Where is Baba Yaga?
Art exhibitions often serve as mirrors that reflect the times, encapsulating the ethos and narratives that permeate society. "The Artist as Prophet," curated by Valeria Schiller and Ksenia Malykh, offers an insightful exploration of Ukraine's contemporary socio-political landscape. This collection of artworks by nine Ukrainian artists transcends traditional media, embracing the documentary, mixed-media installation, digital printing, and video, among others. It is an endeavor that combines artistic creation with deep social awareness, casting a prophetic gaze upon the history and future of the nation.
It is relevant to note that all the artists represented in this exhibition are men. Traditionally, the concept of a "prophet" has often been associated with male figures.
One of the standout works in the exhibition is "How to Remove Blood Stains from Clothing" from the "Recipes" series (2019) by Pavlo Kovach. This digital print is visually striking and thematically powerful. Through real-life advice intended for cleaners working in regions marked by incidents of self-immolation, Kovach delves into the issue of "short-term public memory" and the suppression of evidence by those in power. With backgrounds of plant images reminiscent of "Silent Witness" and "Camouflage," he masterfully addresses the concealment of tragic events. Placed in a public space as an advertisement, the artwork ingeniously mimics a commercial, challenging the viewer to respond to its message and provoke social awareness.
Piotr Armianovski's documentaries, "Chernobyl Liquidators" (2011) and "Elections that Never Happened" (2017), offer a fascinating glimpse into crucial moments in Ukraine's modern history. "Chernobyl Liquidators" captures the harsh reality of miners and Chernobyl cleanup veterans protesting against wage cuts. The palpable disappointment among the protesters, particularly concerning the newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych, speaks volumes about the challenges faced by workers in the Donetsk region. "Elections that Never Happened" presents a complex political landscape in Donetsk amidst the 2014 revolution, highlighting the impact of Russian troops on citizens' freedom of expression.
Dobrinya Ivanov's mixed-media installation, "Autonomous Republic of Borshchahivka" (2013), offers an exploration of autonomy and state sovereignty. Inspired by graffiti found on the walls of Kiev, Ivanov delves into the motivations behind separatist movements and the legal aspects of transforming a district into an independent state. Its display on the day of the illegitimate Crimea referendum in 2014 adds an eerie layer of relevance.
Arsen Savadov and Georgiy Senchenko's "Voices of Love" (1994) encapsulates the monotony and despair associated with a repetitive work routine during the division of the Black Sea Fleet between Ukraine and Russia. The accompanying text, presented on postcards, adds depth to the feeling of hopelessness evoked by the video. The choice of the Ukrainian warship "Slavutych" as the filming location adds historical resonance to the piece.
Nikita Kadan's "Everyone Wants to Live by the Sea" (2014) engages viewers with archival documents, neon, photography, and graphite gouache. By overlaying drawings of modernist architectural forms on photographs of Crimean Tatar settlements, Kadan explores the history of Crimea's various ethnic groups and the challenges faced by Crimean Tatars in their ancestral land.
Mykola Ridnyi's video work, "Dispatch" (2008), uses a seemingly calm coastal scene interspersed with the unsettling image of jellyfish and the sound of falling bombs. The piece, created in response to the 2008 conflict between Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia, highlights the fragility of tranquility in an increasingly volatile world.
Semen Khramtsov and Stas Volyazlovskyi's "Mirages" (2014) offers a satirical view of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. With its resemblance to a video postcard advertising a Ukrainian resort complex, the artwork plays with recognizable symbols of Crimea, underscoring the complexities of the region's political landscape.
Anton Saenko's "Sound for Oneself" (2023) presents panoramic photographs from the "Dirty" series (2019-2020) that evoke a sense of melancholy and absence. These landscapes, devoid of human presence, recall the blackout conditions in Ukrainian cities during Russia's destruction of critical infrastructure.
Andriy Rachinskiy and Daniil Revkovskiy's "Clank, Dispute, Hammering, and Gurgling" (2020) ventures into the future archaeology of a tailings dam in Kryvyi Rih. This colossal artificial system, used to store waste generated during mineral enrichment, raises profound questions about humanity's responsibility to the environment.
"The Artist as Prophet" captures the ability of these nine Ukrainian artists to foresee and comment on the complex political context of their nation. Through a wide range of media, the artworks explore themes of memory, resistance, autonomy, and the ever-present specter of history. By presenting pieces created before the 2014 conflict or before the large-scale 2022 war against Ukraine, the exhibition emphasizes that these artists have long been aware of the challenges posed by Russian imperialism. This collection is a testament to the enduring power of art to engage with and address pressing social concerns.
"The Artist as Prophet" offers a narrative of Ukraine's past, present, and possible futures. Each work resonates with contemporary relevance, inviting viewers to contemplate the history and future of the nation through the prism of prophetic art. The curator's selection and curation illuminate the interaction between art and society, making this exhibition a significant contribution to the discourse on contemporary Ukrainian art and its socio-political context.
The Artist as Prophet at Galerie Weisser Elefant
July 29th to September 17th, 2023.
Auguststraße 21, 10117 Berlin, Germany
*Dobrinya Ivanov, "Autonomous Republic of Borshchahivka" (2013).