The Path to Follow
And if turning to mankind in these days
I reveal how like an arrow the century flies
And indeed from this band of days
Did war take wing some archaic, unspoken glyph?
Is art needed in wartime? In revolution or terrorist strikes? And what is its role in this event? Theodor Adorno spoke about the impossibility of writing poetry after the events at Auschwitz, while Baudrillard, conversely, wrote about the September 11 attacks as some new form of performance.
Now, when we are brought in as witnesses and participants of this inevitability, presenting itself as the most serious era in this recent half-century of global political cooling, and threatening to become a lingering ice age, the question of possibilities and impossibilities arises organically: is it possible for an artist to work in these times? Is it ethically defensible to continue to paint when only a few hundred kilometers distant people are being killed? Is the artist entitled to his claims of exclusivity as is so often repeated? And what does art help us to express, if indeed it expresses anything, and what shape will the course of its further development take?
During the early December protests, and not marred by the horror of the first human victims, it has been repeated often that Maidan was transformed into a great collective creative action, some form of installation and simultaneous performance. A folk creative spirit, placards of grassroots initiatives, street art – all struck one as, frankly, far more interesting than any possible reflection on a given theme presented at an exhibition. This universal inclusivity of the creative process, even in its naïve and excessively ornamental earliest manifestations, would provide a subsequent boost to alternative approaches in institutional development of the Ukrainian artistic field. Yet this phenomenon was not destined to evolve further, interrupted as it was in mid-winter, by the violence unleashed by the government.
All effort now concentrates on the protection of life, defense, offense. Yet, certain creative forms continue to be manifest in political demonstrations, from the protest against the French sale of “Mistral” warships to Russia which ended with the defacement of the Russian Embassy, and which, did not originate as an art event for obvious reasons, but whose results even the boldest radical artist might rightly envy. The dripping artwork on the embassy walls remained a long while before workers were able to remove it. It became, so to speak, a collective artwork in urban space.
It is now abundantly clear that though during these protests the potential of collective creative action was on display, the reform of the artistic domain (and society as a whole) remains a somewhat utopian project. It is also clear that the process will take time, and meanwhile, more familiar artistic forms, exhibitions, projects, residencies, and all the rest are not ever going away. Yet the question remains: what exactly do these forms offer? What do they portend for those involved and for the audience?
Since the end of February a considerable number of solo and group projects has been completed which touch on the subject of the protest movement in one way or another. Most, however, exploit Maidan rather than attempt to reflect on the forces at work in society. These projects give voice to banal concepts like “ours”, “unity”, “despair”, “a new country” and so on. There is a sense that the objective should be to work out the theme of Maidan without too much concern about what it produces, because serious reflection on these events requires time at the very least.
Still, over the last several months several projects have appeared that differ radically from the norm described here. One – the Postcards from Maidan project – is a traveling exhibition that is making its way around arts centers outside Ukraine. The project is distinct in that it was initiated by artists working in the Kadygrob_Taylor Contemporary Art Platform immediately following the tragic events of February 18th – 20th. The artists went to Kyiv’s Aleksandrivsky Hospital to talk with the wounded protesters to record and depict their stories. The project’s merit lay its status as a kind of unofficial chronicle of these events put together from the stories gathered by artists and volunteers, and acting as a kind of art therapy session. Some of the drawings were donated to the protesters as a kind of moral support. What’s more, it was an attempt to bypass the common, and compulsory “gallery exhibition” approach. The project has still not been exhibited in Ukraine in an exhibition space, but held to its open-source format: artwork, including sketches of battlegrounds, in postcard form that resonated with spirit of those on Maidan. The images are also available for download and printing, making it possible to overcome the notorious distance between a work of art and its observer.
Another – entitled “After the Victory” – was held at the Yermilov Center in late-May early-June. What distinguished this event was the discussion format designed as if unrelated to recent events, but explores the concept of communal memory of World War II (the project was conceived of a year earlier). It uncovers a number of the prerequisites leading to the current conflict, in particular, the manipulation of the historical memory and the assessment of events, in this case World War II. How is it that the recollection of the world’s single greatest tragedy has been transformed into a collection of artificially engineered images in the service of propaganda and a means of manipulating popular consciousness? The project also explores the theme of hazard and relates directly to these most recent tragic events, the slaughter on Maidan and in the Donbas, and how they may be the building blocks of a new received ideology, and thus, mythology. Of no small import for a contextualized grasp of this event is the fact that Kharkiv since last Spring is now effectively on the frontier of the war, its government quarter barely escaping capture unlike other cities in the east. Perhaps in Kyiv the project does not resonate quite so acutely, but in the increasingly polarized city of Kharkiv, the opportunity to open a place for debate for a time with this exhibition was vital to the organizers.
Finally, a most unexpected (for me) project was the zhUzhalka Group exhibition entitled “Five Minutes To…” It surprised not only with the simplicity of its clear and original language, but also with the idea that, departing from its local context, it acquires an unexpected and semi-fantastic, yet accessible shape even for those whom the current situation carries little significance. How resonant is the creators’ imagined city of Rzhavchino, given the very real existence of its prototype? The depiction of a society’s abiding stagnation in the nostalgic fog of the Soviet past is combined with aspects of chaos theory and the function of self-organizing systems. When the system stops developing and receiving its nourishment from an external source, it begins to lose its rigor and may result in an irreversible bifurcation leading to its collapse and chaos. Despite the fact that the concept of the project was conceived only a few months prior to the start of the coming historical events, and that the authors by their own admission, did not even imagine the possibility of protest movements in the foreseeable future, the project captured cleanly – and in nearly inexplicably cogent imagery – foresaw the state of the social system of the time and of its sudden collapse. The exhibition opened a day after the signing of the notorious “Dictator Laws” on January 16, 2014, just two days before the onset of the earliest street fighting on Kyiv’s Hrushevskoho Street – the point at which it can be stated that society reached its bifurcation point on a nearly daily basis.
In addition, it soon became apparent that even projects unrelated to the events on Maidan or the war, began to be evaluated in an entirely different fashion. This touches again on projects affecting or concerning personal themes like Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, which was viewed in March in a very different way than it had been the previous November. Under other circumstances, I would have taken the Open Cluster “Biography” project at the Pinchuk Art Centre would as just another “work on a given theme”, reworking the conceptual approach of incorporating personal and external contributions from others (audience involvement) in an artist’s work. But now, each of these stories responding to queries from the artists, acquire another sense – in particular when you find yourself in a hall watching your friend on the screen who seems to be talking about this or that from his own life, but is followed up by the phrase “I just got back from captivity in Slavyansk.”
In point of fact, these events described here pose clear challenges to art. Will artists serve as a functioning critique, researchers in the recasting of reality, or will they serve as instruments in the fashioning of a new, sanctioned mythology, promoting the official line, canonizing official depictions of what happened?
Unfortunately, among all the horror that war heaps on society, among the surfeit of human casualty, one horror least mentioned is that of reductionist thought. The adoption of the forced division between “us” and “them”, and resultant of the dismissal of critical thought, a loss of empathy and other unwelcome consequences.
All this discussion about the risk of the potential of manipulation of our recent history is all too real, all too practical. Much attention has already been given in an attempt to reconstruct these events into some sort of received mythology. Too much has already been applied directly to any attempts to turn the recent events in the official myth. Consider the expediency of engraining the “Heroes Never Die” mantra into popular consciousness while, in fact, heroes continue to die, to be maimed, to be disenfranchised (except for the lucky few), and their due State and public support called into question. And all the while endless discussions on the competition for the memorial of the Heavenly Hundred are ongoing, and students in art schools learn to paint portraits of the once oppositional now majority political leadership. The self-aggrandizing PR of some artist applying rose-colored spots on the Trade Union building façade (the symbol that of blood of the Heavenly Hundred) and its replacement by the Klitschko team’s “Glory to the Heroes!” banner are acts along the same lines: efforts to appropriate in some manner the right to speak about the tragedy of this place, this mass grave, and offer some dressed-up version of these heroic acts of self-sacrifice.
Someone even less principled might take up the cause of derision and aim their invective at “the damn Muscovites” instead of “the damn skinhead thugs”. “The image of the other” has already been fashioned by each side, but is this kind of confrontation able to be overcome? I say, yes, though not with art serving as some sort of counter-propaganda: “Look, here are some people from the East (or the West), some of the good ones.” It doesn’t address the issue of separatism or special relations with the regions in question.
What, then, can an artist offer in return? It is clear that one way is to assume the approach of a documentarian – carefully collecting real stories, and so abandoning any attempts to distort the original message by filtering it through one’s own experience. In truth, society is sorely lacking in straightforward documentation, despite the speed and volume of the flow of information. Similarly, those who have become witnesses and participants of historical events need to be listened to, to come into contact with their hearers. Even with documentation and promotion, however, this type of contact may not come about, simply because the consumer of this information is so adapted to propagandistic tropes, and the kind of “historical truth” they can handle.
To solve this problem we have to resort to another path – that of critical rethinking by means of art. Art can aid in articulating the problem, create a discussion forum to serve a platform for addressing problematic areas and questions (one objective of the “After the Victory” project). A formula of this type of discussion (not mine) is the chance “to reset”, when participants agree during the discussion to “wipe the record clean”, to limit their hold on the past and (potentially) the future. One may argue about the effectiveness of this method, but it at least deserves to be tried. “I don’t agree with your opinion, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
There is yet a third way. When it comes to war in art, antiwar posters and similar works are usually the first topic raised. Is not, however, most of the work produced in the time between the World Wars and the post-War period associated directly with the war effort? No, rather more of it was attached to themes of the absurdity of their surroundings, and the acutely painful sensation of corporeality in which human life had ceased to have any value. The paintings of Bacon from the late-1940s don’t depict soldiers at all, yet there is a sense that he is best positioned to express the state of physical human tragedy in a context stripped of meaning.
Every day brings more and more conflict, in comparison with which pales any absurdist experiments by the Union of Real Art. The creative act as a means of surviving this current nightmare does not consist of distancing oneself completely from reality but rather working through it, and comprehending by means of art. But is it possible these days? Art as catharsis, as therapy. Can an installation be opened called “You may weep here”?
Finally, a fourth way, an all-out program – the creation of art using a new language, a new paradigm, a new vision. Art that works with form and potential of perception and compels the viewer to do that half of the work that depends on him, and which results in a work of art. Art aims to form a consciousness that will not resort to any spiritual gimmick , or mercurial slogans about “death to enemies”. Art that is ready to explore forms of intuition at another, deeper level. If it seems like a utopian dream, but who said we couldn’t be utopian in addressing these issues?
For the artist who truly desires to transform through art, and not merely in the institutional sphere of art, there are several approaches outlined here. Some are more realistic, some more utopian, but all have the right to exist. Certainly, the transformation of consciousness won’t be solved overnight, or in the next few months or years, but this is the path we must be on. Perhaps, in all sincerity, moving on to new modes of consciousness that may save humanity. “Perhaps that new man has already appeared; you just can’t see him yet.”