This is Not a Biennale
A behind-the-scenes look at the School of Kyiv, a radically different kind of contemporary art biennial that took place in Ukraine’s capital between September and November 2015.
The second Kyiv biennial — which goes by the name of The School of Kyiv — is an anomaly in virtually every respect, the name itself being a misnomer. Combining art exhibitions with performances and public lectures, the School of Kyiv purposefully evades categorization. The Kyiv biennial is neither a contemporary biennale in the traditional sense nor in fact a continuation of the first biennial, which actually took place three years back in 2012. The first Kyiv biennial had been a vanity project, generously funded by the ousted Yanukovych government to the tune of 6 million dollars. Glitzy, lavish and largely conventional, Kyiv’s first international art biennial was meant to impress and showcase renowned international contemporary artists to the Western and Muscovite beau monde. The biennial's first iteration has, however, become inextricably linked with the scandalous personality of its co-organizer Natalia Zabolotna, the director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal art museum. In the summer of 2013, she sparked a scandal by spray-painting over a mural she deemed “offensive to the homeland” the night before then President Yanukovych was meant to visit an exhibition commemorating the Christianization of Ukraine.
Despite being initially put off by the prospect of working with such a tainted institution, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer — two prominent Austrian curators — agreed to take on the job of organizing Kyiv’s second biennial just a few months before the start of the Maidan protests in November 2013. When it became increasingly clear that it would be impossible to follow through with the project given the political turmoil, the biennial — which had been originally slated to open in the fall of 2014 — was put tentatively on hold. Following the Maidan Revolution, the Kyiv biennial was back on the table, a new contract was signed with the Mystetskyi Arsenal, a state-run museum under the jurisdiction of Ukraine’s presidential administration, and the concept and list of participants were finalized by the beginning of 2015. But the money promised by the government never materialized. As the economic crisis deepened and the war in the Donbass escalated, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture decided to pull the plug on the project citing its inability to justify spending dwindling state resources on superfluous cultural events in a time of war. Just under six months before the planned opening of the biennial, the curators and Ukrainian organizers were left with no money, no suitable venue and little time to find a solution.
“The young people were the real pulling force behind the project” Hedwig admits, referring in particular to the activists from the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) — a fiercely independent organization working on the intersections of politics, culture and art. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the team of young and energetic Ukrainian organizers on the ground that new life was breathed into the project. During a short Skype conference call, the response from the Ukrainian side was enthusiastic and unanimous: the School of Kyiv needed to happen no matter what. Finding money was an uphill battle since — unable to apply for EU grants and funds on such short notice — the curators were forced to tap their professional networks to put together a patchwork of small contributions from a wide variety of international institutions. The announcement that the School of Kyiv would be launched as a completely independent project came as an embarrassment to the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and was allegedly a source of jealousy for Victor Pinchuk, a prominent Ukrainian oligarch and the country’s largest sponsor of contemporary art.
Unsettling Existing Institutions
The School of Kyiv seeks to disrupt the space it occupies by embedding itself in existing — often Soviet-era — institutions that have seen political regimes come and go without really changing on the inside. A prime example of this is the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, the center of Ukrainian institutional art. While the EU flag now hangs proudly above the main entrance, walking inside the building is like taking a step into the Soviet past. An intimidating old custodian lady sits stoically at the entrance keeping a close eye on the comings and goings. Monumental socialist realist paintings and sculptures line the walls of the long, poorly lit corridors. In the cafeteria, a group of Chinese students are told by the lady behind the till that lunch hour is over. For an institution that has fallen into such disrepair, these students have been lifeline, their tuition fees helping to keep the school afloat. Apparently, socialist realism is still held in high esteem in China.
The main auditorium with its expansive stage, high ceilings and cinema-style seating, identical to countless others across the former Soviet space, doubles as an exhibition space for the Kyiv biennial. “The biennial is in a constant state of becoming” Hedwig points out as the production team unpacks several late arrivals: a set of canvases by Ion Grigorescu, one of Romania's most renowned contemporary painters. The school’s assistant dean, wearing a black turtleneck and checkered suit jacket, inspects the exhibition with the exaggerated gravitas of a Soviet administrator, but the language barrier impedes him from talking directly to the Austrian curators. While most institutions lent their spaces to the biennial for a fee, their interest in the project isn't purely financial. There is a genuine — even if at times distrustful — curiosity on their part.
“It’s the first time they’ve ever been asked to take part in something like this. They like being part of a contemporary art project even if they feel a bit obsolete” says Vasyl Cherepanyn, the director of Kyiv's Visual Culture Research Center, when talking about the project’s relationship with Ukrainian institutions. The paintings along with an installation documenting the works of Mikhail Lifshitz, a prominent Soviet Marxist thinker, occupy this unusual space. There is something remarkably unsettling about placing contemporary art pieces in such an unlikely setting. And that’s exactly one of the School of Kyiv’s primary aims.
But the relationship between the biennial and participating Ukrainian institutions remains an uneasy one. The National Museum of Ukrainian History, a Soviet-era institution trying to reinvent itself as a patriotic Ukrainian museum, was supposed to host a School of Kyiv talk about different forms of modern fascisms. All seemed to be going smoothly until the biennial team realized that the “(Anti)fascism: real and virtual” Facebook event has been deleted without any prior warning in the early morning hours the day before the talk was to take place. The museum’s Facebook event disappeared just twelve hours after it had been created. “Who knows what their actual thought process was” says Lesya Prokopenko, the head of projects at the School of Kyiv. The biennial team seems hardly surprised. Tetyana Sosnovska, the recently appointed director of the museum may have been brought in to bring innovation, but old habits die hard in Ukrainian public institutions. Indeed, changing portraits, flags and symbols has been a means of survival for an entire generation of Soviet officials. Skepticism of anything too provocative and fear of getting in hot water with the higher-ups — whoever they may be — have remained entrenched in the upper echelons of the cultural and educational bureaucracies of the country.
A Beacon on a Hill: Soshenko 33
Perched on a scenic hill on the outskirts of the city, the Soshenko 33 Art Studios are housed in a dacha-like villa surrounded by greenery and vegetable patches. Built in 1949 by a retired KGB colonel on a plot of land given to him by the state after the war, the two-storied house has for the past sixty-five years been used as studio space for Soviet and Ukrainian artists. Under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Academy of Art in Moscow for the majority of the Soviet period, the studios were handed over to the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture after the country’s independence. Despite being under the watch of the central Moscow art apparatus, the Soshenko 33 studious remained largely disconnected from the restrictive reality of the Soviet art world. Besides the yearly inspections by a commission sent from Moscow, the rest of the time artists enjoyed a remarkable amount of freedom to experiment.
The exhibition housed in the building tells the story of the Soviet equivalent of an art commune where artists could escape the stranglehold of social realism, hidden away behind a thicket of trees on a peaceful hilltop away from the prying eyes of censors and bureaucrats. “It was a fantastic opportunity to fly under the radar, to leave the regulated Soviet art world. Moscow seemed far away and the artists who were residents here cherished their experiences ” says Anna Sorokova, an artist-caretaker of the studios who curates the exhibit. Artists often brought their families and children along, mingling with their art teachers in an informal and relaxed atmosphere. The appeal of the studios waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union as struggling Ukrainian artists rushed to try and sell their artwork abroad.
Having survived the economic difficulties of the 90s and early 2000s, the studios were suddenly confronted with the harsh realities of Ukraine under the Yanukovych regime. One day in the summer of 2012, demolition equipment appeared up at their doorstep with sturdy-looking men asking them to vacate the premises. The Ukrainian Artists Union had quietly “gifted” the plot to an infamous Kyiv construction company with close ties to then mayor Chernovetskyi. In return for his generosity, the head of the Artists Union pocketed enough money to assure himself a more than comfortable retirement. Transferring state property to private entities linked to the ruling business clan was a classical corruption scheme in Ukraine at the time.
“We went to go see a lawyer and his answer was: there’s nothing you can do” Anna recalls pointing to the pictures of the hideous rainbow-colored high-rise apartment complex that was supposed to be built on the site. Understanding the futility of a legal challenge, Anna and her colleague Taras Kovach mounted an impressive grassroots campaign, mobilizing the locals in the neighborhood. Neighbors and artists guarded the premises around-the-clock in alternating shifts, preventing the construction company from erecting a fence around the plot. They protested outside the Artists Union headquarters, sent petitions and letters to local politicians and managed to generate a significant amount of noise around the issue. Surprised with this kind of pushback, the construction company resorted to rather peculiar tactics. During the snowy winter of 2012–2013, they sent an Orthodox priest to the house to commit “some sort of exorcism ritual to expel our immoral artistic spirit”. That absurd scene was caught on video — showing a representative of the construction company blocking the camera with a cross as the priest chants in the background — and is now part of the exhibit.
In the end, a combination of the resistance movement’s partisan tactics and the fortuitous timing of the Maidan protests managed to bring the whole affair to an end. As the Maidan Revolution reached a tipping point, the construction company disappeared, abandoning its equipment in the process. The Sovshenko 33 Studios have since managed to acquire the status of a protected landmark, which they hope will safeguard them against any future assaults on their property. The head of the Ukrainian Artists Union, who stood to benefit from the corrupt deal has, however, managed to keep his job for the time being.
The future looks a bit less bleak at the moment. After several cats and dogs had been poisoned in the neighborhood, the artists reached out to the new Kyiv police for help. After coming by to investigate the matter, the young police officers took diligent notes and promised to keep an eye out. Before leaving, they even asked if they could drop by the art opening with their girlfriends. A sign of the times.
Life hasn’t been particularly easy for activist-artists in Ukraine. As Kyiv’s prime platform for politically engaged art, the Visual Culture Research Center and its staff have been the subject of censorship and harassment since they came into existence in 2008. Positioning itself as an “openly leftist” organization, the VCRC has had a strenuous relationship with state institutions and government officials. Natalka Neshevets, a member of the VCRC team and prominent Maidan activist, shares story after story of being under constant pressure for the center’s work and critical engagement with politically sensitive issues. In 2011 Alexander Volodarsky was sentenced to nine months of forced labor for simulating sexual intercourse in front of the Parliament building back in 2009. After organizing the Ukrainian Body exhibition in 2012, the VCRC was kicked out of its previous premises located in the Kyiv Mohyla Academy Library. The former president of the university — and current minister of education — Serhiy Kvit famously referred to the contemporary art exhibition on corporeality as a “piece of shit”.
The VCRC also spoke out forcefully against the country’s moral police which — in keeping with the Soviet tradition of awkward acronyms — was known as the National Expert Commission of Ukraine on the Protection for Public Morality or Natskommorali for short. Set up during Yuschenko’s tenure the commission was comprised of an oddball group of church officials and so-called public intellectuals that gained notoriety for trying to ban, among other things, The Simpsons, Bruno and South Park. Though the commission was among the first to be liquidated by the post-Maidan government, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the team since the Maidan Revolution. In early 2014, the center’s director Vasyl Cherepanyn was savagely beaten by a group of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, spending several weeks recovering in the hospital. The perpetrators have still to be identified.
The School of Kyiv has served as a way for the VCRC to turn a page and reaffirm itself as a central meeting point for political activism, research and contemporary art in Ukraine. Serving as the main venue for the School of the Displaced, the new space occupied by the VCRC is used to exhibit contemporary art pieces focusing on refugees, migrants and the stateless. The exploitation of Ghanaian migrants in Southern Italy, the story of an American whistleblower stuck in stateless limbo in Finland, the protest of Turkish youth against the gentrification of their neighborhoods, the work of Russian artists with displaced populations in Ukraine — the space includes subjects from near and far. Instead of exploiting the local — and more familiar — Ukrainian refugee crisis, the exhibition connects it to the global experiences of displacement.
For the moment, things are looking up for the VCRC, which counts Timothy Snyder, Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek among its supporters. As part of the School of Kyiv, the VCRC has been instrumental in bringing an impressive selection of speakers who have been eager to come talk in Kyiv despite the biennial's financial constraints. “Thinking people like to be in a place where there is hope in the air” says Masha Gessen, a well-known author and journalist, who came to Kyiv to participate in a series of talks on Russian totalitarianism. Indeed, a combination of genuine enthusiasm and critical engagement with contemporary intellectual thought permeates the air — a refreshing change from the existential malaise so common in the West and the prevailing cynicism in Russia. But Natalka and the rest of the team remain uneasy about the future. During commemorations of the newly instated Defender's Day in Ukraine, members of the far-right marched past many of the Kyiv biennial's venues. The organizers were visibly ill at ease, fearing the possibility of potential attacks. Their fears weren't unfounded — the VCRC is located across the street from the prison where a far-right extremist is held under charges of being behind a grenade attack on the parliament. There was a collective sigh of relief once the nationalist rally had ended peacefully.
Reflecting Ukraine’s Political Reality
“The guy who was supposed to have my job initially got drafted into the army” Daria Mykhailova, the biennial's production manager mentions in passing, pausing briefly in between answering a seemingly endless stream of phone calls. Kyiv may be 700km away from the fighting, but echoes of the war seep into even the most banal conversations. While the School of Kyiv organizers have been careful not to exploit Ukraine’s current humanitarian and political crisis for artistic purposes, it is impossible to escape the reality of a country at war. Though they may not be part of the exhibition, virtually everyone on the team of Ukrainian organizers has very personal stories to share about experiencing police violence during the Maidan, seeing friends being sent to fight or helping refugees displaced by the conflict. These lived experiences are as much a part of the School of Kyiv as the actual artwork on display.
Made up of a string of rectangular spaces interconnected by a series of escalators and staircases reminiscent of a Soviet metro station, the House of Clothes is the focal point of the biennial. Inside this gargantuan structure part of a larger — and unfinished — architectural ensemble from the early 1980s, a small room on the third floor serves as an office space for the team of 15 organizers. The collective lack of sleep is visible on their faces — the small crew is overstretched, taking care of 17 venues spread out across the city. Despite the cold October temperatures, the space doesn’t have any heating with people tapping away on their laptops wearing winter coats and scarves. Resources are limited and efforts are made to keep costs at a minimum. In the House of Artists across the street, a canteen-style café, outfitted with big leather couches and a rather bizarre décor of erotic photography on the walls, sometimes acts as the team’s unofficial cafeteria and watering hole. There is something gritty and refreshingly unassuming about the way the School of Kyiv organizers go about their work.
At the Dovzhenko Center, a former film-processing factory now housing Ukraine’s national film archive, dusty film reels share the space with video art pieces from across the world. Fragments from a 1970s Mozambican film about the national liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism, part of a series of works by Catarina Simão, share the space with satirical watercolors by Ukrainian artist-activist David Chichkan, presenting Russian imperialists and Ukrainian nationalists as mirror-images of one another, both seeking legitimacy in a toxic concoction of religion, masculinity and patriotism.
There's an eery dimness in the halls of the exhibition. A bright yellow election poster of monumental proportions, featuring a young mayoral candidate with the stern look of a car salesman, drapes over the entire eight-story building blocking off most of the natural light. Despite numerous complaints to the local administration, the canvas billboard remains: Ukrainian politics has a way of sneaking in uninvited.
The Promise of Change
Ignored by the Ukrainian government, snubbed by the glamorous art world, accused of being unpatriotic by Ukrainian nationalists and characterized as too "Europeanizing” by some Russian artists — there isn’t a shortage of people who seem to have a bone to pick with the Kyiv biennial. Indeed, the School of Kyiv makes a point of not playing by the rules, but without trying to grab any headlines. It’s an anti-biennale of sorts, a contemporary art event that is unglamorous to the point of being mistaken for dilettantism. But it's precisely its undiluted rawness, which makes the School of Kyiv so powerful. No fancy vernissages, no media hype — at times it's even unclear if what you're seeing is part of the exhibition.
Despite being labelled by the Ukrainian mainstream media as "elitist", the biennial has actually managed to place guest speakers, artists, participants and the audience on equal footing. There's little regard for public recognition and ideological conventions. Conservative neoliberals from the West share the lectern with feminist writers and Ukrainian anarchists. Talks critical of Ukraine's decommunization laws occur alongside a panel discussion about the weaponization of homophobia by Russian propaganda. Nothing is safe from critique and everything is open to deliberation — from Russian imperialism to the heteronormativity of gay marriage activism in the US.
At a time in Ukrainian history when people are desperately trying to make sense of the present, creating a safe public space for critical engagement with global intellectual debates is perhaps the School of Kyiv’s greatest achievement. Vasyl Cherepanyn, one of the co-curators of the School of Abducted Europe, firmly believes that “people need to think more, study more, learn more” — a courageous proposition to make in a time of war. The School of Kyiv may find itself marginalized from all sides, but it has managed to generate something of great importance: the belief in the possibility of a new beginning.