Bite and sting:
Performance art has gained pace since the Euromaidan. But it is not new to Ukraine
Performance and shock art in Ukraine
During the decades of profound “unfreedom,” the terrors of Stalin and the stagnation of the Brezhnev years Ukrainian arts saw no artistic or theatrical rumbles, and no outrageous, shock or performance art. What there was remained in closed artistic circles and never became widely known. But times have changed. In an independent Ukraine, these artistic practices raise a number of questions about the degree of internal freedom in Ukrainian society, its willingness to know about what’s happening in the arts, not so much in Europe, America, Asia, or Russia—to which people were generally forced—, as in their own country. And about how honest they are with themselves.
The history of performance as an art direction in Ukraine has roots going back to the traditions of the Avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century. According to Alisa Lozhkina, editor-in-chief of ART Ukraine, in this context, the Futurists lead by David Burliuk come to mind, with their strategy of shocking the general public: they would walk the streets in strange outfits, painted their faces, and held fake funeral processions. Ukrainian performance art in soviet times was no less intriguing. In the early 1980s, a group of conceptual artists in Odesa that included Leonid Voitsekhov, Yuri Leiderman, Igor Chatskin, and Sergey Anufriev held events that were radically different from acceptable soviet art practice and are today seen as classic. One of the most interesting was a joint project between Leiderman and Chatskin called “How to kill with a flag.”
Although many did manage to penetrate it, the Iron Curtain cut off most Ukrainian artists from current trends in the world of the arts. Reproductions and photographs of the works of western artists, the “bourgeois painting” that it was mandatory to criticize, was possible to see in some book in plain wrapping, under someone’s table, but when it came to those works that can only be seen live or on video, the situation was not even that good. Performance as a form of modern art is based on the artist’s actions and is viewed by an audience in real time. Its foundation lies in a concept of art as a style of living.
PARADZHANOV AND FRYPULIA
One of the first who comes to mind in this context is filmmaker Serhiy Paradzhanov, whose life was filled to abundance with both sophisticated art, and outrageous and hooligan art. The point is that all these things are very subjective and it’s not possible to arrive at a definitive assessment. Incidentally, one of Paradzhanov’s favorite filmmakers was Pier Paolo Pasolini, who made the film “Saló, or 120 Days of Sodom,” which was only allowed to be shown in the UK in 2000.
Another figure worth mentioning is the Kyiv artist Feodosiy “Frypulia” Tetianych, possibly the first Ukrainian artist who could really be called a performer. You might not have been able to see performance art on the streets of Moscow in 1988, but you certainly could in Kyiv. Frypulia performed on Andriyivskiy Uzviz dressed in a polyethylene cloak, a much-patched shirt smeared with paint, with a very long beard and a very strange hat on his head. Few people understood that there was a person hiding under all this, someone who manifested himself in many ways, including as a member of the Artists’ Union of Ukraine, a monumentalist, and one of the leaders of the informal underground of Ukrainian art. Among others, he raised a very significant question: Why did the Artists’ Union have sections on graphics, sculpture, painting, monumental art, and art criticism, but
nothing on op-art, performance or installationa? This issue remains equally current today. According to Lozhkina, the closest comparison to Frypulia’s performance strategy might be the European Fluxus movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
THE MASOCH FUND
Art historian Oksana Barshynova, head of the XX-XXI century art research at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, notes that performance art was a relatively rare occurrence in Ukraine during the 1990s, although artists occasionally did put performances on. “The most exciting ones, in my opinion, were run by the Masoch Fund—Ihor Diurych and Ihor Podolchak,” says Barshynova. “Works like ‘Mausoleum for a President’ and ‘The Last Jewish Pogrom’ were provocative events that hit their targets, bringing out into the open issues that were hidden through fear and hang-ups.” This artistic group was founded in Lviv by theater director and actor Roman Viktiuk in 1991, together with Diurych and Podolchak. The works of this group belong to the European tradition of actionism and is categorized as “aesthetic interactions” by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud.
Bourriaud was particularly interested in the collection of artistic practices whose jumping-off point is human relationships. The name “Masoch” was part of the name of this Lviv artists’ group, not to promote the works of this Austrian writer or the sexual perversions such as the masochism with which his name is associated, but as an appeal to the “marginal zones” of culture and society. In the “Mausoleum for a President” performance, the artists invited the artistic crowd to the opening of their new project on the lawn in front the National Art Museum. When the guests arrived, they saw a strange object covered in a white cloth. Underneath there turned out to be an electric hotplate on which stood a huge jar of backfat, known as solonyna or salo or in Ukraine. The artists then turned up the burner and when the fat began to melt, a statuette of the then-President of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, emerged.
THE PARIS COMMUNE
Yet another informal artistic association at the turn of the 1990s was the Kyiv-based Paris Commune. This group of artists rented a studio in the very heart of Kyiv from 1990-1994, in a building that had been evacuated for major renovations at vulytsia Paryzkoyi Komuny 12A, today Mykhailivska. This is where professional performances of classics of modern Ukrainian art took place, involving people like Oleksandr Hnylytskiy, Valeria Trubina, Arsen Sadoviy, Heorhiy Senchenko, Oleh Holosiy, Maksym Mamsikov, Oleksandr Klymenko, Vasyl Tsaholov, Illya Isupov, and Illya Chychkan. This is where the Ukrainian New Wave came into being. It was the place where Oleksandr Roitburd and Dmytro Dulfan would come from time to time.
Art critic Natalia Filonenko, who participated in this group at one point, talks about their experiments in performance art: “Performance art in the nineties looked different from performance today. Back then, it was a lifestyle that was being documented. When people are celebrities, then their entire lives are like a performance. It’s fun and you can record it on your camera.” She adds that then Ukrainian artists did not understand what western video art was all about, or what that video art was supposed to look like. “Certainly it wasn’t supposed to look like post-perestroika movies, films about people who have been ‘torn apart,’” says Filonenko. In addition to the videos being taken by Maksym Mamsikov, a performance by Vasyl Tsaholov doing “Père Lachaise on Karl Marx Street, or The shooting of the Paris Communards, was recorded in photographs whose central theme is the settling of scores among bandits in the “wild 90s,” which was part of everyday life then.
From 1993 to 1996, Kharkiv’s Rapid Response Team was a project by artists and photographers Borys “Bob” Mykhailov, Serhiy Bratkov and Serhiy Solonskiy who based their creative approach on actionism. Coming from the photographer underground, neither private nor intimate life was subject to taboos the way it had been in soviet times as they studied and illustrated the painful and difficult transition from post-soviet to Ukrainian.
HOOLIGAN ART TODAY
After 2000, performance art became far more widespread, according to Barshynova. For groups like REP and SOSka, it was possibly the most important instrument of artistic influence. The art group Revolutionary Experimental Space was established on the wave of the Orange Revolution in 2004 by young Ukrainian artists like Mykyta Kadan, Ksenia Hnylytska, Lesia Khomenko, Lada Nakonechna, Zhanna Kadyrova, and Volodymyr Kuznetsov. One of their most notorious events was a wake for Professor Pyrohov in February 2008, when the artists sat at a covered table eating and drinking in a subway car that travelled through the entire city on Kyiv’s Red Line, from the Lisova station to Akademmistechko.
The Kharkiv group SOSka was set up in 2005 by Mykola Ridniy, Anna Kryventsova, Bella Logachova and Olena Poliashchenko after they squatted a one-story building in the center of town, an act that was clearly provocative hooliganism. The groups most publicized performance was a series called “‘Them’ on the Streets” in 2006. The artists dressed up as bums in masks representing the country’s top politicians at the time and begged for money from passers-by—a direct metaphor for a country over-saturated with political advertising in the run-up to a Verkhovna Rada election.
“After 2000, performance was different from the performance art of the 90s,” Barshynova explains. “It became more personal, more reactive towards events. It even began to hybridize, merging with other types and media.” As the artists’ approach became more thorough, the performance itself became more “serious.” The Lviv School of Performance Art, which organizes the only festival of this type of art in Ukraine today, discussions, roundtables and academic studies suggest that performance has taken its place as a fairly ordinary form of art. Meanwhile, it has also become one of the manifestations
OUTRAGEOUS ART IN AND OF ITSELF IS NOT THE GOAL BUT ONE OF THE STRATEGIES OF MODERN ART—AND OF SOCIAL ACTIVISM AS WELL. ITS PURPOSE IS TO QUICKLY DRAW ATTENTION TO A TOPIC OR PROBLEM, TO ATTACK STEREOTYPES
of civic activism: quite a few events take place in public places, expressing more visible sharpness and affecting a larger number of people. This, then, is the right place for hooligan art and rumbles.
When it comes to outrageous art, Oksana Barshynova says that outrage in and of itself is not the goal but one of the strategies of modern art—and of social activism as well. Its purpose is to quickly draw attention to a topic or problem, to attack stereotypes, no matter what it is. The most outrageous actions, says the art critic, remain those that display the naked body or sexuality. An example of this was Oleksandr Volodarskiy’s performance outside the Verkhovna Rada attacking the violation of human rights: it imitated sexual intercourse as a protest against the actions of Ukraine’s notorious Commission for Public Morality. Volodarskiy was taken to court over this performance and even spent several months in jail. After being released, he had an inkless tattoo made on his back to read “This ain’t Europe, folks.”
An equally outrageous performance was “Sleeping Beauty” by Taras Polanaika at the National Art Museum. The Culture Ministry tried to stop it, religious groups protested against it, and the event raised heated debate in art circles. Its shock value lay mainly in the fact that a fairytale, imaginary story was brought to life: a real sleeping girl was allowed to be kissed and this took place at a public institution—the museum—and aired online.
In 2006, Oles Doniy founded the Ostannia Barykada or Last Barricade art society, which organized an annual underground festival called “Independence Day with Makhno” from 2006 to 2009 at Hulaipole, the hometown of the anarchist Otaman Nestor Makhno. The festival took place in the atmosphere of the 1920s, complete with machine-guns on horse-drawn wagons. In 2008, a much-talked-about event called “Barricade on the Tuzla” took place, to demonstrate that Crimea was territory tied to the development of Ukrainian culture.
Outrageous and hooligan art are the calling card of another group called the “Freedom or Death” Union of Free Artists (CBX), founded in 2009 by artists Ivan Semesiuk, Serhiy Koliada, Andriy Yermolenko, Oleksa
Mann, Nina Murashkina, Ihor Preklita, Serhiy Khokhol, and Antin Mukharskiy. They call themselves national anarchists. Although it initially seems that they are merely entertaining, the purpose that brought the group together was to engage in artistic diagnosis of various states of contemporary Ukrainian society and reflecting it in works of art, public events and performances that, by raising one issue or another, force society and the viewer to engage in a dialogue. They gave Ukraine the Zhlob-Art project, or Parasite Art, which transforms and makes fun of some of the less-than-attractive aspects of the national mentality. Members of CBX associate the parasite with mass man, a phenomenon about which Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote and refers to individuals who are driven by their emotions and deal with all their problems through aggression and emotional pressure on those around them. This kind of person is incapable of freedom and is a victim of televised upbringing and education.
Most members of CBX express their views on canvas, but they have also engaged in street performance. At the Lviv Publishers’ Forum in 2013, Mukharskiy organized an event to go with the presentation of an art book called Zhlobologia: a cage containing some young people who were obvious gopniks1 for the public to view. After the Euromaidan, this group pretty much stopped its activities. After all, this event, despite its bloodiness and tragedy, can be seen as an extraordinarily powerful performance, on a scale that Europe had never seen before. There are many graphic images from those events, such as Taras Shevchenko or She—echoing Che Guevara—on the barricades and Lesia Ukrainka in a gas mask, two of Ukraine’s most iconic poets.
According to Alisa Lozhkina in her comments for The Ukrainian Week, one of the best-known Ukrainian performance artists is Alevtyna Kakhidze. Working consistently in this vein, possibly Kakhidze’s most brilliant performances was the project “I’m late for a flight that I can’t possibly miss,” in which she used a private plane belonging to Rinat Akhmetov to sketch the earth from the sky.
Another big name is Larysa Venedyktova and the group Tanzlaboratorium, who work at the intersection of contemporary art and dance.
“Many performance artists have appeared in Ukraine since the Maidan,” recalls Lozhkina. “Often, they weren’t artists but community activists. The photograph of Lviv musician Markian Matsekh playing the piano in front of ranks of armed soldiers near the Presidential Administration on Bankova went viral during the Maidan. Another performance was thought up by separatist Mariam Drahina. During ‘Ukrainian women against a servile future,’ women brought a huge number of toys to the Berkut special forces. Another event organized by the Civic Sector of the Euromaidan was called, ‘Dear God, is that really me?’ Here, women brought the Berkut mirrors marked with this question and forced them to look into those mirrors.”
A country battered by war can’t possibly remain neutral to this reality in its art. Kakhidze herself was driven out of Zhdanivka in Donetsk Oblast (currently controlled by the pro-Russian forces) by the Russian war against Ukraine and has gone on to carry out a number of other interesting projects. In 2015, she did a performance called “Calls from a Cemetery” in Cologne, in which she talked about her mother, who has stayed behind in occupied Donbas and the only place where her mother can receive a cell-phone signal to the outside world is in the cemetery near her apartment building. In this case, performance art is a way to tell about what is going on today in Donbas that is familiar to a western audience.
Two elements play a key role in performance art: content and form. Today, western art is more inclined towards form whereas Ukrainian tends towards content. Probably because we have an ongoing war. As a result, Ukrainian actionism has become heavy, and severe, and often uses blood. For instance, artists from the C14 group spilled bull’s blood in the courtroom where Berkut officers were suspected of shooting demonstrators on the Maidan. “The highest level of actionism is when the artist risks self and life to cause shock,” writes blogger Volodymyr Nesterenko. “I think the kind of performance art that Ukraine should be proud of is the actions of the roofer Mustang, who repainted a star on a stalinist building in Moscow blue and yellow. Another similar performance was Serhiy Zakharov’s Donetsk caricatures of the odious folks running DNR—Ghirkin-Strelkov, Motorola and so on. He was caught and was kept in the basements of the DNR KGB for some time.”
The point is that those Ukrainian artists who engage in performance, outrageous and hooligan art typically work on themes that are familiar in post-soviet countries. When Roitburd or Podervianskiy engage in hooligan art and trolling, it’s subject that are not only familiar to those who once lived in the socialist camp. The same is true of the performances of Dakh Daughters under the direction of Vlad Troitsky.
For Ukraine, the question is how to increase the quantity of this kind of art that might not only be used in Europe but might capture the hearts and souls of people around the world. Art critic Natalia Filonenko points out there still is no system for teaching, presenting and supporting performance as a form of modern art. Performance isn’t always about revolution. It’s also contains deeply esthetic elements, such as choreography. It’s just a matter of whether this is the case during a time of geopolitical and social turbulence, in Ukraine, in Europe and in the world.
Mocking the insecurities. In pieces like The kolhoz Mahākāla artists of CBX, or the Union of Free Artists, mock some of the worst flaws in Ukraine’s mentality. One such flaw is zhlobstvo, a widespread social culture where primitive and aggressive...
An upgrade of classics. Odesa-born Oleksandr Roitburd portrays classic writers and artists from Ukraine and the world in traditional Jewish attire. This painting features Ukrainian landmark poet Taras Shevchenko
Shock art. In 2013, Antin Mukharskiy organized an event to go with the presentation of an art book called Zhlobologia: a cage containing some young people who acted as gopniks for the public to view