Art Criticism

Kiev Biennial

Phyllida Barlow, “Rift,” a site specific installation in three parts, 2012: Untitled: hoardings, 2012, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, photo by Maksim Belousov, Mykhailo Chornyy.

DO WE NEED ANOTHER BIENNALE? CERTAINLY UKRAINE SEEMS to think so, with Kiev staking its claim on the international art scene.

From Liverpool to Venice, from Istanbul to São Paulo the world is awash with contemporary art. Is there really enough good work to go round, or, like nature, does art abhor a vacuum, growing to fill the ever increasing number of biennale-shaped holes? An attractive and sophisticated city, Kiev very much wants to be part of the international scene. “If we wait for the good times, we never start,” claims the immaculately coiffed Nataliia Zabolotna, director of Kiev’s Mystetskyi Arsenal, the 18th-century arms store which will become one of Europe’s largest art centers when completed in 2014. The Kiev Biennale’s English artistic director, David Elliott, said earlier this year that “Most exhibitions today are Eurocentric in their assumptions.” While not rejecting this, the Biennale tried to present another picture, one that also took into account the political and aesthetic developments that have shaped so much art of the present. “The international art community’s perception of Ukraine as some kind of a post-Soviet hinterland has changed,” said Elliott. That’s as may be, but E.U. leaders, led by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, threatened to boycott the Euro 2012 football championships held during the Biennale and co-hosted with Poland, in protest at the treatment of Kiev’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was reputedly beaten up after her arrest in October. No doubt there was a touch of British irony in Elliott’s choice of theme taken from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “The best of times, the worst of times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art.”

On my quick 24-hour visit, the city was busy sprucing itself up for the football. Grass was being laid and flowers planted. The organizers obviously hoped that these dual sporting and cultural events would raise the profile of the country—though it didn’t bode well that during our first tour to the National Art Museum of Ukraine, we found the installation Pipeline “Druzha,” a golden-foil spiral wrapped around the classical pillars of the building’s façade by the artist Olga Milentyi, being removed by the authorities. As one young translator muttered, “We have some problems here with democracy.”

Since the opening of the George Soros-funded Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Kiev, which had its funding withdrawn after the Orange Revolution, it’s Ukranian steel magnate and former politician Victor Pinchuk— who is married to the daughter of the former president of Ukraine and whose estimated fortune exceeds $3 billion—who has become the backbone of contemporary art in Kiev, reminding anyone who was ever in any doubt that art and money often share the same bed. The Pinchuk Art Centre, the first private museum in the former Soviet Union, with its ubiquitous glass, concrete and steel, is every bit the stylish modern gallery. During the Biennale, it is showing work by Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, though more interesting for a western viewer overfamiliar with these artists were the intense figurative paintings by the winner of the PinchukArtCentre Prize, Artem Volokytin.

But back to the Biennale. The opening was chaotic, the speeches long, the work not all installed, and we were severely delayed getting in. Explaining the lack of organization, Elliott said, “There are things that you can’t plan for, like having to install for 36 hours with minimal electricity and no light.” Inside paintings were languishing in their bubble-wrap, and wall markers were non-existent or left lying around haphazardly, while technicians drilled holes in the walls, ran out electric cables, and tinkered with the videos.

Despite the distractions, there was much that impressed. A new series of photographs, by Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov, of rusting factory plants that still scar vast swathes of the Ukraine landscape spoke of the collapse of the Soviet dream, while nearby Louise Bourgeois’ “cells” made reference to the repressed feelings of fear and pain underlining Elliott’s belief that “you have to understand the past to understand the present.” British artist Phyllida Barlow had specially created “Rift,” an impressive three-part site-specific installation of wooden scaffolding that stands like some dystopian cityscape responding to the massive columns and vaults of the imposing Arsenal building. Other new pieces included Yayoi Kusama’s site-specific walkthrough tunnel—studded with pink nodules, decorated with black polka dots, and titled Footprints of Eternity—and a vast projection of a letter written in 1939 by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, in which he urged the Führer to avoid war “for the sake of humanity.”

There were works from China (Liu Jianhua and the MadeIn Company), Korea (Choi Jeong-Hwa) and Turkey (Canan Tolon), as well as 20 artists total from Ukraine, including Vasily Tsgolov, Nikita Kadan, Hamlet Zinkovsky and the U.S.-based couple Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, whose trenchant pieceMonument to a Lost Civilisation (1999) reflects the false utopian dreams of those living under communism. The American painter Fred Tomaselli created two large new apocalyptic works, while British artist, Yinka Shonibare contributed paintings that continue his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism. First shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Miwa Yanagi’s macabre 4-meter-high photographs of “goddesses” stood in a windswept landscape. The conjunction of old and youthful bodies—aging breasts on a young torso, with sagging legs beneath a taut frame—spoke of collapse, putrefaction and renewal.

Song Dong is known for his innovative conceptual videos and photography that reveal the changes in modern China and express his response to the country’s rapid development while retaining a spiritual connection to the past. The centerpiece of Song Dong: Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well was the large-scale installation “Waste Not,” comprising thousands of everyday items collected by the artist’s mother over the course of more than five decades. The project evolved out of his mother’s grief after the death of her husband and follows the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong(“waste not”) as a prerequisite for survival. Vitrines full of dried soap and stuffed with cabbages created a powerful metaphor for the effects of radical change and social transformation on individual members of a family.

In part, the chaos of the Kiev Biennale was the result of the Ukrainian government’s failure to provide its half of the funding on time. (The other half was provided by corporate sponsors and private individuals.) The government seemed to hope that their involvement would fortify their claim to join the E.U., but the country’s problems with human rights make that far from certain. Catching David Elliott in the bar after the opening, I asked if he thought there’d be another such event—after all, there needs to be at least two to warrant the use of the term “biennale.” “Who can say?” was his enigmatic response.

The First Kiev International Biennale ARSENALE 2012 ran from May 24 to July 31
www.artarsenal.in.ua

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