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. In the following fifth part of his essay, Fisher addresses the issue of possession and the ambivalence that arises from the availability of objects and symbols—but also of forces and powers like nuclear energy. Who owns the signs and works that have tried to shape, change, or reform Ukraine over the course of time? And at what price have they been obtained?
In June 2020, I returned to Kyiv after the residency at Khata Maysternya detailed in Blazing Trails, Striking Matches. My lease on my apartment had expired, and so I moved in to the spare room in the flat shared by artists Nikita Kadan and Clemens Poole. Their apartment overlooks a gold-domed women’s monastery and is located between Lvivska Ploscha, an access point to many of the Ukrainian capital’s top arts and cultural venues, and the Lukianivska metro stop. In those days, time was on my side, as I was working remotely with loose deadlines. I bopped around, venturing down roads I had not been down prior. On one outing, I came across a supply store for the Ukrainian armed forces and their supporters. It was small and open to the public, with a teeming inventory and a tailor for soldiers and veterans whose uniforms needed mending, taking in, or letting out. The shop’s inventory was packed full and piled high; it was difficult for multiple patrons to navigate the store at the same time. There were many official issue garments and accessories to try on and purchase—striped naval shirts, camouflage winter caps, starched blazers, mugs emblazoned with army mottos, and more. What captured my attention were the patches for different battalions of the Ukrainian armed forces, presented in display cases in the entryway. In these patches, all sorts of species radiated authority.
Many of the patches carried the name of the place where a battalion’s members hailed from. Some honored famous fighters, like the ‘cyborgs’ who defended the Donetsk Airport in 2014. There were also plenty of tridents (the Ukrainian national symbol) incorporated into the designs as well as lots of skulls and fearsome animals.
The patches at the shop contained worlds—the residents of mythic, more-than-human realms and the symbols of various cities and towns whose men and boys, women and girls had devoted themselves to the war effort, then officially referred to as the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO) by the Ukrainian government and foreign observers/intermediaries. People, places, apparitions, and automatons were stitched and stuck together, with Velcro on the backside. Deployed, they were to be affixed to a sleeve or breast pocket. Here, at the shop near the metro station, they mingled—stored but uncategorized, and perhaps uncategorizable. What logic could be used to sort their complexity?
At the end of Smoke Signals, I raised the polemics of reduction as it relates to ‘understanding’ Ukraine through reference to Lada Nakonechna’s “13/24” (2019), a hatched pencil drawing of a subset of Ukraine’s oblasts that requires an act of cooperation between two parties to be hung on a gallery wall. In a similar, albeit separate, way, the patch displays perturbed efforts to draw conclusions about the layered stories they contained and the military units they lauded. To this end, the displays spoke to the terrific challenge of commanding a patchwork force.
For a while, I considered collecting the patches, thinking it would be compelling to possess them, as items to meditate on and run my hands across, a collection that would be something like the Japanese netsuke inherited by Edmund de Waal, featured in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes, in which Odesa plays a prominent role. After successive visits to the shop, I decided not to purchase any of the patches. In part, my hesitancy to acquire the patches was tied to my not being assigned, or conscripted, to them and the companies, units, or legions they stood for. I was but a tempted collector of the causes, legends, and origins the patches announced. (I would feel differently if the patches were historical, but the soldiers who wear such patches were still earning their rank, continuing to fight in what was then a grinding conflict in the Donbas.)
In deciding whether to purchase some of the patches, I was also plagued by the problem of imperfect information. I was attracted to those that packed a visual punch, like the ones whose central panel featured an imposing, compellingly rendered predator. At the same time, I was interested in the mission and ideological orientation of the unit each patch honored. Lacking knowledge in this area, I did not passively acquire the patches of those on active duty.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding military service is centered on sacrifice. The shop near the metro stocked what those who serve get for doing so: all-weather camouflage gear, ceremonial garb, and materials that aid in their identification and valorization, like the patches. That the sale of these items was not restricted suggests the ease with which non-affiliates can use such items to their own ends, as the Polish artist Karol Radziszewski did for a 2017 installation investigating the queerness of the Ukrainian national hero Taras Shevchenko, which I profiled in a 2021 article for Artslooker. The patch displays revealed the complex division of Ukraine’s military and made clear the significant task of synchronizing them for a common campaign, a task that has taken time and resulted in unintended externalities, particularly as it relates to the evolving status and role of battalions formed by volunteers and non-state agents at the outset of fighting in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution. For this, the displays posed the question of combination, prompting contemplation of how companies, units, and legions, battalions, corps, and brigades gather and align.
The joint forces of sacrifice and combination are pronounced in Nikita Kadan’s “He Cut off his Wing and Made a Flag of It [The Angel of Revolution]” (2017), a soaring charcoal drawing. The life-size work, measuring in at 197 x 150 cm, depicts the titular angel flying towards its left, in a westward direction. The holy figure carries a flag in the shape of its own wing. One of his hands is open and outstretched, leading the way, while the other lightly clenches the flagpole. The figure is positioned slightly right of center, leaving it more room to fly, emphasizing that he is navigating an expanse rather than rushing towards an ending. The angel’s grey robes are not flowing in the swirling air; instead, they trail behind him at different angles in shapes that recall those in the visionary works of the Ukrainian constructivists, including the painter and designer Vasyl Yermilov, whose artistic legacy Kadan has drawn on in varying ways during his career.
With regards to sacrifice, Kadan’s charcoal drawing depicts the voluntary loss of a vital limb, showing the wing’s transferal from lifting the Angel of Revolution to supporting an unspecified social movement. While this loss might seem to run contrary to the idea of possession, Kadan’s angel is sworn to, or possessed by, a cause for which his own loss becomes a kind of collective acquisition. Who the holy figure stands with and for is not clear; in the artist’s image, he flies by his own flag. With the work, Kadan recalls and reframes how flags are treated as quasi-sacred objects, not meant to touch the earth and ritualistically raised and lowered. The angel’s choice to cut off his wing also gestures towards how, when a big change is in the air, long-term consequences are not always taken into account. If the revolution is won, if all the revolutions are won, divine intervention will be needed to turn his wing turned flag into a wing once more.
With regards to combination, the strength of Kadan’s composition is rooted in his interweaving of contemporary and historical threads, tying Ukrainian constructivism – an artistic movement whose practioners suffered under Stalinism, a regime that also suppressed religious activity – to revolution, those ruptures in how rule is made and maintained, which Ukraine, and numerous other former Soviet republics, have experienced repeatedly since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Of course, it is feasible to get carried away, literally and metaphorically, when faith is combined with the fight, or flight, for freedom. “He Cut off his Wing and Made a Flag of It [The Angel of Revolution]” also reminds us that revolutionaries often have more rudimentary tools at their disposal than their opponents, requiring them to pull and patch together spare parts and to call on higher powers.
The medium of and presentation method for Kadan’s drawing heighten the work’s impression. Charcoal is a notoriously unstable medium, prone to flake or smear if it is not ‘fixed.’ Though a separate product, charcoal resembles coal, the natural material that, more than any other, has been instrumental in the development of Ukraine’s industrial power and forms the core of the long history of foreign involvement in the country’s affairs and extraction economy. The sedimentary rock is used to generate power and its combustion emits gaseous by-products, polluting the climate.
Unframed, Kadan’s charcoal drawing is fixed directly to the wall, a delicate process that, done incorrectly, could result in the drawing becoming creased or warped. The Angel of Revolution is vulnerable; his image requires careful handling to preserve the same physical condition. His flight relies on the right atmospheric conditions at a time when, for the climate, more and more is going wrong.
The face and torso of the holy figure are obscured by an ovular black spot. Kadan neither details the Angel of Revolution’s expressions nor traces his midriff—those potential signals of his emotional and physical well-being are shrouded, inaccessible to the naked eye. This black spot has startling depth. Elsewhere in the drawing, Kadan uses charcoal with a soft touch; the image is predominantly gray, with dark shades reserved for accents. The black spot is an exception—an aggressive erasure at the heart of the image. As a void, the spot beckons comparison with the devastation of fire and celestial phenomena. Like the spot, fire brings absence and disfiguration. The black spot is also a black hole—a space of no escape, a region of deformed expectations and disappearance, and a subject of intense scholarly curiosity. (The black spot has become a recurring motif in Kadan’s work. It figures heavily in Revisionist Syndrome, a 2021 research project, which the artist made together with the writer Yuri Andrukhovych. In the curatorial explication for the large body of work created for this project, the ovular marks were alternately referred to as ‘tonal spots’ and ‘black suns,’ with reference to Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist compositions with a black circle.)
The black spot in “He Cut off his Wing and Made a Flag of It [The Angel of Revolution]” and those in the drawings by N. bring to mind several works by Mykola Ridnyi, an artist who hails from Kharkiv and is now based in Kyiv, including “Blind Spot” (2014) and, especially, “More Flags” (2015). The latter is a series of sculptures first presented in The School of Kyiv, the 2015 edition of the Kyiv Biennial curated by Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer and conceived and organized together with the Visual Culture Research Center. Per the exhibition text, the series “refers to the various shapes of government buildings, marketplaces, residential houses, or transport facilities” that share “one common detail—a flag.” Ridnyi has covered each of the sculptures in black paint, removing “any linkage to the original context of the architectural work.” The work responds to the changing perception of national symbols in post-Maidan Ukraine, when flags (primarily the official blue and yellow flag but also the black and red one of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a mythologized 20th-century paramilitary group) became fixtures of the public realm.
Ridnyi’s series of sculptures are clearly handmade; neither are they made by machine nor are they standardized scale models. Their inconsistent scaling means no sculpture dominates the rest; their uniform black surfaces level the differences between them. Even though each piece of infrastructure serves a separate function (i.e. the seat of government, streetlights, kiosks), their exteriors make the same visual impression. The flags that fly from each piece of infrastructure shroud their original purpose: “the architectural base, its history, cultural meaning and social functions become less significant than the manifestation of national colors on its surface.” The flag, an emblem, has turned each structure into an ember, an only somewhat distinguishable remnant.
Kadan’s “He Cut off his Wing and Made a Flag of It [The Angel of Revolution]” and Ridnyi’s “More Flags” question the convictions of true believers, conceiving some of the collateral effects of the (p)raising of symbols. A flag, made of a holy limb in Kadan’s drawing, can shed light, articulating solidarity. Alas, flags are also used to separate and conceal, to divert attention from intractable issues and inequities.
One can make a corollary between flags and public artwork, as revealed by the work of Yevgen Nikiforov, a Kyiv-based photographer who traverses Ukraine to document Soviet era mosaics. This is notably the case with the monumental art that adorns nuclear power plants and research institutes. Both the Ukrainian flag and atomic frontispieces in the country visualize narratives that have come under massive attack.
The Ukrainian flag depicts a blue sky over golden grain fields. In 2022, these fields are burning and the sky is laced with rocket trails. The atomic frontispieces depict the promise of the ‘peaceful atom,’ Soviet slang for the uranium used in nuclear reactors. The Chernobyl disaster revealed that this promise was nothing more than just that—a promise. During the Russian war on Ukraine, the promise of the peaceful atom has eroded, with nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl, falling under military occupation, and, horrifically, becoming arenas for kinetic confrontation. (As a Reuters investigation uncovered, key people responsible for protecting Chernobyl are suspected of having committed treason at the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, further sullying the not-so-peaceful atom’s social implications.)
Perhaps the most astounding atomic frontispiece documented by Nikiforov is that which hangs over the entrance of the Yuzhnoukrainska Nuclear Power Plant. This Soviet era mosaic shows yellow and orange rays bursting from a white nucleus against a light blue background. A flock of white doves—those universal peace icons—radiate across the three-dimensional surface. The artwork glows, exclaiming that man has made his own sun by producing this energy source at an industrial scale. The peaceful atom provides warmth. The Yuzhnoukrainska mosaic encourages workers to take pride in their participation in a world-altering industry, to be awestruck by the power of what they control. In a sense, the mosaic’s white nucleus is the same as the black spot on the Angel of Revolution—a locus of the unfathomable.
As discussed in On Location: Fomenting Relations, artworks that date to the Soviet era occupy an unsteady position in contemporary Ukraine. And yet the Yuzhnoukrainska mosaic remains in excellent condition. Thus far, it has not been subject to decommunization since it does not contain any of the more contentious Soviet slogans or symbols. Time will tell if the work will be permitted to remain, or whether it will be phased out. If the lifespan (and half-lifespan) of radioactive atoms is any indication, this atomic frontispiece is still in its dawn.
At times, decommunization campaigns can appear arbitrary and achieve seemingly paradoxical results. In the years following the ratification of the decommunization laws, which were signed into law in 2015, there has been a renewed (financial) interest in artworks from Socialist times, including those with nuclear themes. A selection of such works were included in Sketches of the Monumental, a 2020 exhibition at The Naked Room gallery in Kyiv that presented drafts for state-sponsored public art authored by Soviet Ukrainian artists, including Alla Horska, Valeriy Lamakh, Ivan Lytovchenko, and Viktor Zaretsky. The works ranged in price from 200 to 4,000 Euros. During the show, many of the works were sold, including several of the more expensive ones, signaling the fast-maturing art market in Ukraine, which has developed at a high pace in recent years in large part due to The Naked Room’s ambitious, accessible program.
Sketches of the Monumental included three sketches for mosaic panels in Pripyat, the city that was purpose-built to house the employees of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families. Pripyat was evacuated in the wake of the disaster and remains in the exclusion zone. Authored by Lytovchenko, the sketches are respectively titled “Before a Light” (1976), “Sunrise” (1979), and “Creation” (1982). Whereas the Yuzhnoukrainska mosaic portrays the peaceful atom on its own, Lytovchenko’s panoramic sketches illustrate the hard, heroic labor associated with the atom’s handling and its radical effect on humanity. “Before a Light” depicts the dark suffering that preceded the ‘light’—an obvious reference to the peaceful atom and an indirect adulation of the supposed social benefit of Soviet engineering. “Sunrise,” more abstract, shows a red star surrounded by instruments, arms, and a thick slab of people, heralding the start of something hot, loud, and red, beating and bold. “Creation” has at its core a woman—a mother figure—with outstretched arms. To her left, a team of suited workers load what look like the graphite-tipped control rods used in Soviet nuclear reactors; the accidental dislocation of these rods contributed to the disaster. To the woman’s right, an engineer holds a nuclear power plant, striking a pose in the company of luminous peers.
Lytovchenko’s designs demonstrated the immense difficulty of man mastering the peaceful atom, but that such mastery bettered the Soviet collective body. To be sure, this vision was rosy. In spite of (and maybe because of) this, some thirty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, and some thirty years since Ukraine’s declaration of independence, there is a renewed interest in Lytovchenko and other artists of his era, and a commercial appetite for their works. I wonder: who collects preparatory drawings for Pripyat public art? And what does it say that these works are available for acquisition? In the span of a generation, the drafts of something meant to cover public schools, train stations, bus terminals, hospitals, and Palaces of Culture, are now bought, and brought home, by private individuals. Sketches of the Monumental, an eye-opening show, was stirring because it made you ask why it came to be in the first place. How could a society have changed so much that these sketches became works that could command such prices—and at what cost(s)?
The urge to possess can be a perilous one, since the anticipated rewards from owning something can obfuscate the risks of assuming responsibility for its sustained existence. Each in its own way, the objects and works featured in this text incite reflection on the attraction to acquire—an allegiance, a flag from a limb, an inscrutable energy source, or an unrepenting piece of the past persisting in the present. They varyingly mask, mobilize, and market ulterior motives, like the struggle for glory and managerial agendas for maximizing worker productivity. In so doing, they are kindlers, empowered to initiate and transform, and forcing their would-be owners to square their tremendous capacity with the chance they might lose control at the most critical moment.
The author thanks Muzeum Susch for the time and space to compose this essay.