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What Fire Brings

Kindling: On Contemporary Art in Ukraine
Essay
Contemporary Art
Fire
Khreshchatyk
Kindling
Kyiv
Naked Room
Postcard
Ruptures
Ukraine
Viktor Marushchenko

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? We put these questions to writer and curator Alex Fisher, who is currently completing his Masters in Design Studies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He suggested answering them, or attempting to answer them, in a multi-part essay. Kindling, as its title reads, examines the various representations of fire in contemporary Ukrainian art. Beginning with this first part, the essay considers fire as a motif and metaphor for (un)making meaning and memory, situating artworks, exhibitions, and ephemera in thick correspondence with societal tendencies, tragedies, and triumphs. 

Text Alex Fisher
Images provided by the Author

In October 2021, I was invited to prepare a lecture on Ukrainian contemporary art for delivery at Swarthmore College, a liberal arts school in the Philadelphia suburbs. I proposed a talk titled ‘Burnt Matters,’ which would survey the prominence of fire and its associated accelerants in recent work by artists living, working, and relating in varying depths to Ukraine, a country which I called home for around eighteen months between 2019 and 2021. Initially, I was there as a Fulbright scholar before becoming an independent curator and writer. I collaborated with Mystetskyi Arsenal, a state-run cultural foundation based in a converted military facility in central Kyiv, and Izolyatsia, a private arts organization that was forcibly displaced from their base on the outskirts of the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and has operated semi-nomadically since then. In dialogue with my interlocutor at Swarthmore, Dr. Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, we settled on a date towards the end of March 2022, and then I let it simmer, believing the conceptualization and realization of the lecture would be rather straightforward. 

In late February 2022, we were ready to begin promoting the lecture; the poster had been designed by the college’s graphics department and the synopsis had been proofed. Then, on the morning of the 24th, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Immediately thereafter, I decided to reconsider the lecture’s scope and contours. Against the backdrop of military aggression, the title for a talk illuminating an artistic context I care deeply about assumed an incendiary air that seemed, to me, both out of touch and out of line. Trying not to succumb to semantic infiltration, I settled on an alternate title: ‘Kindling,’ from the word for “easily combustible material for starting a fire.” I also broadened the parameters of the lecture, which I delivered on  31 March. Whereas ‘Burnt Matters’ would have revolved around mediums and materials, ‘Kindling’ concentrated on the impetus to create, the artistic process, and the receptions to socio-politically engaged art in rural, regional, and urban climes across Ukraine. This series of essays for V/A—also titled Kindling—is based on the lecture, but will delve deeper and address a wide variety of works by Generation X and Millennial artists from Ukraine. It will also devote ample space to artistic ephemera (as in this text) as well as anecdotal impressions. In so doing, Kindling tests the usefulness of its titular motif, examining the extent to which it can encompass critical trajectories and discursive trends within Ukrainian contemporary art. 

While There Is no ‘Best’ Place to Begin, I Will Start with an Image of Foreboding.

While there is no ‘best’ place to begin, I will start with an image of foreboding. When I moved to Ukraine in fall 2019, I leaned into my interest in how postcards act as sites for expression as well as my fascination with circulation: how objects pass from hand to hand as well as what kind of creases form along the way. In the weeks after I arrived, I acquired a bunch of cards with miscellaneous scenes of the country from bazaars, antique shops, and souvenir stands. Then, whenever I met someone for the first time, I invited them to choose a card from the stack and write something on it (e.g., a thought, sketch, or slogan). In conducting this exercise, I saw how the person I was meeting worked their way through references and settled on a tone.

Postcard view of Khreshchatyk with drawing by Yevhenii Obraztsov. Courtesy of the artist. Collection of the author.

The artist and architect Yevhenii Obraztsov drew the image of foreboding—an impending bang. Obraztsov is a founding member of 12345678910 Studio, a group that documents and intervenes in the personalization and privatization of public space, particularly in the ‘sleeping districts’ (the colloquial term for sprawling Soviet-build residential areas) of Dnipro, the group’s hometown. At the end of our first meeting in March 2020, he selected a card printed in the late Soviet era depicting Khreshchatyk, the Ukrainian capital’s central boulevard. The street was built with a vision of pomp and circumstance and is lined with Stalinist apartment buildings that were previously reserved for Communist loyalists of the highest ranks. In the image, Khreshchatyk appears in its prime—the afternoon sun is shining; the limbs of the trees (the lion’s share of which have since been torn down) burst with green leaves; a few cars cruise down the road; and pedestrians, glimpsed in the bottom left of the frame, pack the sidewalk. On top of the image, Obraztsov drew dense streams of what seem to be mortar shells or a meteor shower. 

Viktor Marushchenko, KYIV, 1989, Image via thenakedroom.com

Quite literally, Obraztsov’s black ink amendment indented the idyllic streetscape on card stock. His lines and dots perturb Khreshchatyk’s air of sanctity, impressing on viewers that the boulevard’s structural integrity faces imminent destruction. Dark danger darts down, unbeknownst to those below. Obraztsov’s amendment brings to Khreshchatyk something it did not expect but has received to differing degrees in ensuing decades. Designed with revelatory intention, the sweeping boulevard, and particularly its terminus that now is known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), has become synonymous with revolution. In October 1990, the square was the site of the Revolution on Granite, a protest kickstarted by the Ukrainian Student Union. The union and their sympathizers challenged the results of that year’s parliamentary election, contending that the Democratic Bloc should have won more seats than their Communist counterparts. The Revolution on Granite was documented by the late Ukrainian photographer Viktor Marushchenko; some of these pictures were included in his solo exhibition Archive, held at Kyiv’s Naked Room gallery in September 2020. In winter 2004-2005, the Orange Revolution was staged on the same site. A fractious fallout from that year’s presidential election, which was mired in controversy and the latest in a string of political crises, this revolution was one of numerous ‘color revolutions’ in the region at the turn of the new millennium. During the Orange Revolution, R.E.P. Group was founded. The artist collective, whose acronym stands for ‘Revolutionary Experimental Space,’ has gone on to have a huge influence on Ukrainian contemporary art. Ten years later, the mediatized Maidan Revolution became the most recent revolution to take place on the charged site. At stake in this revolution was the geo-strategic orientation of the country. 

The tensions that led to the revolutions which have convulsed Khreshchatyk simmered before they started to boil. Obraztsov’s amendment to the boulevard’s commemorative postcard forebodes the rupturing effects of crux points—the moments when, in a flash, everything changes. His lines and dots slant from above, shot from sight unseen. The unknown origin of the sketched rounds gestures toward the horrific mass killing of Maidan protesters by snipers positioned on the roofs of surrounding high rises. 

Time Claps Back.

Time claps back. Rendered in 2020, Obraztsov’s mortar-shells-cum-meteors insinuated that disruption was near and Soviet Khreshchatyk ill-prepared for it. Two years later, Obraztsov’s intervention looks startlingly prescient. Heavy artillery has rained on Kyiv, piercing the city’s psyche; launched by the invading Russian forces, missile explosions have been heard and felt across the Ukrainian capital.

Obraztsov’s amendments to the late Soviet postcard made it the inverse of another card in my collection, which depicts a similar view of Khreshchatyk during a very different occasion. The caption on this card says that it shows ‘festive fireworks’ in Kyiv. Regrettably, the card is not dated, though it was likely printed in the 1950s, when the boulevard had just finished being reconstructed after its near total annihilation during the Second World War. Per its caption, the card features a black and white image of Kyivans celebrating on their resurrected Khreshchatyk. It is night and the street is packed with merrymakers, their blurred outlines revealed by the streetlights. From both the left and right of the road, fireworks lift off; their glowing white arcs trace the sky. The card was chosen by Jana Woodstock, a prominent Ukrainian DJ, who put a sticker with her name on it on its rear. 

“Our nocturnal life… had nothing in common with how we lived during the day.”

“Our nocturnal life… had nothing in common with how we lived during the day.” So states Anna Ilinichna, one of the subjects of oral historian Svetlana Alexievich’s luminous Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, when reflecting on life in the U.S.S.R. Ilinichna’s reflection is also a canny take on the deep contrast between the two postcard views of Khreshchatyk. In Obraztsov’s card, it is light and the mortar-shells-cum-meteors are dark. In the card chosen by Woodstock, it is dark and the fireworks are light. The mortar-shells-cum-meteors and fireworks move in different directions, with the former coming down and the latter climbing up before fizzling while falling. The picture on Obraztsov’s card is a snapshot—the product of a short exposure that stops motion. The image on Woodstock’s card is made with long exposure; this single shot encompasses several seconds and many motions. In Obraztsov’s card, a ‘normal’ afternoon is about to be not so normal because of his amendment. In Woodstock’s card, we witness an evening of jubilant excess with no end in sight—not unlike the ideal night out sought by those who attend the DJ’s raucous sets. 

Ilya Smirnov, 36912, 2018, Image via lilyrobert.com

In the context of Kindling, these two cards prompt contemplation of what brings fire and from where. Obraztsov’s mortar-shells-cum-meteors beget fire once they crash; Khreshchatyk will be consumed in fatal flames. The fireworks on Woodstock’s card carry with them the catalytic exuberance of the Kyivans who launched them. Touristic mementos, the two cards are shot through with memory—little fires everywhere. 

Over the years, I have amassed many artist-amended postcards. Each successive encounter mints new points of connection. When I was in Moscow in 2019, I met the artist, curator, and gallerist Ilya Smirnov, who has since left Russia with his partner and young daughter. He selected a card showing a wintry, sunrise view of Red Square, coated in reflective frost. In the image, the red star tops the Kremlin’s clock tower while a few early-waking Muscovites walk past. Atop the image, Ilya drew a low-flying comet set to clobber the Russian federation’s foremost public space. Like in his 2019 solo show Hector Servadac, the dust and ion tails of Smirnov’s comet point in opposite directions. At dawn, the cosmic snowball threatens Moscow’s major landmark; some interstellar superpower has chosen a highly symbolic target. 

“every political change […] was strongly connected or even brought about by a cometary event.”

Smirnov guesses that “every political change […] was strongly connected or even brought about by a cometary event.” His comet over Red Square and Obraztsov’s mortal-shells-cum-meteor shower over Khreshchatyk are in close correspondence, albeit with crucial distinctions. Whereas Smirnov details a single large celestial object, Obraztsov outlines a mass of projectiles entering from a space beyond the viewfinder’s bounds. Are the air defense systems in Kyiv and Moscow up and running? In theory, it is easier to defend oneself from one threat than from an accumulation of threats. But if it evades detection or is massive enough, even one threat can wreak havoc. 

Postcard view of Red Square with drawing by Ilya Smirnov. Courtesy of the artist. Collection of the author

Smirnov’s comet over Red Square is identifiable; Obraztsov’s lines and dots are open for interpretation. At once, they are mortar shells and a meteor shower. At the same time, they are something else. A few weeks ago, I reached out to Obraztsov for comment on his 2020 drawing atop the Khreshchatyk postcard. To use a mailing metaphor, I returned the card to its sender, who gave a personal explanation for his amendment. In a written message, Obraztsov recounted:

“I drew an architectural shading over the photograph of Khreshchatyk, which in [architectural drawings] usually indicates reinforced concrete. It was a spontaneous, intuitive gesture based on my personal associations. Reinforced concrete is the material whose invention defined modernist architecture. Its rigidity and strength made it possible to build something that was previously impossible. Therefore, it symbolically reminds me of the rigidity of the 20th century, the era of modernity. When I saw these huge Stalinist buildings on Khreshchatyk, this image immediately came to mind. Emphatically dominating Stalinist architecture (in the very center of Kyiv) makes a depressing impression on me.”

Handout portrait of Taras Shevchenko with drawing by Yevhenii Obraztsov. Courtesy of the artist

Obraztsov agreed that, taken together with Woodstock and Smirnov’s cards, his shading “looks like some kind of stream falling from the sky onto the streets of Kyiv.” The artist and architect also noted that this was not the first time that he used this shading. He also used it when making graphics during a 2018 seminar convened by Method Fund, “an independent, nonprofit organization aimed at supporting and developing contemporary art and culture in Ukraine by initiating scientific, educational and exhibition projects”. In this context, participants modified Soviet propaganda leaflets with the image of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet. Obraztsov wrote that in the process of seminar discussion “the appropriation and construction of Shevchenko’s image was raised,” and that this conversation inspired him to add the same architectural shading to the leaflet “in such a way that Shevchenko turned out to be immured in this reinforced concrete discourse.” Obraztsov’s shading denotes a specific construction material that he associates with prevailing authorial tendencies during “the era of modernity.” In wartime, the artist and architect’s lines and dots connote a looming, inflammatory catastrophe—kindling the vision of an alternate end. When a fire starts to burn, it is wont to spread. 

That which kindles, rekindles.

Text Alex Fisher
Images provided by the Author
Essay
Contemporary Art
Fire
Khreshchatyk
Kindling
Kyiv
Naked Room
Postcard
Ruptures
Ukraine
Viktor Marushchenko
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