The Kyiv Biennial arose, against all odds, as a truly partisan project amid the fragile political backdrop of the Maidan revolution and the conflict in the Donbass region between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army. Those events were inevitably inscribed in ‘School of Kyiv’, which was meant to open in 2013 but was continuously delayed until September 2015 due to political instability. The fact that this biennial opened at all is due to the determination of the curators, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer, the discussion programme coordinator, Oleksiy Radynski, and the several dozen invited artists.
According to the exhibition booklet, the curators envisioned the biennial as ‘a continuation of the idea of Maidan, operating as a political agora in the cultural field’. The six interdisciplinary ‘Schools’ – of ‘Abducted Europe’, ‘The Displaced’, ‘Image and Evidence’, ‘The Lonesome’, ‘Landscape’ and ‘Realism’ – were conceived both as exhibitions and as public workshops commissioned across 18 venues in the city, many of them unconventional, as well as ongoing courses and debates that unfolded in 15 locations outside Ukraine. This experimental, pedagogical, time-based structure helped showcase groups like Chto Delat, whose work mainly takes the form of manifestos and writing, as well as allowing the biennial to respond immediately to political issues that emerged during the revolution and its aftermath, including the country’s Russian dependency versus its European aspirations, and the role of images, image-makers and propaganda in the conflicts.
As a reaction to Russian domination, Ukraine recently introduced so-called decommunization laws, which call for all tube stations and public areas to be stripped of any communist symbols. Paradoxically, the younger artists from post-communist countries (ex-GDR, Georgia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine) in this biennial seemed to be inspired by the grandiose forms of Soviet art. A brilliant example was Nikita Kadan’s The Possessed Can Testify in Court (2015) installed in The National Museum of the History of Ukraine – a curated selection of museological objects arranged on a shelf, mixing the museum’s own Soviet-era symbols and objects with damaged equipment and half-burned scrap metal from the recent Donbass conflict.
Works by Alina Kleytman, Milena Korolczuk, Yuri Leiderman and Mikhail Tolmachev, among others, put the issue of dealing with Ukraine’s Soviet past in new contexts using temporal manipulations of film and photography, as well as other techniques, to create a sensation of displacement and estrangement from realism. The biennial also highlighted how film has remained the most effective medium for artists to record and engage with contemporary events. The most complete expression of that was in the labyrinthine National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre, whose dark corridors were filled with experimental films by artists past and present, from the uncanny genius of Soviet found-footage and popular science master Feliks Sobolev via the political cineaste Harun Farocki and the contemporary conceptualist Haim Sokol.
But the most impressive work turned out to be Das Kind der Säge ist das Brett (The Saw’s Child is the Board, 2015) by Yves Netzhammer, a monumental film installation occupying the gallery next to the Lavra sanctuary. His is a virtuoso commentary on Ukrainian history, starring humans and angels and using rudimentary computer animations and sculpture to represent the uneasy relationship between Ukraine and Russia. The piece owes a debt to Kyiv-born Kazimir Malevich’s paintings of peasants relieved from labour by the revolution and inspired by his cosmic suprematist ideas about humanity, as much as to French animator René Laloux and his surrealist piece of futurology, 1973’s Fantastic Planet. Netzhammer’s installation is a visceral exploration of metaphysics, sexuality and history via cosmic powers and possibilities, leaving the viewer sensorially exhausted and transported. This is what political art might be at its best – capable of impacting not only our conscience, but also our very bodies, with its message.