National Art Museum of Ukraine , Kiev, Ukraine
Almost pathologically hoarding outdated and decaying art works, Kiev’s National Art Museum suggests less a contemporary exhibition space than the famous ‘gaping hole in humankind’ from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842). Like Plyushkin’s garden, its haplessly arranged trove of useless objects evokes that same horrific stagnation that Russia’s immortality-chasing avant-garde sought to overcome. Appropriately, ‘Great Surprise’ by R.E.P. (Revolutionary Experimental Space – an independent collective of six young artists) uses a metaphor of bygone illness and death – tuberculosis – to explore the museum’s role as a repository of official artistic myth. Resurgent in Ukraine since its supposed eradication in the 1980s, tuberculosis is now far more prevalent than during Soviet-era efforts to prevent it, but almost unspoken of; the stigma of an antiquated sickness leads many sufferers to avoid diagnosis.
R.E.P. attempt to actualize the issue by institutionalizing it: gilded signs easily mistakable for interpretative material are placed throughout the museum, bearing texts nonchalantly evoking filth and disease. Thwarting the automatized perception any canonical display relies on serves here to increase awareness of tuberculosis – the catalogue contains essays by a TB patient and a specialist in the disease, among the more usual suspects.
As commendable as that intent is, the metaphor works strongest when engaging with the ‘untouchables’ in the museum itself. Most of its collection of Socialist Realist art was removed after the collapse of the USSR, but the exposition today favours ‘national’ painting and sculpture over the many internationally significant Ukrainian artists. Pioneers of non-objectivity like Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky are marginalized; contemporary artists are excluded entirely.
The sense of the isolated, petrified Utopia, then, still lingers. R.E.P. bring it to the fore with windows into the false walls hiding piles of unwanted painting and sculpture that failed to make it to the storeroom. Particularly striking is one statue of Vladimir Lenin pensively annotating a book: too big to remove from the museum lobby, it remained hidden behind a wall until R.E.P. exposed it (ironically, the fall of the USSR saw Lenin eclipsed as world’s most ‘monumentalized’ man by Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, who can be found behind another window). In transferring the stigma of an antiquated sickness to art whose intentions are unsustainable without its ideological content, Lenin seems less the revolutionary leader of legend than simply another consumptive, goateed fin-de-siècle intellectual. R.E.P. have given selective historicism at work behind the space fresh exposure; there is, indeed, a doubt whether the space can display art at all without risking ‘infection’.
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