apexart :: Conference Program :: Marta Kuzma


Conference 1, Wroclaw, Poland (June 1999)

Will the Real Shevchenko please stand up?
Culture and its predicament in Ukraine
by Marta Kuzma

Serhiy Bratkov and Serhiy Solonskiy, Volleying for Votes, 1996, Color Photographs
Iliya Chichkan, Schizophrenics or Portraits as Abstract Realism, 1999, Color and Black and White Photographs

Presidential elections prompt governments and citizens to do strange things –– pass edicts, induce conflicts, conduct heroic political acts of leadership, ban and buy out television stations. The social and political backdrop to Ukraine's third presidential election has been marred by a series of events such as a coal miner's public suicide in a sacrificial protest to provoke the government to pay Dnipropetrovsk miners' back wages; Ukraine's former Prime Minister's plea for asylum in the United States claiming that he faced torture and death if to return to his home country to pursue his candidacy for Presidency and where he faced prosecution for appropriating $2 million in state property; and the incumbent President of Ukraine was selected Ukraine's Man of the Year while listed as the sixth worst perpetrator of national press freedoms by the International Press Association. Despite a record of human rights violations, intimidation of the press, and expansive corruption, Ukraine is viewed by the West as a primary factor of stability. The government is repeatedly criticized by international aid organizations for its unclear position on privatization as the Parliament's leftist majority calls for a stronger economic and political union with Belarus and Russia. Amid the oscillation between East and West, left and right, democracy and oligarchism, sits some amorphous concept of culture – its physical manifestation in the form of the national football team, Dynamo Kyiv. If culture is to be characterized by the specific way in which a country conducts and organizes its leisure or that which is considered unique to its way of life, it appears that Dynamo star, Andriy Shevchenko, defies political and generational lines in unifying the polar opposites of the cultural spectrum, tantamount to the heroic position dominated by the 19th century poet and writer Taras Shevchenko.

The development of contemporary art within such an environment has been influenced by artist interventions reacting against the existing institutional and public infrastructure for visual art. Projects often based on ideas of resistance reveal a psychology of behavior often centered on transgressing boundaries. As state officials concentrated on defining a new national identity, artists were inclined to seek alternative avenues of validation for their work outside of the institutional structure without the intermediary of the critic or curator. But the emerging cultural anarchy had its roots in issues that predated the referendem for Independence.

Chernobyl blew in 1986. The explosion was significant to contributing to the demise of the Soviet Union eroding any remaining conviction the public had in the Union as a protectorate. Slavoj Zizek has written extensively about Chernobyl as a symptom of the failure of Power internationally. In Tarrying with the Negative, he writes that "the Chernobyl catastrophe made ridiculous and obsolete, such notions as "national sovereignty" exposing power's ultimate impotence, i.e. it sapped the unconscious belief in the big "other" of power."(1) The Ten Mile Zone became a type of laboratory for international aid organizations, inspectors and ecological investigators, as well as a point of departure for several international artists. A Canadian artist visited the Reactor in an actual attempt to "radiate" himself only to expose sample of his blood within a tub hung in a Western gallery. In 1997, Kenji Yanobe visited the restricted area surrounding the Reactor to produce a create a series of photographs entitled The Atom Suit Project, portraying the artist wearing a yellow space suit among the contaminated remains of the area – within an amusement park, abandoned nursery schools, and junk lots. Additional images included the artist in the same Atom Suit at the remains of the Osaka World Fair. Although Ukrainian artists tended to evade any direct reference to Chernobyl within their work, Kyivan Iliya Chichkan referred to its presence as a type of passive, invasive, and invisible agent that prompted revised definitions of beauty and notions of "normal" in the post–cataclysmic environment. His treatment of the "mutation" or aberration, be it in physical or mental dimensions, refers to that which pre–dates or falls outside of politics and consciousness in a context in which Nature ceases to exist.

In the aftermath of Independence, Ministries were challenged with unraveling the mystery as to what constructed Ukrainian identity as opposed to Soviet or Russian. Complicated by the country's regionalism and historical division between its Eastern and Western halves – West historically aligned with nationalist interests in preserving Ukrainian traditions and language, the industrial East sympathetic to Moscow, and the agrarian South including Odessa with its own distinct cultural profile. The addition of the Crimean peninsula to the geographical borders of Ukraine as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea further introduced ethnic and cultural issues related to the reintegration of nearly 300,000 muslim Crimean Tatars from the former Asiatic Republics. Nonetheless, Kyiv, as the countryÕs capital, continued to exert its central position over the separate regions in molding a state initiated concept of culture inhibiting a cross–regional and interdisciplinary discourse. The tutelage of culture remained in the hands of bureaucrats in state institutions who sympathized with a historical definition of indigenous identity. The treatment of culture as a living and evolving concept was left to the initiatives of poorly funded independent organizations and individuals centered on conveying meaning rather than in retaining power.

If language and literature lends to distinguish the uniqueness of a country, Ukraine seems stand on shaky ground. As Octavio Paz wrote of Latin Amerian poetry - "it is historical, sociological, and political in concept: it designates a group of people, but not a literature."(2) A popular commercial on Ukrainian television depicts books falling from a shelf one by one until only few remain. The commercial's message – don't ban Russian literature in Ukraine. Although the current official language is Ukrainian, the word on the street is zdrastvuyte*. The historical banning of the Ukrainian language throughout Tsarist Russia imperial rule under the Ems Ukase prohibited Ukrainian language publications and literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. The stringent Russification policy throughout the Soviet period curtailed its further development into a functioning modern language. A brief cultural revival during Khruschev's de–Stalinization period in the late 50s allowed for the development of Ukrainian scholarship and language with rehabilatory programs such as the translation of plays by Mykola Kulish and Les Kurbas, the screening of Dovzhenko's films and the founding of the Dovzhenko film studio in Kyiv. Native languages were once again repressed following Khruschev's ouster prompting a dissident movement led by writers and literary critics. In turn, this movement abandoned a more distanced writing in favor of describing the more political ramifications of and power implicit to language. Eventually, these individuals made up the independence movement during the Glasnost period. As restrictions on language eased in the 80s, the decision to refer to Russian became a matter of prestige. Within this bilingual reality, the modern day Ukrainian was often an individual of mixed parentage and religion.

The debate as to Ukrainian identity and its makings is as difficult to resolve as deciding on the true ingredients of an authentic Borscht. After all, it had been an Armenian film director who produced the one art work so often referred to as revealing "the quintessence of Ukrainian identity". Serhiy Paradzhanov's Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors founded the Ukrainian school of "poetic cinema" in the 60s that had been later banned in the 1970s. At the time, the State Committee of the USSR for Cinema (Goskino in Moscow) responsible for Kyiv's Kinostudio Dovzhenko and the Odessan Kinostudio, oversaw the operation of the film studios, management of the theatres, distribution of films, and holding a monopoly over international contacts and sales abroad. Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, based on a Ukrainian classic by the writer Mihailo Kotsiubinsky, approached the archaic origins of popular traditions. Paradzhanov's overwhelming pictoral rather than literary solution to the film illustrated the influence of his teacher Dovzhenko, and illuminated the more primitive and pagan influence to Christian traditions, often portrayed in a more kitsch manner through Soviet media. The film received a multitude of international awards but was removed from national domestic distribution. Its reference to mysticism and the use of a specific dialectic of Ukrainian from the country's Hutsul region led to its removal from domestic screening at a time when native myths and indigenous traditions of the separate Soviet Republics was actively repressed. And yet, Soviet authorities provided the reasons for his imprisonment under Stalin, Brezhnev, and at last under Andropov, for his homosexuality.

As film was a popular as an art form in the Soviet Union, photography had been reduced to its functional purpose in the State propoganda apparatus. The aesthetic experiments from the 20s and 30s gradually dissipated as photography became a controlled medium condoned to official studios and technical documentation of the state's public works and factories. At the time Paradzhanov faced increased surveillance, the cultural watchdogs ignored photography as a medium with its own dissident movement. In the early 1970s, a group of engineers organized a collective Vremya in the industrial city of Kharkiv in an effort to exhibit work among themselves and to engage in discussions as a means to explore the aesthetic and conceptual dimensions of the medium. Without public or official recognition, this group of photographers managed to build a body of work spanning the remaining decades of the Soviet Union. Boris Mikhailov, the predominate figure in this group, referred to the social and political realities in shooting a series of images that conveyed the visual iconography of the Soviet Union, the social conditions arising out of the confusion inherent in the dismantlement of its myth, and the restructuring of a new myth relative to a pre–Revolutionary history. Although Mikhailov holds an important international reputation in contemporary art, he remains a marginal figure within Ukraine, his work often disregarded and censored by public institutions who find the work outside the category of traditional fine art. Institutional acceptance of his work would entail a revision of the Academy's existing curriculum to integrate discussions about photography as an art form. And yet, the Dean of Kyiv's Art Academy, who had been the Dean of that Academy prior to Independence, feels the importance of emphasizing the classics. So did Stalin.

The lack of approach to the educational institution as a platform for dissent and discourse in the area of culture has prevented the wider distribution of independent initiatives in art and film. But the rigidity with which the state institutions refer to such changed may be based in the very way the government and the various Ministries had been structured following independence. The referendum for Ukraine's independence in the start of the 90s was effectively an understanding reached by the leaders of the dissident movement Rukh, a group of leading intellectuals and writers, and members of the existing Soviet government reflecting their common ambition to separate from Moscow's political hegemony. Leonid Kravchuk, a former ideologue and Chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet at the time, wielding support of the KGB and the military following the Moscow coup, eventually became the country's first President. Kravchuk failed to follow Havel's example in firing former KGB members and although he employed a leading intellectual from the dissident movement as Minister of Culture, the Cabinet of Ministers checked the power over the Ministry in preventing any broadsweeping changes in the formation of the idea of Ukrainian national cultural identification.

The inherited bureaucracy effectively reaffirmed and renewed the positions of former party officials who mimicked the rhetoric that legitimized the former government. The continuing monopolies of control over information, opportunities and distribution avoided a younger generation of artists who studied in the more flexible time of Glasnost and who already began to network with international artists and curators via Moscow in the late 80s. The Ministry's and the various academic institutions' overbearing concern over the growing influence of western models of contemporary art led to what amounted to be a complete denunciation of more experimental approaches to art and consequently to international exhibition opportunities, artist residencies, and the opening of international foundations of support before the kernal of Ukrainian cultural identity had matured. This dogmatic approach was ironically accompanied by rampant and permissible piracy in video and music distribution, and the general inclination by television and radio producers to broadcast western programming to broadcast mirror versions of Oprah Winfrey, Wheel of Fortune, MTV, and even Dallas. The poor distribution network for the country's domestic films, literature, and art prevented the regular presentation of alternative work to local and international audiences. Engaging programming approaching cultural and social issues, often critical in nature, faced tightened controls as late as Spring 1999, when two television stations were forcefully closed and a third leading private station (STB) appealed to the President for protection against assaults and intimidation.

Many existing members of the Artists Union formerly social realist painters changed their painting styles to suit the tastes of those within seats of institutional, government and corporate power, who respected the reputations of these former artists and found that abstraction was an appropriate and metaphysical alternative to pursuing the new "spiritualism". Many paintings fashionable following the long period of condoned figurative painting, were rendered in a style reminiscent and a rhetoric derivative of the abstract expressionist movement in America. Many younger artists at the time pursued the site specific installation as a means to approach a new authenticity that if not altogether documentary, was nonetheless socially gauged. It was more often that this work that tended to be personal, and at times corporeal and frontal, were largely debunked by the Art Institutes as copies of western models. Kyivan artists Oleh Tistol and Mykola Matsenko had approached the complexity of identification as a national construct in their work, referring to the medium of painting or silkscreen to portraying "visual signifiers" indicative of cultural values as apparent in architectural facades. This had been in the early 90s, when the dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv had still been engaged. As the mutual respect and cooperation between each country related to issues of naval ownnership and port control, the avenues of cooperation in terms of contemporary art were complicated. Artists who found themselves in Ukraine had to adjust to a far more conservative environment for their work and artists such as Tistol and Matsenko, felt the increasing desire to be respected artists within their own country and consequently, they began to focus on the issues of Ukrainian national identification to gain the support and opportunities available through the Ministry. Their projects eventually began to shift from the more universal language of architecture to the specifics of the ornament within the rhetoric of national folklore.

In contrast to the cultural politics in Kyiv, Moscow continued as a cultural and economic center in the region with comprehensive program development attending to contemporary culture within the Ministry of Culture. Young reformists such as Leonid Bazhanov who had worked extensively with young experimental artists throughout the 80s was hired into a leading position within the Ministry, and consequently, involved many young artists in state and internationally supported exhibitions and international residencies. This effectively communicated to institutions and art press internationally that although contemporary art was not well funded in Russia, it was active in exhibiting alternative models that had to be considered within the network of international exhibitions. Other key cultural decisions included the commissioning of Ilya Kabakov to install the newly reopened Russian Pavilion in Venice in 1994. Investment in exhibitions of Russian contemporary art was motivated by those who opened private galleries that also functioned as exhibition spaces for non–commercial projects. Critics such as Viktor Misiano launched Chudozhniy Journal, that served as a critical record and archive as to the activity of contemporary artists within Russia at the time.

Ukrainian artists continued to rely on exhibition and selling opportunities in Moscow and those who developed a professional relationship with city's various curators and gallerists at the time, gradually faced issues that became of growing importance related to issue of language, residence, national identification. Opportunities of exchange became less available as renewed political strains between Russia and Ukraine forced the artist into the position of having to make a decision as to his/her national identity. As recently as this year, Oleh Kulik's stature as a Russian, and therefore, "international" artist, nearly excluded him from inclusion within two exhibitions of Ukrainian contemporary art although his birthplace is Kyiv. These issues became more and more complicated as international institutions also required these lines to be drawn.

Kyiv eventually gained a Center for Contemporary Art that attended to the exhibition of non–commercial projects and provided a public although still marginal forum for the exhibition of alternative work in the country. It's activities were equally matched by the initiatives of individuals and collectives such as art critic Oleksandr Soloviov who established the Paris Commune in Kyiv, Boris Mikhailov and The Fast Reaction Group in Kharkiv, and art critic Juriy Sokolov in Lviv, and Oleksandr Roitburd and art historian Mikhail Roshkoveckiy in Odessa, who attempted to work with the city administration in providing a forum for contemporary art in forming the New Art Association.

Actions and situations openly critical of the country's cultural policies began to dominate the artist scene the 1994 on a very public level, contesting the idea of the institution as a critical and legitimizing institution. In 1994, an exhibition was held in the closed port of Sevastopol aboard a nuclear battleship that served as its own type of earthwork native to the Soviet aggregate, a part of the infrastructure landed in the miltary monument and the structural parts of that monument.

Some artists formed informal collectives – the Institute of Unstable Thoughts, the Frontier of the Cultural Revolution, the Fast Reaction Group. The International Masoch Foundation represented by the artist Ihor Podolchak, constituted an ongoing project dedicated to Leopold Sacher Masoch, the 19th century historian and writer of such books as Venus in Furs who had been born in Lviv under the Austrian Administration. Following Masoch's principles, Podolchak built situations referring to the drafting of anonymous letters, use of pseudonyms, contracts or advertisements, that revealed a national psyche in which folklore, history, politics, mysticism, eroticism, nationalism, and perversion are intermingled. It pointed to the general inclination toward submissiveness, that eventually leads to eventual provocation, and saw in restrictions a particular type of opportunity, coinciding with the Masochian tendency to "closely adhering to the law, by zealously embracing it, one may take part in its pleasures."(3)

Podolchak and his IMF proceeded to send art up into space within the context of the video work, Art in Space, in an effort to comment on the criteria for art at the end of the millenium. At approximately the same time, Podolchak also built an insurrectionist action intended to destabilize the museum as a viable cultural institution functioning to engage a public or the artist. The International Masoch Foundation scheduled an exhibition at Kyiv's National Museum of Fine Arts several weeks prior to presidential elections in 1994. At the time, the influx of foreign companies who opened offices in Kyiv escalated rental prices encouraging public institutions to rent space unrelated to the institution's mandate. The artist contracted the museum for an agreed upon sum without the need to submit exhibition concept or visuals. Prior to the scheduled opening, the artist distributed invitations with the exhibition title, Mausoleum to the President, depicting the incumbent President seeped in a jar of solidified fat. The State Security Service responded by instructing the Museum's administration to prevent the opening of the exhibition. Podolchak had foreseen the debacle and organized a meeting of some twenty international journalists at the blocked museum entrance and succeeded in his original intent to publicize the obsolete and irresponsible role of the museum.

Actions antagonistic in nature eventually dissipated as any attempt to engage the state cultural institution into a constructive dialogue as to the possible validation of autonomous art failed. Artists deferred from engaging the institution and the art establishment by way of conflict, confrontation, and ventured to interface directly with a public without the mediation of a curator, critic, or institution. Group projects such as Solid Television, Blok TV, and Radioaktive were launched that intended to function within a social environment and encouraged the artist to work with music remixers, film makers and editors, and the media. The programs of Solid Television (Vasyl Tsaholov), were factual in content but they integrated artists as TV spokespeople and often, critics, as weathermen.

Perhaps, there is some justification in pursuing an understanding of culture through soccer. Perhaps, it is the public's only contact with a presentness that is possible only via speed, at that point when the foot hits the ball and results in a goal. It holds within it no past and no future.(4) Perhaps, sports as culture would be fine. The only problem is that Andriy Shevchenko was recently traded to Milan for a several million dollar contract.

*zdrastvuyte is the Russian equivalent to hello. In Ukrainian, it would be dobriyden, similar to that in Polish.
1. Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1993), p.237
2. Octavio Paz, Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature (Harcourt Brace Javanovich, NY, NY, 1987), p.203.
3. Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, (Zone Books, MIT Press, NY, NY, 1991), p.223
4. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (October Books, MIT Press, NY, NY, 1993, p. 7. (a discussion between Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss on baseball)

Marta Kuzma ©1999