19TH JANUARY 2021
***This text is part of the TransitoryWhite Nr. 2 Not The East, which can be ordered via this e-mail. The issue contains several texts and poetry in five languages as well as photographic works by Sasha Kurmaz. And now — have fun reading!***
An old bus appears amid a deserted, sunburned landscape. It carries several people who emerge for a brief second only to reboard the vehicle, soon disappearing on the horizon and leaving no traces of their passing. This description is a fragment from a video work by the Ukrainian artist Nikolay Karabinovych. By addressing the depths of his family history and multinational identity, he creates stories that resonate with today’s issues of multiculturalism and national politics. In this video, he references the experience of resettlement—something his own family of Greek Jewish descent had to endure. Today, thousands of residents from Ukraine have found themselves in a similar situation concerning the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. Karabinovych’s work raises questions about the place of a person and whether the landscape in which a person previously lived has a memory.
THE BORDER IS ALSO THE HORIZON.
Ukraine has always been known for its black soil and natural resources, even though exactly those endowments historically have been at the root of many conflicts and tragedies. Ukraine’s painful past and the nation’s history shape current intellectual debates. Attempt to distinguish Ukrainian identities—layered and crisscrossed, bisected by external adventurism and internal division—quickly leads to broader questions of agency. However, it is worth noting that Ukraine has always been a borderland between so-called Europe and Asia, the Scandinavian countries and the southern frontiers (the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks passed through the territory of Ukraine). I say so-called Europe only because Ukraine is — geographically — situated in its very centre and occupies a significant part of it, but stereotypically it is presented as an exclusively peripheral part of it. Here geography played a crucial role in the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural formation.
The trope of landscape occupies a prominent place in contemporary Ukrainian culture, weaving together issues of identity, memory, culture, and ideology. Nikita Kadan, one of this year’s nominees for the National Shevchenko Prize, examines the landscape from these points of view in the cycle “(Un)Named”. He highlights the stories of people who found themselves on the margins of life—in particular, people who died from various forms of violence and xenophobia aroused by conflicting identities. Working with archival photographs, Kadan transfers portraits of people from the journalistic record to canvas and paper, while eliminating everything unnecessary to his subject. The focus is exclusively on people and the injuries they received. In one of his works, «Untitled» (from “The Chronicle” series), a man bare from the waist up lies face down; scars and abrasions are visible on his back. In this pen-and-ink drawing, the man’s mutilated back and torn muscles reminiscent of a field, his gashes resemble agricultural harrowing. Kadan foregrounds the subject of human casualties that have occurred due to such resource-related conflicts. He reveals to us human abjection in place of national pride and patriotism. USING HIS ART TO SPOTLIGHT DEEP CURRENTS OF XENOPHOBIA, INEQUALITY, AND VIOLENCE, HE INTERROGATES THE WAY UKRAINIAN IDENTITY SHOULD BE CONSTRUED TODAY. IT IS A FRAUGHT QUESTION.
When I look at Kadan’s works depicting violence, I see today’s people—ordinary citizens and soldiers, their disrupted families, their relatives’ grief. When I look at Karabinovych’s bus moving into an empty space, I think about internally displaced people (IDPs) who dream of returning to their homes. With time, history tends to repeat itself, and with it, violence and the thirst for profit and domination reinstate.
When we turn to the sun rising on the horizon, do we only see nature or the war’s demarcation line, people who flee or equip their lives to withstand shelling? The horizon line is indissoluble from the demarcation line now. But who and when will sew it?
The physical line of demarcation runs precisely in the east of Ukraine (part of Donbas area — coal-mining district), where the war has been going on for the sixth year, since spring 2014. Many families were forced to find themselves on opposite sides of the demarcation line and have difficulties, each time coming together. Over the years, Donbas has always been perceived as a marginal region — violent and problematic. During the Soviet era, the region was marginalized due to hard work and social conditions. A similar marginalization remained in the 1990s when all these problems intensified due to the increase in economic problems and the criminalization of the region. This attitude to the place was beneficial to the political elites, so this stereotype developed every time from election to election.
Once again, people perceive the region as turbulent, problematic, and complex because of the war. During the past six years, the natural landscape of the region has drastically changed—politically, socially, and culturally. The landscape of cities and villages has changed due to frequent shelling and continuous military operations. Today ‘Donbas’ is rather a metaphor for social backwardness and economic decline, labour strikes, and the oligarchs’ unlimited power. Donbas is a place for gold diggers. ALTHOUGH MANY ACTIVISTS AND ARTISTS VISIT THE REGION WITH A HUMANITARIAN MISSION AND LOFTY GOALS IN MIND, SOME OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS TREAT IT AS A PLACE OF ENRICHMENT.The majority of the international media represent the region as something distant, like «far-East,» and portray the region as something gigantic, comparing it to a big wild beast with a belligerent mood towards the Other.
When, in reality, its location depends only on perception. For example, for me, it is a native region, which, wherever I am, will be close and understandable to me. The area itself it’s now so huge, we just need to compare it with other regions and districts with similar regions and districts which can be found in other countries like“sister” coal-mining district Ruhr in Germany.
In 2017 Ukrainian artist Vova Vorotniov crossed Ukraine on foot—from his native town of Chervonograd in the Lviv region to Lysychansk in the Luhansk region. He carried a lump of coal to exchange it. Initially, he wanted to bring coal to the capital of coal mining — Donetsk, which is very hard for many people in Ukraine, especially for those who were born in Western Ukraine or Kyiv. The war determined the artist’s choreography: in Vorotniov’s work, the Ukrainian East symbolically ends in the city of Lysychansk, but this city is not the extreme point of geography.
In his documentation, we can observe that the landscape changed, but people’s dreams and needs did not. Vorotniov’s Instagram photos of the landscape and the skyline turned into a strong argument against symbolic violence, where people are divided according to the West-East principle. During the past years of political crisis, the populist politicians have appropriated the catchy statements about the need to «stitch Ukraine» as if it was demarcated. However, these statements are inaccurate. Such disparity existed only within the information field. Vorotniov proved this point in his work. His performance became a gesture that reshaped our geography and showed us that “east” is an improper comparison to poverty. After all, our cultural and social ideals are crumbling against a reality that is no different from other places with equally severe social problems. Despite all our differences, we share the same desires and needs. All people in Ukraine want to live in a prosperous country with good social and cultural infrastructure, absent of populism and hatred.
Our ideas about the East are often erroneous. Often, we delve into stereotypes, simplifying the geographies to wild and exotic. Nowadays, we look at geography and landscape from a sociopolitical perspective, establishing a social and cultural memory. Therefore, issues of identity are inextricably linked to issues of human rights. Perhaps, contemporary art does not offer solutions on how to deal with important dilemmas. However, it tells the stories in which human life is of the highest value.
Today geography is conditioned to the political imagination in which borders are formed in virtue of information battles, economic and political restrictions, and access to quality education. Ukrainian contemporary art is often a political act that opens and defines the space of critical thinking and civil rationality. When recalling the past and analyzing the present, artists ask themselves: who we are, where is our place, and what future do we want for us? — In many ways, we are all passengers on the bus that goes to the horizon.
Kateryna Iakovlenko is a contemporary art researcher, art critic, and journalist. She received an MA in journalism and social communication from the Donetsk National University. For six years she has been researching the transformation of the heroic narrative of Donbas through new media as a postgraduate thesis at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. For more than seven years she has been writing about art and culture for various Ukrainian and European media outlets. Iakovlenko worked as a deputy web editor in The Day newspaper (2013-2014), and curator and program manager in Donbas Studies Research Project at the IZOLYATSIA, platform for cultural initiatives (2014-2015). Her current research interest touches on the subject of art during political transformations and war and explores women’s and gender optics in visual culture. She was the editor of the books Gender Studies by Donbas Studies Research Project (2015) and Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019). She currently works as a researcher and public programme curator at the PinchukArtCentre.