Today it is impossible to talk about Ukraine without acknowledging the Maidan protests. Making art about Maidan seems logical, even lucrative, but I am suspicious of exhibitions and objects being produced now that claim to be authoritative reflections of events that are so fresh in our collective memory and have not yet reached any conclusion. Most of the artists I know have been involved in the ongoing protests aimed at social and political reorganization in various capacities since November 2013. But it is still very early to transform the lived experience of Maidan from 2013 to 2014 into art.
The conflict in Ukraine, the susceptibility of its population to rumors, propaganda, and misunderstandings are rooted in a fundamental absence of culture as an active agent forming social and political life, although I suspect that this is not a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon. Cultural production in Ukraine follows a long tradition of serving state ideology that lingers from Soviet times. The collapse of the Soviet system created a sort of ideological vacuum, which is quick to be filled by anything from commercial interests to state dogma to the caprices of whoever wields power at the time. Only critical artistic reflection, which looks at itself and its surroundings as an integral part of any articulation, can show me something about this world at the same time as it reveals the artist’s process of discovery.
Ukraine is at war, even if it remains undeclared. Art, which in times of peace when reality is obscured by social rituals and organization can create a gap through its tautologous artificiality that makes it possible to perceive reality, falters when reality is suddenly palpable everywhere. In the introduction to a recent performance celebrating the 200-year anniversary of Ukraine’s great poet Taras Shevchenko, TanzLaboratorium wrote, “When reality is silent, art speaks for it. When reality speaks, art can only invoke its own feebleness and learn from this feebleness.” In places where violent struggles for power have been at the center of political life, artists use weak gestures to express subtle, precise, and potent views of their local context and relationship to the world.
As a strategy in local art activism, we see the weak gesture in giving up the chance to show or speak for ethical reasons, in boycotting an institution like Mystetskyi Arsenal, or event like Manifesta in St. Petersburg, when it is evident that any utterance in that context would be subsumed by an expression of power. Since 2012, the Art Workers’ Self-defense Initiative (I.S.T.M.) has been initiating activities aimed at changing institutional and state cultural policies. Their actions look like a small group of people standing up to large bureaucratic mechanisms. But they do not go unheard.
Finding a third position, rather than fighting to persuade others of the rightness of one position against the wrongness of another, is ultimately a creative gesture, the first step in building a new infrastructure or devising a world where no steady supports are given. Responding to an urgent lack of critical discourse around contemporary art, artists have turned to curatorship as a way to frame their own work and its perception. In 2008, a group of artists gathered together with activists, translators, architects, and others to form the interdisciplinary curatorial collective HudRada, which is the name of the Soviet Art Council historically responsible for commissioning various monuments, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures from “deserving” artists, while censoring work that was too critical or progressive from public view. Today the name is both an indicator of the group’s collaborative, discursive decision-making process and a reference to the heritage that any Ukrainian artist carries, no matter how contemporary or Western-leaning they consider themselves.
In fall 2012, HudRada organized the curatorial project Disputed Territory at the Kroshitsky Art Museum in Sevastopol. The gesture of marking a “disputed territory” was provocative, making visible latent conditions in the art museum and the surrounding community, leading to heated public discussions between Sevastopol artists and the visitors from Kiev. The local artists became aggressively defensive during TanzLaboratorium’s action “Headless,” where small headless beings accompanied by well-dressed security personnel emerged from a limousine to lay flowers beside monuments to war heroes and imperial rulers. The Sevastopol artists revealed their desire for isolation, perpetuating the rituals and memories of the Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), while members of the museum staff expressed a lively curiosity for expanding their idea of possible art forms.
With unexpected foresight the exhibition text proclaimed, “To declare a territory as being disputed is a form of terrorism, revealing somebody’s expansionist intentions. The illusion of stability turns to dust, our familiar world collapses, and off in the distance the flames of some warlike operation can be seen busily burning away.” Looking, and potentially seeing, what was invisible or hidden before can be terrifying.
Perhaps the only timely artistic reflection of the events on Maidan I have witnessed so far was TanzLaboratorium’s documentary theater piece Ekspertyza. A View from Maidan, which took place on March 16, the day of Crimea’s sham referendum. TanzLaboratorium invited various Maidan activists to talk about their experiences and views on urgent socio-political questions within a framework that structured the participants’ interaction and movement on stage. It felt like a continuation of the ongoing conversation(s) I’d been having with friends, reflecting on where we had been, what we had been doing and what had happened over the past months. Yet the thin structural membrane dividing and uniting the real people on stage from common everyday existence produced a sliver of extra time and space—giving me the freedom to examine this conversation, its details and nuances, and think about its implications.
Larissa Babij lives in Kiev, where she works with Ukrainian contemporary artists as a curator, writer, and co-conspirator of experimental projects. Together with TanzLaboratorium, she has been producing the annual PERFORMATIVITY Educational Art Project since 2011. In April 2014, she brought Gregory Sholette and Olga Kopenkina’s “Imaginary Archive” to Ukraine (including new works by local artists). Her writing has been published in ARTMargins Online, Guernica, and other publications. She is a member of the Art Workers’ Self-defense Initiative (ISTM).