Review of the Exhib­it At the Front Line: Ukrain­ian Art, 2013-2019
Jes­si­ca Zychow­icz | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

On Feb­ru­ary 26, 2020, OSEREDOK Ukrain­ian Cul­tur­al and Edu­ca­tion­al Cen­tre in Win­nipeg opened the visu­al art exhib­it At the Front Line: Ukrain­ian Art, 2013-2019. More than a ret­ro­spec­tive, the works on dis­play fea­tured con­tem­po­rary art from Ukraine to explore ques­tions about the role of art in a time of cri­sis. Curat­ed by Svit­lana Biedarie­va (Cour­tauld Insti­tute of Art) and Ania Deikun (Cen­tro de Inves­ti­gación y Docen­cia Econonómi­cas), a ver­sion of the exhib­it was dis­played in 2019 at the Nation­al Muse­um of Cul­tures in Mex­i­co City, where both cura­tors cur­rent­ly live and work.

Artists includ­ed the film­mak­er Myko­la Rid­nyi, visu­al artist Alevti­na Kakhidze, Svit­lana Biedarie­va, Piotr Armi­anovs­ki, Lada Nakonech­na, Olia Mykhail­iuk, Yevhen Niki­forov, and Zhan­na Kady­ro­va. The cura­tors write, “Expres­sions for and against par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tions form the core of the exhi­bi­tion, which focus­es on heavy top­ics relat­ed to the caus­es of the vio­lence and dis­place­ment of the past six years—as well as artis­tic and media respons­es to it. The task of the artist is to rep­re­sent these con­di­tions of hope and despair and to show tur­bu­lent life through a human lens, trans­gress­ing the bor­der­lines set by polit­i­cal con­flict” (Exhib­it Cat­a­logue). Images by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Yev­ge­nia Belorusets, for exam­ple, uti­lized doc­u­men­tary forms from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Many of the works could be read as a cri­tique of the nor­mal­iza­tion of a war sit­u­a­tion. In Belorusets’ works, for exam­ple, by show­ing the faces and voic­es of the coal min­ers who labor dai­ly, as they have for decades upon decades in the Don­bas indus­tri­al basin, even while liv­ing close to the mil­i­tary and sep­a­ratist-con­trolled zones of East Ukraine.

The expe­ri­ence of being on the front line of a war is now, more than ever, a uni­ver­sal one. The term “front line” became ubiq­ui­tous in world media in 2020. Amidst the pan­dem­ic, we can see that there is no ene­my force at the oppo­site of the front line, because there can nev­er be a full retreat from loss, sick­ness, or amne­sia. Where the exhib­it once ref­er­enced mil­i­tary con­flict, the lock­down that occurred after its open­ing brings a new set of mean­ings to it; the front line appears even more uni­ver­sal than before, and, as many of the images sug­gest, does not mark ter­ri­to­ry, but language.

Con­tin­gency sur­round­ing this exhib­it intro­duced rede­f­i­n­i­tions of “frozen con­flict” and “defence strat­e­gy” that may have, from the out­set, only appeared to apply to mil­i­tary con­flict, but in the span of only a few months, inoc­u­lat­ed a dif­fer­ent glob­al vocab­u­lary hear­ken­ing back to the days of the Bubon­ic Plague. At the Front Line opened just before the lock­down began in Cana­da and end­ed up remain­ing in the muse­um through­out the sum­mer, trans­mit­ted online in vir­tu­al tours and talks.

a mural depicting miners and workers combines Ukrainian folkart woodcut with Soviet era socialist realismRoman Minin, Plan of Escape from the Donet­sk Region, dig­i­tal print on sin­tra, 2011. Pho­to cred­it: Nor­bert K. Iwan

The exhibit’s instal­la­tion into OSEREDOK, a paragon for cul­ture in the Ukrain­ian dias­po­ra, was unprece­dent­ed in bring­ing, for the first time, a com­pos­ite of con­tem­po­rary art in Ukraine to the shores of Cana­da. Some of the works exper­i­ment­ed with folk motifs in new for­mats, for exam­ple, the wood­cut print by Roman Minin fea­tur­ing Sovi­et social­ist-real­ist aes­thet­ics of work­ers in the Don­bas to com­ment on the expe­ri­ence of dis­place­ment. Today, Cana­di­an-Ukraini­ans have a unique van­tage from which to under­stand the present sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine. Many can recall one’s par­ents’ or grand­par­ents’ sto­ries of dis­place­ment from Europe at the time of the Sec­ond World War, and also, emi­gra­tion to Cana­da in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. The expe­ri­ence of immi­gra­tion and dis­place­ment, of “being oth­er” may nev­er be over­come, but can instead be trans­formed into rare insights that pro­vide unique glimpses into resilience that can facil­i­tate wider accep­tance of oth­ers. Only with and through dia­logue with oth­ers can we rein­vent a new way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, a dif­fer­ent optics, and a more nuanced method of know­ing, per­haps, through expe­ri­ences that defy easy cat­e­go­riza­tion or divi­sion into “us” and “them,” “friend vs. “foe.” Such divi­sion is the province of the author­i­tar­i­an­ism that many artists and oth­ers in East­ern Europe sought to escape, resist, and dis­man­tle. Wal­ter Ben­jamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion” that putting an end to war may be beyond the capac­i­ty of art, yet images can expand our abil­i­ty to more ful­ly account for its ram­i­fi­ca­tions. The cura­tors of this exhib­it take a sim­i­lar stance in their state­ment, enti­tled “Art as a Mir­ror of the War” : “The role of art in the con­text of war is to be a mir­ror for soci­ety, with all its imper­fec­tions and the con­tra­dic­tions that can be found in the peo­ple sur­round­ing us” (Exhib­it Cat­a­logue, 9). a defunct brick factory smokestack is transformed by an art installation into a giant tube of lipstickYev­gen Niki­forov, On the Republic’s Mon­u­ments, pho­tographs, 2015-18

Many of the works jux­ta­posed past and present, such as Yev­gen Nikiforov’s pho­tographs of Sovi­et-era mon­u­ments to the Red Army in “On the Repubic’s Mon­u­ments.” These jux­ta­po­si­tions raise many ques­tions: How have the moments of rev­o­lu­tion and war in Ukraine been repeat­ed and/or shift­ed mem­o­ries of place, as a process in rec­og­niz­ing, defin­ing, and inhab­it­ing for dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions and their expe­ri­ences of polit­i­cal upheaval? Where are the points of con­ti­nu­ity in these expe­ri­ences? Depar­tures? How can new lives be forged?

The his­tor­i­cal ties between Cana­da and Ukraine are well-known through­out the world. Cana­da has sus­tained eco­nom­ic part­ner­ship with Ukraine as part of the Trade Agree­ment that was signed between the two coun­tries in order to help sta­bi­lize the region in the onslaught of the mil­i­tary con­flict. This part­ner­ship also sig­nals Canada’s sup­port for Ukraine’s sign­ing of the Euro­pean Union Acces­sion Agree­ment in 2016, a con­di­tion that pro­tes­tors on the Maid­an had demand­ed. In place of a chronol­o­gy, the exhib­it brought into view the expe­ri­ences of many recent­ly dis­placed from Ukraine’s con­flict zone for old­er waves of Cana­di­an-Ukraini­ans. A gen­er­a­tion lat­er, the Cold War has ced­ed to the Rus­sia-Ukraine war in a cru­el twist of his­to­ry that none could have anticipated.

When in Novem­ber 2013 the Pres­i­dent Vic­tor Yanukovych sus­pend­ed the nego­ti­a­tions with the Euro­pean Union about the asso­ci­a­tion agree­ment, peace­ful protests emerged on Kyiv’s cen­tral square, or Maid­an, in Kyiv. The rigid­i­ty of the gov­ern­ment and the bru­tal­i­ty of the police led to the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of the anti-gov­ern­men­tal move­ment that formed the oppo­si­tion. The annex­a­tion of the Crimea and sub­se­quent Russ­ian mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of the Don­bas region fol­lowed in 2015-16. The out­break of vio­lence trapped thou­sands of Ukraini­ans in the con­di­tions of an ongo­ing war between Rus­sia and Ukraine. Sev­en years onward the Crimea and Don­bas remain occu­pied, the most recent UN Rights Office lists the offi­cial com­bat death toll at 13,000 deaths, while over 1.5 mil­lion civil­ians have been dis­placed from their homes. Muse­ums and oth­er cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions have not been spared. The cul­tur­al cen­tre Izoly­at­sia, once locat­ed on a for­mer indus­tri­al site in the now-occu­pied city of Donet­sk, was turned into a prison by the sep­a­ratist mil­i­tary forces. Site-spe­cif­ic instal­la­tions before the occu­pa­tion fea­ture in the exhibit:

art installation of metal cubes with colored glass plates in the courtyard of a defunct factoryDaniel Buren, Dans les filets la couleur, site-spe­cif­ic instal­la­tion, 2012, “Izoly­at­sia” Plat­form for Cul­tur­al Ini­tia­tives, Donet­sk. Pho­to cred­it: Dima Sergeev
large Soviet World War 2 Red Army monument with graffitti covered by a green cloth in an urban park

Pas­cale Marthine Tay­ou, Make Up … Peace!, site-spe­cif­ic instal­la­tion, 2012, “Izoly­at­sia” Plat­form for Cul­tur­al Ini­tia­tives, Donet­sk. Pho­to cred­it: Rus­lan Semichev

The arrival of a new gen­er­a­tion speak­ing about war in the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry ush­ers in a lex­i­con that is broad enough to encom­pass dif­fer­ences, but acute enough to pay respects to those whose bod­ies face harm not by choice, but by cir­cum­stance. Ukraine and all liv­ing in Ukraine today, with­in or at the edge of mil­i­tary con­flict zones, have left behind the post-Sovi­et sym­bol­ic order, enter­ing a new era of glob­al­iza­tion with increas­ing­ly diverse and intri­cate forms for self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Social ecolo­gies can lend them­selves to habit­u­al ways of remembering/forgetting, and can come to shape a par­tic­u­lar his­to­ri­og­ra­phy that is then trans­mit­ted between gen­er­a­tions, cre­at­ing a kind of feed­back loop. We might not have expect­ed to think about the medieval in a show about con­tem­po­rary art, but the qual­i­ties once applied to art begin to resur­face in a dia­logue between form and loca­tion that starts to take on shades of the prophet­ic. The mur­al “The Mor­phol­o­gy of War” stands out not only because it is by one of the cura­tors, Svit­lana Biedarie­va, but in its form: a visu­al cita­tion of Guer­ni­ca. How­ev­er, in the pan­dem­ic, the mur­al now man­i­fests a dif­fer­ent genre linked to untime­ly death—its danc­ing fig­ures begin to take shape in a “Danse Macabre” from the time of the plague in the late Mid­dle Ages. The mes­sage once being that all, no mat­ter one’s rank in life, are lev­elled by nature’s grave, when viewed here, in the con­text of the oth­er works, the human destruc­tion of one anoth­er in mil­i­tary con­flict appears all the more futile.

mural drawing in black and white with several half-human half-animal figures in a line also a female centaurSvit­lana Biedarie­va, The Mor­phol­o­gy of War, dig­i­tal print on HP wall­pa­per, 2017

The impacts of the war on dai­ly expe­ri­ence have led to a new visu­al lan­guage that the works in this exhib­it explore as a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non. They make vis­i­ble where the front line is lived and anchored, eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly teth­ered to a time and place—the pro­duc­tion of bor­ders and mil­i­ta­riz­ing of soci­eties between Ukraine and Rus­sia. They also reveal where the front line is bro­ken, per­me­able, or non-exis­tent. Per­haps the role of art in a time of cri­sis is to show us what is eter­nal, illus­trat­ing the resilience of human­i­ty. We now live on many dif­fer­ent front line(s), simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. But we always have.

All images used with permission.

Dr. Jes­si­ca Zychow­icz recent­ly pub­lished the mono­graph Super­flu­ous Women: Art, Fem­i­nism, and Rev­o­lu­tion in Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Ukraine (Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press 2020). She is cur­rent­ly based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta in the Con­tem­po­rary Ukraine Stud­ies Pro­gram (CUSP).She was a U.S. Ful­bright Schol­ar in Area Stud­ies 2017-2018 to the Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Kyiv-Mohy­la Acad­e­my. She has been a Fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Munk School of Glob­al Affairs; a Vis­it­ing Schol­ar at Upp­sala University’s Insti­tute for Russ­ian and East Euro­pean Stud­ies in Swe­den; and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in talks and res­i­den­cies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of St. Andrews in Edin­burgh, NYU's Cen­ter for Euro­pean and Mediter­ranean Stud­ies, the Baltic Cen­ter for Writ­ers and Trans­la­tors, and oth­ers. She earned her doc­tor­ate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and holds a degree in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture from U.C. Berkeley.