Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey, 1967… (2021), Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

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A Different Perspective: The Kiev Biennial and the Ukrainian Contemporary Art Field

Issue no3
June - July 2022
Make Friends Not Art

In Eastern Europe, art biennials are joining forces: the biennials in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Riga and Kiev form alliances to promote small-scale, low-budget, activist and independent art events. Sjoukje van der Meulen visited the Kiev Biennial and highlights the special role this politically engaged manifestation plays in the Ukrainian capital.

In the Netherlands, Ukraine mainly evokes the tragic downing of flight MH17 (2014) and the referendum in which part of the Dutch population voted against the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement (2016).1 Both events can be traced back to the Euromaidan, the civilian protests that broke out in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in November 2013, and continued until February 21, 2014, in which more than 100 civilians were killed. The pro-EU protests in Maidan Square (Kiev's main square) arose in response to the refusal of the incumbent president, Victor Yanukovych, to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, under pressure from Russia. In addition to the protests, the situation led, as is well known, to an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine (which also resulted in the downing of MH17 in the Donetsk Oblast by a Buk missile as the passenger plane flew over the war zone) and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The Ukrainian president, Yanukovych, was eventually deposed and the association agreement signed, but the events created political and military tensions that continue to this day – see the impending build-up of the Russian army on the border with Ukraine.

In View Map of Ukraine (2008), Ukrainian artist Yuri Solomko visually captures the seemingly endless tug-of-war between Russia and "the West" over the strategic buffer zone that Ukraine undeniably is for both power blocs: A naked woman tries to stretch out to both sides from under a sheet printed with a map (fig.1).2 In Western European countries such as the Netherlands (unlike Eastern European countries) little is known about Ukrainian art, let alone how contemporary art has responded to the events of Maidan. Enough reason to visit the fourth Kiev Biennial (or "Kyiv Biennial," which Ukrainians prefer, since Kiev is the Russian name for the city), which took place from October 16 to November 14, 2021. The very first edition of this Biennial was organized 'post-Maidan' (2015), but according to one of its founders, Vasyl Cherepanyn, it can be seen as a "cultural Maidan" or a "continuation of the Maidan idea in the cultural field."3

fig.1 Yuri Solomko, View Map of Ukraine (2008). Image courtesy of the Artist

The creation of the first Biennial, The School of Kyiv,4 became possible thanks to the international attention Ukraine received due to the events surrounding Euromaidan, which made the West - especially the European Union - willing to support a pro-democracy, grassroots art event like the Biennial. Most of this (financial) support has disappeared by 2021, but the cultural institution organizing the biennial, The Visual Culture Research Center, led by Cherepanyn, still managed to organize this now fourth Biennial. This is an achievement, also because Cherepanyn was already beaten into the hospital by right-wing groups before the first Biennial, and for the current Biennial still has to hire security guards.5 Clearly, political engagement in art means something different in Ukraine than it does in the Netherlands.

For this fourth Kiev Biennial, the theme of "alliances" was chosen, as can be read in the stenciled program booklet: "Kyiv Biennial 2021 brings together the curatorial approaches of partner institutions from Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Riga, establishing a model of an inter-institutional alliance for multilateral activity in the region as a sustainable network for collaboration and a space for support that is sorely missing in the field of politics today.”6 This politically motivated alliance, The East Europe Biennial Alliance,7 was already established in 2019 and is now organizing the Kiev Biennial, in collaboration with The Visual Culture Research Center, both in terms of the exhibitions and the public forum of lectures and performances. The impetus for joining forces in the field of art biennials in Eastern Europe is the shared concern about political developments: the growing anti-democratic and autocratic tendencies and the related, manipulated culture of remembrance since 1989, the hardening of European border policy ("Fortress Europe") that results in the migration issues and conflicts taking place ever closer to the borders of the European Union, and the threat of wars in the "post-Soviet space" on the European continent, such as Ukraine and Belarus. This alliance of biennials, which currently includes the Kiev Biennial, the Budapest Biennial, the Prague Biennial, the Warsaw Biennial and the Riga festival Survival Kit, aims to provide an alternative model to the whole format of the biennial: not large-scale commercial exhibitions on the interface of art and tourism, with fashionable curators, big sponsors and lots of money, but smaller-scale, low-budget, research-based, culturally and politically astute, activist events that operate independently.8

fig. 2 The main venue of the Kyiv Biennial this year was The House of Cinema (1974), photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko 

This year's Kiev Biennial took place in a three-story modernist building dating back to the Soviet period: The House of Cinema (1974) (fig.2). That is a curatorial statement, because this type of architecture is often poorly maintained (or demolished) yet an integral part of Kiev's cultural heritage. On the wall at the top of the stairs on the first floor, the exhibition opened with an artwork by the group Société Réaliste (fig.3)9: a collection of visual graphics including the map Greater Europe (fig.4). This too can be seen as a statement by the curators, about controversial European borders: the map shows the European continent, but also includes all the claims that the European countries make on each other's territory. If there are multiple claims to the same area, it doubles on the map - hence the continent extends on multiple sides: Eastern and central Europe teem with extraterritorial lines, which are historically explicable but not always justifiable.10

Fig 3. Société Réaliste, Culture States (2008-2012), Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

Fig 4. Société Réaliste, Greater Europe (2008-2009). Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko 

The main exhibition, Allied, is organized collectively by the East Europe Biennial Alliance, with artworks scattered across the three floors in the main stairwell, low key, low budget, but carefully considered and placed. There is mainly art by artists from the countries that are part of the alliance, such as the installation Flower Smuggler (2017-2019) by the Latvian Diana Tamane, the recent video Lavish Issue (2020) by Alžbeta Bačíková and The Debt: The Epilogue of a Long Friendship by Jiří Žák (both from the Czech Republic), and the video installation 1967-... (2021) by the Ukrainian artist duo Yarema Malaschuk and Roman Himey. Most of the works have a political angle, which often involve, to a greater or lesser extent, complex border issues.

Tamane's installation, for example, shows photographs of flower bouquets made by her grandmother, who was accused of smuggling when she wanted to bring flowers to her husband's grave in the border region that before 1945 still belonged to Latvia rather than Russia. (fig.5] Žák's video The Debt... investigates the arms trade between the Czech Republic and Syria, and especially the end of this "friendship" after the fall of communism in 1991. (fig.6) Particularly poignant is the Ukrainian duo's video installation, about the de facto erasure of Jewish cemeteries in the Ukrainian city of Kolomyia by giving them another use. In this poetic and contemplative video about human suffering and historical respect, in which nothing happens except that street sweepers and painters clean up the courtyard of an apartment complex (left screen), on the site where Holocaust victims once found their final resting place (right screen) (cover photo).

An innovative perspective of this Biennial is that the term "Allied" is understood not only as collaboration between Eastern European countries, but also as potential alliances in a global context. This approach is conceptualized with the term "Global East," a polemical response to contemporary discourse on "The Global South" versus "The Global North," in which the role of eastern European countries is overlooked. Yet, from a global perspective, there is much to be said about Eastern Europe, both from a historical and contemporary point of view. After all, the former Eastern bloc countries have made many contacts with countries all over the world (with communist regimes in Africa, South America and East Asia), which have hardly been analyzed and cannot be explained well with the (Western) postcolonial discourse. In addition, several Eastern European countries share experiences with countries in, for example, the Middle East that are also struggling with new authoritarian tendencies - which, as Polish theorist Jan Sowa argued in the closing lecture of the Biennial, challenges new global alliances.11

fig. 5 Diana Tamane, Flower Smuggler, 2017-2019, Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

fig. 6 Jiří Žák, The Debt: The Epilogue of a Long Friendship,2020, Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

This idea of a "Global East" is also the theme of the second exhibition at the Biennial: Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and the Global South. This tightly directed exhibition was previously shown at the Budapest Biennial and curated by two Hungarian curators, Eszter Szakács and Zoltán Ginelli.12 The exhibition design consisted of scaffold-like wooden constructions, which divided a medium-sized space of The House of Cinema (fig. 7). By way of introduction, a biographical video by Judit Flora Schuller was screened in the front room, in which this Hungarian artist critically examines an aspect of her family archive, namely a Hungarian expedition to East Africa (1960), in which her father was involved as a documentary filmmaker. The video shows a performance in which a white woman (the artist herself) teaches a Gambian black man to smoke, in order to portray and get closer to her father's colonialist attitudes (fig.8). In this coherent exhibition, in which the different (personal) stories and (geopolitical) relations between Eastern Europe and the world slowly become clearer, artworks and research material (on text boards) are not separated from each other but treated equally and complement each other. In this way, the audiovisual installations of well-known and lesser-known names such as Manthia Diawara, Monica Mirande, Naeem Mahiae and Kathrin Winkler are contextualized by the research team.

Fig. 7a Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and the Global South (with works of a.o. Manthia Diawara), Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

Fig. 7b Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and the Global South (with works of a.o. Kathrin Winkler), Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

This year's Biennial again has a clear international profile, but from the first edition it was also intended to give young Ukrainian art a platform. While contemporary Ukrainian art was hardly on the international art map before the turn of the century, that changed after the Orange Revolution in 2004. This revolution, widely considered a victory for democracy and without bloodshed, was the result of unfair elections, in which Yanukovych was rejected by the democratic counterforces, who refused to accept this result.13 In this political crisis, a generation of politically engaged artists emerged, who often operate in artist collectives, whose work was featured in the first Biennial. Good examples are Nikita Kadan (1982) and Ana Zvyagintseva (1986): the first member of the artists' group Revolutionary Experimental Practice (2004), the second co-founder of the Art Workers Self Defense Initiative (2011); and together founders of the activist curators' collective Hudrada (2008).14 In artworks such as The Chronicle (2016), Victory (White Shelf) (2017) and The Red Mountains (2019), Kadan critically addresses political topics related to the history of Ukraine, or the post-communist culture of remembrance. Zvyagintseva's social critique in her drawings, objects and videos is more hidden and poetic, as in To Draw Your Own Window, to Crumple the Paper (2015) or Dusty Glasses (2017).

Fig.8 Judit Flora Schuller, Cigarette with Babacarr (2016), Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

Björn Geldhof, director of the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, confirms in an interview that a generation of politically activist artists emerged during the political crisis in 2004.15 The artworks and artistic projects of these artists match well with the global trend of politically engaged art and are therefore picked up internationally. The Pinchuk Art Centre was founded soon after the Orange Revolution (2006) at the initiative of Ukrainian philanthropist and steel magnate Victor Pinchuk. This powerful oligarch and former politician (in the government of Leonid Kuchma, before the Orange Revolution) is not so easy to fathom because of the various economic, political and cultural roles he plays; he comes across primarily as a shrewd businessman and millionaire who shifts with each changing (political) wind to exert and maintain power and influence, using art in part as a PR tool and philanthropic cover.16 Pinchuk is part of a global political and cultural elite, which also explains the Pinchuk Art Centre's dual purpose of promoting Ukrainian art (including a prize for young Ukrainian artists up to age 35, the Pinchuk Art Centre Prize) and global art (through The Future Generation Art Prize, supported by star artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons).

Fig.9. Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey, How it is made (2021),courtesy by the PinchukArtCentre, photo by Maksym Bilousov.  

Although politically and ideologically opposed, the Kiev Biennial and the Pinchuk Art Centre intersect in the contemporary Ukrainian art field, which still lacks a more comprehensive cultural infrastructure. The Pinchuk Art Centre acts as an innovative dynamo for contemporary art in Ukraine with its (international) exhibitions, research center and educational programs. The Biennial acts more as an experimental breeding ground for young art and political ideas. Not so surprising then that Ana Zvyagintseva and Nikita Kadan, whose work was already on display at the first Kiev Biennial, both have solo exhibitions at the Pinchuk Art Centre (in 2019 and 2021 respectively). Or that Ukrainian artist duo Malashchuk and Himey, featured at the current Biennial, is also nominated for the Pinchuk Art Centre's International Prize (2021) - albeit with a very different work, the video installation How it is made (2021), about a former Ukrainian factory from the post-soviet era in transition to a contemporary cultural center and all the tensions and dialogues that this creates between the old and new users. (fig.9) 17 A major difference between the Kyiv Biennial and the Pinchuk Art Centre, both of which are important in diversifying the Ukrainian art field, lies in financial resources: a grassroots Biennial that has no government or municipal subsidies (not available in Ukraine) and is dependent on foreign support has a harder time staying afloat than an oligarch's art center. This is evident from a comparison between the first and the fourth Biennial: where the former, thanks to international support, showed more than 100 artists and took place in buildings spread across the city, the latter is concentrated in one major building with significantly fewer artists. The European Union, including the Netherlands (which because of the MH17 tragedy, as Cherepanyn puts it, "shares with Ukraine victims in the same war")18 would do well to support this Biennial more structurally, as well as its underlying democratic drives through cross-border exchanges, collaborations and dialogue in the field of contemporary art. There are many ways to do this, and it is the right time.

1 It was a non-binding referendum, which the government did not have to approve. And it did not. So, the Netherlands also signed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

2 This artwork is on display until 16.01.2022 in the exhibition Ukraine. A Different Angle on Neighborhood at the International Cultural Center (ICC) in Krakow, Poland.

3 Vasyl Cherepanyn, interview with the author, Kiev, November 14, 2021.

4 'The School of Kyiv' was a radical idea to conceive of the Biennial as a forum where artists, curators and intellectuals come together to discuss and visualize the most important issues of the moment for Kiev, Europe and beyond - an event with the purpose of learning from Kiev, prompted by the Maidan situation.

5 Cherepanyn, conversation with the author, Kiev, November 14, 2021. For more information, see also https://news.artnet.com/art-world/curator-and-activist-viciously-attacked-in-kiev-123888

6 In: East Europe Biennial Alliance, "Kyiv Biennial – Allied (2021)." Preliminary program booklet designed by Wolfgang Schwärzler, 2021. A more comprehensive catalog/book, like the earlier Guidebook of the Kyiv International for the 2nd Biennial in 2017 will be published later. The website of the Kyiv Biennial can be found at https://kyivbiennial.org/en

7 There is an ongoing debate about the proper designation of the former Eastern Bloc countries (e.g., "Eastern," "Central," or "Eastern and Central Europe"), but in this review "Eastern Europe" will be used in conformity with the terminology of the East Europe Biennial Alliance.

8 For other goals and objectives, see the East Europe Biennial Alliance’s (EEBA) website: https://eeba.art/en

9 All images are photos byOleksandr Kovalenko unless otherwise indicated

10 The expansion of this map is not limited to Eastern Europe; Ireland, for example, has also doubled in size.

11 Jan Sowa, "What is Global East and Where to Find It? Rethinking the Universal," The House of Cinema, Blue Hall, Sunday, November 14, 5:00 pm.

12 The Biennial includes three exhibitions, the already mentioned Allied and Transperiphery Movement… and the curated video program Room to Bloom by the feminist platform, which I found less compelling.

13 These protests took place mainly in the west of the country, while the east continued to rally behind the pro-Russian president, threatening both a civil war and a split in the country.

14 Both groups are better known by their acronyms, R.E.P. and ISTM. For all the participating artists in the first Biennial, see the website "The School of Kyiv," http://theschoolofkyiv.org/participants

15 https://www.artdependence.com/articles/sometimes-they-love-it-sometimes-they-hate-it-interview-with-bjorn-geldhof-the-pinchukartcentre/. According to Geldhof, a new generation is now on its way, although it has not yet fully crystallized. Still politically and socially involved, but in a more individual way.

16 Around 2006, Pinchuk advocated more rapprochement between Ukraine and the European Union, but in 2016 he argued that Ukraine should choose peace with Russia and temporarily abandon the prospect of EU membership. The oligarch has a huge network of political friends from left to right, ranging from Leonid Kuchma, Vladimir Putin to Tony Blair, the Clintons and Donald Trump.

17 The Ukrainian artist duo had already won the national prize and then automatically competed for the interna-tional prize, The Future Generation Art Prize. However, that prize was won this year by the Afghan artist Aziz Hazara.

18 Vasyl Cherepanyn, interview with the author.

Sjoukje van der Meulen
(PhD Columbia University) is assistant professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Utrecht University with a research focus on contemporary art in the European Union

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2022