Reports and Interviews From: Ukraine
Artist Anna Zvyagintseva Interviews Art Critic and Curator Arina Radionova
Anna Zvyagintseva: Do you make a living as an art worker?
Arina Radionova: I’m working and have some money “for life,” but not from work in the art sphere. But there is a chance to make money with art, not by selling art objects, but by writing about exhibitions and famous artists. There was a chance, I should say. Now, people only read political magazines, not culture or art reviews. Now is such a difficult time. I think writing about exhibitions when Russian tanks are near your home is not such a good idea.
I can write. It saves me. Last year I received more offers to write for pay. There was a funny incident when a famous Ukrainian artist offered me money for a text on his project for the PinchukArtCenter Prize competition. That was actually like an offer for me to create a project instead of him.
But with cultural criticism it’s not so simple. Not many publications are willing to pay you a fee. Once on Facebook, as a joke, I composed a slogan for our magazines: “Yes, your article is perfect. No, we can’t pay you for it.”
Zvyagintseva: What are your political views?
Radionova: Just six months ago I didn’t have any. I was completely uninterested in politics, except for “the politics of poetics” and the theme of one of [Victor] Misiano’s curatorial summer schools, “doing exhibitions politically.” Cultural policy as a field or, more precisely, its absence in Ukraine, scared me. I knew that at some point this would affect the lives of Ukrainians, that this absence of cultural politics would carry over into the sphere of politics and economics, but I could not have imagined that it would happen so soon and that it would entail the loss of Crimea and Donbas.
In fact, all political activity is one enormous simulacrum. Someone instigated a huge game, and we are all playing. This game is taking up more and more space—informational and physical. Soon it will be unstoppable.
Zvyagintseva: Is there a specific tendency in art that encompasses your interests as a critic?
Radionova: Yes, of course. At first I grasped at everything and found inspiration in any project. Now I’ve settled on multi-media installations, photography, and video—everything that resembles documentary film, that plays with memory, makes one remember and relive personal experiences, sometimes painful and traumatic, sometimes incredible, inspiring.
Ai Weiwei’s piece in which he covered the walls with hundreds of photographs of people on the street, creating one monumental canvas out of a thousand human faces and temperaments that I can examine, endlessly guessing their fates; this is much closer to me than Roman Minin’s work of a similar scale, shown in the same PinchukArtCenter, that was produced by children and hits you with Soviet slogans and “look at me, I’m a poor artist from the coal-mining town Dimitrov with a complicated fate.” A work should be honest and the artist should take complete responsibility for it in whatever circumstances, whatever its style and whatever space it is exhibited in.
Zvyagintseva: Does your work address a particular group or community? Do you have an idea of your viewers or your readers?
Radionova: Actually the cultural field of our entire country is interconnected. There are not that many artists, and even fewer curators and theorists. I could sit down for an hour and produce a tally of people who know about and are somehow engaged in contemporary art. ARTUkraine magazine has 30,000 subscribers on Facebook. I think that includes all the people in this country who have read about art at least once.
I’d like to think that my reader is like me. S/he is educated, attends exhibitions and festivals and after reading an article blurts out, “Come on, what is this crap?”
Zvyagintseva: Is there a particular reason why you would boycott an institution, publication, or event?
Radionova: Yes, I am boycotting one institution—Izolyatsia, Platform for Cultural Initiatives, a contemporary art center in Donetsk. The reason is my previous collaboration with them, if that’s the right word for it. Several years ago, I proposed a project to them featuring artists who at that time were rather young and unknown. The institution refused. Three years later almost all the artists involved in that project had become finalists for the PinchukArtCenter Prize and amassed long CVs, and some had even proven themselves in Venice. Then Izolyatsia’s curators invited them to be artists-in-residence. I know of many cases where they treated artists who were unknown to them inappropriately, to put it mildly. This is not a cultural institution but a snobbish gift shop, compared to which Mystetskyi Arsenal looks like MoMA.
Zvyagintseva: Is the silence of a boycott a form of speech?
Radionova: According to contemporary art semantics, it’s a form of speech, a sign, a text. In the case of Volodymyr Kuznetsov, even a manifesto. But I know of many cases where artists who have had a bad experience working with the Kharkiv Municipal Gallery or Izolyatsia still try to keep working with them because those are the only institutions in the region, there are no alternatives. Or they cut all ties and keep quiet as a matter of principle. That is silence of the worst variety. Like in an occupied city.
Zvyagintseva: Are you able to look at Ukrainian art as part of the world’s history of art/society?
Radionova: Right now I cannot compare so-called “domestic” artistic production with the parallel Western cultural process. I know several photographers from Portugal and Brazil, some artists and curators from Poland. But I absolutely cannot imagine a complete picture of the artistic process in one country or another, or in Europe as a whole. Not to mention the world. For example, I have no idea how artists in Australia live and what they do. Honestly, it never interested me. I’m one of those people who as a matter of principle doesn’t go abroad until I’ve traveled far and wide throughout my own country.
Once, curator Anna Smolak from Krakow consulted me about independent galleries and exhibition spaces for a project she was doing for the Polish Institute. No one has ever published a catalogue of all the exhibition spaces in Ukraine, let alone done research. We don’t even know our own artists. How can we consider an unknown, unexplored phenomenon as part of world history? Only with general phrases and fragmentary comparisons, like “If Beuys was doing performances way back in the ’70s, sharing a space with a coyote, then at that time a certain Ilya Kabakov, born in Dnipropetrovsk, began developing his communal housing authority series on Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow.”
The fact that Ukraine has existed as an independent country for only two decades only complicates matters. Prior to that, its membership in the U.S.S.R. also complicated the study of its art history. And here we return to the question of cultural policy.
Zvyagintseva: Do you think you have enough instruments for this task?
Radionova: No, of course not. Definitely not. I think no cultural theorist, art historian, or curator, even those like Hans Ulrich Obrist or Daniel Birnbaum, can claim to have “enough” instruments. No matter how long we work with art, it remains a sphere for eternal investigation. Certainly, every curator has his/her set of tools. I, for example, am a committed (post)-structuralist. I employ Propp’s formulas and Barthes’s directives when evaluating any exhibition.
Zvyagintseva: Is criticism concerned with evaluation?
Radionova: Evaluation of monetary value—no. Evaluation of significance—certainly.
Anna Zvyagintseva (born in 1986 in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine) studied at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kiev where she graduated in 2010. Her works have been shown in such institutions as the National Art Museum of Ukraine (Kiev), Sevastopol Art Museum (Crimea, Ukraine), Visual Culture Research Center at National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy; Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (Warsaw). She was a finalist in the 2010 MUHi Young Ukrainian Artists Prize (Kiev), and in 2013 she was a finalist for the Pinchuk Art Prize (Kiev). She is a member of the curatorial group HudRada since 2010, and co-founder of I.S.T.M. (Art Workers’ Self-defense Initiative) in 2011. She lives and works in Kiev.Arina Radionova
Arina Radionova (born in 1989) studied Cultural Theory at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and graduated in 2012. Her curatorial projects have been shown at the Odessa Biennale for Contemporary Art and in various Ukrainian cities, including Kiev, Kharkiv, Uzhorod, and Rivne. Her writing has been published in ARTUkraine, Double Vision, Zbruc and other magazines. She currently lives and works in Donetsk.