Simon Stephens

The best of times?

Simon Stephens, 01.06.2012
Simon Stephens visits Kiev's first contemporary art biennial
Kiev’s first international contemporary art biennial (24 May–31 July) opened last week with the controversy over the imprisonment of Ukraine’s opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, still rumbling on.

More recently the headlines have also turned to football following a BBC television report that revealed how racism in the Ukrainian game could damage Euro 2012, which it is co-hosting with neighbouring Poland.

The biennial’s title, taken from Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, is “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art”. It was chosen by its British-born artistic director David Elliott, and is a prescient choice.

As one of the countries that became independent following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is being transformed economically, socially and culturally. But, as recent events have shown, its future direction is uncertain.

Political and business leaders have always expressed their power though art and sport, and Ukraine is no different. Billionaire businessman Victor Pinchuk opened Kiev’s most high-profile contemporary art centre in 2006. And Kiev’s biennial is backed by Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych.

When I visited Kiev last week, I found a lot to admire about the biennial. Elliott has directed museums in Tokyo, Istanbul, Stockholm and Modern Art Oxford in the UK, and curated the 2010 International Biennial of Sydney.

He has used his knowledge of the international contemporary art world to fill the cavernous spaces of the former weapons arsenal with an impressive range of more than 250 artworks by more than 100 artists, including many that are based in Ukraine.

Some big names are there, such as Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois and Bill Viola. British artists represented include Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are showing a work that refers to the Nazi’s infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, and features a series of grotesque skeletal figures dressed in SS uniforms.

I liked some of the other works that addressed social and political issues, such as Oleksandr Chekmenev’s poignant photographs of veterans of the Great Patriotic War. Nearby, are Vandy Rattana’s apparently inconsequential images of Cambodian landscapes. Then you read the title of the works, Bomb Ponds, and realise the subject is the legacy of the US’s secret bombing campaign of the country during the Vietnam war.

I was also fascinated by Almagul Menlibayeva’s video installation about a secret nuclear testing plant created by Stalin in 1948 in Kazakhstan. And Berlin-based Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov has captured the former industrial might of the Soviet Union in a series of large-scale images of factories.

Elliott’s introduction to the biennial reflects the political nature of many of the works. It concludes: “Democracy in whosever name – people, proletariat, elected government – continues to privilege the minority.

"Yet, in spite of this, many people are actually happy, even in the darkest of circumstances. And good art too, however dark it may have to be, lies somewhere near the heart of humanity and happiness.”

On the evidence of my visit, the people of Kiev are embracing contemporary art. This was happening quite literally in the case of the Chapman brothers’ work, with lots of visitors posing for photographs with their arms wrapped around the Nazi mannequins.

And unlike the European football championships, which will move to a new country next time, they will get to enjoy it all again when the Kiev biennial returns in 2014.


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
05.07.2012, 00:16
The Arsenal in Kiev is a great venue! I stumbled by chance into a gig there three years ago involving a band that could only be described as a mix of The Stranglers, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and Cossack rhythms. There was no support band, just caverns full of contemporary art i barely understood. Congrats, simon, on visiting what is probably Europe's most intriguing country!
Simon Stephens
MA Member
Deputy Editor, Museums Association
11.07.2012, 12:51
Wow, I can't believe you've seen the Arsenal in Kiev in another guise. It is an amazing place. I'm writing about arts biennials for the next issue of Museums Journal and hopefully the article will feature some images from Kiev.I also heard some pretty crazy music in the city that can only be described as a mix of folk, house and perhaps those Cossack rhythms that you mentioned.