Ukraine’s defiance of the Russian invasion takes place not only in the military and political field, but also in the cultural field. In the very first days of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture turned to the United Nations with a call to impose cultural sanctions on Russia in addition to political, economic, sports and other sanctions — which would limit its cultural presence on the international scene. In the meantime, however, a number of local and international projects reflecting the impact of current war events on the Ukrainian artistic and cultural scene have been created and are being created.
In an international context
Ukraine is represented by several projects at the Venice Biennale, a world exhibition of contemporary fine art that began in April this year. Probably the most striking of them is the work Fountain of Exhaustion. High water by Kharkiv artist Pavel Makov. Water flows from top to bottom through the more than three-meter composition of seventy-eight bronze funnels, the stream of which symbolizing life gradually diminishes.
Pavel Makov — Fountain of Exhaustion. High Water, (1995). Presented at the 59th Venice International Biennale. Curators Boris Filonenko (IST Publishing, Kharkiv), Jelizaveta German and Marija Laňko (co-founders of The Naked Room, one of the most progressive and up-to-date galleries in Kyiv). Photo by ukrainianpavilion.org
The object from 1995 was originally designed as a work for the public space of Kharkiv, but it was never installed there. After a quarter of a century, the project reaches beyond the context of the industrial Eastern European city and becomes a common symbol of strength in the cultural, economic and political fields.
In the time of the pandemic, it has become more relevant than ever. And after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and one of the most serious bombings, Kharkiv is gaining importance and symbolism. At the press conference before the opening of the pavilion, Pavel Makov said about the installation and recontextualization of his work: “Behind every war is a cultural conflict.” In our case, it has been going on for hundreds of years.”
“Behind every war is a cultural conflict. In our case, it has been going on for hundreds of years.” Photo ukrainianpavilion.org
As part of this year’s Venice Biennale, the installation of Ukrainian architect Dana Kosminová Square of Ukraine (Piazza Ukraina) in the gardens (Giardini) was also presented. The concept of this project is based on the principle of a square — a space around the central dominant element, which is an installation made of sandbags. The same bags that are used to cover monuments all over Ukraine at this time to save them from destruction during shelling and bombing. The spatial construction of annealed wooden beams and columns delimiting the space of the “square” serves, among other things, as an exhibition panel for reproductions of the works of Ukrainian artists created since the beginning of the war.
Square of Ukraine (Piazza Ukraina) – Installation by Ukrainian architect Dana Kosminová. Presented at the 59th Venice International Biennale. Curators Boris Filonenko (IST Publishing, Kharkiv), Jelizaveta German and Marija Laňko (co-founders of The Naked Room, one of the most progressive and up-to-date galleries in Kyiv. Photo La Biennale di Venezia, Marco Cappelletti
The Paljanycja project by the Ukrainian artist Žanna Kadyrova has entered the public space of Venice. On the main road leading to the exhibition spaces of the Biennale, to the Arsenale and the Giardini, for the three opening days of the world art show, air raid sirens, which have become an inseparable part of Ukrainian life in the last three months, sounded at regular intervals.
Paljanycja means bread in Ukrainian, and it is by the character and accent of the pronunciation of this word that Ukrainian soldiers recognize members of Russian sabotage and intelligence groups. In her project, Žanna Kadyrovová created bread ovens made of stone as a distinctive artistic symbol of the teeth that the Russian aggressor breaks out in Ukraine.
Paljanycja – Žanna Kadyrová, Galerie Continua 2022. Photo ArtRabbit, Ivan Sautkin
People’s monument care
Directly on the territory of Ukraine, regardless of the state of war and the constant sound of sirens, there is a very active group for the protection of the local cultural heritage. If I talk about the systems of protection of historical monuments in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, I mean the “vernacular” system, i.e. sandbags, concrete formwork, wooden boards and the like. Anything that has been covered with all kinds of improvised materials becomes as valuable as the monument itself. This creates monuments on monuments that are eloquent symbols of the nation’s struggle, its creativity, wit and ingenuity, and last but not least, its love for its own heritage.
The Ukrainian artist Alexandr Burlaka responded to this phenomenon in his series of postcards. He accompanies his project created in cooperation with the creative laboratory platfor.ma with the explanation: “24. February 2022 Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this war, Ukrainians are not only protecting their freedom and lives, but also their culture and history. One of the symbols of this struggle became the monuments of the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, around which the inhabitants of the city carefully built protective structures. Platfor.ma decided to record this moment in our history. This is how the Kyiv wartime project was born: a set of postcards with monuments of the capital during the war. Glory to Ukraine!” Among other things, you can support the local art scene by ordering a series of postcards on this link.
Kyiv war, author Oleksandr Burlaka. Photo by platfor.ma, Oleksandr Burlaka
The Ukrainian interior designer Slava Babek has developed, as the opposite of the people’s natural creativity, a refined modular system for the protection of statues and monuments of various shapes. Such a generic method of proposed protection is, of course, subject to criticism by part of the lay and professional public.
Monument to Mikhail Hrushevsky in Kyiv – project RE: Ukraine monuments, author Slava Balbek. Photo by balbek.com
Dismantling the past
Unfortunately, however, there is another history in the relationship between society and monuments. I am referring to monuments from the times of the Soviet Union and especially those that are connected in one way or another with the glorification of history, Soviet ideology and the victory of the Union in the Second World War.
Since March of this year, a huge wave of decommunization has risen throughout Ukraine. It must be emphasized that this is a spontaneous wave, without consultation with the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine or other state institutions responsible for cultural heritage. In order for this behavior to gain legitimacy, at least in Kyiv, some members of the City Council presented a bill with a list of more than fifty monuments that must be dismantled. At this time, the law passed the first reading. Also in the Dnieper, discussions are taking place at the highest political level about the demolition or dismantling of more than a hundred monuments of the second half of the 20th century.
One of the most effective and significant dismantlings took place this April in Kyiv in the personal presence of the mayor of the city, Vitalij Kliček. The monumental sculpture of two workers (Ukrainian and Russian) situated under the Arch of Friendship of Nations and created in 1982 by the sculptor Oleksandr Skoblikov was demonstratively removed. The arch was subsequently renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian Nation.
In most of the participants, this demonstrative act caused genuine relief and enthusiasm. However, as Ukrainian art and architecture historian Yevgenia Molyarova writes in her column on the SupportYourArt website: “The emotional exhaustion of people tortured by war is really more important than material works.” So this sacrifice is justifiable. The crowd disperses, the enthusiasm quickly passes, but then how to justify the loss of the works of outstanding Ukrainian artists of the 20th century who had to live and work in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic? Eliminating visual manifestations of ideology and condemning ideology are not one and the same. Decommunization and derussification will be more effective if we use a sharp word or an exact simile instead of a flex. Today it is extremely important to demonstrate to the world a qualitatively new method of working with the tragic past of Ukraine. Civilized, without demolition and vandalism. Let’s prove to ourselves, the enemy and the world that Soviet ideological propaganda no longer works on Ukrainians, because we are not Soviets.”
One of the least understandable accompanying phenomena of the new wave of decommunization is the fact that, in addition to the monuments, their entire surroundings, which are often not burdened by any ideology, are being bulldozed. And not only that. These architectural forms often fulfilled the important role of social public spaces. In April of this year, the Memorial of Glory (“Eternal Flame”) was dismantled in the city of Drohobych in western Ukraine. Apart from the fire itself, the sculpture in the shape of a star, the entire architecture of the monument, which formed a special public space in the center of the city, was destroyed.
Dismantling of the “Eternal Fire” glory memorial in Drohobyč. Photo drohobych-rada.gov.ua
Moreover, the demolitions are not only aimed at symbols of the wartime past. In Ukraine, statues of writers, cultural figures or simple symbols of Soviet times are now being dismantled: pioneers and workers, coats of arms and emblems, streets and squares are being renamed.
And the Russian occupiers, on the contrary, are starting to restore statues of Lenin in the captured territories, as happened, for example, in Nová Kachovce — which is the most absurd, unpredictable and surreal reflection of the whole problem. In her column, Jevgenija Moljarová points out that the practice of “destruction/recovery” is completely ineffective.
“We must get out of this paradigm and finally free ourselves from the dictates of Soviet propaganda. Because if a person or a community is vulnerable and so sensitive to ideological propaganda, the liquidation of monuments will not help us. New ones will appear in the place of fallen idols. In place of the historical manipulations of the past, the political technologies of the future will emerge to suppress freedom. It is important to learn to see propaganda, to understand its essence and methods. Then the monuments of the past will cease to pose a threat to the present society, countries and nations,” he concludes.
Translated from Russian by ZBYNĚK MICHÁLEK.
The project City/Forum for a more tolerable everyday life is the result of a collaboration between the collective 4AM, zs and the Center for Media, Ecology and Democracy, zs (CMED). It is financially supported by a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
Source: Deník referendum by denikreferendum.cz.
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