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 is the second part of the essay, which looks at the open-ended negotiations over where contemporary art can, could, and should be exhibited in Ukraine. Read the first part here.
On a sunny weekday morning in September 2019, the power brokers of Ukrainian contemporary art convened at Kyiv’s Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, home field of the Ukrainian national football team as well as the storied league club Dynamo Kyiv, which has also been hosting the internally displaced club Shakhtar Donetsk since 2020. The directors, curators, researchers, and project managers did not fill a section of the stands to watch or talk sports; they were there to discuss how and where to build a Ukrainian national museum of contemporary art—a widely-held goal that has kept being kicked down the road, in part due to a lack of strong relations and mutual agreement between the assembled stakeholders. One of the principal agents of this effort is the non-profit Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA NGO), led by Olya Balashova and Yuliia Hnat, who detailed their work in a 2021 interview with Svitlana Biedarieva for ARTMargins. (In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the MOCA NGO has been providing instrumental support to artists and arts workers through its co-administration of the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund.)
The discussion on the prospective state-run museum was the latest in a line of distinctive meetings to take place at Olimpiyskiy. During the run-off election for Ukrainian presidency in 2019, the only debate between incumbent Petro Poroshenko and his (ultimately victorious) challenger Volodymyr Zelensky took place not in a television studio but on the pitch. Each candidate’s supporters were invited to watch the political spectacle, which Zelensky initiated in a slick campaign advertisement. The choice to conduct the art museum meeting at Olimpiyskiy was symbolic since the stadium figures prominently in the country’s consciousness and is associated with cultural ventures catering to the general public. That the symbolism of the stadium venue informed and influenced reactions to the museum discussion that took place there speaks to the significant effect that locations have on the resonance of cultural activity in Ukraine.
One of the sticking points for the proposed national museum of contemporary art is the question of where it should be realized. As of yet there is no consensus on what an appropriate location would be, though all options being discussed are in Kyiv. One option that has gained traction is a socialist-modernist venue whose interior recalls that of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Located at one end of Khreshchatyk, the boulevard that the first essay in the Kindling essay series discusses at length, the facility was purpose-built in Soviet times as a museum dedicated to Lenin. Following the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution, it was rebranded as ‘Ukrainian House,’ hosting a slate of one-off exhibitions and events.
The venue’s central location and special architecture make it an attractive option for housing a museum of contemporary art. These features are simultaneously two of its bigger liabilities: the centrality of the location means great visibility, and the institution’s activities would, in turn, be heavily scrutinized. Moreover, the facility’s Soviet origins are palpable; there is a vocal contingent that contends this resonance should be silenced by a sovereign Ukrainian state government. One alternative is to construct a new facility. This option would presumably be much more capital-intensive than retrofitting an existing venue; however, a facility built from scratch would be unfettered from the past—for better and for worse. The amount of logistics this alternative would entail is huge—selecting a site, picking an architect, persisting despite the inevitable construction delays, and so forth.
With its thick plot and flair for the dramatic, the unfinished story of a national museum for contemporary art speaks to the dense character of the open-ended negotiations over where contemporary art can, could, and should be exhibited in Ukraine. These negotiations are kindling for artistic experimentation across the country. In Sievierodonetsk, the regional center of the Luhansk oblast, artists treat the concrete shell of a never-completed Soviet institute of statistics as a blank canvas, organizing graffiti workshops, concerts, and rooftop film screenings on the premises. On the opposite end of the country, Lubomyr Tymkiv runs the Tymutopiapres gallery out of his garage in a residential area on Lviv’s periphery. In addition to providing many up-and-coming Ukrainian artists with some of their first shows, this gallery has exhibited more international artists than many Ukrainian galleries combined, without ever taking project funds from foreign embassies or cultural foundations.
One of Tymkiv’s main interlocutors is the artist Yaroslav Futymskyi, who himself has been instrumental in tracing, documenting, and establishing relationships between boundary-pushing Ukrainian artists, writers, musicians, and interdisciplinary creators whose work defies categorization. Futymskyi, an itinerant traveler, is a walking encyclopedia of alternative, underground, and conceptual art ventures that have thrilled discerning audiences and articulated regional cultural identities in recent decades. The most important lessons I have received in Ukrainian art history have come from him. In his personal practice, Futymskyi tests the ties that bind while weaving together texts, images, and found objects in site-specific installations. His 2020 solo exhibition swamp. marsh. bog inspired the titular theme of this essay: rekindling as fomenting.
swamp. marsh. bog was staged in a tiled corridor in the Intourist-Zakarpattya, a hotel located in Uzhhorod, a western Ukrainian city in the Carpathian foothills near the Slovakian border that is the home of Sorry No Rooms Available, an artistic-residency center founded and directed by Petro Ryaska. In his exhibition, Futymskyi debuted a series of paintings dedicated to early 20th-century Jewish anarchist women who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and then later returned, some by choice and others after being deported during the Red Scare. The artists’ subjects included Fanya Baron, an avowed revolutionary who spent the final years of her life working in Ukraine before being executed by the Cheka (the dreaded Soviet secret police) in 1921, and Emma Goldman, an iconic (and divisive) public intellectual and political activist.
The paintings in this series are spartan. In them, Futymskyi paints grids, Yiddish phrases, and the subjects’ names above grey-black pools and chalky blue clouds. Their dimensions vary; most of the works are slim and rectangular, while a few are large and square. In the hotel corridor, the artist installed some near the ceiling, grouped others at eye-level, and rested a few on the floor.
Futymskyi tailored swamp. marsh. bog to the hotel context, as demonstrated by how the lines in his works link with the edges of the tiles in the hotel corridor. Presented as such, the structural narrative(s) of the hotel inflect the paintings; the artist ‘tunes in’ to his surroundings without releasing his right to self-determination. The lowercase exhibition title lists types of wetlands—sticky, fertile, and funky areas where some matter is kept intact and other stuff grows dense and fast in strange shapes and sizes. With this title, Futymskyi establishes a mise-en-scène in which the forces of preservation and transformation operate in tandem.
Pulling the lens back, another vital voice in the extended discussion on where contemporary art can, could, and should get exhibited in Ukraine is DE NE DE. In the words of Zhenia Moliar, a leading participant, the initiative “examines the processes of decommunisation and offers a critical rethinking of the Soviet heritage.” The project was started in response to the ratification of a series of so-called ‘decommunization laws’ passed in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, and the start of armed conflict in the eastern Donbas region. These laws ushered in the mass renaming of streets, towns, and cities across the country, restricted the appearance of Soviet imagery (hammers, sickles, red stars, etc.) in the public realm, and imperiled the preservation of Soviet-era infrastructure. DE NE DE, whose participants include artists, architects, curators, and photographers, organizes engagements (e.g., community workshops, research outings) in primarily rural and regional areas, mapping the Ukrainian institutional landscape at a time when the country’s cultural touchstones are changing, exerting complex pressures on public collections and their custodians.
In conducting their programs, which are frequently slandered with reductive accusations of communist sympathizing, DE NE DE inquires what is exposed when contemporary art is temporarily inserted into the permanent exhibitions of local art, history, and industrial museums or displayed alongside works with socialist themes. In 2019, the initiative, with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, the country’s infant public arts agency, realized a series of exhibitions at a museum in Kmytiv, a village of some three hundred inhabitants located an hour outside of Kyiv. The museum houses the socialist-realist collection of Josyp Buhanchuk, a Red Army official-turned-civil defense teacher at the Leningrad Academy of Art originally from Kmytiv, in a striking modernist edifice. The collection, which includes some 3,000 works and is replete with stylized views of Soviet life, is archetypal of the body of work whose raison d’être has been profoundly disturbed by the decommunization laws. The series of six thematic exhibitions at the Kmytiv Museum, which I profiled for the magazine THIS IS BADLAND, were curated by the artist Nikita Kadan with project management by Moliar and Leo Trotsenko. Each of the exhibitions, referred to as episodes, juxtaposed socialist-realist works from the Kmytiv museum collection with contemporary works by many Ukrainian artists and their international counterparts, including the American Sean Snyder and the Kazakh duo of Yelena Vorobyeva and Victor Vorobyev.
The Belarusian artist Sergey Shabohin featured in the fourth Kmytiv episode, titled Today We Will Invent the Nations. Shabohin, who now lives in Poland and is known for working with conceptual cycles, is intricately connected with the Ukrainian contemporary art context by virtue of his collaborations with Kadan, with whom he published a newspaper for the 2017 edition of the Kyiv Biennial, and Nikolay Karabinovych, as well as his participation in the Forum Regionum residency in Dnipro and co-curation of the stellar survey exhibition Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance at Mystetskyi Arsenal in 2021. He embodies the generative effect of mutual exchange between socially-engaged Belarusian and Ukrainian contemporary artists.
In Today We Will Invent the Nations, Shabohin was represented by “Canvas Cut with the Karta Polaka,” a work from his ‘Border-Gap’ cycle, and a copper-toned iteration of his eighteen-part “Practices of Subordination.” For the former, Shabohin painted a facsimile of his Karta Polaka, an ID card that grants its holder the right to reside in Poland. As indicated by the work’s title, the artist then cut the canvas with the card, weaponizing nationalized identity while paying homage to the artist Lucio Fontana, the Argentine-Italian founder of spatialism, who rose to prominence for slashing his canvases. In his curatorial text, Kadan writes that Shabohin’s other exhibited work, “Practices of Subordination,” is “an image of the modern state in which the emblems and symbols introduced by the author reveal not only those components of which citizens are accustomed to be proud.” Each of the eighteen panels in Shabohin’s “Practices of Subordination,” which are presented in three rows of six, features a picture connoting a crack in the white-washed façade of Belarus’s authoritarian government; one panel, for instance, depicts a pair of storks—symbols of fertility—fighting.
The panel appearing second from the right in the second row of “Practices of Subordination” presents a prominent public fire in the post-Soviet space as a cause célèbre. The panel, which has the subtitle ‘Permanent Waste,’ shows a close-up cutout view of Minsk’s eternal flame, which ceaselessly burns in the Belarusian capital’s Victory Square. Shabohin told me that, in his view, “the eternal flame is an ideological embezzlement of gas,” arguing that Aleksandr Lukashenko’s brutal, repressive regime—which gorges itself on Soviet symbology—has morally polluted the meaning of this memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Second World War, which ravaged Minsk and razed huge chunks of the city. Interpreted as such, Shabohin’s ‘Permanent Waste’ panel also laments how corrupt officials have siphoned the proceeds of taxes levied on the transit of gas from Russia to the European Union through pipelines crossing Belarusian territory, the longest of which is notoriously named Druzhba, the Russian word for ‘friendship.’ The artist’s interpretation simultaneously recalls how Lukashenko has used cheap gas prices to appease the populace; the disgraced head of state has secured, and often renegotiates, low energy rates through supplication to his Russian counterpart.
The longer you stare at a licking flame, the more you are likely to see in it, since new shapes are constantly being conjured and consumed. To this end, Shabohin comments that Minsk’s eternal flame “is also the tail of an ox,” and that this ox stands for the Belarusian state. In this view, the memorial blaze is the flicking tail of an agitated, castrated bovine that does not hesitate to throw its weight around. When I read this, I recall that oxen are regarded not for their brains, but for their brawn—they are valued for their bulk strength. This interpretation is relevant to consider vis-à-vis the museum collection alongside which Shabohin’s “Practices of Subordination” was exhibited. In a country with decommunization laws, how can the weight, or heft, of a socialist-realist collection be calculated? And moderated?
One work from the Kmytiv museum collection that makes a startling impression, especially now, is Yury Filipovich Ryazanov’s “May 9, 1945” (1974), a triptych of the glowing celebrations in Moscow of the allied victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union. The work was presented in ‘War in the Museum,’ the third episode in the exhibition series spearheaded by Kadan, Moliar, and Trotsenko. The left-hand panel shows a boy looking out of a window towards the orange fireworks that fill the sky. In the panel on the right, a soldier holds hands with his significant other and does the same. Accelerant excitement packs the central panel, which is filled with revelers, one of whom is launched by his comrades and carried by the fireworks into the air above the Kremlin clock tower. In the center of the panel is a reveler with a crew cut, whose face is awash in orange, the mouth agape. As I wrote for THIS IS BADLAND, the central figure “is so elated that he starts to appear tortured. His emotions are burning him alive.” Painting on the cusp of the thirtieth anniversary of victory over fascism, Ryazanov captures the proximity of pain to pride and the nearness of smoke inhalation and suffering to ecstasy and adrenaline-infused euphoria. As the Russian armed forces glibly commandeer the vestiges of this victory while carrying out their insidious genocidal conquest, these proximities and overlappings, rendered retrospectively by Ryazanov, have been replaced by horrific collisions.
Shabohin uses similar hues as Ryazanov in a recent series of collages, which remarks on the horrific collisions brought forth by the Russia-Ukraine War. In the series, the artist sutures scenes of Mariupol in ruins with reproductions of paintings of dramatic dusks by the 19th-century artist Arkhip Kuindzhi, a native son of the port city. He does so with marble tape. The four works, each in A5, are indexed in two of Shabohin’s conceptual cycles. The first, Plate Tectonics, is “a cycle about large-scale geopolitical upheavals […] by way of example of the turbulent times in the Eastern European region.” The second, Social Marble, is “based on an observation of the practices of public cleaning services in Minsk, who are unable to wash away the corrosive graffiti from the Soviet marble and granite walls of underpasses and began to glue them with a self-adhesive film with a marble pattern.” A custodial practice that, the artist says, “reveals the image of memory palimpsests and the anxiety of historical transformations” in the region. The works impart that a sweeping sunset over the Sea of Azov, or the Dnipro river, has similar coloring as a smoldering apartment block, eerily jointing a master’s strokes with the aftermath of missile strikes. For the series, Shabohin used a red variant of the self-adhesive film with a marble pattern, which he calls “bloody granite.”
Coming back to Kmytiv, the DE NE DE program ignited controversy, receiving pushback from local government officials representing right-wing populist parties. Its detractors threatened to physically disrupt the proceedings and levelled grievances that sought to perturb relations between DE NE DE and museum staff, including agitating over the museum’s name. DE NE DE set the museum’s name as ‘Kmytiv Museum of Soviet Art’ on its Facebook page; under duress, the name was later changed to ‘Kmytiv Museum of Fine Arts named for Josyp Buhanchuk.’ The ‘Kmytiv phenomenon,’ as it came to be known, touched off a lot of conversation. The intricacies of the program were hotly debated, with each consecutive episode stoking different discussions, often conducted in the marshrutkas (fixed-route buses) that many attendees used to get to and from the Saturday afternoon openings at the museum, from Kyiv or elsewhere.
The first time I met Kadan was to interview him about his curatorial aims with the Kmytiv program. At the end of our conversation, I invited him to select a postcard from a stack filled with past and present pictures of Ukrainian subjects and compose something on it. Kadan picked a Soviet-era postcard showing seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky hanging in the picture gallery in the 19th-century painter’s beachfront hometown on the Crimean peninsula. On the postcard, Kadan wrote “Return Crimea to Kmytiv!” An alliterative protest, his retort suggests that Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, should not only be given back to Ukraine but given back to the central Ukrainian village synonymous with socialist realism. The impracticality of Kadan’s proclamation prods the disputes over DE NE DE’s exhibition series he curated at the Red Army man’s museum and counterposes the outrageous annexation. This ‘both and’ message, written in medias res, exclaims an artistic act of rekindling, or rousing anew, as a form of fomenting, or fostering, an emotionally-charged debate—on the fate of cultural artefacts of a lapsed empire, and the struggle over where, and to whom, they belong today.
While writing this text on collections (and cohabitations) in Ukraine from the Balkans, where I am spending the summer, I started to wonder if there will be an initiative for contemporary artists from the international community to donate their works to the prospective Ukrainian museum of contemporary art. This could be an initiative along the lines of how the remarkable international collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Skopje, which formed during the reconstruction of the North Macedonian capital after a devastating earthquake in 1963, and Sarajevo’s Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art, which took shape during the city’s siege, came together. While shipping works by international artists to Kyiv would not have the same effect as sending weapons to the frontline, I believe that precedents like MoCA Skopje and Ars Aevi demonstrate that there are enduring returns from this kind of cultural action.