Nikita Kadan: "We started by building a dugout to shelter ourselves from the storm, and ended up building a city"
If we start talking of curating, it’ll inevitably lead us to the theme of the exhibition as an artwork. And to me, this theme is associated with the relations between separate creators’ utterances as incorporated into a certain collective frame-utterance, and with certain more-or-less-conscious confrontations, which create pressure in these relations and give them energy. A complex pattern of the conflict between curator’s and artists’ utterances – this is what I believe in, but not in a comforted and peaceful co-existence; that’s not the thing I long for.
Actually, the ‘exhibition as artwork’ summoned up the curator as an individual creator much later than it appeared itself. This is a common principle, although it’s oversimplified. It shows up again and again – every time, some local and global crises of exhibition and artistic activity present us with this problem: a lack of demonstrational forms which are sufficient for the works being demonstrated. Every time they begin putting new wine into old wineskins.
A bunch of like-minded people in a hostile environment – even this in itself leads to the necessity for inventing an exhibition of a new type, at ease with these changed requirements. And the exhibition here is an optional superstructure over the new mode of artists’ co-existence. Nazarenes, Itinerants, or Fluxus – those are all stories of how to ‘be together in art’. Is it that we have completely departed from the theme of curating right away?
Duchamp’s sacks of coal suspended from the ceiling at the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 were actually a real group exhibition with artworks by various creators, but the sacks were under the ceiling, more than a hundred sacks, and coal dust accumulated on the visitors’ clothes. Or the threads with which Duchamp laced the whole exhibition space at the Surrealist Exhibition of 1942. Exhibition design? If it is so, then it is completely terrible for artworks’ autonomy. The ‘exhibition as an artwork’ can be rather cruel in relation to certain objects – it just eats them up. And all this was long before the historically-correct beginning of the history of curating as a profession.
Only with the appearance of curators in the modern sense in the 1960s did there appear an approach associated with ‘care’. This is a commonplace in talking about contemporary curating – this notion of ‘curating as care’ is now trite to the last degree. The curator as a moderator of discussions or mediator of social interactions derives from there, too. Making ‘care’ a certain hard criterion, something obligatory, and normalizing it, seems to be an a priori, no-win business. And when it comes to ‘care without standards’, no one can examine anyone.
Curating is something swaying at the interface between professional niche and the individual journey of a person towards a relationship with art.
It’s too specific an individual phenomenon. What is the difference between this and the specificity of the work of each separate artist? It’s in responsibilities regarding the other. It’s in something other than, for example, the free game of Duchamp-as-exhibitor.
Curating exhibitions still means working with physical space and objects contained within it. Obviously, there are many loopholes in and escape routes from this rule; I myself took part in the first online biennial. The space of an exhibition cannot be retold. All the peculiarities of the routes of the visitors’ movement across the exhibition space, of lightning, of inscribing the story into the architecture, cannot be completely perceived in documentation.
The exhibition resists the free circulation of information-as-commodity. To a certain degree, all this reduces mobility and, on the whole, suspends the process. Ideally, the exhibition space resists entering the state either of commercial entertainment or the prison of the surrounding world (both of which are the same thing). The mode of this resistance is the creation of a pause, an interval of the other within the normative. But this is ideally. In reality, exhibitions often have their own normativity.
The curator should begin relations with the institution by insisting upon the autonomy of the curator’s and artists’ utterances. Once it has invited him or her, the institution ensures the inviolability, and freedom from censorship, of the curator’s utterance. And this principle should also ensure the inviolability of the artists’ utterances.
Once, I was invited to participate in the biennial held in Ürümqi, China. Before the opening, some government commission came and took down my work: Procedure Room – plates with images of the militsiya’s [translator’s note: the name of the now-disbanded police force] tortures in Ukraine. As the curator wrote to me, “it seemed to them that there was something political in the artwork.” This is a story from an extremely unfree state. As Oleksandr Pyatyhorskyi said, “The totalitarian state wants to deal with everything.” But there is an interim situation – when institutions and curators are trying to wriggle between the state’s ideological limitations and its demand for the appearance of freedom of utterance.
In this case, the artists involved in these manipulations become either voluntary hostages and conformists, or ‘provocateurs’. Just remember Great and Grand: the Arsenal served the alliance of the Moscow Patriarchy and the state authority, having made an exhibition for the decoration of an ideological holiday. The Arsenal’s Director, [Nataliya] Zabolotna, called herself a curator, while not really understanding what she had exhibited. She destroyed an artwork the night before the visit of the church and state bosses, and then accused [Volodymyr] Kuznetsov of a ‘planned provocation’, later combining these accusations with apologies to him. None of the exhibition participants took down their artworks as a mark of protest, and the ‘actively adjusting’ [translator’s note: meaning those people who are actively doing things just to be liked by the administration] part of the art scene took the bosses’ side, and began accusing Kuznetsov of ‘provocations’ and ‘PR’ together with them. The problem was quickly reduced to a scandal and pushed into the shadows.
Actually, the catastrophe which occurred in the artistic life of Ukraine in July 2013 wasn’t unexpected. Something had long been brewing, something which has yet to be given a name. We can call it ‘gradual de-intellectualization’, or ‘populist tactics for gaining local support’, or ‘blurring of principles’, or ‘blurring of contemporary art as a form of activity’. I think that in order to give a name to the crisis state of contemporary art in Ukraine (I have no doubt that it is indeed a crisis state), we have to exceed the bounds of the local situation, to look at this state of the art scene from the outside. By saying ‘from the outside’ I mean not only from abroad, but first of all, from the point of view of an alternative approach to art from the one that is customary here. And this began much earlier than 2013.
In general, relations with institutions in Ukraine don’t have such oppressive force for us. The first reason for this is that since 2006-2007, we – the R.E.P. Group and its circle – have been working outside the country, too. The second reason is that we’ve been practising self-organization from the very beginning. If we don’t find curatorial solutions that match our work, then we curate exhibitions ourselves. I think it’ll be more useful for your book for me to focus on self-organizational practices, on ‘self-curating’.
International exhibition experiences and co-operation with curators and institutions also fit into your theme, but many creators have had more or less similar experiences. Here I should probably say how these have influenced our situation in Ukraine in particular. This can be narrowed down to two aspects. First: the scene here wants to be examined by international experts, and is at the same time afraid of this. They say ‘Western curators’ will come and turn long-established local hierarchies upside-down, and even worse, all this for Ukrainian money. But it seems that, on the other hand, the label of ‘actuality’ received from those same ‘Western curators’ cannot be dispensed with. Hence, there is a demand for expert examination that is controlled. There’s also suspicion towards artists who work outside the country, as though they might destroy certain local foundations – this is what we’ve been through. Second: after working in the West, we bring our experience to Ukraine and try to play here by the same rules. Due to the differences in social and economic conditions, this turns into a game of fairly imaginary things. But one can learn from games.
I’ll try to briefly tell the story of our self-organized projects. At the beginning, there were the first exhibitions of the R.E.P. Group – at the time of the Orange Revolution and the year after it, during the residency at CSM at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. They were mainly self-organized (only The Confused was curated, by Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta). Later, in 2007, there was The Project of Communities, an exhibition to which we invited five art groups (we ourselves were the sixth one), and provided each of them with a hall at CSM. In these halls, the groups acted independently. Later, The Project of Communities was held one more time at the Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok, in a less spontaneous form, actually as a representative exhibition of the collective artistic practices of Ukraine. Something similar to what the guys from the Open Group did in Wroclaw in 2016 (1).
In Kyiv, there were TV sets brought from homes and the full basic self-organization with its unpredictable final results. In Bialystok, there was a ‘from-image’ approach, centralized curating, production budgets, decent video equipment, and a catalogue.
There then followed a number of exhibitions curated by the R.E.P. Group. But as a result, we discovered an unplanned and unwanted effect: we actually became the central, axial figures of these exhibitions. There appeared issues of power and leadership, distracting from the essence of the talk. In press, the meaningless phrase ‘the R.E.P. generation’ began to appear. In addition, the ideas and values circulating in the artistic environment began to seem to us extremely restricted. We had to get away from all this.
It was then that Hudrada appeared. Some things are just slipping from my memory. Why exactly this circle of participants got together, I can today not explain even to myself. As at the beginning of R.E.P., some chain of coincidences started to form. The new group immediately included architects, literati, translators, and activists. There were those who thought of a career in curating – they were the first to leave.
Now each person in Hudrada has his or her own non-curating activity, and curating is only a collective practice.
But this isn’t a rule, and I’m not sure that it’ll be like this forever.
The first exhibition, Views (15.05.2009–07.06.2009), was about the relations between political views and the views of the artist. It was held in the halls of the then Foundation Center for Contemporary Art at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The major portion of the artworks shown at the exhibition considered these relations as a certain external object, and only the areas of interest of the artists – ‘where the person’s view is heading to’ – indirectly pointed out their, the creators’, own views. The smaller part was made up of clear and hardly shy political proclamations. But apart from the artworks on the walls, there were also large, poster-type printouts of the work correspondence of the creators. That is, all the discussions, the means by which the exhibition was devised, became available to the viewer. It became clear how the choice was made and how different – at the edge of incompatibility – were the approaches of the curatorial group. It was self-revealing, an exit to vulnerability. But such vulnerability can become a new armour.
Later, there was The Court Experiment (12.10.2010–12.11.2010), held in those same halls – where the Visual Culture Research Center was already located. At that time, the three members of Hudrada were standing trial – all individually and all because of different protest and activist actions, such as the naked performance in front of the Parliament, or participation in protests against constructions involving demolishing the fences around illegal building sites. The state mechanisms of suppression of public disagreement were shown to us up close – actually, the exhibition was about them. Endless trial proceedings as a method to suspend the protests, the pressure of the builders and churchmen (involved in two proceedings out of the three) on the court, violence and corruption in the militsiya – for us, all this stopped being the stuff of stock phrases, everything became brutally visible. It was then that we realized that our exhibitions didn’t have a ‘ready’ audience who would be present just because some contemporary art was being shown, and that they would not have this. We realized that we would remain an alien and suspicious phenomenon in both the artistic and activist environments. For the artistic one – because it reads such exhibitions, first of all, as an accusation against itself, the accusation of voluntary blindness. For the activist one – because the goal-setting of such exhibitions remains unclear, and Hudarda itself is in an uncertain relationship with the movement, not trying to join any of the activist groups. At The Court Experiment, apart from the artworks, many documents of the proceedings of those three trials, and drawings from the courtrooms, were shown. In those courtrooms, we spent a rather long time pretending to be ‘the public’, so as to prevent the proceedings from taking place in private. We made sketches, followed the course of the proceeding, or read books. After being shown in Kyiv, The Court Experiment was presented in Vienna – as a special project of VIENNAFAIR 2011 – and in Rijeka, Croatia. In Rijeka, it took place at SIZ Gallery, which is managed by artists themselves. That is, self-organization stopped being just a local phenomenon. It became apparent that we were part of a network of people who were engaged in more or less similar things in different parts of the world. In addition, the exhibition in Kyiv always gathered characters from different areas: human rights activists, members of trade unions, journalists. Knowledge of a hardly artistic nature was put in the public field created around the exhibition. At the same time, the exhibition remained one of individual artworks. But it was also a place where completely heterogeneous phenomena got on with each other, and where people who lived in different worlds met. Thus, Hudrada began creating a micro-community of the exhibition by its own image and likeness.
Then we made The Labour Exhibition (17.11.2011–02.12.2011, VCRC). The exhibition had running through it the motif of the complete economization of our lives’ duration, of the transformation of the human being into an item of goods, and of ‘dis-humanization’. This motif would appear in our work again. The space of the exhibition was organized as a multi-part story. The story contained such parts as The Image of Labour, The Dream of the Worker, and others, which were highlighted in the exhibition space with colored lines running along the bottom of the wall. The budget was next to nothing, as usual. I remember that the family of Mladen Stilinović sent us his classic piece Artist at Work (1978, performance documentation) from Zagreb. It was an exhibition copy sent just in a post envelope, bypassing any institutional formalities, insurance and everything. The artists, who had been in the underground in socialist Eastern Europe and practiced self-organization by themselves at that time, were well aware of our limited prospects, and bypassed certain strict conditions. Later, there was a similar story with work by Adrian Paci (2).
Actually, we were lucky to show here the art which was important for us, the art of the inner circle of our companions, and some of the fundamental works of the epoch and the region. And our luck in being able to do that was precisely due to the fact that the creators understood why it was needed.
What else to recall? There was the Union of Hovels (01.06.2013) at the Lido in Venice. The exhibition was about ‘anarchitecture’ or ‘architecture without an architect’. It was held in a self-built beach pavilion, which was itself an ‘anarchitectural’ construction. Before that, we had twice found ourselves without fixed abode in Venice, while traveling, and we had spent those nights on that same beach. An exhibition, like an artwork, may rather easily arise in the course of life, arise as a reaction, as a cry. It is a ‘delayed spontaneity’, but in the meantime, you have time to compare your own experience with the experiences of many others. The comprehension of homelessness, voluntary and forced – there are a whole bunch of works about it. We thought of repeating Union of Hovels in different places. But it is put off indefinitely, no responsibilities, pure self-will.
There was The Disputed Territory, an exhibition in Sevastopol (3) (26.09.2012–07.10.2012).
It was about multiplicities of overlapping disputed territories – common space which has been cut up according to geopolitical red lines, torn up and privatized piece by piece, which is polished up with traditional values, or made the battlefield for different versions of historical memory. Semi-transparent conflict zones: through the one you can see the other. There was an extensive discussion program. There were confrontations with local culture activists who came down to fight the alien influence, both in the areas of art and politics. The trend was clear – the locals resisted a certain provocation, ‘Western provocation’, of course. Now, after the annexation, it’s easy to talk about some artistic predictions regarding this exhibition. But, I think it will be more precise to say that we were simply open to the place, and responded to its challenges with according complexity. The exhibition was held in a traditional art museum. The sort, you know, with flowerpots on the windowsills and at which you can’t put nails into the walls. The exhibition was made as ‘a box inside a box’, so that you could accommodate yourself within the museum halls, correlate yourself with them at a sensory level, but almost without engaging, relying, and depending on them. Sasha Burlaka created very simple plywood units, on which the artworks were displayed. Such things, though in different forms, often happened with us – you come to a new place, accommodate yourself there, but you cannot put down roots because then you’d find yourself bound, unable to afford to make the utterances you deem appropriate.
Misuse of the Space (26.10.2014–28.12.2014): in 2014, we unexpectedly got a space on Khreshchatyk Street for several months, a big hall belonging to one of the stores which had closed during the Maidan. Each week we exhibited one work and held a discussion around it. There is one more poor peculiarity of artistic life in Ukraine: people mostly don’t look at artworks there, but the exhibition machine cranks out events, and the halls need the filler of exhibitions. I cannot remember people here getting together for the sake of a certain artwork and talking about it and arguing themselves hoarse. We centered the discussion around one artwork after another, sometimes around a pair of works: Birmingham Pattern by Yuriy Leiderman and Andriy Silvestrov (4), Tiberiy Szilvashi’s monochrome abstraction (5) and Lada Nakonechna’s video (6), photo quotations by Andriy Boyarov (7) and an object made by Andriy Sahaidakovskyi (8).
By gradually filling the space, all these artworks should together have eventually created some likeness of a group exhibition – as if it were planned, as if it were thought through in advance as a whole, but just as if… I remember there was a conflict between those who focused only on the artworks, and those who put the system of their selection and of the project’s development first. My understanding is that this project remained not thought through; that’s a failure.
Referendum on Withdrawal from the Human Race, also 2014, was our first wartime exhibition. We exhibited it in Warsaw (19.10.2014–15.12.2014, Teatr Powszechny), and then in Kyiv (10.12.2014–29.12.2014, Closer Art Center). One more story of ‘dis-humanization’. But it could be seen as the dehumanization of the other, and the voluntary withdrawal from anthropocentrism, as well as the opportunity to enter into solidarity with insects or stones, rather than with human beings. Moreover, it was a story of how the radicalization of humanism was aligned with the ‘post-human’ state. At the beginning of the exhibition, at the entrance, was Erbol Maldibekov submissively taking slaps in the face, one after another; then, Leiderman’s rabbit creating a route for walking through a cemetery (by nuzzling at the sheets bearing the numbers of columbarium niches); Benjamin Egger’s artwork had people harnessed to a cart with a horse.
Into the Darkness (19.05.2016–29.05.2016, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna; 24.11.2016–15.01.2017, 32 Vozdvizhenka Arts House) was also about the relationship with the Zeitgeist. It was an exhibition about the determination to step into historical darkness, about the sensitivity of the blind as a key property of art. In a number of works, extremely anxious messages sounded in the language of direct political manifestation, radical actions were taken with unclear aims, such as to ‘confuse the enemy’. A rally in the open fields without witnesses, ‘methods of killing with a flag’, a continuous and wordless cry in front of the Verkhovna Rada. There were artworks new and old, the earliest of them dating back to the early 1980s: by Fedir Tetyanych, Leonid Voitsekhov, Yuriy Leiderman.
I think that historical distance revealed the precision of many of the works. In turn, those old artworks influenced the new ones, everything interlaced into a single story about this entering of the darkness in which neither experience nor knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, nothing but determination. The first, Viennese, version of the exhibition was a huge, very light space where artworks were presented as points: a large table with a tiny photo on it, a large distance from one monitor to another. In Kyiv, it was a much smaller space with a much bigger number of artworks compared to that in Vienna. Everything was placed on panels, which were leaned against the walls and dyed in various gradations of gray. In the center of the hall, there was a forest made of plinths with monitors. Fedir Tetyanych’s costume, which was in both Kyiv and Vienna, hovered above everything. For us, Tetyanych is generally an important image of a certain returning of the thought which wasn’t heard during its own era, and that’s why it will return again and again – and take over anyway.
As you can see, it’s easier for me to tell you what the exhibitions were about – about themes, problematics, about some complexes of ideas and intentions which were behind those exhibitions. Or to speak about the circumstances, reactions, places where those exhibitions took place. No, I’d like to think that each exhibition represented a very complex sensory pattern, and at the same time, was very clear in terms of volumes, images, surfaces, viewing time, exhibition space, so that everything kind of ‘sang’ all together. And that some unique relations arose between the artworks displayed. But these things could hardly be retold to their full extent, even if we had unlimited time for this talk.
I don’t know whether we, Hudrada, became curators in the true sense. That is, whether we combined our own adventure in art with the responsibility to the creators invited. I hope we managed to. Anyway, among the group exhibitions held in Ukraine, the ones by Hudrada are the most important for me. They are the sensory base of artistic life, to my eye, not agreed upon with anyone. But returning back, ‘artistic life’ and ‘the sensory base’ here have gone separate ways, and don’t plan any meetings in the near future, as far as I can understand.
However, the experience took place, the story that developed became very complete, and many actors appeared in it. It seemed to begin with the practices of a group of people engaged in some self-arrangement or self-defense under unfavorable conditions, and continued with the whole ‘another Ukrainian art’ (‘another’ is actually ‘the most important’ in this activity). We started by building a dugout to shelter ourselves from the storm, and ended up building a city. We are enthusiastic people, as it turns out.
Translated by Tanya Rodionova (VERBацiя)
Edited by Joe Plommer
1. The project Degree of Dependence
2. The video Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (from Italian, Center for Temporary Permanence), 2007
3. Held at the Kroshytskyi Sevastopol Art Museum
4. Their 2011 video
5. 2010–2011, oil
6. The video installation Somebody Else’s (Hi)story, 2009
7. Works from the series Scopic Regimes, 1993–2013, S-print
8. Untitled, 1989, wood, metal