave signs, they take us deeper and deeper and the traveler runs the risk of not getting anywhere [sic].” Buchatska finishes her comment by stating that since 24 February 2022 “almost every Ukrainian wants such an arrow to be as close as possible,” noting that her arrows bear a striking resemblance to those that indicate the locations of bomb shelters in settlements across Ukraine. Buchatska and Poole’s trail was sealed as a result of an act of arson, but a simulacrum of its wayfaring has since become a lifeline.
The final day of our residency coincided with the summer solstice, a day loaded with symbolic significance in Ukraine and elsewhere. We decided, at Poole’s urging, to mark the occasion with a black metal party. The aesthetic prompt for the evening was cover art and campaign images for Carpathian Forest, a Norwegian black metal band known for its skeletal makeup. We were considering our respective routes to these woods, then dressed in a dense fog, and wondering why a black metal band from faraway Norway named themselves for it. What does the Carpathians conjure? And, on the solstice, could we costume ourselves in its mythic status?
The fest was… quite the affair. I filmed the proceedings with the ISO maxed out on my camera; as a result, the surface of the documentation is patterned with rough grain. These clips formed the basis of a music video for “I am the Carpathian Horror,” the first, and so far only, single by Dark Area, a band comprising Buchatska and Poole. In the music video, a ritualistic struggle ensues as the heavens open and makeup smears. A flame, seen in intermittent colored clips, casts an orange-red glow on the inky-black primeval party in the primeval forest. In one scene, perhaps my favorite one, a reveler leashed by a metal chain to a figure in traditional Hutsulian dress lunges towards an unseen someone or something to the camera’s left, with a third figure—a man also in traditional dress—crouching in the rear. (Wearing traditional dress in an evocative manner on special occasions is a cultural pillar of western Ukraine, with the most famous annual fest being Malanka.) In the clip, the camera’s focus is on a knot in the chain, so the precise countenances of the characters cannot easily be decoded. You had to be there to get the full picture, but the people who were there, in that dark, damp area lit by fire, probably cannot recall the full picture.
To be sure, hindsight is not always twenty-twenty. Recently, Dana Kavelina, who I first met in Babyn during the residency and who features in the “I am the Carpathian Horror” video, visited me in Kosovo. In the sweets shop in Prishtina’s Palace of Youth and Sports and on the steps of the city’s fantastical National Library, we discussed that night and this essay, in which I initially planned to concentrate on rituals and routines, comparing those that have ‘stood the test of time’ with those that have evolved with the times, changing form and content in response to, or in anticipation of, changing access to the elements customarily used in the ritual or routine, economic conditions, and/or political (in)tolerance. As a result of our conversation, it became apparent that the parts, and plots, of the text, which once seemed separate, are more alike than first surmised.
With Kavelina, I discussed the work of the protagonist of the second part of this essay: Viktor Pokydanets, an older generation artist who lives and works in Mykolaiv, a port city famed for its shipbuilding enterprise, where I went to deliver a lecture in December 2019.
I knew little about Mykolaiv before traveling there other than that I had to meet Sergey Melnitchenko, a photographer who leads a school for image-makers in the industrial city in southern Ukraine, home to around 450,000 residents. Melnitchenko, a consummate host, made my visit special, introducing me to many compelling initiatives and figures, including Pokydanets. The day after my talk, Melnitchenko organized a lunch for us with Pokydanets at a pizza place next to the art college where Pokydanets teaches. As I scrolled through my camera roll to jog my memory of our meeting, I realized that I only took one picture during our lunch, an image of the artwork on the wall of the pizza place, a large painting in which bare-chested men are seen ostensibly trying to put out a raging forest fire. As the holidays were right around the corner, the restaurant staff had placed felt Santa caps on the buff lads and put Christmas lights on the one fir tree in the scene that was not in flames. An unexpected work of art to encounter at a pizza place? For sure. An appropriate work for Kindling? No question about it, as its thematic content has numerous parallels to that of the black metal party—flaming festivities in the woods, whose participants perform their own devolution.
I recall little from the lunch itself. Besides the picture of the forest fire painting with the shirtless men decorated for Christmas, my other memento from the meeting with Pokydanets is the postcard that the artist wrote as our meal wrapped, a Soviet era card showing a boat cruising through the port of Mykolaiv. On the verso of the card, Pokydanets wrote, “I first saw a sailboat when I was twelve years old, and it made an indescribable impression on me. Perhaps that’s why I now live in Mykolaiv.”
Since our lunch, I have not met Pokydanets again in-person. But I have become increasingly enamored with his work through social media, particularly Facebook, where he regularly posts documentation of his creations. A substantial portion of the artist’s expansive body of work is based upon matchboxes, whose size and messaging Pokydanets manipulates.
Pokydanets’s matchbox works contain a mix of detailed graphics and captions, often humorous. Some are relatively straightforward, like a matchbox posted in October 2020, on whose top surface the artist drew a mouth agape and printed the word kryk, Russian for ‘cry.’ He also ripped the matchbox’s sides. This work prompts reflection on matchbox design. Pokydanets drew a facial feature on the matchbox’s surface—the face of the paper packaging that reveals its persona—and destroyed the coarse surface on which a match could be struck. The latter end up jagged, resembling the teeth in the gaping mouth on the box’s surface. Seen as such, Pokydanets turned the whole matchbox into an outcry. While it might not be possible to strike a match with this deformed matchbox, the work still urges the question: How many fires have started from someone’s cry?
Pokydanets has the humor of the late Soviet intelligentsia. His jokes often date to the last decades of the 20th century, as in another matchbox work, inside of which he printed an amended triple portrait of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Joseph Stalin. Beneath their image, the artist printed, in Russian, the words ‘Beneath the blue sky.’ The caption is taken from the opening line in the song “City of Gold” by Akvarium, one of the most famous Soviet rock bands, the style of whose front man, Boris Grebenshchikov, is the muse for Marx, Engels, and Stalin’s makeover in Pokydanets’s small work. The trio of monumental socialists don the lead singer’s signature shades and have their hair in ponytails. They sing a hit of the Soviet underground.
As Kavelina commented in her and my preparatory conversation for writing this essay, “a joke is a kind of matchbox.” This is to say is that in order for a joke to land it has to strike in a specific way; nailing a punchline is akin to lighting a match. This is certainly the case with Pokydanets’s jokes, which frequently require a knowledge of the (dys)functionality of Soviet life and its cultural expression to fully resonate. This puts me, as someone who is not from the former U.S.S.R writing for a public not expected to have prior knowledge of the subject, in the tedious role of explaining in five-plus sentences a work that would register in an instant to those with a similar frame of reference as the artist. But I figure it must be done, as I am convinced that Pokydanets’s work, with its sharp wit and strong technical execution, warrants further critical attention.
Herein lies another lesson from Pokydanets’s matchbox works: sometimes you need to combine several motions to spark an aha moment. To conjure a flame with a matchbox, one must first pull the box’s cartridge out from its protective covering. Next, one must pick a match, push the cartridge back into its place, and, finally, scrape the match against the side of the box. These steps may be all for naught if the match is a dud or the user scrapes it against the box’s coarse surface in an incorrect manner. To ‘get’ something from Pokydanets’s body of work, one must rely on a similar combination of pulling and scraping, of picking and replacing—literally and metaphorically. This logic can be extended to all sorts of artworks and to the mental exercise of approaching meaning in and with them.
Pokydanets’s works remind us that matchboxes have multiple purposes and possible fates. They can be receptacles for little treasures, storage for small collections. Their surfaces are, as he demonstrates, apt sites for tongue-in-cheek critique and full-throated exclamation. Intriguingly, his body of work contains the means of its own destruction, as if to say: “If you think the works are bad, why don’t you burn them?”
Pokydanets not only works with small and large physical matchboxes, he paints them too, as with a 2018 acrylic on canvas work of an empty matchbox with the printed caption “Steamships are sailing – Salute to salceson” framing an image of a large boat and a piece of sausage. The painting is a sardonic take on a Soviet era call-and-response, whose roots lie in a dramatic tale of Red Army bravery and the integrity of one of its young supporters, the ‘boy-Kibalchish’—a story that was widely read by the pioneers (the U.S.S.R.’s mass youth organization) and reproduced in a 1964 film. In his caption, Pokydanets plays with words, making salceson—a type of salami made from non-choice cuts—the subject of a triumphal salute. Moreover, if a matchbox gets wet, it is rendered worthless. Pokydanets toys with this in his painted matchbox, on which a steamship, an engineering marvel, sails beneath a big salami.
O, to set sail beneath a disc of processed meat. O, to blaze a trail, only for it to be sealed as a result of an act of arson. O, to be the Carpathian horror, and o, to be bare-chested romping in the snow with your mates, with your back to the raging fire. None of these vignettes, some real and some painted, map neatly onto the others. Alas, in their own way, they match—at once similar and the start of something else, something curious and consuming.