What emerges from the air, what dissolves in it

30 October 2020 • Pavel Khailo

A lack of arts infrastructure and a constant demand for its development, along with the dissatisfaction in existing opportunities structure Ukrainian art field. Starting from the 1990s, when a part of creative workers who associated their practices with contemporary art got exhibit opportunities, there’s been a hope hanging thick in the air for the museum of contemporary art to emerge near a supermarket, bank, and PR agency. And still, there’s the same frustration coming from the fact that every new ‘institution’ turns out to be not a part of the art field but rather a supermarket, bank, or PR agency (or most often a bit of each).

The first issue of the Ukrainian contemporary art magazine Terra Incognita (1994) is dedicated to this hope and anticipation of a museum. In the first sentence of the opening article, Glib Vysheslavsky states that “there almost aren’t institutions in Ukraine that would support new contemporary art tendencies” [1]. 25 years after, artist, curator, and teacher Lada Nakonechna documents a similar situation in the article The Unclear Institutional: “organizations that position themselves as new contemporary cultural institutions in Ukraine are mostly distributing and popularizing art, while we clearly lack those that would contribute to its creation” [2]. 

In 2020, there’s still no such museum that was so much anticipated in 1994, even though it has many times created news and rumors about its establishment in Ukrainian House, the President’s Office on Bankova street, and an unknown building next to Livoberezhna metro station. Announcements about this always non-existing museum moving places are symptomatic for institutional processes in general. While solids dissolve into the air, contemporary art organizations and initiatives active in Ukraine are created from the air. Cloudy, non-transparent, and always fluctuant, they can somehow survive. They function as air castles that we build, “forced to address the philanthropy of bourgeois hearts and wallets.”

Analyzing the context of the 1990s, director and writer Oleksii Radynskyi claims the following: “the development of contemporary art infrastructure is a part of the liberalization process of post-Soviet economics. Art was declared to be an institution of a liberal society, same as transparent election, while artists had to become somewhat like electoral committee members” [3]. However, as we follow Radynsky’s metaphor, artists have later lost — without having properly gained it — the role of official monitors and have become volunteers, moved even further away from the chance to have a real impact. Now, creative workers are more often perceived as content producers, applicants to programs and open calls (with participation in those perceived as a definite acceptance of game rules), or temp workers with a fee that seemingly makes it impossible to have the right not to agree with the politics of an exhibition venue, fund, or other organization.

Nevertheless, artistic and activist strategies of the arts infrastructure critique are still there, emerging from the imaginary space where such activity can have structural consequences. Similar anticipations often come from artists (rightfully) feeling to be a part of the history of global institutional critique. However, the venues their critique is directed at are not part of this history and in many ways remain basically ahistorical. “We don’t have our institutional system being built as we have it being imagined” [4], states philosopher and art historian Boris Kliushnykov while describing a general framework of critical interaction with the arts infrastructure in Soviet and post-Soviet contexts.

Such interaction with the imaginary has paradoxical consequences as in its negativity, it fixates the forms of arts infrastructural objects for some moment, which allows talking about them somewhat determinately. Although, there’s an opposite side to it: such artworks get lost and disappear from the memory due to a lack of archival organizations. The purpose of this text is to reveal these strategies, at least partially. Article limitations won’t allow me to fully systematize and describe all artworks created after 1991, and some of them may be totally unknown to me, again, due to a lack of archives. I didn’t include escapist anti-institutional strategies that proposed to completely ignore the existing infrastructure. Also, I didn’t include a whole range of works and initiatives that emerged as a critical reaction to the educational system in Ukraine. This critique deserves a separate study. Strategies covered in this text are not organized in a certain order to represent a linear development process. Instead, I try to reveal controversies in different strategies, often based on political or aesthetical standpoints opposite to each other.

In commodo lectus imperdiet, convallis est ut, efficitur nisi. Nulla scelerisque sollicitudin aliquam. Vestibulum rutrum lacus et convallis molestie. Nam dictum erat purus. Duis consequat elementum congue. Cras metus tellus, rutrum eget lorem a, posuere tristique nunc. Donec tincidunt ante at ligula aliquet blandit. Ut volutpat mi et ex tristique, a porttitor ante fringilla. Quisque feugiat turpis nec lorem mollis dictum. Integer vulputate libero quis neque pharetra, pretium viverra ex euismod.

Vasyl Tsagolov, Oleksandr Blank. Invitation to the performance By Mutual Agreement, 1995. Source

1. Mimicry and interception of functions

The action exhibit by the Quick Response Group (Bratkov, Mykhailov, Solonsky) called Sistine Madonna was one of the first practices of critically approaching art organizations in Ukraine. It was held in 1995 in the Up/Down gallery, a self-organized venue in Serhii Bratkov’s own studio in Kharkiv. He described the situation as follows: “There was a Salvador Dali exhibition and then Pre-Raphaelites one where only reproductions were exhibited. Obviously, we were outraged: how’s that the museum only shows reproductions? We tore up the book with Rafael’s works, hung them up in our studio, and demanded the same entrance fee as the museum had'' [5]. Copying the museum’s politics in a hyperbolized manner together with placing an artwork in a specific place allows us to analyze the problem without having to deal with the organization itself and act from a safe distance. Moving an artwork to a self-organized venue makes organization and management more complicated: criticism towards the museum’s attempts to adapt to new market rules is placed in a scanty space of a studio that has itself emerged to meet the infrastructure demands. At the same time, the Quick Response Group wasn’t that much alienated from the traditional museum and didn’t take it exclusively as a symbol of conservatism. Artists did try to cooperate with it, but in 1994, the museum director shut down Boris Mikhailov’s exhibition Before and After America/New Photographic Expressionism (also featuring Serhii Bratkov and Serhii Solonsky).

In commodo lectus imperdiet, convallis est ut, efficitur nisi. Nulla scelerisque sollicitudin aliquam. Vestibulum rutrum lacus et convallis molestie. Nam dictum erat purus. Duis consequat elementum congue. Cras metus tellus, rutrum eget lorem a, posuere tristique nunc. Donec tincidunt ante at ligula aliquet blandit. Ut volutpat mi et ex tristique, a porttitor ante fringilla. Quisque feugiat turpis nec lorem mollis dictum. Integer vulputate libero quis neque pharetra, pretium viverra ex euismod.

Masoch Fund, Time of Sponsors, 2004, part of the brochure. Source

2. Reacting to censorship

Institutional processes resulted from censorship by exhibition venues spurred some of the most notable and continuous discussions. I’m talking about the ruining and closing of the New History exhibition curated by SOSka in the Kharkiv Art Museum in 2009 and the destruction of Volodymyr Kyznetsov’s work Koliyivshchyna. Judgement Day in 2013.

The New History exhibition had to create a space for dialogue, putting classical works and works by contemporary artists against each other. The museum itself and its operation weren’t in the focus, however, were brought to light because of the act of censorship. The exhibition was shut down and museum director Valentyna Myzgina personally destroyed the artwork by David Ter-Oganyan. As a result, curators shifted their focus on discussing the very fact of this censorship with the museum director acting as its only owner. “It was her personal decision motivated by the thought that she practically owned the museum and that was the territory she could do anything she wanted to, according to her personal will. It flatly contradicted the notion of a museum as a public space” [6].

The situation with Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s artwork being painted over right before the Grand and Great opening is structurally similar. Censorship was also initiated by the venue’s director. But in this case, it wasn’t a traditional museum not closely incorporated into the contemporary art infrastructure but the largest government-backed venue focused mainly on contemporary art. This censorship provoked a reaction out of critically-minded artists and led to a strike, which isn’t over in 2020. The trial initiated to admit censorship is also still ongoing. I should add that in these 7 years, Mystetskyi Arsenal made some concessions, for example, the act of censorship was partially acknowledged (“...from the professional and ethical perspective, it was a creative censorship” [7]) and some changes were made regarding artist fees.

Part of the CCCK publication that documents the Postfunding project in the Vector magazine. Source

3. Attacks and interventions

Another strategy incongruent to organizers is intervening in or attacking the event or organization. Combine of Ukraine (1993-1997) artists (Petro Mamych, Igor Ishchenko, Volodymyr Zadyraka, Pavlo Shydlovsky, Serhii Lukashov) were pioneering this approach in Ukraine. Being pro-anarchists, they aimed to make contemporary art the practice of the masses. Their manifesto says, “Artists themselves would destroy the reactionary myth about artists being the chosen” [8]. They put theory to practice in contractions: “The point was to intervene in the artistic and social space already structured by other artists” [9]. They pursued a goal of doing “moral damage to a champion” [10] as a symbol of success and therefore elitism in art. Contractions that took place at Kyrylo Protsenko’s exhibitions (1995) and attempts to attack Vasyl Tsagolov’s project Masepa (1995) are notable examples of this strategy. The possibility of a direct critique happening in the moment of exhibition opening disrupted old conventions and turned the art community space into