Artists Reflect on the Future of Ukraine

Milena Khomchenko and Clemens Poole on a show of Ukrainian art they co-curated with artist and activist Yulia Krivich


BY Milena Khomchenko AND Clemens Poole in Interviews | 21 JUN 23

Milena Khomchenko Following its initial run at PLATO in Ostrava, Czech Republic, earlier this year, ‘Let the long. Road. Lead. To. Stairs in. The Heavens.’ is currently on view in a second, expanded iteration at Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture in Ukraine. When we were first invited to curate the exhibition, we had to imagine what reality we might be facing by the time the show opened. During war, the future is fragile and can be transformed in seconds by the consequences of action on the battlefield. Our curatorial team decided to address this problem directly: to think about the new, twisted perspective wartime gives us and, more broadly, to challenge the traditional understanding of temporality. This led us to create a show reflecting on the destiny of Ukraine, which is being constituted already.

Ksenia Hnylytska banners hanging in gallery space.
Ksenia Hnylytska, News from The Future, 2022. Courtesy: Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture; photograph: Oleh Samoilenko

Clemens Poole Over the last 16 months, people have had unprecedented access to the work of Ukrainian artists through shows that have had a serious political impact by making visible the circumstances of the Russian invasion. These exhibitions definitely influenced how we approached ‘Let the long. Road. Lead. To. Stairs in. The Heavens.’ Doing a show during war is extremely ethically challenging: you have to acknowledge the war, but you’re also aware that it becomes a victory for the aggressor if their actions fully dominate the discourse. 

MK I think we can sum up our approach as an attempt to undermine the discussion of decolonization in Ukraine by reinstating our independent identity, which is not constituted exclusively by our relationship with Russia. We wanted to talk about the war from a place in the future where it has ended, informed by the historical perspectives that compel us to unpack unknown hidden narratives. 

CP This was difficult because war is currently occupying everything. But an important part of the resistance in Ukraine is people continuing to live their lives and (re)build their society. We wanted to show something of that side of the war effort. The works we chose for the show present reimagined histories and futures for Ukraine defined by the way its citizens collectively envision themselves, in spite of the power of external agents – be they neocolonial aggressors or a generalized foreign gaze. 

Destiny was our way to do this because we saw it as a form that is simultaneously ever-present and outside of time. The works in this show aren’t dependent on the present for their ‘realness’ and, as such, can be emancipated from being works that are just about the war. This emancipation allows them to be read in relation to the war but also assumes that there will be a time in the future when they will be perceived as foundational elements of a new reality that is generative rather than destructive. 

Horse made out of found objects.
Beauty Studio, Monument to the Sapper (Vania Was Here), 2023. Courtesy: Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture; photograph: Oleh Samoilenko

MK Despite the fact that destiny was initially a religious concept – indicating a chronological unfolding of events in which everything has already been decided for us – we wanted to expand the linear understanding of this notion by looking at the plurality of pre-existing elements that constitute this destiny. Rather than linear and predetermined, we see destiny as comprising a network of pasts, presents and futures constituted by our own actions. This empowers us not only to gain authority over the construction of our destiny, but also to take into account other narratives from different time periods that could be hidden from us.

CP Beauty Studio’s The Sky and Me (2023), which was featured in the iteration of the show at PLATO Ostrava, is a good example of this. Beauty Studio, a loose artists’ collective based near the front line, contributed a sculpture that took the form of a flying object in reference to civilian DIY drone-building initiatives. The sculpture’s materials were overtly war-related: bomb fragments, rubble from their studio (which had been directly hit by a rocket attack) and other debris. The basic premise of our show, however, is that one day it will be possible to look at this artwork outside of the discourse of war. If Ukraine continues to innovate in the field of aviation, for instance, and finds itself at the forefront of the global aerospace industry in the future, The Sky and Me could be viewed as having been predictive of this development, rather than simply as reflective of its contemporaneous circumstances. 

MK The artists featured in the show are unafraid to look into the future and to imagine the ways in which our culture will resurrect itself. Some also draw on the memories of their ancestors as a means of protection and strength. The past that was previously unavailable to us is now re-emerging and creating a path to the future, which we build together in the present. In this way, we aim not to reinforce the standard chronology but, rather, to view temporality as a complex structure comprising coexisting elements.

Dark room with a blue screen featuring soldiers.
Zhenia Stepanenko, The Milkcap Turns into a Butterfly and the Chanterelle Turns into an Earthworm, 2023. Courtesy: Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture; photograph: Oleh Samoilenko

Another important element of the show was to engage with the transnational condition in which we live. Throughout its history, Ukraine’s sovereignty has been continuously threatened by Russia’s present and former political formations and their efforts to establish a homogeneous society. However, this approach simply could not work in a country like Ukraine, which served for centuries as a nexus for the cultural and economic routes that traversed Eurasia. As a consequence of this history, the indigenous population of Ukraine is composed of a range of ethnic groups – including Azov Greeks, Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, etc. – while numerous others – such as Avars, Lezgins and Rutuls – have also made their homes in the country in recent times. 

CP Grounded in Ukrainian history and mindful of the country’s present predicament, every work in the show can also be seen as a prediction. As curators, we wanted to emphasize this extratemporality, so we invited a witch called Frosiko to do tarot readings for each of the works – a kind of prediction of the predictions. For us, taking seriously the oracular modes included in the works and in our concept of destiny was a means of upholding the conceptual integrity of our curatorial project. 

Jar filled with yeast surrounded writing in flour.
Darja Lukjanenko, The End of The World Bread, 2023. Courtesy: Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture; photograph: Oleh Samoilenko

MK The influence the war has had, which I find otherwise generative, is the juxtaposition – and interchangeability – of reality and fiction. Narratives that might otherwise seem fantastical can be transformed into new approaches to grasp the complexities of our current situation. At the same time, however, the factual foundations of global histories are broken by the fragility of their own uniformity. The artists we collaborated with on this show guide us towards new, yet historically credible, perspectives on the infinite heterogenous destinies of Ukraine.

'Let the long. Road. Lead. To. Stairs in. The Heavens' is on view at the Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture (DCCC), Ukraine, until 8 August

Main image: ‘Let the long. Road. Lead. To. Stairs in. The Heavens.’, 2023, exhibition view, (with Beauty Studio, The Sky and Me, 2023 in the center). Courtesy: Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture; photograph: Martin Polák

Milena Khomchenko is an art researcher and writer living in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Clemens Poole is an American artist living in Kyiv, Ukraine.