Alex Fisher concludes his six-part essay series “Kindling”, in which he highlighted positions and perspectives from Ukrainian contemporary art for V/A over the past few months. Starting with encounters, observations, and printed matter at the book market in Lviv, this final article follows the work of the artists Dana Kavelina and Yaroslav Futymskyi, who both have ties to the city. Their bodies of work not only raise the question of the cultural afterlife of the conflicts and wounds of the past – and to which reiteration these events are further subjected to –, it also poses the question of where the journey may go and what lies ahead, while the war in Ukraine goes on.
Ukraine has no shortage of outstanding flea markets, secondhand stores, and bazaars. These commercial enterprises, which often double as indispensable community gathering points, are frequented by artists, who regularly incorporate primary materials sourced there in their works.
Some of these enterprises are specialized, like the daily book market in Lviv, a place where one can find rare printed matter and where I have purchased many of my most prized postcards. It was here that I got a card that I gifted to the artist Nikita Kadan, who went on to use it in his installation featured in PinchukArtCentre’s exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale. The 1970s card reproduces a Soviet linocut about the victory over fascism in the Second World War.
Other enterprises are more generalized, like the radically inclusive, sprawling Petrivka, which is over a kilometer long and takes place on weekends in Kyiv. Petrivka is a wellspring of stuff; it has what you are looking for, and what you never knew you needed. Picking up a thread from Patches, Possession, and the Peaceful Atom, I once saw two young soldiers in uniform selling toy soldiers at the market. I bought hatchet sheaths and knife covers embroidered with Zelensky slogans and Benetton tags. One time I ran into the artist Nikolay Karabinovych, whose work I wrote about in Smoke Signals, acquiring items for an installation at the market’s outer edge, where the worst and best stuff can be found. Partaking in Petrivka is, for some, a lifestyle; in fall 2020, I asked the multidisciplinary artist and architect Dana Kosmina if she still had any of the Petrivka sweatshirts she had designed in 2018 for Modernist Uniform, a fashion line she ran with Hanna Tsyba, only to learn that, unsurprisingly, they had long since sold out.
Perhaps the crème de la crème of such enterprises is the Kosiv Bazar, located in a small city in the Carpathian mountains. The bazaar takes place on Saturday mornings, starting at the crack of dawn. It is a big part of the city’s, and the region’s, cultural heritage, as it dates back over a century. It constitutes its own, beautifully chaotic world. Here you can find cheese and adjika (a spicy Georgian spread), headstones and hand-tinted photographs. Like Petrivka, the front portion is relatively controlled, with sellers set up in neat rows. Further to the rear, everything is looser, with sellers strung out across a large field. It is in the back part of the bazaar that the most profound juxtapositions of wares can be found, like carved wooden crosses sold next to shirts for Icelandic fun-runs and plates with stenciled flowers produced in North Korea.
The Kosiv Bazar, like Petrivka, is as much a place to be as it is a place to buy. The artist Dana Kavelina relates an amusing, telling anecdote of how she wanted to purchase something from a seller set up in the rear of the bazaar only to learn that this seller, ‘Lyuda’ (short for Lyudmila), had left her stand unattended to go hang out with her friends in another section of the bazaar. What followed was a chain of older ladies consecutively shouting ‘Lyuda’ until Lyuda realized a sale was pending and dutifully returned, cutting Kavelina a deal.
For folks like me, a trip, or pilgrimage, to the bazaar is about indulging in the thrill of the hunt, seeking serendipitous finds, riotous visual stimulation, and items whose respective paths to this patch of earth in the high mountains stupefy and astound. These trips, these pilgrimages, are also opportunities to gather: to pick, pluck, and pull together materials that can then be repurposed, given new meaning.
Herein lies an opportunity to critically reflect on kindling’s relevance today. In 2022, it would seem to be rare that humankind must make its own fire, like it had to centuries ago as a means for survival. Kindling a fire is something to do when trekking in the wilderness, when camping in the Carpathians. Alas, conflict has a cruel capacity to turn back the clock. As a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, whole cities are without power; their residents have been forced to kindle fires to keep warm and cook their meals. A recent New York Times feature detailed how municipalities across the country, even those far from the frontline, are girding themselves for winter by stockpiling timber. Amidst war, kindling is so much more than a metaphor to use when traversing topics in Ukrainian contemporary art.
Not ignoring the all-too-real importance of kindling in Ukraine during the ongoing war, I want to suggest that shoppers at the Kosiv Bazar, Petrivka, and the Lviv Book Market, especially artists procuring parts for adaptive reuse in their works, can be understood to accumulate kindling, materials for making fire. The act of kindling relies on friction: rubbing things with different textures together to produce a spark, not unlike what occurs when packing a ceramic bowl in newspaper, tucking a hand-tinted photograph in a plastic sleeve, and stowing them in the same tote with adjika, cheese, and homemade spirits. Kavelina, who often uses pre-owned items in her films and installations, is a devotee of such kindling. The first time I spent proper time with her was at the Kosiv Bazar, where she purchased so much that she had to carry it all home using a sling bag traditionally made for horses—a burden she was willing to bear.
Kavelina was born and raised in Melitopol, a trading city with a multicultural history located upstream from the Sea of Azov in southeastern Ukraine. In the 20th century, Melitopol became a hub for the Red Army; Kavelina was raised in a district built for the families of those stationed at the local base. A graduate in graphics at the National Technical University of Ukraine, she works with the legacies of conquest and the (un)making of memory, particularly as it relates to the unraveling of Yugoslavia as well as centuries of struggle in Central and Eastern Europe. Using methods including stop-motion animation, collage, and, more recently, performance, her body of work addresses the military industrial complex, gendered experiences of conflict, the politics of faith practices, and the de- and restructuring of historical narratives, especially those that public organs (i.e., information ministries, the state-owned press) have attempted to control.
For Kavelina, history loops, with new connections forming continuously in response to shifting social conditions. I recall walking with her from Kyiv’s Victory Square to the Statue of Mykola Shchors, a prominent Ukrainian communist and Red Army commander, who fought against the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1920). Shchors was rising through the ranks fast before being killed in battle at the age of twenty-four. The Shchors monument in Kyiv shows the military man on horseback. It was defaced after the Maidan Revolution and then entombed in scaffolds wrapped in the Ukrainian flag; eight years later, it still stands, albeit obscured from view. As Kavelina and I rested on a bench near the statue one October evening, she pointed out that, once again, Shchors is in combat. In 2009, the street that intersects with his statue was renamed for Symon Petliura, an early 20th-century Ukrainian Army commander and President of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Petliura and Shchors were foes; the latter was slain under contested circumstances while fighting against Petliura’s troops. Today, these men, who fought for opposing ideals, meet again—one as a thoroughfare and the other as a defaced and covered monument. (The artist Lada Nakonehcna, featured in Smoke Signals, made a work inspired by the Shchors monument for Dedication – Traces and Tactics, the show I curated at Kristianstads Konsthall in 2021, in which her participatory installation “Images from Abroad” (2020-2021) was presented. The mixed-media piece titled “Commander’s leg” (2021) focuses on the lower leg of Shchors’ horse, which was broken off in the mid-2010s, only to be replaced by a white prosthesis.)
While Shchors’s (red) star has fallen in Ukraine, Petliura has been rehabilitated, esteemed as a champion statesman. Kavelina noted that the built environment embodies these shifts in stature, involving commuters and pedestrians in the transition. When Kyivans walk, run, ride, or drive up Petliura’s street towards Shchors’s statue, they travel with Petliura, pounding his pavement.
Kindling is making a spark with the scraps of contrasting, or conflicting, materials. Kavelina’s realization that a confrontation between two of 20th-century Ukraine’s consequential figures is ensuing in central Kyiv reaches towards what is ‘sparked’ daily in the Ukrainian streetscape—collisions between representatives of competing visions for how Ukrainian society should be structured, and bouts between modes of memorializing. I understand that the strength of these ‘sparks,’ which might manifest in an a-ha moment, is determined by the social standing of what caused them to occur. Petliura, in road form, rises to Shchors after his reputation has been boosted; Shchors, astride a handicapped steed, limps into their meeting.
History sticks around, and history is sticky, trapping those who live now in unresolved clashes and unprocessed indiscretions. This understanding of history has informed Kavelina’s practice, the subjects that capture her attention and her approach to interacting with them. In fall 2020, I wrote a long-format article for Kajet Journal about a one-minute and five-second clip made by Kavelina for “Mother Srebrenica, Mother Donbas,” an unfinished film that has had a protracted gestation period. The clip is from a segment of the artist’s forthcoming film devoted to the Lviv pogroms of summer 1941, the consecutive massacres of thousands of Jewish residents in the Galician city by members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and local residents abetted by the city’s Nazi German occupants. The clip centers on a machine, or contraption, that contorts images of the atrocities themselves and the atmosphere in the city as they were being committed. As I wrote for Kajet, Kavelina’s clip demonstrates “the images’ susceptibility to manipulation and, by proxy, that of the facts and legacy of the Lviv pogroms themselves,” leading me to state that “the pictured past is terrific in its enduring tactility.” To put it differently, documentation that is palpable, like printed photographs, collapses the distance between the viewer, or handler, of that documentation and that which is documented. The images of the pogroms that the artist incorporates in her clip were taken on film that was developed in a darkroom, a room of reactions, a space where scenes are brought to light. Revisiting her clip nearly two years after I first wrote about it—years in which so much has changed, to put it mildly—I realize that describing her source images as ‘developed’ is perilous, as it sounds conclusive, suggesting that something was done, thus downplaying what is still being done; namely, that accounts of the pogroms are subject to change. Perceived as such, the documentation of that atrocity has not only been developed, it is actively developing.
The segment, or chapter, of “Mother Srebrenica, Mother Donbas” about the Lviv pogroms has since been expanded. The artist has filled out the segment with reenactments of the mob violence using puppets and scenography that she herself created. (Her works are extremely labor intensive.) In one scene, blocks of apartments made out of paper board ‘burn’ as residents stand outside, embers falling at their feet. Their burning buildings are splotchy and red; in Kavelina’s clip, charring flames resemble smeared, dried blood. An elderly woman with bags under her eyes remains in her home, standing in the window with a look of somber resignation. While her building seems like it was not affected by the fire that rages nearby, her room flickers red; fire is fire, and fire is there, lighting her from the rear. A moment later, a fest is underway; bright red paint pours from a brass band’s instruments. The musicians, whose tunes bolster the mob, are proverbially ‘playing with fire.’
Kavelina’s expanded segment on the Lviv pogroms also contains a scene in which victims of the discriminatory mass killings come back to life, rising together. The scene is lit with blinking red and blue lights. The effect is that I, the viewer, witness the victims’ revival through a flashing light. Indeed, it is as if there is a police car—a modern cruiser, not one from the 1940s—parked right off camera. Today’s authorities are eyeing the scene; as a result, I can too.
A few words on Kavelina’s puppets: they feature prominently in her works, in different forms. In “The Room of Lyolya Yefremova”(2020), a participatory installation in a Kyiv kommunalka where multiple artists lived and worked, several were strung up in the former quarters of the fictional Yefremova. Puppets, as well as marionettes, are also recurring characters in the artist’s drawings, as in a group of works on paper presented in War in a Museum at the Kmytiv Museum, one of the episodes described in On Location: Fomenting Relations. Some of these are included in Women at War, an exhibition at Fridman Gallery in New York. It is intriguing to see how the artist’s puppets, many fragile, live in alternate mediums: traced on paper, hung in physical space, and made to move in jerks and jostles in stop-motion animations. Her puppets usually stand for the victims and perpetrators of atrocity, for those whose names, roles, actions, and/or experiences lack a certain distinction, for their being one casualty amongst many, or for their holding a lower rank. Hers are people whose lived truths are perhaps the most vulnerable to distortion, whose strings can be pulled so that they appear otherwise. To be sure, Kavelina’s composition and treatment of puppets warrants further review and exposition, pushing for deep contemplation on how those who are party to atrocity are exploited—in the cultural sphere and in mainstream social discourse.
The Lviv pogroms segment of Kavelina’s “Mother Srebrenica, Mother Donbas” also includes a short scene of a crudely drawn man emerging from the belfry of the city’s Bernardine Church. His arms stretch out from the tower as he shouts from its spire. The anonymous everyman’s arms smack of billowing smoke; interpreted as such, the scene has a smoke signal like that in Nikolay Karabinovych’s “Something Happened This Spring” (2021), a film that features in the third essay in the Kindling series. Kavelina’s man reminds the viewer of and intimates immolation.
The Bernardine Church’s tower is a symbol of Lviv, a key part of its architectural heritage. As its bells toll, the city keeps pace. When a shout emanates from the tower, Lviv shouts—calling out and speaking up. This speech act aims at a sky that has not been closed; the open mouth of the man who comes from the house of worship is turned towards the heavens.
Lviv wears its lows and highs without feeling worn out. It is a city circulating through its selves, looping long-term, newly arrived and recently departed residents and visitors into its non-linear evolution. It is a city whose cultural eminence reaches beyond its municipal bounds, by choice and as the result of forced exile. I am writing this essay while in residence at Muzeum Susch—a private institution in the Engadin, a mountainous region in Switzerland, founded by the Polish investor and entrepreneur Grażyna Kulczyk. On the walls of the museum’s bistro are two works of decorative art produced in Lviv in spring 1914, when the city was still part of the Habsburg Empire and went by Lwów. The graphics, depicting flowers, were made months before the start of World War I, during which the city was devastated; over one hundred years later, the flowers are still in bloom. Kulczyk is also a committed collector of Erna Rosenstein, one of the most exceptional of the many luminary artists born in Lviv in the early 1900s. A painter and poet, Rosenstein came from an upper-middle class Jewish family. She witnessed her parents’ brutal murders during the Shoah, narrowly escaping death herself—an event that she recounted in the written word as well as in her paintings, sculptures, and assemblages, for which she frequently used found objects, odds and ends, and natural fibers. A committed Communist, her work was exhibited extensively in the Polish People’s Republic. Of late, Rosenstein’s oeuvre has met widespread praise in the international arena while, by comparison, she has a relatively low profile in Lviv; hopefully a future exhibition will re-introduce her work to her home city. The Estate of Erna Rosenstein is co-represented by Hauser & Wirth and the Foksal Gallery Foundation; the former will mount a survey show of her work at its Zurich flagship venue in September 2022.
An ardent participant in and chronicler of Lviv’s non-linear evolution is Yaroslav Futymskyi, an artist who was previously introduced in On Location: Fomenting Relations. Futymskyi has lived in Lviv off and on for more than fifteen years, regularly using materials that he comes across in its streets in his work, as in “Harvest of Modernity” (2021), an installation conceived for the aforementioned exhibition Dedication – Traces and Tactics.
“Harvest of Modernity” has multiple components: three collages on durable bond paper; forty-five amended envelopes, two slide holders, and a stone arranged in a vitrine; and a rolling crate filled with onions, whose scent, as I put it in my curatorial text, “intensifies the artist’s emotive, layered narrative.” The installation was tailored to where it was shown. Kristianstads Konsthall was once the regional Swedish city’s central post office; post-horns still embellish the columns in the gallery. Futymskyi sourced the paper for the collages near a technical institute in Lviv, from which they appear to have been discarded. He refers to two of the collages as self-portraits: they combine pencil-drawn grids with small prints of film photographs he made of himself and his surroundings. The third, a montage of images, suggests the adaptability of representation, with, amongst others, the surname of Karl Marx appearing in an advertisement on a van; details of Soviet mosaics and classical sculpture; a sequence of photographer and curator Elena Subach putting on a rain hood; and another of the choreographer and dancer Olha Marusyn with a plastic bag on her head.
Like the paper, Futymskyi picked the envelopes up off the street in Lviv. Unused, the envelopes date to the late Soviet era, as indicated by their ornamented insides, which are densely packed with socialist symbols, including sickles. They were tossed in a bundle in summer 2021. For “Harvest of Modernity,” the artist amended the inherited envelopes, tearing some of them open to reveal their ideologically charged interiors and adding prints of his film photographs. (His tearing is analogous to Viktor Pokydanets’ ripping for “Cry” (2020), detailed in Blazing Trails, Striking Matches.) The photographs capture private moments, candid scenes of public life, and his friends—artists, performers, musicians, and poets. The artist duo of Andriy Rachinskiy and Daniil Revkovskiy are seen in their exhibition Premonition of Disaster, realized at Lviv’s Detenpyla Gallery in December 2020. The photographer Vika Dovhadze pulls at her face with her hands in an exaggerated manner while Alexandra Kadzevich, an artist who is mentioned in Smoke Signals for running the art space NOCH, looks at the camera with her arms crossed. Old ladies sell eggs, flowers, and greens at the market; a house has fallen into disrepair; and a beige expanse begins at the side of the road. Futymskyi placed these pictures where stamps bearing likenesses of leaders and landmarks usually go. On two of the envelopes, he pasted one print; on one, he pasted eight. On two of the envelopes, he pasted one print; on one, he pasted eight. On average, each envelope has around two prints.
One of my rituals when I was living in Ukraine was a weekly trip to the post office. I would go on Mondays to mail the cards that I had written the previous week. It was a seemingly straightforward errand, but each clerk would reliably offer a different quote for shipping cards to international destinations. On one occasion, a clerk put six stamps on a single card, covering my salutation and some of my message. I think of this when I see Futymskyi’s envelopes, wondering what the rationale behind the number of prints was and how the amount corresponds to the distance that who/what they depict is to travel. The address line is blank; the cards’ destinations are undetermined, and thus potentially anywhere.
Futymskyi’s envelopes ask: where do we go from here? Less than six months after the artist amended these envelopes with his film photographs, many of those pictured have relocated to different places in Ukraine and across the European continent because of Russia’s war on their country. Assembled, the envelopes mark a cross-section of Ukrainian cultural excellence, soon to travel measureless distances. The artist gives them all priority: each envelope, artist, performer, musician, and poet has its/her/his own stamp.
In closing this essay series, I want to settle on how Futymskyi’s envelopes for the installation “Harvest of Modernity” emphasize an essential lesson: kindling is social. Kindling is not done in isolation; rather, it relies on interaction. To be sure, heated interaction can have devastating consequences, as Kavelina’s stop-motion meditations on the Lviv pogroms demonstrate. Kindling has sought not to ignore those consequences while taking Futymskyi’s lesson to heart, gathering an array of works, exhibitions, anecdotes, and excursions, studying their ties, their tensions, what they conceal, and what—placed alongside and in contrast to each other—they spark or shed light on.
The author thanks Muzeum Susch for the time and space to compose this essay.