Mykola Ridnyi: “We got used that future is what hasn’t happened, but it’s not totally fair to the future”
12 march, 2021
On the 30th of January at Voloshyn Gallery in Kyiv for the first time in 7 years, the personal exhibition of an artist Mykola Ridnyi was opened. In his new project with the name of “Excavations from the Future” the artist reflects on time, coming back to the long-shelved works, and, having reimagined them, reassembles them into the new statement.
In the interview, the artist told about the search of the artistic language, reconsideration of his own practice, and also about the viewer’s role and importance of intermediation in the modern artworks understanding.
You are often creating video sketches, and at some point, you had a transition from an artistic video statement to the festival cinema. Where is that verge between the art video and completed cinematographic utterance?
That’s a hard question, as I don’t feel that I had totally left for the cinematographic sphere. I feel like I’m exactly on the brink of those territories. What’s interesting for me is to create some kind of media or multimedia form, which could exist both in the realm of modern art, that is an exhibition, and in the realm of cinema, that is the movie hall.
But still, here we need to throw a couple of rotten tomatoes at the Ukrainian cinema industry, as it’s not ready for many experiments. Still, those who can often find their place at the European international festivals, can’t easily do the same at the Ukrainian ones. Lots of work is needed in this sphere, as there are no niche events, festivals, where the works of experimental cinematographers would meet the artists, who are interested in cinema — such platforms don’t exist. Besides it's strongly marked political vector, the project “Armed and Dangerous” aesthetically was conceived as this kind of a platform to search for new forms.
Altogether cinema does not do much in its self-reflection as a media. In my opinion, the issue is that cinema today forgets about how it emerged as a synthetic genre: on the verge of theatre, literature, and photo-videotech. But these were more than century-old genres. And if cinema wants to develop today, then it must look at other registers of a moving image, both at contemporary art and many other things: at YouTube, at social networks. The cinema uses its century-old tradition, as if new forms of synthesis did not appear during this time, that is it doesn’t doubt or revise it. The problem with festival cinema is that movies often don't try to be more than a movie.
But the films of the artists just go beyond the genre. It seems to me that the artist does not only work on some topic, albeit a very unusual one, but asks the question: what is art? And new forms are constantly emerging out of this question. That is, contemporary art is something that constantly gropes for its boundaries and goes beyond these boundaries all the time.
Can you list the films that have impressed you lately, or perhaps influenced you in some way?
Among the latest, I remember Dea Kulumbigashvili's film "Beginning", about a woman in a society of men, a patriarchal country. At first, I didn't really like it because of the associations with Haneke's techniques that had made me sick and tired, but the ending of the film breaks the usual perception of cinema. Of the "classics" — Toshio Matsumoto's film "Funeral Parade of Roses" is a cult film for experimental cinema, and in particular for queer culture, where its poetic and political potential is revealed.
How do you feel about using the found video footage on the Internet?
I don’t mind that, because I also work with this. I use found footage, but just this ready-made gesture with video content is not enough for me. I'm interested in the following topic: how online video content affects cinematography and vice versa, how cinematography affects amateur videos. Because it's no secret that people often imitate actors, movie stars, some comic book characters. But today, movie characters can already imitate Internet memes. In the first episodes of “Armed and Dangerous”, there is a game of ping-pong with such associations. That is, I found some kind of video online, and then a staged scene was created for it, and vice versa.
How do you feel about more modern video editing and video production methods? Would you like to reimagine found footage, for example, on TikTok?
I'm following this, but I'm not going to register at TikTok for now. It seems to me that social networks are largely appropriating the developments of contemporary art. Instagram is a lot about photography as a media. Many professional photographers are on Instagram and become popular not because of the already well-known name, but precisely because of their activity in this network. This has become another channel for the distribution of what you do, both at the level of information dissemination and economically, that is, many people make money through Instagram. Although, if Instagram exists for 10 years already, then I think that its decline is not far off. And TikTok is a kind of appropriation of performance practices, or rather video performances. But this is very interesting: contemporary artists had a certain exclusive right to do what they do. And today, almost what Joseph Beuys talked about has happened — every person has become an artist. But I think, not quite, as Boyce imagined it. Because there are also a lot of negative sides, all this is devalued due to such an exit to the masses and art turns into creativity. And these are different things.
Time is one of the important themes or narrative-building techniques you have. Why are you interested in this?
If we talk about theories related with time, then in the new exhibition I mainly rely on Brian Massumi. In his works, we are talking about the fact that we perceive time as a kind of scale, similar to traditional cinema: the character left the house, got into the car, went to work, and so on. And we also perceive time very linearly: there is past, present, future, everything flows on a linear scale. But Massumi says that there are still parallel invisible timelines, that is, the tangible reality is still one, but there is sort of repressed time. Or in other words — unfulfilled actions. But unfulfilled actions do not disappear, do not go into complete oblivion, they remain such a haunting background that continues to accompany us. This background, although it is invisible, exerts its pressure and influence, and at some point, these actions can still occur or affect this tangible reality.
This exhibition has the nature of a retrospective, but an unusual one, not what is a retrospective in the popular understanding, as a collection of the best works from different periods. For example, there are works that, like these repressed actions, which were done some time ago, but for various reasons were not shown, but their presence is somewhere behind the scenes, it also exerted indirect pressure, and in the end, it seemed to me that now it is important to show them, but placing them in a new context.
That is, this exhibition is not a speculative prediction of what might happen, but rather a return to what could have happened earlier and transferring this to some space of the future?
You may probably say so. But the exhibition is connected with all three times: with the present, with the past, and with the future. I wanted accents related to how we perceive each of the times. We have got used to the fact that the future is something that has not happened yet, and this is not entirely true in relation to the future. Because there are certain moments with the help of which we program this future or it is programmed for us. We know that something will happen anyway. For example, a good example is such a thing as a habit. That is, a person who smokes cigarettes will obviously smoke in the future. Certain situations associated with daily rituals can be predicted. Another example: social media advertising and related content. We are given what we like, but in this way what we will see next becomes very predictable. This suggests that many aspects of the future are present today, now. Speculative realists say exactly that there is no present, that our present is already the future.
The work "Excavations", objects that resemble jaws, is equally connected with the past and with the future. On the one hand, this is a game of archaeology: the jaws of a mammoth or creatures unknown to anyone from the past. On the other hand, these are like the landscapes of the future. Basically, even now you can find corners of the planet where there are no people, some rocks, which are difficult to reach. It's like a planet without people, where only nature alone will remain, such wastelands, mountain ranges, and people will die out due to neglect of nature and climate change.
You created the work "Excavations" 10 years ago for an exhibition that never took place. When you created this work, did it have the same concept, the same description, or did you instrumentalize it for a new exhibition?
It's even more interesting. This is the work that "haunts" me all my life. When I made the first jaws, back in the mid-00s, they looked very different and more like pop art: realistic enlarged jaws. I exhibited it a couple of times in Kharkiv, but it was not shown anywhere particularly, now it seems to me a naïve and immature version.
This work changed a lot by the late 2000s and early 2010s. I made an almost abstract sculpture, where it was generally difficult to guess that it was a jaw, since I took as a basis an impression with the teeth pulled out. It resembled the landscape of some mysterious planet. This plaster object was shown only once at the curatorial exhibition of Anatoly Osmolovsky at the Moscow Stella Foundation, where it remained in the collection.
And all the works presented at the exhibition now were unfinished and stored in the form of such semi-finished products. Nevertheless, during 10 years they have been well preserved because the new material is very durable — it is a polyester resin. Only in 2020 I took them out of the barn and gave them a finished shape. But during this time, the idea of what this work is all about crystallized. Initially, they were made as plaques, and then I realized that they need to be shown in a horizontal view only, this is how new associations are added.
Why did these works fall out of your artistic practice for so long and return only now?
During this period, the late 2000s — early 2010s, I had an internal struggle related to the search for an artistic language. On the one hand, there was the activity of the SOSka group, which was associated with the creation of provocative situations in direct social reality and their documentation. SOSka was influenced by the experience of the art of actionism and in some ways documentary photography and cinema. And on the basis of this connection, we tried to invent something of our own. But one way or another, it was associated with working with society, different social groups, with the study of these groups. And simultaneously I began to do my own individual work, at first it was more related to photography and video.
The plastic language, which is in these sculptures, at that time really embarrassed me. It seemed to me that this is far from everything else that I do, from socially engaged and politicized art, where there should be a clear and understandable message, and not riddles, metaphors and symbolism. But on the other hand, I was very interested in the search for a new plastic language. In parallel with the "jaws", I did my thesis at the academy, a fragment of it is also in the exhibition — this is such a black form, which resembles either a hornet's nest or a compilation of human internal organs. When I was doing my diploma, I researched artists associated with the concept of new plastics, working in conjunction with the feminist wave. Authors such as Louise Bourgeois, or Linda Benglis, or Helen Chadwick are associated with the creation of visual images that rely on something personal, on physicality. And on the one hand, it interested me, but on the other hand, I felt shy about it. It seemed to me that it was not entirely mine. As a result, I abandoned this direction, moved on to what was like in the middle: removed from personal, political work with the use of sculptural media and video. But in the sculptural objects of that period, there are no plastic arts as such, it is essentially an appropriation of existing ready-made models, phenomena from public space, such as a series of pedestals, models of bomb shelters and copies of police boots. And today, it seems to me that it is interesting to return to the body again, to anatomy, to start developing this direction further.
Why do you think this embarrassment is happening? Could it be due to the conditional division of art forms into female and male ones?
In my case, this did not happen consciously, I generally start more with the method of intuition in what I do. Theory gradually comes to the rescue of practice.
In this context, it is worth recalling another early work. This is "Diary", made together with Anna Kriventsova in the 2000s. This is a series, which consisted of sheets of paper with pasted photographs and text, a little in the style of Boris Mikhailov's books. There was an active blurring of the boundaries of what is masculine and what is feminine. This work was connected with social reality but through some kind of personal trauma and their rethinking. We know that the personal is also political. I think that the sculptural work is related to that series to some extent.
Are these works related to the theme of corporeality?
What is interesting here is what associations we have with the concept of corporeality. First of all, for some reason, it is associated with sex, with sexuality. But these works are united by something completely different — it is medicine. Medicine is often associated with repression of the body and organism, with pain, even if its purpose is to help a person. How medicine turns from a personal matter into a social instrument — Michel Foucault writes well about this. Our “Diary” with Anya dealt with aspects of gynaecology, “Excavations” were initially associated with dentistry. Illness is an interesting metaphor that appears in my subsequent works, which, it would seem, do not evoke associations with the body at all. For example, "Blind Spot", which is also presented at the exhibition. This series is based on the visual effects that occur in eye diseases and are associated with loss of vision. And this optics, in turn, is projected onto the socio-political processes that surround us.
During your excursion, you said that at some point you tried to move away from working with the body, as artists in the 90s actively worked with the body, avoiding direct conversation about politics. Why did you decide to get back to the body?
The unpleasant pressure of the art of the 90s was still strongly felt then when corporeality was used for the purpose of mass media shock of the viewer. There is no trace left of the "female" intimacy in the works of Koons with Cicciolina or the mutilated bodies of the Chapman brothers. Today, a different process is taking place — the search for new gender identities, the revision of the boundaries of freedom associated with this, the concept of queer is becoming fashionable. There was a feeling that you may not be shy because of the personal, and at the same time, it is now tangibly political, and not at the level of theory. I have always been interested in how to maintain a critical charge in relation to socio-political processes, including when talking about the body and about personal things.
However, there are problems with the embodiment of queer ideas in art. I don't want to sound conservative, but its inherent carnivalism is not very close to me. The most media manifestations of queer today are not a new avant-garde, but rather a new decadence.
Your exhibition "Excavations from the Future" is the first personal exhibition in Kyiv over the past 7 years (since 2014). Why haven't you had personal exhibitions in Kyiv for so long during this time?
Yes, there was no exhibition in Kyiv for a long time, but they were in other countries, as well as in other Ukrainian cities. It is important to say here that Voloshyn Gallery is a private commercial gallery, and I have not had an exhibition in such a format for a long time. The exhibition "Shelter", which was held in 2014 at the Center for Visual Culture, was a completely different context, the context of a non-profit space. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I actively collaborated with Kyiv galleries. Some of them closed, I was very disappointed in others. And in fact, the reason for the absence of my work in commercial spaces is very simple: all these 10 years the Ukrainian market has shown that it is not ready for my work. All the sales, that I had, took place into the collections of European museums. Hopefully, the situation will change now.
Why is your site exclusively in English? Do you want to popularize information about what is happening in Ukraine at the international level or are you just focusing on an international audience? Who is your audience? Do you imagine a certain audience type for whom you create works, or do you not imagine anyone?
I made the website myself and in order to make it in two languages, I need to technically make two sites, do double work. Therefore, I made it in English only. But what is an artist's website? This is just a business card for the international professional public to familiarize themselves with your practice. I believe that today in any country, people should be able to read in English. I do not think that an exception should be made for Ukraine. But in general, my site has become outdated in terms of design in 10 years and I'm going to change it.
One can get the impression that you are working for a professional viewer. Do you have any goal in creating artworks that you would be satisfied with, achieving it? For example, so that some pensioner would come to the exhibition, see "Armed and Dangerous", and would think: "This cops’ lawlessness is horrendous, of course."
I'm just saying that different platforms have different tasks: the website is for the professional audience, the exhibition is for everyone. There are exceptions: the site of “Armed and Dangerous” is as important a platform as a video exhibition or film screening of the works from this project. Here it is, by the way, in two languages: English and Ukrainian. It is for a wide audience. If we talk about exhibitions, then 70% of the audience, who came to my last exhibition, was seen and communicated by me for the first time.
Do you think art needs a mediator in the broadest sense of the word: a detailed description, a guide or a mediator?
I think it is needed to some extent. It depends on the degree of tolerance of the society, its openness to new trends. I believe that Ukrainian society is still underdeveloped in this regard. In addition, contemporary art is an experimental field of activity. It is good art that can be and most likely will be incomprehensible to an unprepared viewer. Mediators are still needed to avoid a situation of misunderstanding and even associated with that some kind of aggression that may arise.
But I am not a supporter of the hegemony of the text, which explains any exhibition like a cheat sheet. Here is an excursion, this is a good way of communication, I myself like to conduct them. There should be professional mediators, tour guides and museum interpreters who will take their important place in communicating with the audience.