Art Basel’s Ukrainian platform has mastered the public space.
Here, contemporary art does not exist isolated from reality. He encourages those who are immersed in his works to think critically about the world as we see it.
Art Basel – an international non-profit art fair – takes place annually in Basel, Switzerland (where it started in 1970) and has expanded to Miami Beach; Hong Kong and – from 2022 – Paris. With a large audience of international viewers, it provides a platform for galleries to show and sell their work to buyers.
The year 2022 has already become synonymous with Russia’s war on Ukraine – a war that has global resonance and illuminates a clash of values: an overrun world of violence, dictatorship, xenophobia and rusty superhuman ideas. suddenly attacked the modern world of democracy, transparency, respect for human individuality and human rights.
Ukraine has found itself at the forefront of the struggle for the right to advance and develop and, at the same time, risks being wiped out by the invasion of anti-modern neo-Soviet militarism.
The endurance and courage shown by Ukrainian society in the unequal struggle against the aggressor surprised the world. Existing in the shadow of Moscow for centuries, Ukraine has shown the world its spirit and its commitment to freedom. And it is this spirit that lends itself so well to being captured in art form.
At the Swiss Art Forum, the PinchukArtCentre showcased Ukrainian art to encourage dialogue, moving it from gallery space into the public realm. Beat Jans, President of the Canton of Basel-City Government, fully supports the initiative:
“The government of the canton of Basel-Stadt welcomes the initiative to offer Ukrainian artists a highly visible platform at Art Basel. This sends an important signal that we must not forget that there is a war going on and that Ukrainian society continues to suffer from it.
The test of death
Basel Town Hall, as well as billboards, building facades and entrances to cultural institutions in the city, feature Borys Mykhaylov’s series of photographs, “Trial by Death”.
The 83-year-old author is one of the most recognized Ukrainian artists in the world. A recipient of the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, he won one of his first prizes – the Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Award – in Zurich, Switzerland in 1996.
“Trial by Death” won Mykhaylov Ukraine’s National Shevchenko Prize in 2021. Ukraine’s main state art prize was established during the Stalin era and has remained conservative for decades since the collapse of Soviet Union. The fact that it was awarded to Mykhaylov was a sign of a major change in the understanding of art in the country at the official level.
Since the 1960s, Mykhaylov has worked in Kharkiv, taking photographs in complete contradiction to official Soviet aesthetics and ideology. He chronicled the absurdity, impoverishment and hypocrisy of the Soviet world in its last decades, acting as a clinician in the experiment on the creation and degeneration of the pseudo-nation of the “Soviet person”.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is in fact another Soviet war. Under slogans about the greatness of former Soviet victories and achievements that cost millions of human lives, the corpse of the empire bombards Ukraine with Soviet weapons, crushes it with Khrushchev-era tanks and rapes and tortures civilians in a manner akin to red terror. scenarios.
“Trial by Death” is a project Mykhaylov conceived after visiting the Kyiv Crematorium – a masterpiece of brutalist architecture at Baykove Cemetery – and talking to one of its creators, Volodymyr Melnychenko. The latter, with his wife Ada Rybachuk, worked for years on the reliefs of the Wall of Memory next to the crematorium, which were brutally cemented by the communist authorities in 1982.
Mykhaylov’s series consists of diptychs that combine photographs of the crematorium with those he made during various years of his artistic practice. The viewer is introduced to images and reflections on the fragility of human life in the waves of historical and civilizational change, the burden and finitude of ideologies, expectations, fears and hopes, movement, petrification and destruction. The diptych as a form creates a space for the viewer to contribute to the creative work, stimulating the individual associative imagination.
As part of the Ukrainian program, the Basil Theater presented the “Battleship and the Catamaran” film program, showing daily video works by Ukrainian artists of different generations.
Alexander Roitburd’s “Psychedelic Invasion of the Battleship Potyomkin into Sergey Eisenstein’s Tautological Hallucinations” video is a surreal mix of sadistic shots from an early Soviet film about the 1905 revolution in Russia and footage filmed by the crew of the artist on the same Potyomkin staircase in Odessa in the late 1990s.
The video is a postmodern reaction to a sense of total global deconstruction: the Yugoslav wars brought genocidal practices back to Europe; Ukraine, which has just recovered from the crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is slipping into a new recession due to the default of payment announced by the Russian government of Sergei Kiriyenko. Interestingly, the same Kirienko is now leading the Russian occupation regime in Ukrainian territories.
Other participants in the program are young artists whose video works reflect the current agenda. Open Group’s “Exclusively for Internal Use” demonstrates the interaction between people forced to share spaces together while on the move – a condition experienced by millions of Ukrainian citizens forced to flee their homes due to the war in Russia.
“Rattling, Banging, Arguing and Gurgling” by Andriy Rachinsky and Daniil Revkovsky is a pessimistic futuristic prediction of the impact of death 20e industrial giants of the century on the environment, and with it the threats of ecological and anthropological degradation.
“We Fought for Six Years, Then Got Snowed In, and in the Spring We Up a Monument to a Hero” – a soft and awkward sketch using the aesthetics of folk masquerades – redefines the traditional cultural demand for heroism that requires sacrifice .
“Traveller” by Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey reconstructs the situation of the Russian occupiers killed in Ukraine. The country that sent them to a foreign land is in no rush to get their bodies back. Images of killed Russian soldiers in Ukrainian landscapes recall the works of war artist Vasily Vereshchagin, who conveyed the horror and absurdity of war in his paintings of Russian imperialist campaigns in the 19th century.
The Mykolayiv Regional Art Museum is named after Vereshchagin and stores his works and personal effects. It is now threatened by Russian missiles which have destroyed many cultural monuments in Ukraine.
The parallel program of the Basel fair, Liste Art Fair Basel, also presents works on Ukraine.
PinchukArtCentre junior curators Oleksandra Pogrebnyak and Daria Shevtsova presented the video program “The Sky is Getting Closer”. Films, music videos and a fashion show highlight the resilience and courage of Ukrainians, addressing political and social issues against the backdrop of the brutality of Russian aggression.
Some of the videos are reflections on communities of people, lost homes and the changing historical landscape. A number of works highlight the vitality of traditional culture alongside modern technological developments.
“Global challenges such as war, displacement and climate change become an opportunity for artists to reflect on the future and the possibility of coexistence in a shared environment,” the curators say.
Today, every Ukrainian is judged by death. Tatiana Retivov, an American poet and publisher who has lived in Kyiv since the 1990s, says: “Since February 24, we have all felt half dead, having realized the possibility that our lives could end instantly, whether you are military or not. . person or a civilian. Art in this situation gives you the strength to break through in life.
Contemporary Ukrainian culture shares this experience with Europeans in the hope that joint efforts to repel Russian aggression will prevent them from experiencing it firsthand.
Kostіantyn Doroshenko is a Ukrainian art critic, publicist, contemporary art curator, media manager and radio host.