Yesterday, it wasn’t here

Anton Saienko, Repercussion, 2019. Image courtesy of the Biennale (c) Andriy Yarigin

From September 17th to 22nd, a group of cultural professionals from Belgium and Austria participated in the visitor’s programme The New Scene of Ukraine. Laura Amann (curator and architect), Kathrin Heinrich (art historian and writer), Maaike Leyn (artist and curator) and Alicja Melzacka (curator) spent three days in Kharkiv, followed by four days in Kyiv. Alicja Melzacka wrote the following account of their trip discovering the art scene of Ukraine.

Notes from a working visit to Kharkiv and Kyiv (Ukraine)

This visitor’s programma was organised by IZOLYATSIA (Kyiv) and the II Biennale of Young Art (Kharkiv) in collaboration with Flanders Art Institute and BLOCKFREI. The full list of the visited institutions can be found below.

Out of joint

When landing at Boryspil International Airport of Kyiv, I wasn’t yet aware that we were entering the territory where time runs differently – not merely due to the time zone shift. The constant tide of people, cars, and marshrutkas (minivans) filled the square in front of the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi central station with almost unbearable energy. Time was flowing rapidly down the streets as we rushed from meeting to meeting. We were always barely making it or running late; soon, “last-minute” became the motto of our trip.

Meanwhile, some other, latent sense of temporality permeated everything around us. The ubiquitous signs of the past mixed with prominent monuments of the present: the heritage of Constructivism and Stalinism with postmodern monoliths and unfinished high-rise projects, testifying of the economic struggle of the transformation period. Wherever we looked, behind the agitation in the foreground, time – or times – stood still, petrified in architectural and sculptural forms, from the steel Motherland raising her armed arm above the city of Kyiv to the Eiffel Tower barely towering over the shopping centre in the outskirts of Kharkiv. It was not as much an urban palimpsest as a patchwork – layering gave way to juxtaposition. Contrasts were so ubiquitous that they became invisible.

People did not remain unaffected by this time paradox; on the local market in Kharkiv, some were selling old soviet memorabilia side by side with used clothes and kitchen utensils as if there was no past or present, just one grey mass of unwanted objects. Others were measuring their lives by hours. Tens of workers were camping each morning in front of the main station in Kyiv, waiting for an opportunity to come along – mostly a one-day gig– and hoping they won’t be scammed. Institutions were also not immune to this time-malaise, with long term planning having proven challenging due to political and economic instability.

Derzhprom monkeys

The city of Kharkiv is famous – but definitely not famous enough – for its early modernist architectural heritage, the contemporary of Bauhaus and American daylight factories. Derzhrpom (the State Industry Building) immediately captures the attention of anyone entering the Freedom Square. Completed in 1928, at the time when Kharkiv hosted the headquarters of Soviet Ukraine, it was meant to communicate the vision of the new communist society. Its status changed, however, in 1934, with the capital’s move to Kyiv.

The history of Derzhprom and the other buildings comprising the modernist ensemble at the Freedom Square demonstrates the impact of the changing political situation and with it conflicting identity politics on the urban tissue (great analysis of this context was delivered by Ievgeniia Gubkina in Calvert Journal). The postwar renovation transformed the architectural ensemble in accordance with the so-called ‘Stalinist Empire’ style. The only building to escape that fate was Derzhprom. However, another inept renovation in the early 2000s prevented its admission to the World’s Heritage list. Caught in the cross-fire of debates on the preservation of modernist legacy and decommunisation, Dezhrpom remains on the tentative UNESCO list.

‘Dezhprom monkeys’ was the first thing I put down in my notebook when visiting Kharkiv. On the first day, I joined a tour guided by Polina Karpova, a photographer from Kharkiv, who just recently moved to Kyiv. She is also one of the participants in the Biennale, where she exhibits a series of haunting landscape photographs, Absentee. Karpova has become known for working on the verge of fashion, costume design, and photography; she arranges every detail of her photographs herself – from choosing the scenery to dressing the model. Her work combines romantic landscape photography with cheeky glamour. Born in Kharkiv to artistically inclined parents, Karpova ‘inherited’ the sensibility of her mother, a costume designer and a fan of Paolo Roversi, and the chutzpah of her father, a devoted follower of David LaChapelle doing photography in the Y2K glam spirit. This is why working with her immediate environment and references comes very natural to Karpova, which for some critics has been the reason to label her a post-soviet artist. The series Absentee is an important step in her practice, since for the first time, as indicated by the title, it is devoid of human figures. The landscape itself becomes the protagonist.

While visiting less popular corners of the city, our guide shared with us the most bizarre local stories, some dating back as far as the Second World War. During Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, many animals from the Kharkiv Zoo were killed, but some managed to flee and hide in the city, helped by local citizens (the story goes that one man tried to hide a giraffe in his apartment, needless to say, unsuccessfully). Amidst the turmoil, three resourceful monkeys found refuge in the vast halls of Derzhprom. Despite German soldiers’ attempts to scare them away, they survived the war as the building’s illegal dwellers, and it was only after the freeing of the city that they – not without trouble – were returned to the Zoo.

The story of fugitive animals was still vivid in my memory when, two days later, we visited Shevchenko Garden. This oldest of all city parks has been equipped with all necessary – and unnecessary – infrastructure, including a preposterous fountain with a group of musically inclined monkeys. When we reached the fountain, its lights were off, and there was no sound coming from the monkeys’ little instruments. Instead, the entire park bathed in soft muzak, resonating on vacated squares and alleys, without any discernible source or direction. This unusual soundtrack, belonging rather to a waiting room or an elevator than to a public park, filled the empty space with a sense of anticipation.

An elephant in the room

The Biennale of Young Art was first organised in 2017, as an initiative of the Ministry of Culture. Following the formation of the new cabinet in 2016, it was meant to mark the beginning of the new politics – also culturally. The ministry invited a team of curators (Kateryna Filiuk, Lizaveta German, Maria Lanko) to develop a concept for the first edition in a record-breaking pace; the window of opportunity that emerged had to be exploited.

The first edition took place in Kyiv, in Mystetskyi Arsenal; the location which has proven to be both an infrastructural blessing and a PR problem. In 2013, the censorship scandal involving the then director Nataliia Zabolotna marked the reputation of the institution and prompted many artists to boycott it. That situation, along with the inherent distrust in the top-down cultural initiatives, put the new biennale in a difficult position, as some artists refused to participate. On top of that, the biennale had to face some internal obstacles, such as a fairly outdated founding statute, and a limited starting capital. However, both in 2017 and now, the team managed to find their way around it; this year, by inviting some interesting artists from outside of Ukraine to participate in the parallel programme.

This is why even now, with the second edition successfully launched, the Biennale has yet to establish itself on the national and international scene. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the next Biennale will take place in two years; following the years of political destabilisation, everyone is choosing their words carefully when speaking of the future of the new government. Everything in Ukraine now, including culture, is a contingency.

The Biennale of Young Art had to face some internal obstacles, such as a fairly outdated founding statute, and a limited starting capital. However, the team managed to find their way around it; this year, by inviting some interesting artists from outside of Ukraine to participate in the parallel programme.

Muffled echoes of the war were reaching us in conversations and accounts of people who had to move westwards. But strikingly, staying in Kharkiv, it was hard to believe that only 250 km away, in the neighbouring regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, there was an ongoing armed conflict. The city seemed calm and I have seen less military on the streets of Kharkiv than on the station in Brussels Midi. Also in the Biennale, there were significantly fewer explicit statements about the war than one would expect – or at least than I did – but that by no means indicates that it wasn’t political. The theme of this year’s edition, It looks like I’m entering our garden, already points to the direction pursued by many artists – it is radical in its lyricism, and it conceals an unspoken trauma. The original line “Son, it seems like I am entering our garden” appeared one day on the wall of one of the houses at the Myronosytska street in Kharkiv, as a part of the project War of Writings by Andriy Rachynsky and Daniel Revkovsky. It was followed by “You are picking cherries” and “One of them is my dearest, but I don’t know it yet”, written a few walls further.

The curatorial team, Borysk Filonenko, Daryna Skrynnyk-Myska and Anastasiia Yevsieieva, approached the notion of gardening as a particular strategy of resistance. Gardening requires time, patience, tenderness; it is a practice of engaging with a specific context where the plants can be cultivated over years or even generations. How to tend to your garden at the time of crisis, and what is the point if the world is collapsing. What is the role of artists, art workers, and other ‘gardeners’ in shaping the shared space?

It was interesting to see many artists working in the field of video, installation, and photography, even though those disciplines are still formally not taught at the Ukrainian art academies, which are still very much painting- and sculpture-oriented.

Exhibition view with the works of Yuri Bolsa. Image courtesy of the Biennale

Many participants attempted to respond to that question by investigating the practices of living together, the workings of collective memory, and the transformation of (urban) landscapes. It was interesting to see many artists working in the field of video, installation, and photography, even though those disciplines are still formally not taught at the Ukrainian art academies, which are still very much painting- and sculpture-oriented.

Some artists used their skills to experiment with those traditional media, by toying with the pictorial conventions in painting (Serhii RadkevichYuri Bolsa) or ingeniously combining different printmaking techniques (EtchingRoom #1). Amidst all those contestatory practices, Lucy Ivanova’s voice sounded almost radical in its self-proclaimed conformity. “There was no resistance in this work, it was not a protest against the Academy” she said, going on with the story of her tutor watching documentaries about elephants as she kept working on her project. Her painting, Present for the city, depicts the titular gift, an elephant, presented to the Kyiv Zoo after its predecessor went mad and died. The dreary figure of the anguished animal in its enclosure is surrounded by the carnivalesque crowd. Even if this painting is not a protest against the academy, it is still a protest against the confinement and ignorance of any kind. Somehow, the haunting echo of the zoo kept following me.

The politics of landscape

Kharkiv Hotel had been, much like Dezhprom, realised as a constructivist project, but with the advent of Stalinism, its alarmingly avant-garde silhouette had to be ‘dressed’ in the historicising attire. This story serves as a backdrop for the site-specific work of Anton Saienko, through which the artist engages with the unique interior of the hotel, where the neoclassicist plasterwork coming off the walls uncovers the modernist skeleton of the building.

Amongst all those historical and cultural layers, Saienko focused in particular on the bizarre remnants of the 1980s interior design – a wallpaper depicting a rocky landscape. Through his spatial intervention, the artist has created a blind spot, obscuring the view on the wallpaper and completely transforming the perception of the interior. The simplicity of both the concept and execution of this work is particularly forthright – while from a distance, the white circle appears as a mesmerising mirage, a closer look reveals the irregularities of the outline, cut out by hand. It does not pretend to be anything else – while rotating around its axis, the circle reveals an uncoated wooden construction behind it. The work’s physicality might be seen as a metaphor for the state of public infrastructure in Kharkiv – where the richly decorated facade or a lavish lobby cover up a less glorious interior.

Another piece, engaging in a distant dialogue with Saienko’s intervention, is Larion Lozovoy’s Machine and Garden. The work explores the ideology concealed within the seemingly neutral representations of Ukrainian landscape in Soviet films. Even though the genre of landscape painting has been portrayed in the historiography of Ukrainian art as an apolitical alternative to socialist realism, Lozovoy’s research reveals how nature can become a tacit hero of Soviet propaganda filmmaking.

The two main locations of the Biennale were the historical edifices of Yermilov Center and Kharkiv Hotel. The adaptation of these locations showed a great sensibility of the curatorial team and the architects from studio FORMA, who delivered the final spatial conception, to the modalities of space.

At the entrance to the exhibition, I was confronted with the striking work of Yehor Antsyhin, envisioned as an epigraph to the exhibition, raising the pertinent question – who determines the right to the landscape? The words The Fact That You Have Lived There For All Your Life Doesn’t Mean Anything, written in characteristic German fraktur, stand out aggressively from the background depicting the hackneyed romantic landscape, enclosed in an obnoxious golden frame. The title of the work pertains to the historical displacement suffered by the Ukrainian population, denied their connection to their land. At the same time, it provides commentary for the current political situation. The work had been created in 2015, in the light of the annexation of Crimea, for a ‘mobile anti-military exhibition’ (a euphemism for ‘manifestation’) which was to be held in Russia and Latvia by a group of international artists. However, in the course of the project, the participants were detained in Moscow and their works confiscated. Antsyhin has never retrieved his  painting; what can be seen in Kharkiv is its exact copy.

Lucy Ivanova, Present for the City, 2015. Image courtesy of the Biennale

Working the gap

Simultaneously with participating in the Biennale, Antsyhin is presenting his work as a part of The Corrosion of Character (L’uomo flessibile), a group exhibition exploring the notion of labour, curated by Kateryna Filyuk and Alessandra Troncone at IZOLYATSIA. One of the works Antsyhin has presented in IZOLYATSIA was a small-scale, ceramic replica of a ‘kaibash’, a special metal booth used as a private working space for the shipyard’s foreman. Despite its weight, a kaibash was a portable structure, it could be moved around the shipyard with a crane. The work was executed especially for that exhibition, following the artist’s research into the Kyiv Shipyard.

A foundation and platform for cultural activities, IZOLYATSIA was established by Luba Michailova in 2010, on the site of a former insulation materials factory in Donetsk. In 2014, its location was seized by the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and a big part of its collection, spanning from socialist realism to contemporary art, was lost. Forced to move, IZOLYATSIA found its new location on the industrial site of the still-functioning shipyard in Podol – a rather peripheral district of Kyiv – and started transforming the space into a ‘creative village’.

The proximity of the shipyard contributes to the locations’ particular aura; unlike many other post-industrial spaces transformed into creative districts, this location still retains its industrial character – on the parking lot in front of IZOLYATSIA, shipyard workers are crossing paths with cultural workers. Besides an exhibition programme, the organisation also runs the interdisciplinary research project Donbas Studies and a residency programme, inviting international artists to come and work in Kyiv. IZOLYATSIA shares the space with its side project I-ZONE, which is a co-working space and a creative hub offering facilities for different kinds of events – which provide an independent source of income for the foundation, in a climate where public funding is still in its infancy. On the day of our visit, a big fashion show has transformed the building into a colourful parade of people and fabrics.

IZOLYATSIA, a platform for cultural activities in Kyiv, is located on the industrial site of a still-functioning shipyard. Unlike many other post-industrial spaces transformed into creative districts, this location still retains its industrial character – on the parking lot in front of IZOLYATSIA, shipyard workers are crossing paths with cultural workers.

Yehor Antsyhin, Kaibash, 2019. Image courtesy of IZOLYATSIA

There can be no art trip to Ukraine without visiting the blockbuster PinchukArtCenter. Looking at the differences in atmosphere and scale between the Center and IZOLYATSIA, it is easy to forget that both of them started off as private foundations. When PinchukArtCenter was established by the Ukrainian businessmen and oligarch Victor Pinchuk in 2006, it filled a gap in – and for a long time monopolised – the contemporary art scene in Ukraine. The Centre is famous for the queues in front of its entrance and skyrocketing numbers of visitors enjoying the free admission. The latest edition of the PinchukArtCenter Prize show, presenting the works of Ukrainian nominees, was featured on the 2018 list of the most attended exhibitions worldwide, with the average daily attendance reaching over 1240 people (according to the Art Newspaper). During our stay in Kyiv, we had a chance to meet the winner of the 2018 edition of the prize, Anna Zvyagintseva, and talk about her practice and her video-work Declaration of Intent and Doubt, presented in Venice in the scope of the Future Generation Art Prize.

Coming from Kharkiv, we were thrilled to discover the exhibition The Forbidden Image – a two-chapter project, presenting the work of the notorious Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov, along with the legacy of the experimental Kharkiv School of Photography. The exhibition, developed with the support of the PinchukArtCenter’s research platform, approached the School not only as a historical phenomenon but as one that keeps expanding and evolving. This has been the reason behind including several works by the younger generation of Ukrainian artists, represented by Alina KleytmanSasha Kurmaz, and Serhiy Melnychenko.

Our guide through the Centre was the junior curator and graduate of PinchukArtCenter’s Curatorial Platform, Alexandra Tryanova. Together with Valeria Schiller, she co-curated the exhibition Ain’t nobody’s business, exploring the relationship between politics and sexual identity. The exhibition presented several strong visual statements and positions challenging the prevailing social attitudes in Ukraine, which could still be described as conservative and heteronormative. One of the works I particularly remember has been inconspicuous Zones of Repression by Sergey Shabohin, installed in the transitory space between two galleries. The narrow corridor is covered with ceramic tiles, which from a distance seem sterile, but upon closer inspection reveal inscriptions hidden in the joints. These inscriptions are based on authentic finds from the public toilets in Minsk. Those literally marginal territories are the only ones immune to aggressive sterilisation of public space, and as such they represent the ‘underground’ of the city, the spaces where suppressed, non-normative voices can be heard.

The timeliness and importance of this kind of debate go without saying. But somehow, after some time spent in the Center, I started to feel pretty detached from the world outside. It might have been the neutralising effect of the white
cube infrastructure, or the presence of the security at the front desk (which, as we were told, was a necessary in particular during a show like this), but I couldn’t help but feel like I was floating in a kind of a safety bubble, or a kaibash, above the city. But to be fair, our kaibash was full of other visitors, tourists, and citizens, floating together with us.Alina Kleytman, Nails, 2013. Image courtesy of the PinchukArtCenter 01   /   03 

On our last day in Kyiv, we visited the Naked Room gallery, located in the apartment building at the residential Reitarska street. It was founded only a year ago by curators and researchers Lizaveta German and Maria Lanko, who teamed up with film director Marc Raymond Wilkins and cultural manager Marianna Fakasduring. During our meeting in the office space at the back of the gallery, surrounded by artworks – amongst them the eerie paintings of Oleg Holosiy – the curators shared their insights about the commercial art scene in Ukraine. Only 13 years ago, there were many more private players, but the vast majority of galleries had to close in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Many of those which remained do not survive primarily from selling art but have enough resources to support their activities; for Naked Room that is not an option.

Having to survive on this uncertain, and mostly unregulated market, Naked Room tries to distinguish itself from the old-school players through their precise business profile, dynamic exhibition programme, and experience in curating and mediating art brought in from the non-profit sector by German and Lanko. The gallery offers affordable works by mid-career artists and prides itself on promoting the culture of collecting. Despite the lack of any established tradition, legal mechanisms, or economic incentives for collecting, half of the works sold by Naked Room have been acquired by the first-time collectors.

The name ‘Naked Room’ came about during the renovation process – having removed the wallpaper, the team discovered the beautiful texture of the original walls and decided not to go through with the facelift. The intimate character and informal atmosphere of this space add a particular aura to the experience of viewing art, bringing to mind the informal art exhibition of the 1960s and 1970s held in the Ukrainian artists’ apartments. To Wilkins, running a private gallery in Kyiv is unparalleled; following the decades of the state-controlled industry, it paradoxically feels like a rebellious act.

All of the above-mentioned institutions are but a few examples of private initiatives which played a leading role in the shaping of the contemporary Ukrainian art scene at a time when cultural policy and state-run institutions practically failed. In recent years, the situation started to change: many public institutions underwent (or are still undergoing) development, and new initiatives (like the Young Biennale) and funding mechanisms (e.g. state-owned Ukrainian Cultural Foundation in 2017) have been established. During our stay, we had a chance to visit the Mystetskyi Arsenal, currently running a programme deploying one-fifth of its mind-blowing spatial capacity (60,000 m2), while the rest remains under renovation, and the National Art Museum, which will soon be reopened after the refurbishment.

There is also a new bottom-up association/research group in Kyiv, striving to establish the first Ukrainian Museum for Contemporary Art. This group encompasses professionals working both in the public and private sector, and there is a chance that today, with the new government seeking an opportunity for a big gesture, the bottom-up urge might meet the political will. It seems that with some luck, the gap between the private and the public sector can be paved soon. However, regardless of the profile and the scale, all Ukrainian institutions seem to be facing the same problem; the ongoing military conflict fueling the state of constant political contingency inhibits any real long-term planning and renders the already precarious situation of the cultural organisations and their workers even more uncertain.

Nikolay Karabinovych, The Dead Pool Won't Ripple, 2019. Image courtesy of the PinchukArtCenter.
Karabinovych is currently one of the residents at HISK, Ghent


As we roamed through the galleries of the old Art Museum in Kharkiv, our footsteps dictated the rhythm of the changing lights. Entering a hall, we provoked an immediate response from one of the exhibition officers, who deftly switched the light on, only to switch it back off after we’d left the room. Step by step, switch by switch, the old paintings were waking up to life; a peasant working a field, a maritime landscape, a woman being driven out of her village by a group of fanatics.

Somewhere, amongst those artefacts, Katya Buchatska would hide personal objects. Her project, This wasn’t here yesterday, played with the logic of viewing and disrupted the standard museum experience through a series of one-day interventions, introducing an every-day object, unmediated, to the museum. Upon inquiry, the museum attendants were only allowed to respond with the one-liner from the title. Even though I think I did not come across any of the interventions, I was moved by the title of the work. I understand now that it could well apply to something much bigger than this individual project. It connotes a state of contingency and flexibility, where rapid, unpredictable change is possible, but also signals precarity and lack of transparency – all of the things that could be said about the burgeoning art scene in Ukraine.

Full list of visited organisations

  • II Biennale of Young Art: multiple locations in Kharkiv
  • Municipal Gallery, Chernyshevska St. 15, Kharkiv
  • AzaNiziMaza, Chernyshevska St. 4, Kharkiv
  • Kharkiv Literature Museum, Bahaliia St. 6
  • Kharkiv Art Museum, Zhon Myronosyts St. 11
  • National Art Museum of Ukraine, Mykhaila Hrushevskoho St. 6, Kyiv
  • Mystetskyi Arsenal, Lavrska St. 10-12, Kyiv
  • IZOLYATSIA Naberezhno-Luhova St. 8, Kyiv
  • PinchukArtCenter, Velyka Vasylkivska / Baseyna St. Kyiv
  • The Naked Room, Reitarska St. 21, Kyiv
  • EtchingRoom #1, Heorhiivskyi Lane, 7, Kyiv

Read the report by Maaike Leyn on the Biennale of Young Art (in Dutch).

I would like to thank all the organisers and especially to Flanders Art Institute for facilitating this research trip.
Special thanks to: Kateryna Filyuk, Mariia Volchonok

as well as to: Yehor Antsyhin, Liza German, Polina Karpova, Mykola Kolomiets, Maria Lanko, Anna Pohrebna, Alexandra Tryanova, Anna Zvyagintseva, and Daryna Yakymova.

Alicja Melzacka, 2019

Je leest: Yesterday, it wasn’t here