Bite and sting:

Per­for­mance art has gained pace since the Euro­maidan. But it is not new to Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Hanna Tre­hub

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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

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