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From the State of Security to the State of Fight. How a Ukrainian artist should (not) interact with their Russian counterparts

Published on Feb 1, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 17th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on February 1st, 2024. The article was written by Alevtyna Kakhidze for Ukrainska Pravda.Zhyttia (Life) and was translated for n-ost by Olesia Storozhuk.

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From the State of Security to the State of Fight. How a Ukrainian artist should (not) interact with their Russian counterparts

Ukrainian artist Alevtyna Kakhidze lives in Muzychi, Kyiv region, and represents Ukraine at international festivals and exhibitions throughout Europe. Alevtyna’s art can be described as ultra-political — it always draws on political events and studies how policies influence humans and the environment, and the way people construct politics.

Alevtyna has written an essay exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda.Zhyttia (Life), sharing the results of research she conducted among her colleagues — artists who present projects abroad, where they are compelled to cross paths with Russians.

This text is an artistic statement about the transition from the strategy of avoiding the issue of exhibiting alongside Russians, or with Russian curators, to the strategy of fighting their participation.


The grand opening of an art exhibition in Switzerland. I do “bad diplomacy” at the event — and communicate solely with Ukrainians; I want to, and I feel good in their company.

It’s time for some food. Every one of us has lined up in a queue, me as well. “Do you have any allergies?” a girl asks me, while pouring out a bowl of vegetable soup. I say “No”, almost instantly adding, “Well, I have one. I am allergic to Russians! Did they hide in the spices?”

The foreigners in the queue freeze, while the Ukrainians are amused by my answer. I finish my thought, speaking aloud: “Tomorrow, I am going back to Ukraine, and my allergy will exacerbate!” Well, at least I did a good job today, I say to myself.

On the plane to Warsaw, I contemplate the ‘allergy’ metaphor. Allergy is a kind of immune response to substances that pose a risk to health and life. So, it’s about security. My thought wanders to speculation about Ukrainian artists’ reluctance to share the same art space with Russians. In fact, this is also about security.

In the summer, I conducted research with the co-founder of cultural education NGO ‘Insha Osvita’ Aliona Karavai to explore the broad picture of artistic circles interacting outside Ukraine. Without resorting to the help of professional sociologists, we interviewed 28 Ukrainian artists, calling this survey ‘The State of Security’.

Ethics and re-traumatisation are the most common reasons why artists do not want to share a curated space with Russians. A large part of the respondents don’t participate in joint events with Russians in solidarity with colleagues who are unable to join artistic events due to injuries, death, or service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Only two of the surveyed agreed to participate in joint events with Russians. The rest refused, even though they risked losing professional connections, a career, money.

But what did this result in after two years of the full-scale invasion? I recall the words of a Western curator affiliated with Russian artistic circles, who asked me: “With your ‘Cancel Russian Culture’ policy, you Ukrainians have cancelled yourselves!”

The research revealed that one third of foreign curators did not understand the Ukrainians’ desire to avoid being in the same space as Russians and in joint projects. And after the refusal, the curators changed their tone from friendly to cold and irritated.

However, some changes did happen during the second year of the full-scale invasion: in one fifth of events, Ukrainian artists were informed in advance about the presence of Russians. But organisers would more often conceal their engagement with Russian participants.

Did Ukrainian artists manage to reach their goal — to cancel the participation of Russian artists and win the platform for themselves? Just three out of 28 interviewed Ukrainian artists managed this once during the entire period. Only two managed to do this more than three times. Two more artists partially reached the cancellation of Russian artists’ participation. The latter included my recent situation.

In the summer of 2023, the film I co-directed Invasions 1.2.3, created at the request of the travelling modern art biennale Manifesta 14, was nominated for Ars Electronica’s digital art award. Our team was pleased with that.

However, right away, I got a letter informing me that the nomination would include a Russian group, which, from the organisers’ point of view, was ‘critical and oppositional to the regime’.

That morning, after a Shaheds attack on Ukraine, I felt too feeble to learn anything about the Russian group, and I asked the organisers to suggest the Russian group withdraw their nomination.

The answer didn’t come instantly. I had to wait for quite a long time.

But when I came to Linz for the ceremony, it turned out that the Russian team’s works were moved to the other ‘corner’ of the festival called ‘Research’. I felt alarmed at the possibility of meeting the Russian artists at all the festival’s locations — I lost my state of security.

In the summer, Aliona and I were thinking that the research ‘The State of Security’ of Ukrainian artists should be followed by the study about their ‘State of Fight’. Ukrainian artists leave platforms for clear reasons, but do they also fight? Can the same person experience two states at once — those of security and fighting?

During the after-party of the Linz festival, I started something like a monologue amid the crowd:

“I am disappointed with this festival! One third of the pieces here are about the climate crisis and dealing with it. Yet, the Russians’ works in the ‘Research’ category look like [something from] the Stone Age [it involved a bridge being set on fire]. Back then, a bonfire was justifiable. But in 2023, burning a wooden bridge with insects and grass, and warming up our poor planet for the sake of shooting a film, is bar-bar-ism! Just to show one’s own emotions from struggling? This is not a homage to Tarkovsky, this is cringe!

“Why are you all keeping silent? They are not just pretending to burn that damn bridge in your program, they do burn it! What do you think about this, the ‘digital’ community of Linz?

“And the other piece [The Seven Deadly Sins of Russia]? I don’t think that corruption belongs to Russia’s seven deadly sins! Corruption in Russia, which is committing non-stop wars, is a blessing. Without corruption, the Russian army would be stronger. If Russian artists were praising corruption in Russia, that would be critical!

“What do you think about the works of these Russians here at your festival? Have you managed to study them?”

Only one person dared to reply to me with: “Are you Ukrainian?”

In Paris, the people playing [Russian popular song] Katyusha on the free piano at the Montparnasse train station asked me the same question. I stopped their performance. Those in love with Russian melodies looked carefully at a video clip [I showed them], clearly showing that Katyusha was the name of a military vehicle, not a girl! They didn’t know that.

What was all that about? I must admit that it was a spontaneous fight without any involvement in professional circles. Inside me, I feel like going to the next level.

I am standing at the Berlin exhibition As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories [where one of the curators is Russian]. My friends from Georgia ask me: “Everything [here] looks fantastic, why are you so sulky?”

I explain that I was prejudiced against this exhibition while it was still being prepared. In a freshly published announcement with the artists’ names, I found [20th century Ukrainian artists] Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit, Hanna Sobachko-Shostak and Olha Rapay-Markish (the website called her Olha Rapay — as if cutting off her Jewish identity), which made me think aloud on social networks: did the descendants of these female artists grant proprietary copyrights to a curator group that includes a Russian?

“But what is the problem with granting copyright for showcasing the masterpieces of those artists in Berlin?” the Georgians ask me.

“Well, one of them spent ten years in Soviet camps (Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit) — I’m not sure she’d like to participate in an exhibition curated by a Russian who worked, before the invasion, at ‘Garage’, an institution owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, and is desperately searching for his non-Russian roots after the invasion.”

“But that’s what the exhibition is about — about the resistance to the regime in the Russian empire, the USSR, and modern Russia… About such artists in particular…” my companion speaks further.

“But it is very challenging to understand where the curators and artists come from, as only their cities are indicated!”

While we were vigorously discussing this question inside the Ukrainian community, the information about these female artists disappeared from the institution’s website.

My Georgian friends leave, and I am carefully looking at the work of an artist from Almaty who lives in Berlin. It is a multichannel video-installation about Central Asia's famine in the last century, presenting pictures and a conversation with researchers of those events.

One of the researchers compares the tragic events in Kazakhstan [a country which has not recognised the Holodomor as genocide] with the Ukrainian context. I am listening more carefully.

At that moment, a curator from the Netherlands approaches me. He is aware of my prejudice to Russian curators and says: “Don’t you agree that exhibitions on Russia’s decolonisation are important?”

I take off the headset (the Kazakh artist’s works are in Russian, so I listen to the original) and answer:

“Your country’s parliament and the German parliament have recognised the Holodomor in Ukraine as an act of genocide, and you stand near a work that questions this recognition! What do you think about that?”

Silence. After a while, he says:

“I will tell her. I know this author…”

“But the acts of the parliaments of the countries that recognised the Holodomor in Ukraine as genocide do not oblige their citizens to recognise it. The citizens, in turn, cannot be responsible for their national parliaments’ acts. Therefore, it is an ethical question to the artists and the curator group,” I say.

“And as a viewer, I wonder about the discussion inside the curator group. And if they reached a consensus regarding this work, how did they persuade a German state institution to act against the decisions of its own parliament? Or, maybe there was no such discussion?

“Ok, let’s imagine that the decision to deny the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide was a conscious choice, including the [removal] of Ukrainian artists, but I would still like to ask you: how can you explain why it was in the last two years that so many national parliaments recognised the Holodomor as genocide?”

Silence.

“I’ll tell you why. Two years of the full-scale invasion have shown the rest of the world that Russia can treat Ukraine as a colony — the parallels between Stalin and Putin have become evident. These two dictators are not just striving to conquer Ukraine. Its independence poses an existential threat to them. That was the key reason for the hunger back then — and the main reason for this war now. I realise this is probably a rough comparison, but still, [American writer of the history of the Holodomor] Anne Applebaum allowed herself to bring it forward.

“This is not a minor mistake for a de/colonisation project; the project itself becomes a mistake due to such insensibility to the context. I am happy that today is a free entrance day, and I didn’t have to pay for a ticket to visit such an exhibition.”

I am again on a plane (this time, a Finnish one) from Paris and cannot bear to hear my Russian neighbours talking about their great shopping experience, so I ask the stewardess to change my seat. The stewardess immediately suggests to follow her, accompanied by some ‘hissing’ in Russian: “Did you hear what she said? And that’s while half of their country speaks Russian!”

On my new seat in first class (the only place with seats available), I meet another Russian woman. She is eager to talk to somebody, and I realise that I won’t get a new seat for a second time. In an hour, the woman voluntarily joined her compatriots in the economy class.

I didn’t do anything special, just smiled at this lady’s worries concerning her three daughters who may choose to change their gender one day. Her last words to me were: “You radiate negativity. There is a devil’s grin in your face!

Can we consider these stories as a state of fight, an extension of the Russian-Ukrainian war in peaceful Europe, in a certain sense?

Does the romanticising of songs that glorify weapons in Russian pose a threat? Or the exhibitions about Russia’s colonialism disregarding the different political contexts of the societies it colonised? Or the infantile Russian artists’ projects ending up at international platforms under the [need to have a] ‘great Russian culture’ quota or due to hidden imperial solidarity?

I believe this is a significant threat, and we should fight. Ukrainian society has agreed that culture is not a front, but it is definitely an intellectual battle or fight.

But why does it seem that Ukrainians are fighting on their own? The absence of insecurity from every Russian in the nominal Western world does not generate a state of fight.

Did we prepare for anything like that? Of course not, and that’s why my actions in the state of fight are rather spontaneous and prejudiced towards all Russians, and studying the case of every single Russian requires time, energy, speed, humour, intellectual work and analysis.

Half of the 28 Ukrainian artists we interviewed are also ready to challenge every single case of participants from Russia. For me, this is a sign that they are ready to shift to the state of fight.

At the end of the year, I finally realise that my state of fight will be institutionalised in Europe — someone did hear that monologue of mine in Linz.

I ask them:

“You want me to draw the concepts of democracy, culture cancelling, cooperation, and solidarity for an Austrian festival next spring?”

They reply: “Yes, because you are from Ukraine.”


P.S.

The day this text was written, I got a letter from that festival in Vienna telling me that one artist who left Russia right after the full-scale invasion will participate in that festival and asked whether I was “ok with that”. They recalled that I had a public dialogue with that very artist because of her cartoon with Joe Sacco in one of the world’s most popular magazines — The New Yorker. That cartoon included numerous manipulations and inaccuracies, not obvious to a Western reader.

I confirmed that I did not regret my critical remarks back then, and I hope that artist understood at least the slightest thing from my critique. And that I am in.


Alevtyna Kakhidze, exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda.Zhyttia (Life)

The cover uses a scene from the Invasions 1.2.3. project (2022), created by Alevtyna Kakhidze in collaboration with Piotr Armianovski, Alexander Krolikowski and Anatol Stepanenko.