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. Taking the Ukrainian media environment as its starting point, this third part asks which narratives and which explanations do justice to the complexity and multi-layered nature of Ukrainian reality. It traces how some of the social conflicts taking place in the country have been reflected artistically, making uncomfortable events and attitudes visible—albeit only partially.
Who says what goes? Which sources are cited when an action plan is crafted or an accepted narrative of events is established? Where does a sentence (in both verse and litigation) start? Where does it end? These questions are relevant to societies large and small, densely-populated and scattered over vast areas. For Ukraine, a rich place to seek a response is Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko’s voluminuous body of work. Including essays, books, lectures, university seminars, and the online media outlet Ukraine World, Yermolenko’s intellectual project surveys the traits and tendencies of Ukrainian society across time and space. One of his central theses, discussed at length in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, argues that authority is and has been disaggregated in Ukraine for centuries, and that this custom is at the core of why it has been able to withstand repeated totalitarian incursions.
In his discussion with Klein, Yermolenko spoke about the centuries-old Ukrainian liberal ideal of the state as a “community of communities,” which Klein acknowledged “can create difficulties for politics, for structures, but also creates certain kinds of organization that make a place like Ukraine very difficult to be conquered.” In framing his conviction that “Ukrainian society is first focused on the values of freedom,” Yermolenko hearkens back to the 17th century, noting that the Cossacks—Ukrainian warriors—entered into contractual relations with their leader, thereon distinguishing the “relations of a contract,” which could theoretically be broken in the case of wrongdoing or an inclination to change course, from the “relations between slave and master.”
Yermolenko also details a modern resurgence in this disaggregation drive, articulating how, before February 24th, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine, the Ukrainian state was undergoing “self-governance reform, where communities, cities, towns, villages got more and more powers” and commending the “incredible […] harmony between the local patriotism, the city patriotism […], and national patriotism” during the war’s first months. This harmony is incredible compared with the discord during the initial flaring of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in the wake of the Maidan Revolution. Back then, regional public officials and business leaders had to decide whether to be loyal to the fledgling government in Kyiv, whose officials were then still settling into their new positions after replacing that of Viktor Yanukovych—the disgraced former president and hitherto head of the eastern Ukrainian political bosses, to switch their loyalty and support the Moscow-backed separatists, or to stall long enough so that someone would make the decision for them. The frontline changed in the Donbas region in correspondence with the choices made by regional power players, many of whom formed and funded their own militias, motivated both by patriotism and a desire to protect their own assets.
The Ukrainian media environment—layered with voices representing a wide range of opinions competing for attention—sustains the convictions of Yermolenko’s intellectual project. While the country’s television networks, which have been beholden to oligarchic interests, continue to hold sway, online media have, time and time again, ‘lit the fuse’ for social transformation. A sampling of prominent online media signals their editorial intent. (As this essay is being published, the Ukrainian TV market is exhibiting early signs of ‘deoligarchization’. On the 11th of July, Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man, authored a press release announcing that his investment company, Systems Capital Management (SCM), will relinquish its media holdings to the Ukrainian state, to comply with a recently ratified law that aims to curb the influence of the ultra-wealthy.)
Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) was founded to expose corruption, hold the powerful to account, and ensure free and fair access to information and opportunity. Launched in 2000, the title of this leading online newspaper remarks on that of the most widely circulated broadsheet in the USSR—Pravda, a party mouthpiece. With their reporting, Ukrayinska Pravda acts to uncover (or recover) the truth that the original “Truth”, the propagandistic Pravda, papered over. Intriguingly, truth is singular; the online newspaper is not named Ukrainian Truths. Horrifically, the imprint’s pursuit of the truth has had fatal consequences. In 2000, Georgiy Gongadze, the co-founder and first editor of Ukrayinska Pravda, was kidnapped and decapitated. Then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, was implicated in the journalist’s disappearance in an audio recording, in which he is heard voicing dissatisfaction with Gongadze’s actions. Gongadze’s murder and Kuchma’s implication in it was one in a series of scandals that led to the Orange Revolution—the 2004 uprising that I refer to in the first essay of the Kindling series.
Despite being less than twenty-five years old, Ukrayinska Pravda is, by Ukrainian standards, a legacy outlet. Withstanding elite interference, the online newspaper has consistently published incisive content. Former staff have gone on to become important public officials; former editor-in-chief Serhiy Leshchenko, who is married to Nastia, one of the most famous Ukrainian DJs, now serves as an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff following a stint as an MP. In the 2010s, the winds shifted in Ukrainian media, as emblematized by the 2013 launch of Hromadske (Public), an online broadcasting outlet funded by Western embassies and foundations as well as private donors. As its title suggests, Hromadske purports to platform many perspectives. Indeed, if Ukrayinska Pravda indicates its intent to broach what is right, Hromadske signals an allegiance to multiple perspectives and voices, inviting the viewer to consider their view as one of many.
In A Blanket of Snow, the second instalment of her essay for V/A, Kateryna Botanova addresses The Shadow of Dream Cast Upon Giardini della Biennale, Open Group’s entry for the Ukrainian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. One underrecognized aspect of this pavilion project was the forty-five minute broadcast that Hromadske, a media partner for the pavilion, made from the Giardini. The broadcast was hosted by Clemens Poole, an American artist, curator, and director who frequently cooperates with Open Group and has lived and worked in Ukraine off and on since 2014. Streaming live, Poole wanders around the Giardini, waxes poetic about Venetian flora and fauna and interviews stakeholders of and strangers to the Ukrainian pavilion, some of whom are seen taking iPhone pictures of the sky where Antonov’s Mriya (Dream) is not about to fly. The broadcast, full of endearing and/or absurd bits, is a triumph, spinning fact and fiction with a feeling of fun amongst friends while promoting a pavilion project that became airborne in many more ways than none.
Ukrayinska Pravda and Hromadske do not cater specifically to the arts, though they often cover cultural goings-on. The cultural press in Ukraine is chronically underfunded; as a result, outlets regularly spring up and wither away. In recent years, Your Art, formerly Support Your Art, has been the most influential arts imprint in Ukraine, publishing interviews with and profiles of emerging and established artists as well as exhibition reviews and special projects. While its original name might not have suggested it, Your Art consistently offers critical takes. And whereas Hromadske—titled in Ukrainian—says the news is about us, Your Art—titled in English, but publishing in Russian and Ukrainian—says art is about you, and, as such, is an exercise in asserting one’s autonomy from textbook indoctrination or the attraction of popular conception.
This scatterplot account of the Ukrainian media environment introduces a few of its modalities. The press has multiple poles, each with its own pull—sources of ‘truth’ (Ukrayinska Pravda), portals for shared expression (Hromadske), and incubators of personal taste (Your Art), to mention a few. In this regard, the complexion of the Ukrainian media environment contrasts with that in neighboring countries as the media in Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Hungary is closely controlled by the state, albeit with notable exceptions.
The disaggregation of authority and multimodal media environment in Ukraine, a “community of communities,” troubles even the most well-intentioned efforts to ‘get to the bottom’ of what goes on, or has gone on, in the country—from community to community and era to era. As a result, and depending upon whether they are intact or destroyed, or have been redacted or expunged, the records of the defining events that have taken place in different periods and parts of the country are frequently disputed. Many Ukrainian artists have assumed responsibility for making sense of the noise, or the lack thereof, including Nikita Kadan, whose episodic curatorial program for the Kmytiv museum I introduced in On Location: Fomenting Relations.
In a 2020 dialogue with psychoanalyst and art historian Garry Krayevets published in Your Art, Kadan surmised a mutually enforcing relationship between fire and silence in Ukraine. Kadan’s remarks were made during a tour of a solo exhibition of his work at NOCH, an apartment gallery in Odesa founded and run by Alexandra Kadzevich, an artist known for her ethereal street- and beach-scapes on bits of wood, and Krayevets, her partner. The exhibition, titled Black Books, featured a mixture of works on paper, sculptures, and primary materials that were related to or evidence of the effects of fires, both deliberate and accidental.
In Kadan’s own words, his exhibition remarked on “the state of life in a burning house, which is characteristic of contemporary Ukraine,” ruminating on the frequency of torchlit processions, the consequences of the repeated arson attacks on Roma settlements by ultranationalist factions, and the fires that raged in the House of Trade Unions in both Kyiv and Odesa in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution. Referring to the response to these events in his conversation with Krayevets, the artist remarked that:
“At some point, the inhabitants of a certain place on the map decided that they were unable to describe the complexity of what was happening to them, especially since they spoke too many different languages. And so, they made a pact of silence. In turn, silence began to develop and improve, acquiring an inner complexity. Discussions of silence began—a journalism of silence, a poetry of silence, and hymns of silence arose. But the fire continued to burn.”
Kadan’s comment was made some six years after Maidan, a time when dust had begun to settle, but clarity remained hard to come by, as the conflict in the Donbas region continued grinding on with a sense of indefiniteness and the circumstances of mass casualty events, like that of the House of Trade Unions fire in Odesa, were not conclusively determined—or prosecuted.
The House of Trade Unions fire, which happened on 2 May 2014, left forty-two anti-Maidan protesters dead from suffocation and defenestration. The protesters, alternately described as ‘pro-federalist’ in a 2021 report issued by the Head of the United Nations’ Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, were against the further integration of the country with the West and instead favored preferential relations with Russia. The anti-Maidan protesters lost their lives after barricading themselves in the Stalinist building amidst clashes with pro-Maidan, or ‘pro-unity,’ protesters. To date, only one person has been criminally charged for their actions on 2 May—a pro-Maidan protestor accused of firing a lethal shot at an anti-Maidan protester elsewhere in Odesa, and that case is still making its way through the court. No one has been held responsible for the burning of the House of Trade Unions—neither those who started the fire nor the emergency services whose response to it was woefully slow. According to the UN report, “trials fail to progress mainly due to a lack of political will” accentuated by “the lack of security for judges.”
As the fire has continued to burn and the discussions of silence have begun, Kadan conjectures that the “burnt-out zones turn out to be some kind of impeccable evidence,” conveying that “here [in Black Books] you have coal and ash in front of you—they speak for themselves.” The exhibition, which Krayevets says was pervaded by the scent of smoke, took its title from that of a sculpture presented therein—a charred wooden shelf whose unburnt parts depict the outlines of books. It is a readymade, found at the site of a fire. With the work, Kadan taps into a lineage of sin’s repression: the records have been charred, but their contours remain.
Years later, Odesa’s House of Trade Unions smolders on, in an affecting video work by Nikolay Karabinovych, an interdisciplinary artist born and raised in the city and now based in Ghent. In the work, “Something Happened This Spring,” a slow-moving, stabilizer-mounted camera roams an Odesa side street at sundown and then cuts to the House of Trade Unions. The building appears as a shell of its pre-fire self on an overcast day, with blown-out windows, soot-stained walls, and a wisp of smoke slithering out into the sky from one of its upper rooms. Set to a tense, droning dirge, the nine-minute-and-twenty-second film then proceeds through a stairwell piled with wood scraps before entering the building’s theatre, where smoke begins to rise from the empty seating section. In the film’s last minutes, the camera plods into the thick smoke, and then emerges in the rear of the disturbed hall for drama.
Karabinovych speaks about the “open problem of description and memory” of tragic events like those which took place in Odesa on 2 May 2014, positing that this has “led, on the one hand, to the use of the insult of the victims in Russia propaganda, and, on the other hand, “to the formation of a specific local culture of non-remembrance, a kind of “monument of silence” at the scene of the fire.” The artist’s comments were published in the exhibition text for the two-person exhibition in Kyiv in fall 2021 where “Something Happened This Spring” was presented for the first time. The show, titled Violence: All Against You,situated Karabinovych’s work in dialogue with that of the Belarusian artist Sergey Shabohin, whose practice I introduced in the second part of the Kindling series. It took place at Dzherelo, an artist-run space in a former water pumping station in the courtyard of a famed modernist development in central Kyiv.
Viewed as a meditation on the “monument of silence” at the scene of the House of Trade Unions fire, the smoke in Karabinovych’s film appears as the remnants of a site-wide funeral pyre, the flammable heap of distended memory. Rewatched in the wake of the advent of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, the film seems to contain a coded message. “Something Happened This Spring” has smoke signals, an old form of long-distance communication that is associated with Native American Indians, but also used by the Cossacks, who, for centuries, fought against imperialism; smoke both reminds and forewarns.
Kadan’s Black Books at NOCH Gallery and Karabinovych’s “Something Happened This Spring” at Dzherelo, which was co-founded by Kadan, were devoted to the same subjects while traveling opposite directions. Kadan, born, raised, and based in Kyiv, presented his body of work on fire, which he has called “the light of contemporary Ukraine,” in Odesa, a city acutely afflicted by the element. Karabinovych, a native of Odesa, premiered his observance in Kyiv. In a state where authority is disaggregated, their reverse paths portend the importance of artists in motion, spanning communities and sources, giving dimension to disquieting topics, and composing atmospheres where uneasy notices can be aired.
Herein lies an opportunity to emphasise how the audience’s frame of reference effects how a work of art registers. To the audience at NOCH Gallery and Dzherelo, both artist-run spaces with an in-person viewership that is predominantly Ukrainian, the Odesa House of Trade Unions fire is familiar—the paragraph-long introduction to its details that I offer in this essay would not be necessary for such an audience. Moreover, audiences at both venues would likely be repeat viewers of Kadan and Karabinovych’s works, and thus at least dimly aware of their modus operandi. In discussing Black Books and “Something Happened This Spring” for V/A, whose readership, it is safe to say, does not have much crossover with the audience who saw these works in Odesa and Kyiv in 2020 and 2021, I have assumed the mantle of explaining the tragic events that gave rise to them and have, so far, resisted objective summary and criminal sentencing—a delinquent resistance that results in the artists’ subjective works assuming heightened significance.
Per Yermolenko, the long-held liberal ideal for the conceptual structuring of the Ukrainian state is that of the “community of communities,” whose next tier is “a community of community of communities—[…] an international organization or a federation of states, et cetera.” Considering this “community of community of communities,” I recall that custom is central to a community’s contiguity—the expectations for or familiarities with what a community stands for, and how what it will and won’t tolerate rubs up against what a neighboring community will and won’t tolerate. I am inclined to then ask: how does the “community of communities” look to the “community of community of communities”? Alternately put, how does the Ukrainian state appear to the ‘international community’? Who conjures that appearance? And who accounts for the accuracy of that appearance? In her participatory installation “Images from Abroad”(2020-2021), Ukrainian artist Lada Nakonechna concerns herself with such queries.
Nakonechna, a co-founder of R.E.P. Group, is an advocate for critical reflection on cultural heritage and an interrogator of political umbrage. She has been one of the most active Ukrainian artists in the international arena, having had regularly presented her work in exhibitions in public and private museums and galleries around the world for more than a decade. In her practice, she addresses topics including perspective, orientation, and institutional authority, as well as systems of official, alternative, and parallel education. I had the privilege of exhibiting a version of “Images from Abroad” in Dedication: Traces and Tactics, a group exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art that I co-curated at Kristianstads konsthall, the municipal gallery in the southern Swedish city where the Ukrainian Cossack hetman Pylyp Orlyk was in exile at the behest of the Swedish king in the early 18th century. The exhibition, jointly organized by the konsthall and Milvus Artistic Research Center, where I was then serving as artistic coordinator, ran from October 2021 through January 2022.
“Images from Abroad” was fist presented at Galerie EIGEN + ART Berlin, Nakonechna’s primary gallery, in early 2020. The participatory installation includes a series of framed works—graphite and transfer prints of various dimensions—as well as a corresponding framing guide, titled “Holder,” which is based on the dimensions of the works and is drawn directly with pencil on the gallery wall. The works in “Images from Abroad” chart the related administrative and militarized (dis)figuration of the Ukrainian landscape—how it has been divided and subdivided, fragmented and fused as a result of human interference, often in a combative manner. There are subgroups of drawings of individual regions, prints compressing pictures of soldiers with the scorched earth, and cropped images of statues taken from short angles, reduced to lumpy (lumpen?) masses. As the title suggests, Nakonechna created the works with the expectation that they were to be exhibited outside of her home country, and thus that they would stand as pictures of a place not thoroughly known by the viewer, resulting in her having the soft power—simultaneously a responsibility, burden, and opportunity—to shape her audience’s understanding.
As Bettina Klein writes in her text for the Berlin presentation, “Images from Abroad” grapples with “our relative distance from pictures from unknown contexts and the attempt to approach them through analytic questioning.” In Dedication: Traces and Tactics, the largest work that featured in Nakonechna’s participatory installation was “13/24” (2019), a 70x100cm hatched pencil drawing showing thirteen of Ukraine’s twenty-four oblasts—the Ukrainian version of the Swiss canton, the Swedish region, or the US state. In the work, the thirteen oblasts are rendered closely together, with a sliver of blank space left between them. The artist does not define each oblast’s limit, which, in reality, might be a river, ridge, or some arbitrarily line. Whether her decision not to clarify the governance of each oblast or what constitutes its border is a gesture of liberation or condemnation is open for interpretation.
Nakonechna invites vistors to adapt “Images from Abroad.” For the installation, the framed works are propped on a slip mat adjacent to “Holder,” drawn on the wall. The visitor is invited to pick up these works and hang them in the slots in a hatched framing guide. In manipulating how the works are montaged, viewpoints shift. Handling Nakonechna’s works, exhibition-goers customize the status and situation of the works’ themes and narratives. In practice, not all visitors change the presentation; instead, they prefer to take stock of how previous visitors left the presentation. Other visitors change the presentation several times over. Except for “13/24,” the fourteen works in “Images from Abroad” can be comfortably lifted by one person. “13/24” is so large that two sets of hands are needed to hang the work on the nails protruding from “Holder.” Installing this large, incomplete map of a big, partly occupied state requires an act of cooperation; partnership is necessary to get a grasp of the bigger picture.
In closing this essay on the disaggregation of authority and accountability, and of titular agendas and the (un)making of ‘accurate’ records in the Ukrainian political, media, legal, and artistic environments, it is worth dwelling on Nakonechna’s “13/24” as an irreducible fraction. Try as you might, it cannot be made smaller, like “12/24” could be taken down to “1/2.” The most sizable work in the artist’s “Images from Abroad”—the most comprehensive image of Ukraine in her participatory installation—is the most difficult to reduce.
When numbers are unsatisfactorily irreducible, as they are in “13/24” and also, it could be argued, in the registry of fatalitities from Odesa’s House of Trade Union fire on 2 May 2014, or the amount of damage suffered by Ukraine in the first five months of full-scale war, one is inclined to seek meaning, however partial it may be, elsewhere—to discern signals in the smoke and intents in the outlines and in-betweens.