Between Hope and Trap

On the State of Social Transition in Ukraine

Public Movement: Cross Section, 2014 Photographs provided by the PinchukArtCentre © 2014. Photographed by Sergey Illin and Alexander Pilyugin.
Public Movement, Cross Section, 2014. Courtesy of the PinchukArtCentre © 2014. Photographed by Sergey Illin and Alexander Pilyugin

The Greek prefix mesos, meaning intermediate or position in the middle, is representative of Ukraine today—a situation in flux—and also in line with other post-Soviet or post-socialist countries. It is worthwhile thinking about and responding to the repurposed notion of mesosphere put forward by the editors of the issue. Mesosphere, in a way, likewise articulates the socio-political, economic, and cultural conditions of these countries in transition that, since 1989–1991, have started to re-establish their identity.

In 1995, Ukrainian artist Vasyl Tsagolov‘s performance The End fixed the state of transition and gradual return of consciousness after a long period of amnesia. For this action, which took place in the emergency department in one of the hospitals in Kyiv,1 Tsagolov was injected with anesthetics, temporarily inhibiting his memory and causing the artist to lose control of himself. On the verge of consciousness and nothingness during the action, the artist only pronounced the word “mother” in the Ossetic language.2 By subjecting himself to physical risk, Tsagolov probed borderline states, intrinsic to the situation in the country in between an unclear future and a socialistic past. I consider this performance, which happened shortly after the early presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine in 1994, an expression of the feeling of “the end” that permeated society as in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR and the strike-driven elections,3 much like today after the revolutionary events in Maidan in 2013–2014. This act could be regarded as a common division into before and after, recurrently appearing in Ukraine in the period of political and societal shifts. The artist’s pronunciation of the word “mother” in a language that he did not speak is a metaphor for the awakening and hope stated in the issue Inside the Mezosfera.

Vassily Tsagolov: The End, 1995. Performance documentation, video still
Vassily Tsagolov, The End, 1995. Performance documentation, video still

In this perspective, mesosphere becomes a fluctuating yet daring environment. In a Ukrainian context, where national statehood started, among others, with the deliberate refusal or even negation of the communist past on a political level (including the ban on the Communist Party in 1991–1993) and continued by providing a set of so called “decommunization reforms”4 as a result of revolution in 2013 and 2014, this ever-lasting in-between situation gives nevertheless a different field for reflection on the artistic level. Initially, the tragic events in Euromaidan revealed the impossibility or, more precisely, the uncertainty to work and to specify a position as an artist or, in a wider sense, as a player within the art field, since Euromaidan itself has become a large-scale sublime participatory performance. By its power—socially and visually spectacular, horrific, and murderous—it did not allow for a space of artistic expression: “During the Revolution we’ve seen that language was completely demolished as a communication instrument. It was a physical confrontation rather than communicational one . . . I wanted to be effective at Maidan, but as an artist I did not see my efficiency,” asserts Ukrainian artist Lesia Khomenko.5

In my view, one of the results of the revolution was that an anachronistic nationalist tendency started to be extremely visible in society. Opposed to this new-born nationalistic (yet non-articulated or at least unacknowledged as such) ideology, artists started again to rethink and re-evaluate recent history and the more distant past.  A consequence of which was that they started to organize self-initiatives in research, exhibitions, and making personal reflections as a form of self-education and research, and thus becoming kinds of “walking self unacademias,” to hybridize some notions from the Inside the Mezosfera issue. Among others, I would refer to artist-initiatives such as the artist residency Above God (2015) in the town of Vinnitsa in Ukraine. It took place in the non-functioning movie house Russia built in the 1960s, which today embodies ruination and the fading Soviet heritage. The project brought together artists to reflect upon the de-commmunization laws, which has then become an impetus for deeper research on these processes in different regions of Ukraine, resulting in various workshops, discussions, and exhibitions. One of these was the De-ne-de (Here and Where) exhibition that took place in the Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technical Expertise and Information, a Soviet neo-modernist building (1971) designed by Soviet Ukrainian artist, architect, and composer Florian Yuryev (born 1929), which provided a particular perspective for rethinking Soviet heritage amidst the official policies aiming to negate this very past.

The last issue of Mezosfera posits that mesosphere is a terrain “between grassroots and institutionalized practices.” Again, in a Ukrainian context, however, one can assert precisely the absence of an institution’s clear functions. For years, many behind the Iron Curtain believed that the only right world was the Western one; nevertheless, after its fall, the “Western world” did not happen automatically. It can be said that this was what marked the start of mesosphere: a certain context that offers capacity to rethink one’s own legacy and to establish alternative systems of activities. The articles gathered in the issue are united with the idea of questioning the roles of the institution, the artist, and the academic system—altogether asserting the flexibility of once established notions, what I would generalize under the umbrella flexible status quo, as a possibility to reflect and a capacity to re-think histories, notions, and facts.

In her article “Shaking the Status Quo,” Nora Sternfeld proposes the term para-institution, challenging the “institutional potential for change.” In a way, the practice of the Israeli artists collective Public Movement, which she also refers to, could be considered para-institutional, “as a practice that does not flee or subvert the institutional, but rather inhabits it while at the same time challenging its basic assumptions.” In my view, the group work inside the Public Movement was organized in way similar to the institutional one, as a structure with a certain hierarchy; its leaders (and afterwards director in the person of Dana Yahalomi) took over all responsibilities and governed the behavior of other participants. However, their practice is applied to intervention in public space, engagement and participation, choice and negotiation, as well as questioning institutional stability and proposing flexibility instead. In essence, the group’s work pertains to, as its title Public Movement suggests, “social movements …, how the public feels itself inside [them] . . . It is also about the confrontation between an individual and power, about various forms of civil resistance.”6

With their performance in Kyiv in 2014, Public Movement7 re-activated a certain social movement. The performance entitled Cross Section (2014) took place in Kyiv in a public space. It was an hour-long procession that started on the Triokhsviatytelska Street near the Ukrainian House and proceeded toward the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both places with memory of recent, tragic events that took place during the Euromaidan in Kyiv, bearing marks of the confrontations between police and protesters. The procession was led by a group of six Ukrainian performers (trained by the Public Movement), who acted and engaged people to participate. Their performative act was thus superimposed on the traumatic spectacle happening in Ukraine. During the action, different emotions were called up people: reunion, joy, shock, stupor, relief.

Public Movement, Cross Section, Kyiv, 2014, video documentation of the performance

 

The performance took place under the auspices of the Future Generation Art Prize—an art prize for international artists under 35, which was founded by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. The format of the prize in the field of art is being discussed inside the local art community,8 questioning the possibility of evaluating art and who should bear the responsibility of this evaluation. On the one hand, on a superficial level, one can see the discrepancy between a performative action stressing the political (hard and vulnerable) realia and a possible reward for an artistic achievement. On the other hand, we see here a merging of a powerful institutional body (PinchukArtCentre) with the para-institutional one (Public Movement). Such a merger is typical for the local Ukrainian context with its condensed experience and no clarity regarding the concrete functions of any of the institutions. In view of the complete ignorance of the state, in the public body of the Ministry of Culture, private institutions as well as artist-run initiatives fill in and activate the artistic field. In this case, the functions of the museum and a private institution, a commercial gallery and an educational center are merged and mixed.

In this special case, the Prize should be regarded for its giving-potential rather than from a competitive perspective. It has given a possibility for deep reflection on the political tension in local contexts realized by external artists through their interaction with and engagement of local communities. This performance actually favored depressurizing the hermetic condition of society at that time. The feeling of “the end” described above was the most exact expression to talk about the situation in Kyiv in 2014. With their performance, the Public Movement re-enacted the social movement, which was at its peak just one year9 before the action took place. The performative act itself was more than relevant in the political and social context of Ukraine in 2014, having shown the complications in the situation beyond any prescribed functions. The performative strength of Maidan that swallowed the possibilities of the artists to speak up was reactivated by the Public Movement action by reminding of the possibility to speak.  

Mesosphere is also put forth in the issue as an indicator of hope. The idea of hope results precisely in the in-between situation that facilitates movement. Thus, the mesosphere that we find ourselves in today is an integrated process of parallel movements and shifts. However, we should be cautious in using this metaphor, or try to look at this notion differently. The existence of mesosphere is caused by two other layers (those of thermosphere and stratosphere), so mesosphere is dependent on them. The stratosphere could also be regarded as a metaphor for the givenness, our past, while the thermosphere becomes our expectation of the future. And in order to survive, being inside this layer, we have to evince the awareness and consciousness of our condition, between the communist past and the neoliberal (future), as mesosphere, in a way, also represents this middle position. Therefore, mesosphere should be considered a transitional zone—a flexible context giving capacities for changing the present day. However, one should be wary of the risk of being trapped in this limbo situation, so as not to lose the movement forward.

 

A contribution to issue #3 Back to Basics. Responses to the Issue Inside the Mezosfera.

 

About the author:

Tatiana Kochubinska is a curator, researcher, and lecturer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She graduated from the Art History Department of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv. She participated in the Curatorial Platform study program of the PinchukArtCentre inKyiv. In 2014, she took part in the residency program at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien with the support of the Goethe Institute. Since 2014, she works as a curator at the PinchukArtCentre, where she is in charge of the Research Platform project. She is a contributor of the Korydor online magazine on contemporary culture.

 

Notes

  1. I would emphasize that the main feature of artistic practices of the 1990s in Ukraine was all permissiveness when any social and ethical boundaries were violated. This action was a result of a collaboration between the artist and the Aleksandr Blank Gallery, which supported many works of Tsagolov. It was a legal agreement between the owner – curator of the gallery and the emergency department of a hospital. The action was carried out at the risk of the artist.
  2. Tsagolov was born in 1957 in North Ossetia, Russia, and since the early 1980s has lived and worked in Kyiv. He does not, however, speak the Ossetic language.
  3. The history of elections in Ukraine is related mostly to early elections. The 1st presidential elections resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union; the one in 1994 was provoked by miners’ mass strikes; elections in 2004 recall the Orange Revolution; and the elections in 2014 were a result of the Euromaidan.
  4. The set of laws started in Ukraine in May 2015, aimed at removing communist monuments and renaming of public places named after communist-related themes.
  5. Lesia Khomenko in conversation with Tatiana Kochubinska, “Understanding means winning,” Korydor (2016), http://www.korydor.in.ua/ua/voices/lesya-homenko-poniat-eto-i-est-pobedit.html.
  6. Dana Yahalomi in conversation with Tatiana Kochubinska, “Social Choreography,” Korydor (2014),http://www.korydor.in.ua/ua/ideas/sotsialnaya-horeografiya.html.
  7. Public Movement was shortlisted for the 3d edition of the Future Generation Art Prize. On this occasion, the group carried out the performance.
  8. Nevertheless the PinchukArtCentre Prize for Ukrainian artists under 35 remains one of the most important events on the artistic map of Ukraine, enabling the artists with the curatorial and financial support in order to develop their artistic practice.
  9. In 2013, when Euromaidan started.

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