War grinds down all nuances and abstractions, leaving only brute reality. The war of aggression against Ukraine is no exception, as Wednesday’s talk ‘In Solidarity with Ukraine’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris showed. The colourful pipes, columns, and glass tubing containing the museum formed an impactful frame as I strolled into the foyer to listen to seventeen Ukrainian artists and curators participating either on-site or by video from Kyiv, Lviv, Muzychi, and Kherson. The audience comprised the usual suspects for an art talk in Paris: the young black-clad, the soberly middle-aged, and those with spectacular eyeglasses. The same went for the atmosphere, the overly polite introduction, the location, the murmur; everything went as usual. That is, until artist Nikita Kadan opened the first Zoom call: “Greetings from Kyiv. I am speaking to you from an art gallery turned bomb shelter.”
What followed was a vivid charge against the Russian Federation as an extreme neo-fascist, anti-democratic, homophobic, and colonial state, and against the West’s “concern and anxiety” about closing the Ukrainian skies for the murderers. “Ukraine is the price to be paid to postpone confronting Russia,” Kadan said. “What else can be said?” he asked from inside Galleri Voloshyn, and quickly mentioned some of the exhibitions that he will participate in at Castello di Rivoli in Turin and Leopold Museum in Vienna. According to Kadan, art can give “visibility to the suffering of Ukraine and the displaced people of Ukraine,” while its deeper functions, “reflection and understanding,” are suspended indefinitely. Kadan’s gaze pierced the now all-too-familiar, yet uncanny, Zoom format, which distorted, if not Centre Pompidou’s exoskeleton, then definitely the sense that this was just another art talk. Time and place were somehow compressed. Out went art, small talk, networking, and chatter; in came, war, silence, desperation, and discomfort.
A few points returned with every speaker. That the war today, 11 March, is not in its 15th day but in its 8th year; it did not start on 24 February 2022, but during the spring of 2014 in Crimea. That visibility for Ukraine is the role and function of art now. That it is a neo-colonial war stemming from a colonial logic and a post-Soviet condition. That we in the West need to be careful not to conflate Eastern European art history and take it all to be Russian. While the speakers’ optimism was striking, their political statements and desperation made the urgency palpable. For the time being, art and nuanced conversations are eclipsed by facts of war, bombings, and a past that is gone.
The only time that art managed to fight back the war was when two short videos were screened. Both were made on the same day by Lera Polianskova and Ivan Svitlychniy at the National Art Museum in Kyiv where the artists are sheltering to protect not only their lives, but also the collection. In the latter video, there is a striking contrast between testimonies of injury, death, and the need for fighter jets and boycotts, and Svitlychniy’s subtitles, which included phrases such as, “Wars occur in the mind and for the mind.” In Polianskova’s list of necessary supplies to have on hand in the event of an air raid the image of a few unicorn and elephant stickers – for tending to an “unfamiliar child” inside a dark shelter – is the most chilling. The video is like an absurdist live broadcast of a dystopian Cold War duck-and-cover exercise.
It was the messages from the occupied city of Kherson that most touchingly pointed to what it means to live on the edge between the reality of war and the ephemeral nature of art, between closure and hope. Simon Khramtsov invited us into his living room. While a toddler occasionally cried in the background, the artist told us how he gave up using irony and vulgar jokes in his art when the war began in 2014. One moment he gave a matter-of-fact account of his work, and the next his face contorted, his voice chattered, and his eyes watered. In Paris, something shifted, as if the whole room contracted. Khramtsov concluded his talk saying: “We have to go to the bomb shelter now, but we do think everything will be fine.”
The founder and director of a small contemporary art museum in Kherson, Slava Mashnizky called from his phone. He talked about the hundreds of projects, exhibitions, and performances the museum has organised and about the interrupted plans for the museum’s 20th anniversary. He insisted that two decades spent supporting contemporary art must not be in vain and that he and his friends should get another chance again sometime soon. His parting words feel surreal: “Good luck. Art is eternal. Slava Ukraini! Slava Kherson! Glory to the heroes!”
Everything that earlier seemed so familiar about attending a talk at Centre Pompidou felt strangely distorted. No atmosphere or Parisian spring evening can stand in the face of slogans of war and glory, much less restrained mortal terror. If the assembly was meant to be about art or intellectual reflection, then it must be considered a failure – the necessary distance did not exist. The dignity and gravity of the speakers, their desire for us to see and hear Ukraine, however, pointed to a furious resistance and to the need for art to be given another chance.
– Emet Brulin is a translator and writer based in Paris.