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Сurator as the Visionary

6 october, 2020
Illustration from the catalogue for the exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" (1998). Courtesy of the archive of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.
The exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" was held on July 20-21, 1994 on board the warship "Slavutych" in Sevastopol, Crimea. The exhibition was held as part of the Chersonese Games festival and was organized by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Kyiv and its director Marta Kuzma. During the annexation of Crimea, the Slavutych ship became part of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation.

«Ukrainian cultural necrophilia, love for stopped dead and gone art forms — a perfect clinical picture”, — says the offscreen voice in the film by Oksana Chepelyk “Chronicles of Fortinbras”¹ (2001). The film, created on the threshold of the new century and the new millenium, summarizes the first decade of Ukrainian independence. Actually “a clinical picture” of culture, emerging after the iron curtain fall, was an open country, ready for the “sowing” of the new modern art forms. And that was used by Soros Foundation, which consistently embedded the branch offices of its contemporary art centres pretty much in all of the former Soviet Union countries. 

«Ukrainian culture doesn’t know its own time flow», — the voice goes on. This point by Oksana Zabuzhko keeps up to date in Ukrainian art off and on. Curator Marta Kuzma, the first director of Soros Contemporary Art Centre in Kyiv, seems to pick up on this peculiarity of the Ukrainian society and Ukrainian mentality. The role of Marta Kuzma in the art world development of Ukraine of the 90s cannot be overestimated: creation of site specific artworks, philosophic interpretation of the works, curator support, looking at the art through the political lens, budgeting for the art creation, etc. 

In the Ukrainian art sphere Kuzma has shown and implemented the changing curator model² in the Western world of the 1990s, who was already perceived not as a “carer”, but a “creative co-producer”: “who has a more creative and active part to play within the production of art itself”³. Arguably, it was reflected most strikingly in the exhibition “Alchemic Surrender”, which took place in 1994 in Sevastopol on the naval ship “Slavutych”, where Marta Kuzma completely played the role of a creative co-producer, and the location choice for the exhibition has become the most notable curator’s and political gesture of the project. 

Kuzma has emphasised the political context of the early 1990s as the times of complete anarchy, that in her opinion bolstered the back then young artists to find their energy discharge on the unmeant for art shows platforms exactly: In a not altogether forgotten world of double think, subversive behavior provided a means for a younger generation of artists to realize projects publicly in a context characterized by an anarchical internal condition. An invitation to organize an art exhibition on a Battleship in Sevastopol seemed plausible only as a result of this condition. 
In a not altogether forgotten world of double think, subversive behavior provided a means for a younger generation of artists to realize projects publicly in a context characterized by an anarchical internal condition. An invitation to organize an art exhibition on a Battleship in Sevastopol seemed plausible only as a result of this condition.⁴
  
Illustration from the catalogue for the exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" (1998). Courtesy of the archive of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.

The search for alternative locations, caused by the lack of exhibition areas, by the certain ideological pressure of the available ones, and by the overall crisis of expositioning⁵, was not new for the Ukrainian art world. Up till 1994, Ukraine has held a range of exhibitions⁶, which rethought the “time flow” of that time, linked to the certain place and its history. The exhibition “Alchemic Surrender” is interesting not only from the perspective of its site-specific character, but first and foremost by its political awareness and mindfulness of the cultural gesture. The PLACE exactly, which gave an opportunity to reflect the complicated problematics through art, provoked by itself, was the most powerful and convincing gesture of the project.

The project was implemented in the society, according to Kuzma, which “was shaped by military conflicts”. The feeling of the split as a problematic point of our future was to an extent the curator’s visionariness of Marta Kuzma. The issues raised by the exhibition — disputed territories, the language issue as a self-perpetuating reason for political and social manipulations, the patriarchal character of the society — just escalated, and are more than relevant today as well. 

The naval ship is the representation of power, state might and stability, situated on the territory of just opening, but closed during the Soviet times heroic city of Sevastopol — was a perfect location for the political statement, which emphasised political unsteadiness, fluctuation and uncertainty. All the works for “Alchemic Surrender” were created on the ship. The artists, who looked like and were perceived by the ship crew as half-freaks, with whom it was necessary to interact in the project implementation, were living on the ship for a week and mostly created site specific works, ironically problematising the political situation, which was changing beneath our eyes. These works were predominantly using the game strategy, which was afterwards conceptualized by the curator.  
Illustration from the catalogue for the exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" (1998). Courtesy of the archive of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.

In their work “Sacrifice to the War God”, Sergey Bratkov and Boris Mikhailov played with the superstitions and prejudices about the woman’s presence on board. Perhaps, the most ironic gesture, as in this case the presence of the woman aboard — the exhibition curator — shifted the accents in the understanding of the commanding, when the curator’s voice was parity, and maybe even more substantial than the voice of a sea captain. It was here where the video “Voices of Love” by Arsen Savadov and Heorhii Senchenko, which is paradigmatic for the art of the 1990s, was created, and it became the outcome of the deep dive, of interaction between the artists and the ship crew. For the first time in their art practice the artists used the motive of ballet skirts, dressing the naval ship sailors into them, confronting strength and defencelessness, fragility and masculinity, closedness of the masculine community and shabbiness of an image of ballet, which became export during the Soviet times, and after 1991 coup embodied the double standard practice. Here Illia Chichkan has created one of his most transgressive works, putting the mutated fetuses in the illuminators, which subsequently found its reflection in his series “Sleeping Princes of Ukraine” — a cynical, but nevertheless poignant statement about the post-Chornobyl carnival. Other artists created more lively, ironic works, where the irony might as well be the escape from responsibility. It’s for a reason that Kuzma mentioned in her article for the catalogue about the common lack of meaning in relation to production of art⁷ in the Ukrainian art of the time. 

Illustration from the catalogue for the exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" (1998). Courtesy of the archive of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.

“Alchemic Surrender”, fulfilled just several months before the signature of Budapest Memorandum, appears to be an integral curator project with the certain position and vision as gesamtkunstwerk, where the ambitions, energy, time, social divide, political conflict and a naval ship merged together. Along the ship perimeter Kuzma placed white flags with the printed photos by Dmytro Baltermants on them (who is a distinguished photojournalist, most notable for his non-fiction shots of the Great Patriotic War), thus demonstrating the shift of political paradigm, suggesting artistic discourse as a counterbalance for the militarist one, or anticipating the new stage of capitulation of 2014. 

“Alchemic Surrender” suggested the format of art in exhibition, connected with the criticism of the art work as an object, when space of exhibition was given critical precedence. To this effect the exhibition may seem to be one of the most important milestones in the Ukrainian art and one of the ways to comprehend and write the history of Ukrainian art of the time. Boris Buden in his text “Art after the End of the Society” says that “even if the art history is over, its subject — art production — goes on living. Artists go on creating art works, they just cannot claim that their works represent a certain moment of the art history”⁸. “Alchemic Surrender” as a wholesome author statement has become such moment of history, having captured and documented changing times, foreseeing the future of our present⁹.  
Illustration from the catalogue for the exhibition "Alchemic Surrender" (1998). Courtesy of the archive of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.


Based on the materials of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.Share: