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Kiev biennial gives hope to Ukraine's artists

Biennial's impressive venue to become museum featuring national and international contemporary art

Jake & Dinos Chapman's The Almighty Disappointment, 2011

What is the point of Kiev's international biennial? When this latest addition to the bloated international art circuit was announced earlier this year, it felt like an extreme example of "soft power", with the Ukrainian government exploiting its more appealing assets, such as its cultural heritage, to improve its standing in the international community. After all, if you're going to reinvent a place, why not throw in a biennial for good measure?

If a curator drops into a city, however, pays lip service to its culture, patronises the local population and then disappears, there will be little chance of a lasting legacy. The Kiev Biennale of Contemporary Art (until 31 July) avoids this trap. Based in the striking Mystetskyi Arsenal, a vast former weaponry store, and organised by the British-born curator David Elliott, its trump card is the strong national element of the show with works on display by 22 Ukrainian artists, most of them worthy of their place on this prestigious new platform in Kiev.

This crop of artists are not, however, the country’s only cultural trailblazers. Elliott says that Kiev "has a deep-rooted cultural tradition stretching back far beyond the Middle Ages. Orthodox Christianity was imported there from Constantinople and the city also has strong links to modernism; Malevich was born in Kiev and Tatlin worked there for many years, for instance". However, “Ukraine as we know it today is a new nation,” he stresses.

This post-Soviet state is suffering from image problems. European Union leaders have protested about the plight of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko who is serving seven years in jail for “criminally exceeding her powers” after signing a gas deal with Russia, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, the singer-songwriter and art collector Elton John recently pleaded for Ukrainians to be more tolerant of gay men and women after a vicious attack on a gay rights activist. The Ukrainian parliament has debated a draft law that would outlaw homosexuality.

Cue contemporary art: a useful re-branding tool for beleaguered nations. The biennial is a major stroke of cultural diplomacy, especially as the Ukraine aspires to join the European Union. For now, the city authorities of Kiev and the culture ministry appear committed to furthering the arts, providing half of the biennial's $4.5m budget, with the remainder coming from sponsors.

“For many Ukrainian people, their first experience of contemporary art was seeing Damien Hirst's dead cows and flies at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev [launched by the billionaire Victor Pinchuk in 2006]. This created an ambiguous attitude to international contemporary art so we had to convince the city authorities that it was worth organising a biennial,” says Nataliia Zabolotna, the director general of Mystetskyi Arsenal, and a high-profile figure in the Ukrainian contemporary art world.

The biennial's venue is due to become “one of the world's largest museum and exhibition complexes”, she says. “The museum will represent the art of the people who have inhabited the territory of Ukraine throughout the past several thousand years, as well as contemporary Ukrainian art, and also masterpieces of international art.” The scale of her ambition is impressive, with the museum project, which is being overseen by the ministry of culture, a tangible cultural objective. Even with the Mystetskyi Arsenal it will be a big task to turn Kiev into an international culture capital. Zabolotna is encouraged that key “opinion-makers”, including Nicholas Cullinan, the curator of international art at London's Tate Modern, have visited Kiev to sample the biennial.

If the national museum fulfills it potential, its greatest impact should be felt among homegrown artists in light of Zabolotna's pledge that the new institution will acquire works by some of the Ukrainian artists featured in the biennial. “[The exhibition] demonstrates that strong artists practice here,” says Elliott. The biennial justifies his assertion: most of the 22 Ukrainian artists are showing intelligent, arresting works, including Sergey Zarva whose grotesque distortions of individuals depicted on the front covers of Ogonyok, the USSR equivalent of Life magazine, satirises propaganda imagery. The Kiev-born artist Lesya Khomenko’s “Polar Bear Swimmers” series of paintings, 2007, is also original and arresting.

"The first aim of the biennale is to introduce Ukrainian art to the world and place Ukrainian artists in a global context. Our aim of modernising cultural policy involves representing Ukrainian artists in the international art world. We wanted to take these artists out of the ghetto, so to speak, in one quick step,” Zabolotna says. “We also want to reclaim Ukrainian artists who were finding their way to the international art scene through Russian galleries.”

The protests that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the determination to emerge from centuries of subjugation to Russia, pervades the biennial. The German artist Lutz Becker's video work The Scream, 2012, a montage of segments from the films of Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1894-1956) made between 1927 and 1935, shows labourers struggling physically and emotionally with the demands of the Soviet dictatorship. Showing such a work in Kiev would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.

The Chapman brothers’ piece The Almighty Disappointment, 2011, which consists of numerous skeletal figures in black uniforms featuring Nazi-style insignia, is also particularly loaded in a city that was occupied by German forces from 1941 to 1943. The Chapmans have radically re-imagined history, showing the elite corps of the Nazi's supporting, rather than reviling, modernism in the infamous 1937 Munich exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (degenerate art).

The impact of these works cannot be overestimated in the Ukrainian capital where contemporary art remains, to a degree, an unknown property. “The Mystetskyi Arsenale is very popular among audiences keen on cultural activities and has set a new standard for exhibitions. Ukraine is only now adjusting to [the idea of] contemporary art; now is the time to launch other projects of a similar standard,” says Pavlo Gudimov, the curator at the Ya Gallery Art Centre in Kiev.

Other Ukrainain art professionals strike a note of caution. “This was an outstanding event for Kiev as an emerging city, though it has many deep cultural problems. The Ukrainian art scene is isolated rather than open to the wider international [community],” says Vova Vorotniov, a Kiev-based artist participating in the biennial.

So who has benefitted most from the biennial: the artists themselves or the city authorities? “I think the biennial team itself has benefitted the most. I do have some doubts about the city, because its [leaders] do not think with a global perspective; regarding the plight of young artists, it would be too cynical to talk about benefits as they are on the edge of survival,” Vorotniov says. Indeed, the city may well falter but let’s hope that the biennial, a potential lifeline for Ukrainian artists, endures.

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18 Jul 12
15:41 CET


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