What happens to a nation’s art scene when war strikes? Most often, it becomes fragmented: young, male artists are sent to the front, while women and the elderly flee the country and take up temporary or permanent residence elsewhere, in other cultures with other art scenes. Connections and communities are torn asunder while distinctive cultural characteristics adapt to new realities, slowly becoming blurred and fading away. If truth is the first casualty of war, art and culture are often its second.
This year’s Kyiv Biennial is simultaneously a reflection of that development and a gesture of defiance against it. The vast majority of the biennial takes place in Vienna, which, being located near the border of the former Eastern Bloc, has both geographical and historical ties to Ukraine. Smaller exhibitions under the auspices of the biennial are distributed across Warsaw and Lublin in Poland, Antwerp in Belgium, and the border towns of Ivano-Frankivsk and Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. One solitary exhibition remains in Kyiv, where the national film archive Dovzhenko Centre has put together a film programme about the Kakhovska dam, which was blown up by Russian troops in June. Like Kyiv’s art scene, the biennial is fragmented and spread out across Europe.
At the same time, this year’s biennial represents an effort to achieve the very opposite: to uphold and connect the scene that existed in Kyiv until the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. Alisa Sizykh’s short film 15.02.22-24.02.22 KYIV (2023), placed in the first room of the biennial’s main exhibition as a kind of prelude, consists of footage filmed on the artist’s phone, recording her fellow students at an art school in Kyiv during the days just before the war.
Rumours of the impending invasion abound, and the atmosphere is anxious but also full of scepticism. “If the Russians come, they will fall in love with the Ukrainian girls and lay down their weapons,” laughs one young man. Another jokes that his family has planned an escape route to Antarctica. It is not easy to imagine that their everyday life – a life of going to school and making art – is about to change radically in just a few days. The film ends on 24 February at five in the morning, when the first air raid alarm shatters the silence in the city’s streets.
Against all odds
In Vienna, the biennial takes place at a number of small independent exhibition venues and three larger ones, all curated by Serge Klymko, Hedwig Saxenhuber, and Georg Schöllhammer, who have organised the Kyiv Biennial since its second instalment in 2015. Only late in the spring of 2023 did the curators decide to carry out this year’s biennial “against all odds,” as they say in the introduction to the small accompanying catalogue. By then, the biennial’s infrastructure had collapsed and all financial support from the Ukrainian state had been withdrawn and channelled into the military. It was a case of having to start all over again, raising funds and arranging an international art event in less than six months.
Of course, these trying circumstances have had a palpable impact on the main exhibition. For example, the need to economise means that the various venues are unheated. In the November chill of the Augarten Contemporary art gallery, visitors are met by three ways of relating to the war (an approach also taken throughout the rest of the biennial), expressed through works by approximately sixty artists and artist collectives. The majority of the works are by Ukrainian artists who are either still in Ukraine – meaning that their contributions mainly consist of video art or smaller paper-based works that lend themselves to being shipped out of a war zone – or have fled to other countries. Their efforts are put into perspective by international artists who find themselves in a similar situation as war refugees, as well as by works discussing how to express cultural solidarity with an art scene afflicted by war.
The Ukrainian artist collective DE NE DE examines the Soviet cultural legacy that still permeates the Donbas region in the east. The group presents a large-scale installation that seeks to revitalise old plans to transform the area into green cities, this time with an eye to the post-war era ahead. In the installation’s centre hangs the remains of a huge Brutalist chandelier from a hotel in Dnipro, now shot to pieces. Shattered glass fragments from the light fixture are arranged in a star shape on the floor – a very tangible example of how cultural heritage arises and vanishes again in an area that has been under Russian influence for as long as anyone can remember.
Such very realistic work, without too many layers of abstraction or conceptual detours, is particularly effective at making the horrors of war glaringly clear. The cold is not the main thing that makes flesh crawl as you explore the rooms at Augarten Contemporary, located on the edge of the Augarten park. Rather, my goosebumps are caused by the sense of standing right in front of a piece of reality unfolding in real time. One example is Ukrainian artist Kateryna Lysovenko’s series of small watercolours, painted during the first months of the war, where scenes such as an empty cot with a red bloodstain on the sheet, wrecked and ruined buildings, and a bent female figure holding a small skeleton in her hand tell a tale of unflinching, unmitigated horror.
Ukrainian artist Alina Kleytman’s sombrely ominous black chandelier and strange flesh-coloured biomorphs turn out to be made from, respectively, melted body bags and the kind of plastic used to assemble and reconstruct broken bones. And Wolfgang Tillmans’s Weak Signal IV from 2014 – the year Russia annexed Crimea – shows the interrupted signal of a Ukrainian television station on a flickering black-and-white television screen photographed in the artist’s hotel room in St. Petersburg. Beside it hangs photojournalist Friedrich Bungert’s photographic portrait series of wounded war victims, many of them amputees. We are given a view so close, it is almost unbearable.
The elephant in the room
The Danish artist collective Superflex contributes a work originally created for the Riga Biennial, which was cancelled earlier this year due to the organisers’ possible ties to Russia. “There is an elephant in the room,” it says in large bright blue letters, prompting speculation about which elephant the title might now be talking about. A video work by Ukrainian artist Nikolay Karabinovych, The Story of the City where Two Colors Disappeared (2023), provides a hint. Street footage from an unnamed European city in which all shades of blue and yellow have been digitally removed points to how solidarity with Ukraine is fading as new wars and conflicts take hold of our collective attention.
The most beautiful work in the main exhibition, a series of white velvet textiles with a geometric grey pattern, is a readymade by Mona Vatamanu (Romania) and Florin Tudor (Switzerland). The textiles were found in the Omina Hall in Bucharest, which served as a government building for fifty years. Its walls were decorated with geometric wooden panelling, behind which the concrete walls were covered with white velvet to improve the acoustics. The grey patterns on the textiles were quite simply formed by the dust settling where the fabric was not covered by wood: a kind of physical sedimentation of all the speeches, all the rhetoric that successive rulers have poured forth in the hall. What might the walls from the government building in the Kremlin tell us if they could speak? What geometric patterns might appear on the walls of the United Nations in the future?
At the Neuer Kunstverein Wien, set in a former car workshop on the edge of the city centre, attention is focused on the more technological aspects of the war. In Swiss artist Yves Netzhammer’s video installation Das Kind der Säge ist das Brett (The Child of the Saw is the Board), originally produced for the second Kyiv Biennial in 2015, drones and bombs fly back and forth in abstract computer-animated worlds with formal references to Russian Constructivism. Malevich’s black square becomes a house crashing down around small human figures who, in other scenes, ride caricatured missiles or torture each other. A clear sensual undertone can be discerned in the men’s dealings with the machinery of war, a kind of eager fetishisation of its trappings as well as of symbols of violence.
Art in a war zone
Quite naturally, the scope and possibilities open to art in the midst of a war is one of the recurring themes at this year’s biennial. Where French artist Laure Provoust’s video installation – comprising monitors that turn the moving images towards the walls, floor, or ceiling – seems to point in the direction of an Adornoian idea of the impossibility of creating art that talks about the war, a group of architects from Vienna, Kyiv, and Kharkiv regularly host workshops under the title The Productive City, in preparation for the reconstruction of better urban spaces in a peaceful future.
The difficulties of life as a visual artist in a war zone are made fully present to us in the Ukrainian artist and queer activist Vladislav Plisetskyi’s video What Will You Do When the War Starts? (2023). Created as a kind of handheld documentary, the video opens with the first air raid sirens over Kyiv in 2022. We follow Plisetskyi’s friends and acquaintances taking cover in underground nightclubs and subway systems as the bombs fall. Here they arrange support concerts for the Ukrainian troops, create small temporary exhibitions, or make Molotov cocktails for self-defence. The film crosscuts between Ukrainian and Russian television reports telling very different stories about what is happening above ground while the young artists dance and work in the depths, try to make contact with friends and family, and prepare for what may come. It is not difficult to put myself in their place: what would I do if I suddenly found myself in the middle of a war?
The Kyiv Biennial has its greatest impact in the moments when this sense of identification occurs – when I feel, with full emotional immediacy, how we ourselves would react under similar circumstances. Many of the formats may be small and the videos gritty and hastily edited, but this only adds to the sombreness: who has the energy to create large, beautiful installations while the bombs are falling? The fact that it is even possible to create a Ukrainian biennial with so many new works under these circumstances tells us something central about what art can do for people: for Plisetskyi’s friends in the Kyiv metro and for those of us who shudder sympathetically as we encounter the violent depictions of the war. Unlike Plisetskyi’s friends, I can leave the biennial at will. But I take their desperation, their anxiety, and their indomitable will to life with me into the Christmassy streets of Vienna.
The Ukrainian artists do not have that privilege, and the biennial’s true – and tremendous – relevance resides in acting as a link between the Ukrainian art scenes that have been torn asunder by the war. At the Kyiv Biennial, we come face to face with an incipient Ukrainian diaspora that, for the time being, speaks with one voice, but which will – should the war unhappily continue for long – inevitably be integrated into other cultures and speak with different voices depending on whether they end up in Vienna or Copenhagen.
The Kyiv Biennial is important as a rallying point for Ukrainian voices from the homeland and in the diaspora. It forges connection and an exchange between these groups, thereby helping to ensure that Kyiv will also have a coherent and vibrant artistic scene after the war. The fact that the biennial can at the same time help to keep Western Europe’s faltering attention focused on Ukraine is a good thing, but a side effect, First and foremost, the Kyiv Biennial is a struggle of resistance.
Kunstkritikk’s trip to Vienna was financed by ERSTE Foundation.