Ukrainian Art World Gets Political.
The shutting down of an exhibition in Kiev last month became something of a performance art piece in its own right. The show, “Ukrainian Body,” which opened Feb. 7 at the Visual Culture Research Center at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, aimed to explore corporality in contemporary Ukrainian society. Alongside pieces like Oksana Briukhovetska’s picture book of the elderly and destitute in Kiev and a trident shield (the symbol of Ukraine) hand-carved by Vova Vorotniov were Sasha Kurmaz’s photographs of nude women, a few drawings of naked men by Anatoliy Byelov and a video installation by Mykola Ridnyi that looped contrasting images — one of a vagina and one of the Ukrainian Parliament — and asked viewers which image was more irritating.
Three days after the exhibition opened, the academy’s president, Serhiy Kvit, visited it. As Vasyl Cherepanyn, the director of the center tells it, a few hours later Mr. Kvit came back to the exhibition, keys in hand, and began shutting down video monitors and turning off the lights. “I asked him what he was doing,” said Mr. Cherepanym, who teaches in the university’s cultural studies department. “He told me ‘This is not an exhibition,”’ and used an expletive to describe it.
Mr. Kvit later told the media, “The exhibition is not closed, it is just locked.”
The president did not reply to e-mail requests for an explanation of his actions, though the academy provided a link to a page — in Ukrainian — of comments made by Mr. Kvit on the case.
After that, the academy only opened the show to the public when journalists requested entry. The closure prompted major debates over censorship not only among those involved in contemporary arts in Kiev, but also in the mainstream media.
Sympathizers across Ukraine showed solidarity with performances of their own, including one man in Donetsk who stripped naked in the freezing cold and carved the symbolic trident shield into his stomach with a razor. “Ukrainian Body” never reopened and the university closed the exhibition space altogether this month for what it said were “renovations.” According to Mr. Cherepanyn, the space will now be used to house the university’s archive.
A petition to protest those actions — signed by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, artists including Artur Zmijewski and Sara Goodman, and academics including Eric Fassin and John-Paul Himka — and calling for the “restoration of academic and artistic freedom” has been circulating across the country.
Despite widespread disappointment at the censorship, however, many see the outraged reaction of the general public as a sign of positive growth in the arts world here.
“I absolutely believe that the closing of this exhibition is the most important thing that has happened in Ukrainian contemporary art in quite some years,” said Kateryna Botanova, the director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art , or C.C.A., in Kiev. “It shows that contemporary art is not always beautiful and glamorous. Art can be subversive and a place for discussion.”
Such an outcry would have been unlikely here even a decade ago, but “the Ukraine cultural sphere is developing very fast,” said Ms. Botanova, who is also an art critic. “It is fantastic, it’s like a volcano.”
New institutions, commercial and noncommercial, have helped drive the contemporary art scene forward. One of these, the state-financed Mystetskyi Arsenal (commonly known as Art Arsenal), will play host in May to Arsenale 2012, Kiev’s first contemporary art biennale, to be organized by David Elliott, the British curator and museum director.
Meanwhile, the privately financed Pinchuk Art Center , owned by the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, has brought big names to Kiev (there are simultaneous solo shows of Gary Hume and Jeff Wall) and has gallery space dedicated to contemporary Ukrainian artists. A handful of art journals, like the online art site Korydor (run by the Foundation C.C.A.) and the magazine Art Ukraine, have sprung up, and a crop of politically engaged young artists and curators are making noise in Ukraine and abroad.
“We do not have an international brand yet but I think it is a question of time,” said Pavlo Gudimov, a former member of the popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy and the owner of the Ya Gallery in Kiev. “We have so many interesting artists and so many interesting situations.”