KYIV BIENNALE 2023: evident and hidden

11 december, 2023

Valeriia Pliekhotko

This year, the Kyiv Biennale showcased its main project in Vienna, spanning across nine different locations. What The New York Times called “the Biennial in Exile,” I would characterize a significant display of potential inter-European solidarity and support.

Kyiv Biennale 2023 demonstrates flexibility, highlighting that a geographical marker is no longer obligatory. The essence of the project is preserved primarily through its idea, form, exposition, parallel program, and the careful selection of artists and works. The Kyiv Biennale will always embody Kyiv, regardless of the venue, as it is rooted in specific goals and sensitive structures, such as engaging with the architectural context of the city, repurposing buildings not originally meant for showcasing art, and concentrating on the promotion of Eastern European art and cultural understanding, rather than focusing solely on geographical location. This case could serve as a positive example for Western European projects, like the Venice Biennale, encouraging consideration of ecological impact and addressing the needs of local residents (as evidenced by this year's Austrian pavilion at the Architecture Biennale 2023).

Now, let's delve into the Vienna project titled “Main Exhibition,” devoid of poetic titles and laden with references to an author who quotes another author who references the Torah. Initially, the title's simplicity suggested curatorial self-confidence, assuming viewers possess a level of awareness that does not require introductory markers. However, as I prepared to write this article and explored the project website, Russian bombings persisted in Ukraine, Armenians were compelled to leave Nagorno-Karabakh after a ten-month blockade by Azerbaijan, Hamas initiated an attack on Israel, leading to an IDF operation, and in Turin, where I reside, large-scale protests in support of Palestine unfolded while Ukrainian cities continued to face destruction. In a world grappling with violence, neocolonialism, and power struggles, the question arises: Do we really need poetic titles? A couple of years ago, something like the “Main Exhibition” under the Ukrainian brand might have seemed too audacious, given the Western world's general tendency to distance itself from the part of the continent labeled Eastern Europe. Today, this straightforwardness is compelling. Everything is clear: this is the biennale and its main project. Finally, it's possible to close the gestalt to pursue clarity.

Superflex, “There is an Elephant in the Room,” 2019. Source: Kyiv Biennial Facebook page.
Vienna, with its cold and discreet demeanor reflected in the precise schedule of public transport arrivals and the idealized tourist landscape of central districts, appears intent on ignoring and distancing itself from the events unfolding in the world. Amidst streets exuding imperial confidence through majestic architecture, one might attempt to pretend that in this old-world setting, everything will persist in its traditional ways. However, the relentless march of history cannot be halted by such pretense, and it is the stark contrast between the city's ambiance and the reality crafted by the Kyiv Biennale's large-scale intervention that captivates me.

The Augarten Contemporary, the venue for the opening, had long been a sealed space. Over the decades, it served as both a living space and studio, a museum dedicated to a sculptor, and a venue for the TBA21 Foundation's activities from 2012 to 2017. Subsequently abandoned, it was reopened for the Kyiv Biennale exhibition, for which the space was purposefully adapted. During the press conference, co-curator Georg Schöllhammer underscored the significance of displaying art in excluded spaces. This moment prompts reflection on the metaphorical implications – how many excluded places worldwide currently exist where artistic processes continue to be overlooked and only get into the limelight after tragic events (or remain hidden for an extended period)?

The exhibition is sourced from two origins: the transit collection, which focuses on Eastern European art, and the artists' individual works. Instead of entering through the grand glass doors, visitors navigate through a side entrance in the courtyard. The curators intentionally chose this dynamic to redirect attention to the importance of decentralization and the potential for constructing alternative routes. At the physical level, this decision prompts contemplation about whether we are too accustomed to opening the most obvious doors and following well-trodden paths.

I first encountered the project of the DE NE DE collective, a multipart installation that intricately weaves together the Soviet past of Ukrainian cities and their present. At the center of it all is the work of Danylo Halkin, a chandelier from the Dnipro cinema “Salyut.” Its graphic clarity exudes confidence in the face of history, yet the fallen and shattered glass pieces on the floor speak eloquently of vulnerability to the passage of time. The entire project is dedicated to reevaluating and analyzing the spaces of Ukrainian cities and their Soviet legacy.

Within this exhibition, there is an exploration of Ukrainian Donbas, an attempt to contextualize the landscaping of the garden city of Nova Kakhovka, and a study of the Rusaniv gardens and their transformation with dachas. The DE NE DE project captivates with its ability to transmute urban studies into an artistic form, where the histories of cities and places seamlessly integrate into our reality, shaping our worldview. The landscapes themselves become political and social diaries, reflecting the chronicles of reality more vividly than any news; one simply needs to learn how to read them.
DE NE DE, 2022, Multi-part installation. Source: Kyiv Biennial Facebook page.
In the adjacent space, the focal point is Dan Perjovschi`s site-specific installation titled ‘Humanity. Solidarity. Power.’ A colossal wall is adorned with inscriptions, newspaper clippings, diagrams, and printouts spanning from the ceiling to the floor — hastily sketched, completed, and roughly affixed to the wall. The sheer volume of details is overwhelming, making it impossible to grasp every nuance. Amidst the chaos, a particular image stands out: a printout displaying the article title “WHAT ARE YOU MISSING?” with the answer “VSE (EVERYTHING),” underscoring the realization of the futility of covering comprehensively all that has occurred and is currently unfolding. Alternatively, could this phrase be an inquiry into what we are lacking? The question hinges on the interpretation of the translation, as there is indeed much to bemoan at present: democracy, solidarity, and humanity.

Perjovschi`s installation engages in a dialogue with Superflex's piece — an immense neon inscription proclaiming “THERE IS AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM” in the adjacent space. During the press conference, the artist clarified that the inscription alludes to the presence of Putin in the political arena. However, I find myself contemplating other metaphorical elephants in our world: imperialism, homophobia, chauvinism, racism. How many of these challenging issues are we truly prepared to acknowledge and attempt to coexist with in the same room?
Dan Perjovschi, “Humanity, Solidarity, Power,” 2023. Source: Kyiv Biennial Facebook page; Dan Perjovschi, “Humanity, Solidarity, Power,” 2023. Courtesy of the author.
Dan Perjovschi, “Humanity, Solidarity, Power,” 2023. Source: Kyiv Biennial Facebook page; Dan Perjovschi, “Humanity, Solidarity, Power,” 2023. Courtesy of the author.
Next is Alina Kleytman's piece from the “Bionstallations” series — prosthetic sculptures appear to be crafted from exposed muscles and nerves and encased in glass museum boxes. Kleytman employs the language of a grim fairy tale — simultaneously grotesque and captivating, yet she doesn't compromise the political undertones of her statement. After all, what do these works represent if not a hyperbolized reflection of the present, in which both bodies and souls are mutilated?

In the final space of this section in Augarten, the textile installation “Time Stretch” by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor draws attention. Brown fabric pieces adorned with dark geometric shapes — darkened by the dust they have absorbed over time. These fabrics were once stretched within the walls of the Omnia Hall drama theater in Bucharest, established by Ceausescu in 1976. The soundproofing fabric stretched during the building's reconstruction, retained the dust — a testament to the paranoid breath of a dictatorial regime fearful of eavesdropping, exposure, and obliteration. It serves as a straightforward and poignant metaphor illustrating how tyranny becomes ingrained in walls, persisting there timelessly and in our collective memory.
Мона Ватаману & Флоріан Тюдор, Розтягнення часу, 2020. Фото надане авторкою.
To proceed to the exhibition's second part, one must traverse the entire space again and cross a lengthy corridor where a snake-like structure made of metal and wood extends. Already at the entrance, we hear the exclamation “ATTACK!” This emanates from Nikolai Karabinovich's video installation “Che Bella Voce,” where the artist directs our attention to Mladen Dolar's anecdote. In the midst of battle, after multiple commands yield no response from the soldiers, only a quiet comment is heard in the silence: “What a beautiful voice.”

The next notable feature is the neon installation “This is Not Your Problem” by Anton Shchebetko. It can be interpreted as a possible response to the work of Superflex in the previous space — a desire to conceal, forget, or not react to the evident problems in our society. After all, the exhibition presents numerous issues, and it's not surprising if the natural response to this state of affairs is confusion and avoidance.
Visitors in the space of the show. Source: Kyiv Biennial Facebook page.
In contrast to the first space, characterized by a separation of utterances, the second appears to be more saturated and chaotic. A significant portion is occupied by the series “Remembering Peace,” compiled from various works in the Romanian tranzit collection, randomly positioned throughout the hall. Notable is the installation by Anna Benera and Arnold Estefan resembling ears of wheat, at first glance seeming as projectiles launched into the sky; Ana Kun's contemplation on potential future archaeological excavations representing our time; and Andrei Nacu's photograph “Encircled by the Motherland,” depicting male bodies adorned with military belts. All these works elicit a profound sigh, emphasizing the reality that all that remains for us is to preserve the memory of peace, nurture hope, and patiently work towards its eventual return. However, challenging this sentiment, one of the last works in the hall is a black canvas by Dimitrije Basicevic with a white inscription: “Paysage de la Mort.”
Dimitrije Basicevic, “Paysage de la Mort,” 1971–1977. Courtesy of the author.
The exhibition space concludes with Dana Kavelina's film “It Cannot Be That Nothing Can Be Returned,” showcased in a separate room at the corridor's end — a virtual dead end. It's an hour-long poetic ballad delving into reflections on death and the potential transformations that our body (or soul, or both simultaneously) may undergo after its physical demise. The video seamlessly resonates with Basicevic’s painting, emphasizing the inevitability of the conclusion that awaits us all: death as the focal point of existence, the singular, unavoidable outcome worthy of contemplation.

Perhaps only death truly matters? Political regimes, revolutions, protests, peace treaties, climate change, and efforts to better the world — all seemingly leading to the undeniable endpoint of our existence. Is the daily struggle worth continuing? Yet, after watching the film, the realization sets in that it is unquestionably worthwhile. Though our bodies may become mere earth, there remains a chance to leave even the smallest impact on our present and future.
Антон Шебетко, Це не ваша проблема, 2022. Джерело: фейсбук Київської бієнале.
As another message about the bombing of Ukraine lights up the phone, death feels much closer than it did before. The neon sign “It's Not Your Problem” reappears upon exit. However, that is our problem — mine, yours, theirs. The notifications about air raids, the daily sounds of sirens in Kyiv make it impossible to forget... And the “Main Exhibition” seeks to remind the world about our problem. At least, that is my earnest hope.

The “Main Exhibition” (curators: Serhii Klimko, Hedwig Saxenhuber, Georg Schöllhammer) will be on display until December 17 at Augarten Contemporary (Vienna, Scherzergasse 1A) and various other locations.

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