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Ukrainian Hermitage presents an exhibition of young Ukrainian painters


Recently an exhibition of young Ukrainian painters, members of the Revolyutsiyny Eksperementalny Prostir (Revolutionary Experimental Space; R.E.S.) was held at the Modern Art Centre of the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. There were fifteen sections at the exhibition called Ukrainian Hermitage, each section showing the work of one of the fifteen artists of the R.E.S. group.


Some time earlier, the works of these artists were “exhibited” on the side of the roads, in underground passages, at open-air markets, even at garbage dumps; they were filmed and photographed and these videos and photographs were shown at the Modern Art Centre. To see art works in such unusual surroundings is a shocking experience — the viewers feel themselves totally alienated from what one expects to be the traditional atmosphere of an art exhibition, and are left face-to-face with the brutality of the real world. They have to try hard to comprehend what this kind of art wants to impart to them.

At the opening of the exhibition, a press conference was held in one of the halls of the Modern Art Centre. In order to get into it, you had to pass through the exhibition hall in the centre of which stood the installation created by Mykyta Kadan — a calf’s head with its skin removed mounted against the background of a portrait of Taras Shevchenko, the classic of Ukrainian literature and culture. I am not sure whether the organisers of the exhibition deliberately planned to subject anyone who knows anything about Shevchenko and about a profound effect his poetry and his ideas had had upon the Ukrainian nation and its culture to a cultural shock, but for me it was of a metaphoric significance. It prepared me emotionally to deal with what I was to see and hear.

The exhibition Ukrainian Hermitage was an attempt to reassess traditional Ukrainian culture and to show that in the modern world this culture was, in many respects, out of date, and could no longer reflect the complexities of today; at the same time, the works shown at the exhibition attempted to reinterpret and introduce traditional Ukrainian culture into the world of today in a paradoxical manner.

Most of the R.E.S. artists are students or graduates of the National Academy of the Arts and Architecture. At the press conference, they behaved in a relaxed, even somewhat condescending manner, and they used rather complicated forms of expression, probably aimed at showing that they regarded themselves as part of the modern art movement which follows the general trend of western art. It was evident right from the start that the guests and reporters at the press conference were considered by the artists to be representatives of traditional views on art and of traditional approaches to culture, whereas the R.E.S. artists regarded themselves to be fighters against traditionality, whose intention was to do away with traditional approaches to art and culture.

Also, the R.E.S. artists regard themselves to be “continuators” of the Orange Revolution in art, and they have established a theoretical foundation of their approach to art. They explained what stood behind the name of the exhibition. In their interpretation, “Ukrainian Hermitage” is “a territory where art is separated from the topicality of today and stays outside any critical assessment.” The R.E.S. artists think that Ukraine’s political and business elite of today is after creating “cultural decoration” based on traditional aspects of culture and on mass culture which is “embellished” with national colouring. Such a position, according to the R.E.S. artists, leads to the indifference on the part of the consumers of such culture because of conformity and lack of any challenge or controversy, and pushes this “cultural decoration” to the margins of the world cultural processes.

The R.E.S. artists proclaim that the essence of the Ukrainian Hermitage project was to present “the raw meat of reality” instead of “canned culture.” By exhibiting pieces of art that are supposed to be shown in museums or in art galleries, at places which have nothing to do with art, they want to bring down barriers between works of art and the reality, creating “ a dialogue” between works of art and “brutal coarseness of urban indifference to art.”

The Ukrainian Hermitage exhibition was evidently meant not to show “an artistic world that exists beyond the reality,” but to introduce a revolutionary function of art by desacralizing traditional art and culture.

It is not clear yet whether it is a sign of the usual “generation gap” or really a radical break with traditions. Whatever one’s attitude to art presented at the Ukrainian Hermitage exhibition may be, I left the exhibition with a firm conviction that the new generation of Ukrainian artists has enough talent, creativity and freshness of views and novelty to fill the cultural void that, according to some art critics, has emerged in recent years.



Alina Yakubenko’s work stands ad marginem of the Ukrainian Hermitage project; the role of the environment in her work is played by a photograph of the overcast sky; against this background appears a little piece of painting with a cloud in it that repeats the cloud from the photograph; a shadow that falls on the photograph is a border line between the painting and the photograph.



The photograph of Kyryl Hrynyov’s drawing shows his work among funeral wreaths made up of bright artificial flowers. Possible interpretation — museum as a cemetery, a gathering of pieces of art by artists long dead, and presence of life at such a museum-cemetery can be regarded as sacrilege and disrespect for the dead.



Yaroslav Kolomiychuk exhibits a photograph of a cardboard silhouette of a child standing at the abandoned construction site. It may be interpreted as “vestiges of soviet bathetic glorification of labour in art.” In spite of the fact that the majority of Ukrainian artists who continue to work along the traditional lines of the last decade declare their rupture with the soviet cultural heritage, many representatives of conservative “national art” have not gotten rid of soviet stereotypes.



Anatoliy Belov’s picture stands in the line of allusions to the work by the sixteenth-century Italian artist Giorgione known as Pastoral Scene (Fete Champetre; or Concert); Edouard Manet in his Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, 1862) developed the theme and Pablo Picasso in the twentieth century created variations on Manet’s picture. Belov, whose creation borrows a lot from Picasso, does not intend, though, to present his work as an artistic creation, but exhibited on a garbage dump, it defies the idealised environment to be seen in the pictures of Giorgione, Manet and Picasso.



Lesya Tselovanska exposes her picture to the doves so that they cover it with their droppings; she treats her paintings in this manner in order to make up for the injustice done to the monuments of distinguished persons that get messed on by the birds; paintings and other works of art which are exhibited in galleries and museums are not subjected to this ignominy, and by exposing her pictures, the artist rectifies this injustice.



A photograph of Mykyta Kadan’s portrait of Shevchenko shows the portrait of Shevchenko hanging from a hook in the meat section of a food market next to the head of a cow. Possible interpretation — the image of Shevchenko made into an icon and regarded as “the sacred cow” of Ukrainian culture, is sacrificed to redeem the sins of this culture inherited by today’s society; this ritual occurs at a place where life and death meet.

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