The PinchukArtCentre, a contemporary art venue in Kyiv, has been awarding its biannual prize to Ukrainian artists aged 35 or younger since 2009. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, priorities shifted and the PinchukArtCentre Prize was transformed—as reflected in the exhibition of its 18 shortlisted artists that opened on 7 December (running until 30 April). Works range from videos of tanks to musings on memory and loss and ideas for post-war reconstruction.
The exhibition’s curators, Ksenia Malykh and Oleksandra Pogrebnyak, tell The Art Newspaper that although they started working on the show almost a year ago, after the invasion they “paused this process because we felt a need to shift to a more activist position” of advocating for Ukraine. “We worked as a kind of agency to show the world Ukrainian contemporary art in times when every Ukrainian voice is so important,” they say, organising 20 exhibitions all over Europe, including a collateral event at the 59th Venice Biennale and a series of exhibitions documenting Russian war crimes. The latest of these Russian War Crimes exhibitions, which ran from 29 November to 9 December at the UK Parliament, was opened by Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, and Victor Pinchuk, the steel billionaire and collector who founded the Kyiv art centre.
“When the situation in Kyiv became more safe, we continued our conversations about the exhibition with shortlisted artists for the prize,” say Malykh and Pogrebnyak. “With the majority of the artists, it felt similar to starting from the very beginning. The context changed extremely and also the ideas for the works.”
The exhibition is being staged in a new set of extreme circumstances, with Russia reportedly launching missile attacks on Ukraine to destroy critical infrastructure.
“Both our team and artists were in fact working in the circumstances of constant blackouts, rocket strikes and air raid alerts,” say the curators. “Being in very close dialogue with each of them, it was extremely supportive to deal with all the unpredictable situations together. From our electricians, we received a beautiful device with an autonomous battery; they knew that half of the construction and set-up process was happening in the semi-darkness.”
The winning artist from the exhibition will be awarded 370,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH)—around $10,000—and will be automatically included in the shortlist for the Future Generation Art Prize, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation’s international young artists’ prize, as well as being shown at the next Venice Biennale. Two other "special prize" winners will receive 90,000 UAH ($2,400), and a "public choice" winner chosen online by exhibition visitors will get 37,000 UAH.
Some of the artists on show in the PinchukArtCentre Prize have left Ukraine and cannot return for now. The artworks illustrate life before and after the invasion, considering “the themes of death and landscape after a battle” and “the restoration of cities and, in general, the future that awaits us all”, say the curators. Ukrainians' “togetherness, in the historical moment” inspired the exhibition’s title, UNITED. “From the curatorial perspective, we greatly appreciate these emotional and spatial connections that arose,” the curators add.
Nikolay Karabinovych was a special prize winner in 2018 and is a shortlisted artist this year. An assistant curator of the fifth Odesa Biennale in his hometown, he went to Ghent to study in 2019 and travelled between Belgium and Ukraine. Now in Antwerp, he cannot return to Ukraine. He is presenting the last chapter of his family trilogy, which addresses his great-grandfather’s deportation to Kazakhstan and tensions between his Greek and Jewish roots in Odesa. In the final instalment, his mother plays Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings (1938) on an imaginary organ. “We cannot hear the music, we cannot see any audience, only a lonely desert surrounds her,” he says.
Another work on show, the video Steppe of Mickey Mouses. The Seekers (2022) by Daniil Revkovskiy and Andriy Rachinskiy, refers to the German nickname for exploded Soviet tanks in the Second World War, when the distorted hatches resembled the cartoon character’s ears. In the video, the artists stumble upon a destroyed Russian tank in a field, take it apart to sell as scrap, and intone prayers for protection from attack.
The artists lived through the horrific early days of the invasion in Kharkhiv. Rachinskiy’s family fled to Lviv on an arduous three-day journey. Revkovskiy and his girlfriend “were hiding in the basement of one of the Kharkiv galleries along with some of the Kharkiv artists we knew”, he says. After a Russian rocket hit the city administration building nearby, they made it through heavy crowds at the train station and left for Lviv on 1 March.
“Despite the Russian invasion, Andriy and I continued to make art projects,” Revkovskiy says. “We filmed the Steppe of Mickey Mouses project in the Kharkiv region. Andriy and I came to Kharkiv in advance and for several days we travelled through the de-occupied territories. We were looking for locations with destroyed tanks. Places where we could shoot our video.”
Pavla Nikitina has used 3D scanning and printing to create photopolymer sculptures of children playing hide and seek. She based them on Ukrainian refugee children she worked with at an art workshop she helped to organise along with teachers and students at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Brno University of Technology, where she is studying for her Master’s degree in sculpture. Nikitina has been in the Czech Republic since 2013, and was there when the invasion began, “but my whole family is in Kyiv”, she says. “For me, these children are already personalities with a tempered character and a desire to live, not to lose, but to find. In this game they are not hiding, they are seeking.”
While participating in the Contemporary Art Rivne residency in 2021, Petro Vladimirov and Oleksandra Maiboroda formed an art collective. Now they are planning for the rebuilding of Ukraine. Their PinchukArtCentre Prize project is called Building Materials for the Reconstruction of Houses in the Kyiv Region (2022), bringing together construction materials from past exhibitions to be donated for reconstruction of houses destroyed by Russian troops in the Kyiv region. Vladimirov, who studied architecture in Poland, and Maiboroda were in Warsaw when the invasion began and coordinated the Architects and Designers for Ukraine platform to connect Ukrainian architects and designers to part-time jobs and commissions in Poland.
“Then together we were involved in the WINDOW project that I co-initiated, collecting recycled windows and shipping them to non-profit organisations in Ukraine working on rebuilding bombed homes,” Vladimirov says. “The idea for the PinchukArtCentre Prize project grew from there.”
Maiboroda, a philosophy graduate, says that she “can’t make general claims on what art should be or do in the times of war”, since “it is a personal decision for everyone in regards to their emotional, financial and social resources”. She adds: “But if someone is able to continue making art while staying in Ukraine—it should be respected. If someone is able to volunteer and do art, it should be respected even more. Just volunteering is also awesome.”