A Letter from Kiev

And so from Kiev, leaving the city to contemplate the presence (now almost complete) of its first Biennale. I am slightly groggy after dinner with short-suffering Artistic Director David Elliott and his partner Rachel Rits-Volloch — blood sausage, pickled vegetables, pancakes with sour cream, cured meats, rice-stuffed cabbage and cherry dumplings couldn’t quite soak up all the cinnamon-flavored vodka.

Elliott will return to Berlin in the next few days having determinedly seen through the installation, at last, of some 250 artworks in the 24,000 sq m Arsenal exhibition space, of which 40 were specially commissioned for this event. Stalling difficulties with logistics, minimal electricity and other practicalities (perhaps also political — it seems some wanted to drive the Biennale through more than others), made for a grueling task. At the close of a mid-week talk with Jake Chapman, Rachel leapt up from the audience to present Elliott with a plastic Kalashnikov full of drink proclaimed as an “Against All Odds Award.” “It’s not the way I usually handle things,” he had remarked through gritted teeth at the opening ceremony three days before, where Jane-Fonda-esque Commissioner Nataliia Zabolotna sat po-faced on his right.

Most journalists stayed 36 hours — just enough time to glimpse the parallel program, eat a bucolic Ukrainian lunch and run round the Arsenal on a schedule flipped at the last minute. The presence of technicians, bubble-wrapped paintings, empty video stages and labels waiting on the floor offered them ample fodder to distract from the Biennale’s aspirations. The opening ceremony was host to a largely non-art crowd consisting of bedecked prima donnas, hefty men in suits — and, apparently, Hefner’s 55th Playmate. The drinks were dry by 8, but a droll after-party ensued 2 hours later at “Museum. Le Club” — a blue-lit box where a girl posed atop a mirrored table, (increasingly) naked music videos played on wall-mounted TVs, and the DJ pumped out Ukrainian folk-techno — something of a panacea for Elliott to vent his frustration on an illuminated catwalk. Earlier in the day we had been at the same spot, moving quickly past the staff of tetchy Babushkas through an exhibition musing rather disjointedly on the idea of “Baroque” at Kiev’s National Art Museum. A work by Olga Milentiy of golden industrial tubing entwined constrictor-like round the pillars of the portico-ed building was then in the process of being taken down (for defacing a monument, it was reported), only to be re-installed by the end of the week.

But beyond the hammers, heels and hairspray storming the Arsenal, Kiev’s urban fabric itches with items from disparate eras.  Driving to the airport from smart hotels in the center amongst streets of early twentieth-century buildings in pastel colors, not far from resplendent white or light blue Baroque churches with blinding golden domes (there are catacombs, too), one encounters also the cluttered grasp of bland advertising common to post-socialist places; there are a few compelling old apartment buildings from the 1950s-60s — earthen driveways lead up to locked wooden doors; shabby windows stare out at aging pink roses and the occasional Soviet banger — now Mercedes and BMWs speed along Kiev’s wide roads making pedestrian underpasses a must. Further out, hive-like orange or grisaille blocks akin to those of Warsaw or Beijing loom against a sharp morning sky; disused corrugated factories stand still behind tall plastic fences. Finally, lush grass and trees rush past along the motorway siding, lest we forget the brutal harnessing of the Ukraine as the “breadbasket” of the USSR in the 1920s and 30s. The country remained a Soviet republic until 1991.

It is along the threads of modern experience that the Biennale seeks to travel, using them to reckon with our contemporary situation (as born of the past) and possible futures through the lens of art.  The twitching animal that is the Ukraine’s history holds more than its fair share of twentieth century’s darkness. It is at once an ambitious and un-sunny brief. When asked, “Where is the optimism?” Elliott answered, “We’re trying to be adult about it”; his texts in the catalog include statistics about world poverty and hunger, and posit death as possibly the only equalizer. The Biennale’s gambit comes from Dickens: “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”; perhaps it’s helpful here to think of making the best of times.

Amongst the mass of works in the Arsenal, several stand out. Panelled enclosures (circa 1992-2006) by the seldom-faulted Louise Bourgeois lie in wait before the visual spectacle of Phyllida Barlow’s “Rift” (2012) — a huge commissioned installation of found timber lashed together with black rags and weighted down with sand bags — a vertical raft wedged into the architecture of the Arsenal. Beyond this vivid, bonelike frame, Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals” (2010) stands in two lines like an apocalyptic legion. The first of a number of compelling video works in the Biennale, “Kurchatov 22” (2012) by Almagul Menlibaeva, revisits the Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk in a mode of both documentary and inconcrete evocation. Elsewhere, the monochrome single-channel video “Alterity (Balthazar)” (2011) by Ergin Cavusoglu, following the life and trials of a donkey, is another absorbing sequence. Further on, passing between the ranks of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s vile Nazi figures grimacing at infantile assemblages — “culture’s” base state, and a zone mainly of paintings, is an effective installation combination of huge black foam totems (“Divinity-Marx”, 2011) by MadeIn Company, and a series of death scenes by Yinka Shonibare (“Fake Death Picture”, 2011).

Upstairs, the overall installation was milder, and suffered much more from opening-day-delays. Once most of it was up, memorable artworks here included Bindi-embellished staircases (2012) by Bharti Kher — objects transformed to affect by swarms of these little emblems rippling in unbroken patterns over the surface. Oleksandr Chekmenev’s photographic series “Winners” (2007) and editions from “The Rake” series presented, in the first instance, portraits of veterans of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), and the second clever compositions of ordinary objects, so placed to suggest cultural meaning and collective memory. Very arguably, however, one of the most powerful works across the whole Biennale was to be found next: “Monument to a Lost Civilisation” (1998-9) by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov. The artists’ very identity is wrapped up in the political past of their birthplace — they call themselves Russian, but Dnepropetrovsk, where they were born, has since been restored to the Ukraine from the USSR. “Monument to a Lost Civilisation” at first appears less like an artwork than a yellowing school project or architectural survey in the form of textual and photographic materials mounted in labelled glass cases. In fact, this is the Kabakov’s conceptual document tracing the forms, conditions, dreams and feelings of daily life in the former Soviet Republics; arrestingly comprehensive and absorbing, the recollection of seeing this work is finally much more than just that.

The Chinese contingent was well-represented in the Arsenal, with 11 names including Yin Xiuzhen (woollen-stockinged weapons hovering on the ground floor —“Weapons”, 2003-7), Wei Dong (skilled, sadistic paintings based on Cultural Revolution disgrace but featuring women, for example “Democracy #1,” 2010), Miao Xiaochun (a characteristically Boschian computer animation “Restart”, 2008-10), Liu Jianhua (“Discard 2”, 2011) and MAP Office, with an installation and videos about production and consumption on the theme of grain (“The Oven of Straw”, 2012).  Most prominent was a full-room “Wisdom of the Poor” (c2005-6) installation by Song Dong; these continue to travel well from Beijing to Venice, London and Kiev within two years, and are apt to fill the capacious spaces of Biennales. For those coming to Kiev from Hong Kong the previous week there were second-hand sights — another giant inflatable lotus by Choi Jeong Hwa puffing noiselessly up and down throughout the Arsenal ceremony, and two Gursky prints seen at Gagosian’s new Hong Kong branch showed up again in Victor Pinchuk’s Collection at the eponymous art center; Anish Kapoor was the dish of the day there, though there was a solo show by Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov downstairs: “If you like we can still see the Ukrainian exhibition — it’s just one, small thing,” tittered the curator. This and other Parallel Programs were somewhat underwhelming, or odd — the so-called “Chocolate House,” a veritable gâteau of architectural and decorative styles built in the 1890s — has been blacked out for various installations, most of which it is easy to forget. From the perspective of a local critic, the most important work on show for the Biennale is a mammoth video triptych visualizing Purgatory in the highly stylized manner of Moscow artists AES+F: “Allegoria Sacra” (2010-11).

Finally, a day later and away from the hubbub, expectancy and show of the Biennale, a much lower-key event took place at the Gallery of the Contemporary Art Institute, a drab building outside the old town. “Perspective” featured the work of a group of what may be called the “authentic” Ukrainian artists — among them those who had represented it at the 2001 Venice Biennale for the first time following the nation’s liberation, and who are now in their 50s. Here, the rhetoric was different; where the Biennale boasted support from Hennessy, Samsung, Coco Cola, ELLE, the modest sheet accompanying “Perspective” included the statement “We would like to announce that this project does not have any sponsors. We failed to find them, because the theme of spirituality has not been relevant for a long time in our country. That is a pity!” They are words that bring with them no small measure of this grand new event in the Ukraine, and we shall see what the next installment delivers.

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