Review of the Exhibit At the Front Line: Ukrainian Art, 2013-2019
Jessica Zychowicz | University of Alberta

On February 26, 2020, OSEREDOK Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre in Winnipeg opened the visual art exhibit At the Front Line: Ukrainian Art, 2013-2019. More than a retrospective, the works on display featured contemporary art from Ukraine to explore questions about the role of art in a time of crisis. Curated by Svitlana Biedarieva (Courtauld Institute of Art) and Ania Deikun (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Econonómicas), a version of the exhibit was displayed in 2019 at the National Museum of Cultures in Mexico City, where both curators currently live and work.

Artists included the filmmaker Mykola Ridnyi, visual artist Alevtina Kakhidze, Svitlana Biedarieva, Piotr Armianovski, Lada Nakonechna, Olia Mykhailiuk, Yevhen Nikiforov, and Zhanna Kadyrova. The curators write, “Expressions for and against particular ideological positions form the core of the exhibition, which focuses on heavy topics related to the causes of the violence and displacement of the past six years—as well as artistic and media responses to it. The task of the artist is to represent these conditions of hope and despair and to show turbulent life through a human lens, transgressing the borderlines set by political conflict” (Exhibit Catalogue). Images by the photographer Yevgenia Belorusets, for example, utilized documentary forms from the early twentieth century. Many of the works could be read as a critique of the normalization of a war situation. In Belorusets’ works, for example, by showing the faces and voices of the coal miners who labor daily, as they have for decades upon decades in the Donbas industrial basin, even while living close to the military and separatist-controlled zones of East Ukraine.

The experience of being on the front line of a war is now, more than ever, a universal one. The term “front line” became ubiquitous in world media in 2020. Amidst the pandemic, we can see that there is no enemy force at the opposite of the front line, because there can never be a full retreat from loss, sickness, or amnesia. Where the exhibit once referenced military conflict, the lockdown that occurred after its opening brings a new set of meanings to it; the front line appears even more universal than before, and, as many of the images suggest, does not mark territory, but language.

Contingency surrounding this exhibit introduced redefinitions of “frozen conflict” and “defence strategy” that may have, from the outset, only appeared to apply to military conflict, but in the span of only a few months, inoculated a different global vocabulary hearkening back to the days of the Bubonic Plague. At the Front Line opened just before the lockdown began in Canada and ended up remaining in the museum throughout the summer, transmitted online in virtual tours and talks.

a mural depicting miners and workers combines Ukrainian folkart woodcut with Soviet era socialist realismRoman Minin, Plan of Escape from the Donetsk Region, digital print on sintra, 2011. Photo credit: Norbert K. Iwan

The exhibit’s installation into OSEREDOK, a paragon for culture in the Ukrainian diaspora, was unprecedented in bringing, for the first time, a composite of contemporary art in Ukraine to the shores of Canada. Some of the works experimented with folk motifs in new formats, for example, the woodcut print by Roman Minin featuring Soviet socialist-realist aesthetics of workers in the Donbas to comment on the experience of displacement. Today, Canadian-Ukrainians have a unique vantage from which to understand the present situation in Ukraine. Many can recall one’s parents’ or grandparents’ stories of displacement from Europe at the time of the Second World War, and also, emigration to Canada in the late 19th century. The experience of immigration and displacement, of “being other” may never be overcome, but can instead be transformed into rare insights that provide unique glimpses into resilience that can facilitate wider acceptance of others. Only with and through dialogue with others can we reinvent a new way of communicating, a different optics, and a more nuanced method of knowing, perhaps, through experiences that defy easy categorization or division into “us” and “them,” “friend vs. “foe.” Such division is the province of the authoritarianism that many artists and others in Eastern Europe sought to escape, resist, and dismantle. Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that putting an end to war may be beyond the capacity of art, yet images can expand our ability to more fully account for its ramifications. The curators of this exhibit take a similar stance in their statement, entitled “Art as a Mirror of the War” : “The role of art in the context of war is to be a mirror for society, with all its imperfections and the contradictions that can be found in the people surrounding us” (Exhibit Catalogue, 9). a defunct brick factory smokestack is transformed by an art installation into a giant tube of lipstickYevgen Nikiforov, On the Republic’s Monuments, photographs, 2015-18

Many of the works juxtaposed past and present, such as Yevgen Nikiforov’s photographs of Soviet-era monuments to the Red Army in “On the Repubic’s Monuments.” These juxtapositions raise many questions: How have the moments of revolution and war in Ukraine been repeated and/or shifted memories of place, as a process in recognizing, defining, and inhabiting for different generations and their experiences of political upheaval? Where are the points of continuity in these experiences? Departures? How can new lives be forged?

The historical ties between Canada and Ukraine are well-known throughout the world. Canada has sustained economic partnership with Ukraine as part of the Trade Agreement that was signed between the two countries in order to help stabilize the region in the onslaught of the military conflict. This partnership also signals Canada’s support for Ukraine’s signing of the European Union Accession Agreement in 2016, a condition that protestors on the Maidan had demanded. In place of a chronology, the exhibit brought into view the experiences of many recently displaced from Ukraine’s conflict zone for older waves of Canadian-Ukrainians. A generation later, the Cold War has ceded to the Russia-Ukraine war in a cruel twist of history that none could have anticipated.

When in November 2013 the President Victor Yanukovych suspended the negotiations with the European Union about the association agreement, peaceful protests emerged on Kyiv’s central square, or Maidan, in Kyiv. The rigidity of the government and the brutality of the police led to the radicalization of the anti-governmental movement that formed the opposition. The annexation of the Crimea and subsequent Russian military occupation of the Donbas region followed in 2015-16. The outbreak of violence trapped thousands of Ukrainians in the conditions of an ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Seven years onward the Crimea and Donbas remain occupied, the most recent UN Rights Office lists the official combat death toll at 13,000 deaths, while over 1.5 million civilians have been displaced from their homes. Museums and other cultural institutions have not been spared. The cultural centre Izolyatsia, once located on a former industrial site in the now-occupied city of Donetsk, was turned into a prison by the separatist military forces. Site-specific installations before the occupation feature in the exhibit:

art installation of metal cubes with colored glass plates in the courtyard of a defunct factoryDaniel Buren, Dans les filets la couleur, site-specific installation, 2012, “Izolyatsia” Platform for Cultural Initiatives, Donetsk. Photo credit: Dima Sergeev

large Soviet World War 2 Red Army monument with graffitti covered by a green cloth in an urban park

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Make Up . . . Peace!, site-specific installation, 2012, “Izolyatsia” Platform for Cultural Initiatives, Donetsk. Photo credit: Ruslan Semichev

The arrival of a new generation speaking about war in the twentieth-century ushers in a lexicon that is broad enough to encompass differences, but acute enough to pay respects to those whose bodies face harm not by choice, but by circumstance. Ukraine and all living in Ukraine today, within or at the edge of military conflict zones, have left behind the post-Soviet symbolic order, entering a new era of globalization with increasingly diverse and intricate forms for self-identification. Social ecologies can lend themselves to habitual ways of remembering/forgetting, and can come to shape a particular historiography that is then transmitted between generations, creating a kind of feedback loop. We might not have expected to think about the medieval in a show about contemporary art, but the qualities once applied to art begin to resurface in a dialogue between form and location that starts to take on shades of the prophetic. The mural “The Morphology of War” stands out not only because it is by one of the curators, Svitlana Biedarieva, but in its form: a visual citation of Guernica. However, in the pandemic, the mural now manifests a different genre linked to untimely death—its dancing figures begin to take shape in a “Danse Macabre” from the time of the plague in the late Middle Ages. The message once being that all, no matter one’s rank in life, are levelled by nature’s grave, when viewed here, in the context of the other works, the human destruction of one another in military conflict appears all the more futile.

mural drawing in black and white with several half-human half-animal figures in a line also a female centaurSvitlana Biedarieva, The Morphology of War, digital print on HP wallpaper, 2017

The impacts of the war on daily experience have led to a new visual language that the works in this exhibit explore as a universal phenomenon. They make visible where the front line is lived and anchored, economically and politically tethered to a time and place—the production of borders and militarizing of societies between Ukraine and Russia. They also reveal where the front line is broken, permeable, or non-existent. Perhaps the role of art in a time of crisis is to show us what is eternal, illustrating the resilience of humanity. We now live on many different front line(s), simultaneously. But we always have.

All images used with permission.

Dr. Jessica Zychowicz recently published the monograph Superfluous Women: Art, Feminism, and Revolution in Twenty-First Century Ukraine (University of Toronto Press 2020). She is currently based at the University of Alberta in the Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program (CUSP).She was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Area Studies 2017-2018 to the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She has been a Fellow at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs; a Visiting Scholar at Uppsala University’s Institute for Russian and East European Studies in Sweden; and has participated in talks and residencies at the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators, and others. She earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan and holds a degree in English literature from U.C. Berkeley.