Bjorn Geldhof on the Culture War in Ukraine

The director of Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv discusses the importance of ‘elasticity’ and critical grit in protecting Ukraine’s cultural sector

BY Euridice Arratia in Features , Interviews | 17 APR 23

Euridice Arratia What was your initial mission when you first arrived at the Pinchuk Art Centre (PAC) and how has it changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a little more than a year now?

Bjorn Geldhof After I joined PAC in 2009, our first strategic change was to shift our focus from blue-chip artists to an emerging generation of practitioners in Ukraine.  That same year we launched the Pinchuk Art Centre Prize, which is awarded every two years and supports Ukrainian artists aged up to 35 with a cash prize of ₴370,000 (£8,100). The winner is also automatically entered into the Future Generation Art Prize, which I also co-launched when I joined PAC.  

Viktoriia Dovhadze, Between Fear and Desire, 2022, video, digital print, neon. Courtesy: the artist and © Pinchuk Art Centre; photograph: Sergey Illin

From 2014 we began to focus more on content-driven exhibitions that were politically and socially relevant and could generate non-partisan public debate. At the same time, we launched our research platform to focus on understanding the historical development of Ukrainian art, a subject which had been neglected. There was no archive, and there was no collecting or digitizing of materials, so we took it upon ourselves to create an archive that would be accessible to researchers in Ukraine and abroad. From 2015 onwards, we started collecting. We developed an infrastructure for this purpose, hired young researchers and started to collect pieces from the various traditions of Ukrainian art. Then the war happened. 

EA I imagine the mission of PAC had to be put on hold due to the war.

BG For sure. We closed the museum on the day of the invasion. Our first concern was getting people to safety. The second was to do the same for the artworks. We weren’t sure what we would do after that, but we felt we would have to speak about Ukrainian culture, but we felt we would have to speak about Ukrainian culture, especially given that Vladimir Putin justified the invasion in part by denying the existence of a Ukrainian political or cultural identity outside of the Russian orbit.

'This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Pinchuk Art Centre

The day after the war, we began several conversations that translated into a range of exhibitions and cultural events throughout Europe. But it was less clear what we could do as an institution. We had planned to open the Future Generation Art Prize in April, during the Venice Biennale, but this kind of festive exhibition was no longer appropriate, or even logistically feasible, in a time of war.

Then Victor Pinchuk, the museum’s founder, approached president Volodymyr Zelensky’s office and asked if we could do something for Ukraine together. To our surprise, the answer from the president’s office was that culture is essential. The war was taking place not only on the battlefield, but on a cultural front too. In record time we organized the project ‘This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom’, a collateral event at the 2022 Venice Biennale. In a matter of weeks we brought new works by Ukrainian artists to Venice, alongside historical pieces.

EA How did Zelensky’s support materialize?

JR, Valeriia, 2022, original tarp from the Lviv action. ​​​Courtesy: the artist and © Pinchuk Art Centre; photograph: Pat Verbruggen

BG In many ways. First, by giving the project the imprimatur of state support rather than private initiative. Secondly, as it was impossible to insure the historical artworks in Ukraine due to the war, the presidential office provided us with a state guarantee. This meant that we would not be financially responsible for any damages of the artworks during the transport within the national territory, which hugely sped up the process. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Zelensky took the time to open the exhibition himself. His first public speech about art was at the opening of the exhibition in Venice. It was an extraordinary moment.

EA How do you manage to continue a critical curatorial practice during this time of crisis and war?

BG What is extraordinary about Ukraine is that Ukrainians and their artists remain critical. From a curatorial point of view, you actually just have to support what is already there. I think this critical regard is at the core of what it means to be Ukrainian. Even in a country where right now there is extraordinary unity, it doesn't mean that everybody agrees about everything, or that difficult questions shouldn't be asked. Giving space to difficult questions is exactly what a museum should do today, though you tread a fine line, of course. When we re-opened the museum in June 2022 our team went through every work with the present situation in mind. Many of these works, for instance, asked questions about the role of women in a time of war. In 'UNITED', the exhibition that we have currently in Kyiv there are artists who use the Russian language, and an artist who questions what a hero means. These are incredibly painful questions for Ukrainians, and we have to deal with an audience who disagrees with both the subject and the use of language. But it’s our task right now, to make sure that Ukraine keeps a critical open spirit, even while the country is under assault.

'Russian War Crimes', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Pinchuk Art Centre; photograph: Sergey Illin

EA Now that the war is entering its second year and we’re beginning to see symptoms of war fatigue in the countries that have supported Ukraine, how do you keep the conversation alive?

BG I think it’s a shared responsibility rather than one just for the PAC or Ukraine. I believe that 2014 to 2015 was a missed opportunity for many European institutions. There was a short period of attention to Ukrainian culture because of the war that was launched at that time, but it didn't translate into real understanding and engagement. Today we don’t need a short burst of intense attention, we need a systematic engagement with Ukraine over many years. This means incorporating Ukrainian art into international collections, so that it becomes a subject of academic research and institutional work, and part of European cultural history. It also means proactively engaging with contemporary Ukrainian artists. As an art centre, we can be extremely helpful with this because we have a local competence that we can share – indeed we already share it with many institutions.  

'Russian War Crimes', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Pinchuk Art Centre; photography: Sergey Illin

If you think about this war having started in 2014, and still in 2022 nobody knew anything about Ukraine – which is true of our neighbours in Berlin – then there is a fundamental problem there. Something does not add up. That mistake of 2014, 2015, which was a collective mistake, should not be repeated.

EA What are you planning for the rest of the year given that the circumstances can change at any minute?

BG The term I keep repeating to my team is ‘elasticity’. You have to be very elastic, which means planning for the best but being ready for the worst. In this case, we are planning a double exhibition in summer, inviting Zhanna Kadyrova and JR, which is in line with our original idea of what the art centre should do. Every exhibition is a breath of fresh air that goes through society. It has a real impact.

Pavla Nikitina, One–February, two–March, three–April, four–May..., 2022, photopolymer. Courtesy: the artist and © Pinchuk Art Centre; photograph: Sergey Illin

We have also launched this year’s Future Generation Art Prize, which is ongoing. The applications are open and artists from all over the world are applying. We plan to open the prize exhibition in October, but we will only be able to assess if it is possible in the summer. We simply cannot predict today how the autumn and winter will look in Kyiv. In everything we do, we operate with the same elasticity. We always try to plan maximally, and then we have to be realistic about the situation.

Main image: Nikita Kadan, Difficulties of Profanation II, 2015–2022, iron, rubble, archival prints, proof of war, added objects from Kyiv and Kharkiv. Courtesy: the artist, Transit Gallery and © Pinchuk Art Centre; photograph: Pat Verbruggen