THURSDAY (July 25)
The day before the official opening of the exhibition it became known that the mural (wall painting in the style of street art) by Kyiv artist Volodymyr Kuznietsov Koliivshchyna: Last Judgment was banned and destroyed – the art work was painted with black paint. The painting Molotov Cocktail by Vasyl Tsaholov was also removed from display. From what is known, this was done following the order made personally by the General Director of the Mystetsky Arsenal and curator of the exhibition Natalia Zabolotna.
The next day deputy director of the Mystetsky Arsenal Oleksandr Soloviov and editor-in-chief of the Art Ukraine magazine founded by Zabolotna Kateryna Stukalova filed their resignations in protest.
At The Day’s request Volodymyr Kuznietsov commented on these events.
“CORRUPT PRIESTS SUFFERING IN HELL IS ONE OF THE CLASSIC MOTIFS DEPICTED IN ICONS, LAST JUDGMENT IS NOT PORTRAYED WITHOUT THIS SCENE”
Mr. Kuznietsov was this situation a surprise for you?
“It was rather a surprise that I was invited to participate in the exhibition with Koliivshchyna motives. I develop this topic in a series of works and already made two murals – the first one in PinchukArtCenter in Kyiv – after the etching by Vasyl Kasian, and the second one in Warsaw in the Center for Contemporary Art ‘Ujazdow Castle.’”
Exactly what happened yesterday?
“I came to the exhibition hall the evening before the opening to finish the mural as was agreed in advance with Oleksandr Soloviov and Illia Zabolotny. I wanted to finalize the painting: I already painted the scene of hell, the scene of present time, I just had to add the scene of paradise and place the explanatory texts that are important for the entire composition. In the photo now available on the Internet there is only half of the mural. However, I couldn’t enter Mystetsky Arsenal and all the tools were removed. Nobody said anything to me prior to that.”
What was the explanation?
“Primitive one – they said that I did not provide a sketch. However, I told the organizers at the beginning that I improvise when I work and described the main motifs that I had been working on: Koliivshchyna – an uprising of 1768 that was brutally suppressed by the authorities, the classical situation of the Judgment Day depicting torture in hell and Ukrainian news, situation in Ukraine at the present time. I tried to combine it all.”
Obviously, the images of corrupt priests that are being cooked in a large pot in hell became the most provocative.
“It is a scene of hell mixed with contemporary elements. Nobody would call corrupt judges or cop-rapists the righteous men, right? There were also drunk drivers, who rode their cars backwards. And corrupt priests suffering in hell is one of the classic motifs depicted in icons, Last Judgment is not portrayed without this scene. Besides, the texts have the topic of destruction of hierarchies, self-education, experience exchange, and horizontal self-organization.”
Still, in your opinion, what caused such reaction of Mystetsky Arsenal top management?
“I think that the reason for such action is the hierarchical dependence. The state pays for the exhibition, which is held under the patronage of the church. Natalia Zabolotna got afraid of the responsibility and out of the blue decided to commit an act of vandalism, take the responsibility for the hellish punishment of unjust people, who became the focus of public attention presently, without giving a chance to add the scene of paradise.”
An act of vandalism is a strong description.
“How else would you name the act of covering a piece of art with paint, destroying it completely?! However, it is not destroyed, it now lives everywhere – in photos, on the Internet, in press. The information spread much further than just that spot on the wall.”
What will you do next?
“The work has been done, it is now being scanned. I am not going to make the exact copy of this mural, but the same topic can be considered forever.”
Will the current situation be reflected in your future projects?
“I don’t have any definite plans at this point. There are other things worth fighting for.”
Do you know anything about the resignations of Oleksandr Soloviov and Kateryna Stukalova?
“From what I know, my story was the last drop in a series of different situations they encountered while working at Arsenal.”
FRIDAY (July 26)
On the night of the opening of “Great and Grand” Exhibition, a protest of leftist activists against clericalisation of society and against censorship was planned in front of the entrance to Mystetsky Arsenal. Before the rally even began it caused a backlash among some priests, one of whom Archimandrite Hedeon promised protesters “anathema” and “curse up to the seventh generation.”
Volodymyr ZADYRAKA, anarchist, activist of the Autonomous Workers Union, and one of the initiators of the campaign, said at the beginning:
“The situation with Zabolotna improvised rectangle actually confirms the thesis that we have expressed these days. I mean the development of the state orthodox ideology. Within this ideology any art objects or ideas that do not meet the requirements of the current regime will be crossed out. The regime tends to rely on something more substantial than this ridiculous percentage of support it has now. The only thing that is left is to appeal to the sacred and that means up to 65 percent support of the religious organizations. All the actions of the church are directly related to that. There is already a list of laws that should help the church do business or directly violate the Constitution regarding the separation of church and the state, as well as church and school. When church and the state act together, they become way too powerful for people to be able to resist them. We are on the position of freedom for people, even if it does not reflect the position of the majority. We are the minority that is entitled to their own opinion and will defend it. Church and the state must be separated.”
The protest numbered hardly a dozen people, who mostly silently stood with two banners. Even such small demonstration caused acute paranoia of those in power and their law-enforcement agencies. First, a police officer appeared and said that the right to peaceful assembly is limited by the District Administrative Court of Kyiv from July 26 to 28. Protesters reasonably objected that such restriction is completely unconstitutional. Finally, the officer promised to draw up an administrative report on the actions of the protesters but no one would detain them. As it often happens with Ukrainian police, the latter turned out to be a lie. Half an hour into the protest, which caused no inconvenience and was held peacefully, about two dozens of OMON officers appeared near Mystetsky Arsenal and brutally, in front of many journalists, arrested all the demonstrators.
Shortly after that I was able to ask General Director of Mystetsky Arsenal Natalia Zabolotna a few questions.
How would you comment on the situation with the work of Volodymyr Kuznietsov?
“We made an address to the press. These were my direct words. I have nothing to add to that. This was my decision as the chief curator of the project and as a director of a large museum institution. I am responsible for the development of the museum and, perhaps, my love of the contemporary art and the responsibility for the institution and the future of Mystetsky Arsenal outweighed other factors. That is, the pressure of responsibility played its role. I apologize to all, who got offended by my decision, but it is what it is.”
Why all the extraordinary security measures around the Mystetsky Arsenal?
“This is due to the arrival of the Patriarchs, who are coming to Kyiv Cave Monastery today and the arrival of the Holy Cross of Saint Andrew.”
I am asking because today some protesters were arrested at the entrance.
“We are located close to a strategic unit – Kyiv Cave Monastery. You must understand that we do not have that much money to hire so many police officers. You know, we always have many people coming to Arsenal.”
Grand opening with speeches did not happen after all. Instead, Natalia Zabolotna had to phone Pechersk District Police Office asking them to release the detainees, which was done at around 20:30.
RESULT AND CAUSES
Thus, the outcome of the weekend – two paintings banded for display (one of which is destroyed), the resignation at the top management of Mystetsky Arsenal, brutally dispersed demonstration in front of the entrance to the exhibition. In general, it all added up and made a resounding scandal, which seems to be the largest in the history of modern art in independent Ukraine.
In this situation we feel sorry for everyone: the artists, detained demonstrators, Soloviov, Stukalova, and Zabolotna (the pressure exerted on her is really enormous, despite the fact that on her position in her sphere she does many good things). Mystetsky Arsenal will now have to work hard on settling the losses in its reputation and I really hope it will gain it back. But the problem is much broader.
Everything that happened seems profoundly logical. Things could not go any differently with an exhibition, included in the program of a rather strange, for a secular state, but pointlessly pathos celebration of only one church of all presented in Ukraine. Mystetsky Arsenal is a state institution. There is no need to once again remind in what situation the state is now. For its part, today’s official orthodoxy, as well as the state authorities, exists behind the fence of police batons, behind the black veil of censorship rectangles, on crutches of obscure laws. If, despite the long-accepted principle of separation of secular and religious life, such state authorities and such church begin to act together, they become a two-headed monster, who can cause a lot of trouble for the ordinary citizens. That’s why the censorship, that seemed to be confined to the sphere of media, is now seeping back to where it seemed to be eradicated with the fall of communism. Judging from the bills that are being drafted now, from the recent attacks on journalists and civil society activists (particularly the members of “Femen” movement), from suppression of recent protests – the church together with the state are again making attempts to dictate where, when, and how we can protest, with whom and how we should sleep, which works of art we should look at and which we should rather avoid.
These attempts are pathetic.