Notes on Kyiv International Biennale

Kyiv UFO
Kyiv UFO
The 2017 Kyiv International Biennale, as well as its previous edition of 2015, titled The School of Kyiv, are the projects of the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC). The institution holds somewhat unique position in the cultural landscape of Ukraine. VCRC’s strategic direction as well as its mission are either substantially misunderstood or at best ignored by the mainstream contemporary art institutions. On the other hand, art shows organized by openly leftist VCRC become targets of nationalist far-right radical groups. The friends ignore and enemies galore - these are the tensions which have to be taken into account when approaching the Kyiv Biennale of 2017.

To be or not to be - that was the question regarding the possibility of Biennale which remained unanswered up until the late summer. Rumors were spreading that following the pogrom of “The Lost Opportunity” show in February, VCRC has abandoned the very idea of putting such events together. However, the message appeared at the end of August in social media, saying: the Kyiv International is to happen! Soon after this good news, the list of major locations, partner institutions, and the event program were published on the VCRC website. To say that I was thrilled means to say nothing. The revision of the modernist project, a look into the future free from nation-states, issues of censorship, the revolution of 1917, rave culture, concerts of experimental electronic music and the rich parallel program, plus the support of well-known European cultural institutions as DAAD and documenta multiplied by the one-of-a-kind atmosphere of the “UFO” building, all this sounded like an extremely intense month full of exciting stuff is coming!
Locations selected for the Kyiv International deserve to be discussed separately. Three out of six sites, primarily the architect Florian Yuryev’s “UFO”, as well as the Valentyn Shtolko’s Zhytniy market and Soshenko33 artists studios may disappear from the map of the city in the very near future. The owner of the “Ocean Plaza” shopping and entertainment center plans to build an extension of the mall on the site occupied by “UFO” and the buildings of UkrINTEI, Zhytniy market is in danger of undergoing the “glamourization” encroaching on the historical Podil district. As for Soshenko33 their trustees from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture felt that the studios were too expensive to maintain, and quietly sold the ground to the developer company, which is going to erect a modern residential complex there with the mocking title “The Forest Palette”.
What went well and what didn’t for the organizers of the Kyiv Biennale, what role does the non-spectacular politically charged art play in society, and was the consumer (pardon such an expression!) of intellectual art products finally born over the past few years in Ukraine - these are some of the topics which I would like to elaborate upon here, preserving, if possible, a critical, non-partisan distance from the subject of discussion.
Pizza party is cancelled
The start of the Kiev International turned out to be quite appropriate to the title of the exhibition “The Festivities are Canceled!" by the curatorial collective Khudsovet. The show was staged at the unheated lobby of the Institute of Scientific, Technical and Economic Information (UkrINTEI), where badly frozen audience had a chance to observe roughly a dozen works of art. Despite overall visually Spartan look of the show, some works stood out, the video "Once upon a time in the Twentieth Century” by Dayantas Narkyavichyus being one of them. By utilizing a reverse arrangement of archival video material depicting the dismantling of Vladimir Lenin monument, the act of  destruction has turned into the act of restoration. Ilyich, suspended in the air with his arm stretched out forward and fluttering folds of his coat, resembled Batman and Neo simultaneously. Nikita Kadan and Yuri Leiderman (their work was title "The Black Hunter") have drawn upon the words of Mikhail Rashkovetsky about childish “pofigism” (indifference) and suggested a complex polemical narrative on childhood based on three fictional children brigades: Janusz Korczak squad, Pol Pot squad and St. Francis squad. The Italian saint, for sure, alludes to the stereotype of the childhood holiness (or to the evangelical formula “be like children”), while Korczak's squad might be serving as a reminder: kids are extremely malleable to brainwashing. The exploitation of this feature of the child's psyche by all sorts of Pol Pots gives birth to armies of juvenile executioners. From the purely formalistic standpoint, the lightbox “Events (clearing)” by Anna Zvyagintseva “Events (clearing)” looks interesting, featuring a simple white stripe separating two halves of the image while delivering a powerful semantics. Pavel Hailo (video installation “The End” and documentation) meditates about the phenomena of censorship and ideology using the source material of Soviet epoch children fairy tales. The campaign against the folk tale at the dawn of the Soviet regime was eventually replaced by reformatting of this genre in the 1930s into an important tool of ideological upbringing. And finally, touching video by Emmanuel Almborg “Talking Hands” about deaf-blind children, whatever the meanings were put into it by the artists, brought a touch of warmth into the restraint and intellectualism of the show.
Tych-on / Tych-off
The second part of the festival, the cancellation of which was proclaimed by Hudsovet at the “UFO”, took place at the apartment museum of Pavlo Tychyna, the Soviet poet who was often feeling the chilling gaze of the Big Brother. This time the subject of the show was about manifestations of censorship “then and now”. However, the Museum of Tychyna was destined to become a theater of events, which, despite being very symptomatic, did not serve for the benefit of the exhibition. Three hours before the opening of the show, the museum administration has refused to display one particular work of art, motivating the decision by the peculiarities of its exhibition background. Instead of the ill-fated work there was an empty tablet installed in the exhibition space with an attached explanatory note. Such a manifestation of censorship during the show problematizing this very phenomenon, has dragged Hudsovet into a situation I would not wish any curator to be in: the work of art can not be given a voice, but, having the opportunity to speak, it silences the entire exhibition. A classic zugzwang, just like in chess: whatever your next move is, your position on the board is weakened anyway. Perfectly understanding the imperatives of the members of the Hudsovet (the artists took the opportunity to present their entire spectrum of views in a large publication on the Prostory website), I still have to conclude that the responsibility for breaking up the integrity of the exhibition mentioned by Yevgeniya Belorusets and others should be divided equally between the museum trustees and the curatorial group. The museum deliberately violated the exhibition integrity by taking down a work of art, but the same effect was achieved by Hudsovet itself (unconsciously and to some extent forcedly), by concentrating the public’s attention on this single banned artwork, effectively neglecting the meanings and significance of the projects of the other exhibitors. There indeed were some powerful works on display: a film “Actors of the profane history” by Clement von Wadeemeyer on Sergej Eisenstein, revealing the case in director's career when not the movie itself but the entire underlying creative approach went under the pressure of censorship. But who cares about Eisenstein now?
Modernism amidst the pork fat
The exhibition at the Zhytniy market, curated by Anna Tsyba, was titled as simple as “Market”. The beginning of the vernissage coincided with this trade facility's regular working day closing routines, and those who came to the opening early, witnessed a rare phenomenon: Zhytniy was literally ceasing to be a bazaar and turning into an art space. And it was the persistent stench of stale meat in the air which continued to remind the visitors of what is usually going on over here. As for the art on display, I remember one project very well: "Market Economy" by Alexander Burlaka and Alexey Bykov. On several stands resembling Zhytniy's trade counters, the authors presented a visual account of the covered markets, pavilions and other cable-stayed large-span structures of the 60s-80s, a gigantic project of Ukrainian architects. The impression of the rest of the show turned out to be blurry, in part due to the approach to mounting. The artists, whom I would never compare with each other (their style is so distinct), were forcedly “equalized” by being displayed on the same format banner fabric mounted on the indistinguishable moving construction platforms.
documenta lessons
Soshenko 33 artist studios are well-known not only for the mentioned five-years-long confrontation with the construction company. Adam Szymczyk, the artistic director of documenta 14, had spent a night here back in 2015, and was so deeply astonished by the villa itself and its inhabitants, that next year he invited a group of artists from Soshenko to Kassel, where they were supposed to live and collaborate with the local TOKONOMA collective. Impressions of this trip were well summarized in Alina Yakubenko's video “mocumenta”, filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. The life conditions of Ukrainian artists in Kassel were captured by Yakubenko in a way which evoked involuntary connections with the ones of illegal immigrant workers, gastarbeiters, but at the same time the video in general came out rather comic. In the adjacent room there was a table covered with plethora of photographs, bringing, however, no additional clarity on what exactly were the guys doing at the documenta. As Anna Sorokova, the informal leader of the group, told me, the documenta seems to have planned just to link the two groups of artists together, without having a specific goal and plan of action. It remains an open question, whether or not the shower cubicle built by Soshenko team (fully functional one, by the way), installed directly in the gallery space, could be treated as a piece of art. Much more valuable are the new contacts and new friendships that Soshenko people have managed to build thanks to the documenta invitation. Networking is sometimes more important than art.
Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat.
Regarding the Dance Dance Dance, an exhibition at the Bursa gallery about the rave culture, I was a bit sceptical from the its very announcement. Reason number one being was that the link between raves (a rather apolitical kind of leisure, in my opinion) and the overtly politicized agenda of the Biennale was quite unobvious. Secondly, curators, usually very sensitive to the “genius of the place”, this time placed a bet on the space with no exhibition history whatsoever, for which Dance Dance Dance was the debut show. Wouldn't it be much more logical for raves-related exhibition to take place somewhere at Nizhneurkovskaya street, where most of the actual raves (as well as illegal drugs traffic, accompanying them) take place? And yet the opening was a hit, total full house, I am telling you. The show’s content, except for the smartly executed photo diptychs by Misha Bochkarev, did not leave neither any serious emotional nor intellectual trace in me, so I went ahead and started to ask questions around. Exhibition curator Serge Klymko opined that the rave culture in the post-USSR landscape manifests the “New East”, the spirit of freedom and non-conformism, then-dominant in Berlin, and now-relocated eastward, in particular, to Kyiv. An artist Nikita Kadan, also a member of Hudsovet collective, suggested that the formation of a collective “I" takes place during raves, and therefore Dance Dance Dance doesn't fall out of the main narrative of the Biennale. The ideal person to confirm these opinions would have been the founder and ideologist of CXEMA, the most visited Kyiv rave event, but unfortunately he simply refused to give any comments.
Hate as a medium
Not so long ago, the influential intellectual Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi published a text in which he dubbed european refugee camps “Auschwitz on the Beach”. I was not surprised at all to see the discourse on refugees and illegal immigrants placed at the very core of the Kyiv Biennale. VCRC has tried its best to make the debate on this sensitive subject as polyphonic as possible. For example, the project "Dead Souls" by Marina Naprushkina and Oliver Ressler does not talk about refugees, but instead gives them voice and the chance to be heard. On the opposite pole in relation to Naprushkina - Ressler duo lies the approach of the Polish artist and curator Artur Zmijewski, an approach used in the controversial black and white silent film “The Glimpse”, screened during the International. Zmijewski worked on it in the “Jungle”, the largest refugee camp near Calais in France, now defunct. Seen on the screen himself, the artist first gives the inhabitants of the camp the warm outer clothing and shoes, and then paints their faces and bodies in white. Mockery of people? Largely, it is. There is no justification for what is happening and there can not be any. After the screening, Zmijewski went on explaining that his film alludes to the iconography leveraged by the cinematic propaganda, and that he had undertaken an extremely risky attempt to appropriate the so-called hate speech, the rhetoric of hatred, as a medium of artistic expression. Somewhere in between these poles the practice of Katja Ehrhardt (AthenSyn) is situated. She has developed the educational model - the research project "Universitas". Project participants, artists from Germany, Greece and Syria worked with immigrants in refugee camps near Athens, seeking answers to the question of what could be learned from the "crisis" of refugees.
When (an)education matters
Let me answer those amusement-lovers who were complaining about the lack of bright and memorable content at the Kyiv Biennial: events of this sort do not pursue entertaining, but rather some very different goals. The public program of the International, packed with lectures, film screenings, panels, performances and presentations, most of which were held at the UFO conference hall, was rich and insightful, and although I feel a bit uneasy to use wording like this, carried more value than all the Biennale's shows combined. That's exactly where the abstract and invisible "institutional cooperation" finally came into play and began to make sense and to bear fruit for ordinary people! That's where they established links and made new friends. Many exciting people came over to Kyiv to take part in the Biennale. Julia Strauss, the creator of the Avtonomi Akadimia initiative and the survivor of the documenta 14 invasion, is just one example among many. It appeared that she used to hack the website of the 7th Berlin Biennale, created the laser projection on a city TV tower demanding to free Pussy Riot, also edited the Athens and Berlin issues of the Krytyka Polityczna anthology, and has had many other glorious adventures. Arriving in Kyiv with Strauss, the American art activist Noah Fischer, the ideologist of the Occupy Museums! movement, after listening to my brief explanation of the situation around the exhibition in the Tychyna museum, had decided to talk about the manifestations of censorship on the US grounds in scope of his lecture, and characteristically, his account looked if not as a polemic with Hudsovet group, then at least as an attempt to look at censorship in a different way.
Do you believe in aliens?
According to conspiracy theories supporters, the aliens from extraterrestrial civilizations used to visit the planet multiple times in distant past, and even tried to communicate with humanity. Well, apparently our ancestors either did not notice these visits at all, or did not consider them worthy of mentioning in history. The strange “extraterrestriality” of the Kyiv International in relation to the contemporary Ukrainian art scene becomes clearly visible when one tries to find an adequate analogy with some other cultural event. Perhaps it makes sense to compare the Kyiv International with The School of Kyiv, that is, with its own previous incarnation, but this is it. And if back then the media wrote of The School of Kyiv, that the negligent public had ditched it completely, the aliens case is not so evident. Vasil Cherepanin, VCRC director, mentioned in his interview that the spectator of the Kyiv International is yet to be created, and that the implementation of this project can take many years. But, excuse me, who were all those people coming one day after another and were getting cold inside the freezing UFO then? Viewed as a whole, do they not constitute exactly that collective recipient, fully formed already? If the viewer of the Kyiv International is indeed nothing more than a hypothesis, then what did the UFO of Biennial arrive here for?
The Kyiv International is now over, and although it does not look like preaching for the converted, many questions have remained unanswered. My hope is that the answers will come in spring of 2018, when the Visual Culture Research Center will launch the continuation of the International under the slogan "Sixty-eight now" (evidently bound to May 1968 events).
Original text and translation: Alexey Buistov