Three weeks after the Russian attacks on large parts of the country, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan remains in war-ravaged Kiev. Over the past two decades, Kadan’s work has been exhibited in various group and solo exhibitions in the East and West of Europe. As an artist, Kadan is outspokenly political, producing paintings, sculptures, and installations. Kadan is a member of REP (Revolutionary Experimental Space) and co-founder of Hudrada, a curatorial and activist collective. A few days after the outbreak of the war, the artist sought refuge in Voloshyn Gallery, an exhibition space in a cellar in the center of Kiev, which served as a bomb shelter in the Soviet era. He keeps on working as well as the circumstances allow. Surrounded by artworks, and amid bombs falling overground, Kadan installed an exhibition of works from the gallery’s collection. In the following conversation with V/A’s editors, he speaks about the contents of exhibition, as well as what attitude and responsibility people should assume in relation to a war that hits Ukrainians hardest but concerns us all.
MARC SCHWEGLER What was the title of your exhibition in the shelter? What works did it feature?
NIKITA KADAN It was called Тривога, which means a feeling of anxiety but also an alarm signal—like an air-raid siren during shelling. It’s the same word. The works came from the collection of Voloshyn Gallery, where I’m staying. Amongst them were works from the Ukrainian artist David Burliuk (1882-1967), who is known as the “father of Russian Futurism.” He started the avantgarde movement years before the October Revolution with the group Гилея—together with Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksey Kruchenykh, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. He’s also known to have organized one of the first avantgarde shows in Japan (together with Victor Palmov, an artist from Kyiv). He massively influenced the Japanese futurist movement, both in the pre-war and in the post-war eras. In some sense he was also a spokesperson for the avantgarde movements in the United States. He’s a very interesting artist who started as a naïve modernist but became one the very first artists to search for new modernist ideas and broke new ground. In some sense, you could compare him to Francis Picabia, utilizing a mode of kitsch and very bad taste. The exhibition featured two paintings by him, including “The surrealist composition” from 1930. It also featured several works by Constantin-Vadim Ignatov, a nonconformist artist from the Soviet 1970s. There were also works by contemporary Ukrainian artists Lesia Khomenko, Oleksii Sai, Vlada Ralko, and Oleg Golosiy—a super important artist for the Ukrainian 80s and 90s. Golosiy was one of the first people to produce Ukrainian postmodernist painting, a movement that was quite influential in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. And there were also some works of mine. It was a real group show. Now, the works are all packed up, and the gallery has sent them together with most of the other works of the collection to the west of the country. It’s a bit safer there at the moment, compared to the constant shelling here.
REMO BITZI What made you decide to put on the show in the first place?
NK At first it was just about seeing all those brilliant works—they had never been exhibited together before. I wanted to arrange something for them. I also thought that if I decided to stay here it would be good to have some sort of environment. It’s also good to go on with these rituals of peaceful life during war; they make the difference between life and survival. When you only survive, you just can’t afford things like these. It’s a sign that you’re still living a real life.
MS The vocabulary of lockdowns and curfews has become so familiar to us all in the past two years. Of course, it’s a totally different thing as being constantly bombed. However, I was wondering if you could draw from the experiences made during the pandemic?
NK We had several lockdowns during the past two years … It seems that lots of the people—at least in Kyiv—got vaccinated. But in some way, when the Russian invasion started, people forget about Covid. The bigger problem removed the smaller one. I’m sure that in the material world it doesn’t work like this, but anyhow … The picture is quite different—with the constant shelling and all these new sounds: the air-raid sirens, the air defense systems, explosions in the sky all the time, the explosions of Russian missiles hitting buildings … But also the periods of absence of sounds—you can’t hear any cars or people on the streets. In a mental, emotional, psychological sense, I perceive the current situation very differently than the pandemic. But in some sense, yes, Ukraine has been an apocalyptic place for lots of years—but not in relation to the pandemic. There has been a war going on for eight years already. In some sense we might have gotten used to it. On the other hand, there were always signs of life; there were vital responses to it all. During the war, Kyiv became a place for a new and vibrant techno scene, a new queer scene, with great parties that attracted people from all over the world. And all the while the war was already raging in the east …
MS How much of that scene has remained in Kiev? You mentioned that the works you featured in the exhibition have already been sent west—but you’re still there, in a shelter in the city.
NK Some people are still here. I stayed because, at some point, I don’t really know how, I decided to become a witness. I’m also a lazy person, and I felt like I didn’t want the discomfort of rushing out, of queuing in lines with lots of other people—I imagined it being quite ugly. For now, I feel like that I’ve seen quite a lot already … I’m thinking about different options, though, staying or moving west, to the Carpathian region, where friends of mine are working on an idea of an artists’ commune or residence. So maybe I’ll make some effort to join them. There are different options, and I don’t promise anything—not even to myself.
RB What do your days look like currently?
NK [Turns the laptop’s camera around in the room] Here I draw … Here I sleep … On the wall there are still some works around … In the back there is the gallery space where only some packaging material and some unsent works remain. If I want to take a shower or if I need to cook, I need to go to other places. I don’t meet many people, but I meet some. Amongst those I meet regularly is the brilliant writer and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets.
RB As we could see, there are drawings on the floor. So you’re still working …
NK I do some charcoal drawings. The Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi asked me if I could write “Stop War” in some form, as he wants to make some prints to sell in order to collect money for Ukrainian refugees. I just wrote it on paper, for like ten times, in order to create some movement in the letters—to make them tremble. This multiple writing of the same words turns to a kind of magic ritual. Because what does it mean to say “Stop War” now? The question now is mainly how to do it …
Will the West close the sky, will there be a way to stop the bombing? The open sky brings new victims every day. Plenty of people are killed each day, including children. But when we talk about this with people from the West—with intellectuals who’re thinking politically and are socially responsible—they say that this might be a red line for Putin, leading to a war on European territory. The message seems to be: we’re basically super sorry for you guys, but we have to protect our places, the places where we live. So, in the back of mind I think: okay, we are the price you pay. But looking at it from a very pragmatic point of view, Putin has been talking about red lines for decades—and kept crossing them himself. His goals are not just to return Ukraine into the zone of Russian influence once again; he’s generally anti-western, anti-European, anti-American. He’ll move further west if he can. If the fight will arrive on your doorstep anyway, it might make sense to go out now, don’t you think? That would be in the interest of the democratic world. Giving him the opportunity to swallow us whole won’t help.
MS I’ve often wondered in the past few days if the people here, in Western Europe, should protest for war rather than for peace …
NK The war is a reality already. To just say that we’re for peace doesn’t mean anything. All of us are for peace! But what is the way to stop this war? Sure, you can demand that Ukraine stops resisting. That would stop the war. Why not? If we all become martyrs over here, it would stop the war. That could be a nice, pacifist slogan: Ukraine—stop resisting! If you demand to stop Putin, then you stop the war and save lives. Sure, we’d all prefer if it could be done through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, using nonviolent mechanisms, but if that doesn’t work? We all like to be in this nonviolent, pacifist, generally anti-war position. Our rhetoric has always been like that. But now, we’re faced with a challenge. For some people it seems that this challenge might make them lose face, lose their standing as progressive intellectuals, if they speak about real ways to stop Putin’s aggression. Right now, all this is just a very practical question. Each hour is about new destruction and more lives lost. Nobody should demand war, or more war. The war is already here. Europe is already at war. And the way to stop this war is to stop Putin. Everything else is just demanding that Ukraine stops resisting, let him martyr us. Then you can maybe express your deep concerns, and if some of us Ukrainian artists manage to survive, maybe we’ll get a nice residence in Western Europe. But to me, this won’t be enough.
MS The other day, we talked to a researcher on peace building in Ukraine. A lot of their work is now difficult to publish – as at this stage of the conflict there is no more room for nuances, ambivalences, and differentiation.
NK When I speak to Western intellectuals these days, I sometimes feel doubts creeping in. Am I too close to the situation? Am I missing a general view? Yesterday, I walked around in my neighborhood, Lucianivka, an area not far from the city’s center. The area around the entrance to the metro station and the food market has been devastated by the shelling, so you can imagine I might have some aberration in the way I perceive things, in the way I see things. I look at things very closely; I feel them with my body. I don’t stop to be leftist, a pacifist, but I’m faced with this everyday destruction, with every day bringing new victims. I’d be happy if the international community would find a diplomatic or economic way to stop what is going on, but it has to be stopped! Those who remain silent or indulge in long reflections, taking minutes and hours and weeks and months, they will have blood on their hands as well—because now, now time kills.
MS There’s a deep-seated urge for critical thinking in the West—for a lot of people, not just intellectuals. It almost looks like it is hard to switch this off, to get to a point where you understand that there might be a liberalism to defend, after all—as critical as one might be of it…
NK Maybe it is also about that things should be done in time. The war in Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and for the international community that fact has not been of that much interest, until now. There was a time for nuanced thinking, a time for critical (self)reflection. And Ukraine had to be criticized—there were plenty of internal problems: extreme corruption, extreme nationalism … those were not just Russian inventions. Those were real problems, but on a very different scale! When the international community understood that all that was so complex, that there was no nice, morally perfect participant in this game, then the West just lost its interest. The Ukrainian catastrophe vanished into a zone of total blindness. But all these years, we faced those Ukrainian problems! These extreme Ukrainian nationalists, they attacked our exhibitions. We were in hard confrontations with them through the years. We faced Ukrainian corruption, the Ukrainian imitation of electoral democracy; those were our problems—they were real for us. We were self-critical, but we always understood that we are under the pressure of an enemy that is much bigger than us. To somehow conceptualize the Russian invasion in different shades of grey—that is blaming the victim. And to blame the victim is to join the aggressor. We’re in a moment of urgency and a certain kind of black-and-white thinking is needed in this moment. At the same time, we have to think about the past, to understand what lead to this catastrophic situation and we need to think about tomorrow.
MS May the question of the ability to allow for nuances, for a certain ambivalence and ambiguity not only be a question of time but also of space or spheres? Might the arts provide the space for this ambiguity, for this differentiation—even in times like these?
NK The space of art is so diverse, it’s hard to grasp it in its totality. But maybe one thing has to change: wartime demands a different sensitivity. While I had a walk in the ruins of my neighborhood, I found this materiality—iron, glass, stone—to be like organs of the body, like skin, brain, bones. Trees, asphalt, the animals, their fur … real bodies, which may still remain under the rubble. It’s all material. On this level of our common materiality, there’s a new form of empathy. These 19-year-old Russian soldiers sent by Putin to kill us and to die here, are made of the same material as their victims. I’m sure that through all these terrible things that happen I will never turn xenophobic, but: I know who is guilty. He sits in the Kremlin. All the other aspects are really different shades of grey.