Serhiy Bratkov: "We Know of Obsessed Artists, But Not of Obsessed Curators"
Curatorial practice is very much a product of the post-Fordist era, in which labour increasingly transfers to the sphere of non-material production and there arise jobs for people involved in organization in different fields. More and more contemporary art institutions appear in which the curator becomes a beholder.
There are two types of curator: independent curator-artists, and institutional curators. The former – ‘curator-thinkers’ – can be counted on the fingers, while there is a whole army of the latter type. Both are extremely important.
Like artists, curators must also work with form. The curator sees the emergence of form-creating things in art, and reveals them. With regard to institutional curators, firstly, they protect the artist, becoming his or her mother within a particular project. The curator minimizes the communication of the artist with the system. He or she also has no ambition to suppress or be more important than the artist.
In some situations, the curator takes on the functions of a production manager. The curator doesn’t put pressure on the artist, but pays attention to specificity of place and to the public which visits this place. For the artist, this is the ideal curator. Now, curators work more with meaning than with form creation. As a rule, curators make combined exhibitions. The great curators were innovators in installation art, such as, for example, Jan Hoet, who in 1986 made the Rooms of Friends exhibition not in museum spaces, but in the apartments of city residents. There were and are curators who defined and define new forms of art. In 2013, The Encyclopedic Palace exhibition by Massimiliano Gioni in Venice was a great curatorial work which identified the trends sustaining art: non-market individual work, and a focus on the psychological type of the artist. He chose artists who were not included in any system and showed that today, it is they who inspire art.
We can think of the curator as an artist engaged in ‘collage thinking’: to create works, he or she goes out from the field of art, expanding the show by means of circus performance, music, theater. There is also a tendency to turn the exhibition into a discussion: the curator involves philosophers, politicians, and sociologists to participate in discussions around it. The curator, as distinct from the artist, has a desire to fetch a wider audience. The artist is seized with the power of his work’s emotionality; the curatorial mind is more focused on its wider perception. Unlike the artist, the curator addresses the common, not the private.
Each time has its own degree of specifics: for wartime, bread and blood, and for peacetime, the craving for abstraction. A curator is very much a servant of his or her time. This is a figure strongly tied to society. We know of obsessed artists, but not of obsessed curators. All curators work on private or government money and must account for it in the number of visits paid to an exhibition. But there are no examples of curators who, having spent all their money, would go broke – but then make some important utterance. In addition, it happens that curators expand their influence on artists. I myself have had some incidents of disagreement with curators, and I felt unhappy in these confrontations.
In this case, the curator is responsible first to the artist, and then to an audience. Of course, curators are also answerable to those who are their employers or sources of funding. Certainly, artists are also responsible: first of all, to themselves.
The question of co-authorship of curator and artist is, first of all, an ethical issue, and one for the the curator to decide. For an institutional curator, this is a natural process. For example, as a teacher I naturally take part in the creation of students’ work, but this is not a process of joint authorship. Independent curators do share their authorship. Sometimes they fulfil themselves in joint projects with artists. For example, the collector Bondarenko and the artist Gutov have the joint project Russia for everyone.
A gesture is radical in particular conditions of place and time and in a particular political-social situation. This very sociopolitical context can even serve as a justification for the prevention of the curation of an exhibition in a certain place at a certain moment. Here, a radical gesture turns the situation upside down. For example, a curator and an artist decide not to allow the public to enter, or to claim that the exhibition has been moved to another location. What I have seen that has been radical: in Venice, Sierra closed his pavilion for general admission and designated only selected entrances for visitors; the German collector Falkenberg showed on the walls only labels with the names of the works, while the works themselves were locked away in a lumber room, the key to which he gave only to very inquisitive visitors.
In Kharkiv In the 1990s, contemporary artists could be counted on the fingers of two hands. The commonality of opinion on art which this brought about served as an impetus for self-organization. There was confrontation between the official Union of Artists and us. On the other hand, great attention was given by the public and the media to the contemporary art emerging at that time. This attention compensated for all the difficulties we had encountered – a complete lack of funding, the inability of those who were not members of the Union of Artists to buy art materials. There were attempts at censorship by cultural bodies: in 1995, an exhibition by Fast Reaction Group at the regional art museum was closed after just one hour.
It happened that the director of the Soros Foundation in Kyiv, Marta Kuzma, invited Borys Mykhailov and me to participate in her project on board a military ship called Slavutych, in Sevastopol (1). Before that, we had never worked together, but we tried to make a joint project.
In the morning, Marta called the hotel and said: "Your work is gone". (2) I came to the ship and saw that there was not a single piece of cotton... And then Marta showed her American perseverance – she went to the commander of the ship and said: "Our works have disappeared. In two hours there is the opening of the exhibition. Could you find them?" And the commander made a gesture as if she were an annoying fly. She paused and said for the second time: "Find them, please – we have the opening", and the commander replied: "Girl, I have so many combat missions for today, that I will not deal with this nonsense!" Then she came again and said: "You know, I'm going to call the defense minister who gave the permission to hold this exhibition, and if you don't find everything in 5 minutes then you'll have to go to the women's dorm and collect cotton from the toilets". He was stunned by this impudence, summoned his assistant, and I remember that he pressed a red button and a siren sounded all over Sevastopol Bay... The sailors jumped to the deck out from all the holes and all the hatches and fell into three lines. The commander came out with me and addressed them with a speech: "Comrade sergeants, sailors and master sergeants! An incident has occurred on our ship – an art-piece is gone. Comrade artist, explain what it is!" And I said: "Comrade sailors! We have lost some absorbent cotton, which women use during menstruation". The commander said: "Is that clear?" And silence: "It's clear!" And they brought everything in five minutes (Serhiy Bratkov, interview with Mykhaylo Sidlin, fragment)
We did a good job, and thought of creating the group that would later include Serhiy Solonskyi and Vita Mykhailova. At that time, the social and political situation in the country was changing so rapidly, and a quick response to these changes was called for. Our first work was A Corner for Three Letters – an answer to decommunization and to the emergence of new Ukrainian symbols.
Meeting with Marta was my first meeting with a professional curator of art. It was an honour that she made The Frozen Landscapes – my first solo exhibition – in the rented apartment of the Soros Foundation. I was surprised at the level of technical support I received, and the protection from censorship. As a curator, she gave a lot of information about the worldwide state of contemporary art, communicating this through her activities. In the building of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy there appeared a library of contemporary art, and she organized lectures and screenings. That was all a first for Ukraine.
Along with Marta Kuzma, I want to mention the names of Oleksandr Solovyov, Ihor Oksamytnyi, Kostyantyn Akinsha, Mykhaylo Rashkovetskyi, Nataliya Filonenko – the curators of the mid-90s.
My first curatorial project was in 1990 with the Litera A painters’ group, of which I was a member at that time. The authorities replaced our exhibition – which was to be held in the twin cities of Kharkiv and Cincinnati, in the US – with some official exhibition. In protest, I suggested we exhibit a large box packed with artworks – and this was shown in Kharkiv.
Then there was the period of Up/Down: in 1994, in Kharkiv, Borys Mykhailov, Serhiy Solonskyi and I, along with other fellow artists, created Up/Down gallery in the attic of an old house nearby the Horse Market – hence the name of the gallery. It lasted until 1997. At that time, I did not think of myself as a curator. I was a host of this space; the gallery was my studio. I carried out host functions, providing a certain regularity of exhibitions and interaction with artists, helping to organize exhibitions.
Sometimes the Soros Foundation supported us. At that time, we were the only gallery of contemporary art. Our exhibitions and our resistance gave impetus to the development of art.
And then there was the Regina period, from 2000 until 2006. My last curatorial project was an exhibition devoted to the tenth anniversary of the Rodchenko School, which took place across two floors of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (3).
At the Regina gallery, I was more of a co-curator, working with the gallerist, Volodymyr Ovcharenko. Unlike the 90s, the 2000s weren’t a period of rich cash injections into art. The gallery focused on conducting high-quality exhibitions, giving exposure to new names, and looking for new artists in Russia and elsewhere. We created an international composition within the gallery. Eventually, these activities led to Regina being invited to participate in major art fairs, such as Frieze, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami.
Due to political and market changes, Regina left the international market, and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. And in 2010, I was invited to teach at the Rodchenko School, and I agreed. My class is called Photography, Sculpture, and Video. The first year is spent on getting acquainted with these media and defining the priorities of each student. Particular attention is paid to the formation of collage consciousness and to accounting for the failures of everyday visual culture – and, of course, to the installation of work.
As for spontaneity and fortuity during the installation process, Viktor Alimpiyev is very fond of talking about this in his speech on the first and the last strokes of Bacon – that the last one should have the same intensity as the first; it should be free, impulsive, and passionate.
I love the installation period; I just start to wag my tail like a hunting dog does at the sight of a duck. This last stroke really shows the level of an artist or a curator.
Today we see the prefix ‘art’ applied to restaurants, saunas, shops – that is, there is a devaluation of the concept, an appropriation of art terminology by mass culture. This happens in many spheres. The same is true with the term ‘curator’.
Today, in my opinion, the main venue for contemporary art in Ukraine is the PinchukArtCentre. For example, there is currently a retrospective exhibition there of the Paris Commune members (4). An important role is also played by the Kyiv International Biennial, but it yet is to determine a format for itself.
Translated by Veronika Yadukha (VERBацiя)
Edited by Joe Plommer
1. The project Alchemic Surrender
2. The work Sacrifice to the God of War (video, objects, 1994) included pieces of bloodsoaked menstruation cotton
3. The exhibition was entitled About the Rodchenko School – Celebrating its 10th Anniversary
4. The project PARKOMMUNE. Place. Community. Phenomenon