BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 19 DEC 23

The Year in Review: The 5th Kyiv Biennial Foregrounds Global Solidarities

The 2023 edition of the biennial addresses the war in Ukraine alongside other conflicts and the related repression of dissent across the globe

BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 19 DEC 23

Taking place this year across eight cities, the Kyiv Biennial opens amidst an ongoing war that the west should not forget as it also looks to other conflicts. The staging of the biennial is itself a moment to celebrate, given that Ukraine remains in an existential conflict of violent intensity. February 2024 will mark two years since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale assault, and 10 years since its invasion of Crimea and war in Donbas in reaction to Ukraine’s pro-European Maidan Revolution. In that time, millions of Ukrainian civilians have been displaced, both within the country and internationally. The biennial addresses these dire circumstances, alongside a broader engagement with other wars and the related repression of dissent across the globe.

Founded the year after Maidan by Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Centre with Austrian curators Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer, the Kyiv Biennial is a grassroots, artist-led and activist initiative, with an emphasis on pedagogy and discussion. With contributions from over 120 artists, academics and collectives, including dozens of new commissions, the programme involves Ukrainian artists alongside international figures such as Abdul Sharif Oluwafemi Baruwa, Hito Steyerl and Wolfgang Tillmans. Eschewing a title, this iteration of Kyiv Biennial brings multiple perspectives to bear on questions of displacement, decoloniality, psychotherapy and the ecological impact of war.

Kateryna Aliinyk, Medical and Political Fantasy about Luhansk, 2021

The decision to hold the biennial across so many locations – Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Uzhhorod in Ukraine; Antwerp, Berlin, Lublin, Vienna and Warsaw in the European Union – is partly a response to the displacement of much of the Ukrainian cultural community by the war, and partly a statement of internationalism and solidarity. Anna Daučíková’s video installation Talking to You (2021) connects to the resilience of non-binary people in Jakarta, while Majd Abdel Hamid’s multimedia installation, Muscle Memory (2022) borrows from Palestinian embroidery traditions. As co-curator Serge Klymko tells me via video call: ‘while it is important to be as international as possible, it is also very important for us to still be here in Ukraine, visible and supportive of the local scene. We are not “a biennial in exile”.’

The biennial remains possible thanks to long-term relationships. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyiv Biennial launched the Emergency Support Initiative, raising money to support artists and cultural workers in Ukraine. One beneficiary was Sorry No Rooms Available, an artists’ residency organization in the Intourist-Zakarpattya Hotel in Uzhhorod. For the biennial, the venue programmed a group exhibition that brought together personal narratives and shared experiences of war with reference to the site’s use as a place of temporary accommodation. Works included: Sasha Kurmaz’s Red Horse (2022–23), a war-time collage diary shown on 35mm slides; Kateryna Aliinyk’s dripping paintings of roots and soil; and Anna Zvyagintseva’s To Plant a Stick (2019–22), which incorporates branches of willow sprouting in water as an understated memorial to the artist’s grandfather. As Zvyagintseva tells me: ‘the war has imbued the work with a sense of resistance. It was speaking about death and life before, but now this personal story has a much wider resonance.’

Katya Buchatska, This World is Recording, 2023, film still

Shifting contexts have also shaped the reception of other works. According to Al Jazeera, as of 14 December, more than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces since the 7 October attacks by Hamas. In this context, Tomáš Kajánek’s Shooting Adventure (2021), shown at Augarten Contemporary, Vienna, feels to me like an especially important work. Filmed on a body-mounted camera, Kajánek’s short documentary shows a group of American tourists enjoying a training session with the Israeli Defence Force somewhere in occupied Palestinian territory. To me, watching the film online, this touristic commercialization of violence speaks to the glorification of the military in Israeli society, and the related militarization of that society. Astonishingly, such sessions are real, and the film is grimly insightful. In the last month, 435 Ukrainian scholars, activists and artists have signed an open letter of solidarity with Palestinians, emphasizing the long history of Israeli settler colonial violence. While several of the letter’s signatories have exhibited in the Kyiv Biennial, none of the 16 curators involved in this iteration signed it.

Sasha Kurmaz, Red Horse, 2022–23. Photograph: Sasha Kovalenko

Throughout the biennial, landscapes figure as complex sites of destruction and belonging. Katya Buchatska’s video This World is Recording (2023) revisits a shell-scarred terrain in the countryside north-west of Kyiv, proposing a garden as a way to meditate upon the politics of memory and loss. Heartbreaking in its quietness, the work powerfully draws attention to the ecological catastrophe that Russia is wreaking, while imaginatively speculating about the possibilities of repair. Similar in tone is Darya Tsymbaluk’s video essay Botanical Documentation of Existence (2023), which poetically conceives of swimming as a mode of survival (‘staying afloat’) in the face of exhaustion, grief and relentless aerial bombardment: ‘When you live your whole life by the rivers / water does not stop its flow / water never stops its flow / and you pull yourself up by the hair / learn anew how to swim / learn how not to lose hope’. The video contains a promise from the artist to her mother: to swim together in the sea after Ukraine’s future victory, their ‘tired bodies’ held up by the saltwater. The geography of the work is specifically Ukrainian: the Black Sea, the Southern Buh and its tributary the Inhul. But, given everything, I find myself reading Tsymbaluk’s words with an additional resonance, another promise of freedom, from another river to another sea, expressed in a phrase sung out continually by millions in resistance and solidarity.

Main Image: Anna Zvyagintseva, To Plant a Stick, 2019–22, installation view. Photograph: Sasha Kovalenko

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).