The massive Ronald Reagan Building occupies an entire block in the heart of the US capital, located between the White House and the Capitol and adjacent to the National Mall, the home of most famous American museums which are accessible to the public free of charge. In the US, domestic tourism is very popular, so tourists, both individuals and tour groups dressed in identical T-shirts, are a fixture of Washington’s museum spaces. This extends also to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Gallery, which is located on the first floor, while the famous international analytical academic center, also named for that American president, occupies a few floors above and takes in researchers from around the world.
For four months, the Wilson Center will host a display of modern Ukrainian art, as represented by the artist Viktor Sydorenko’s project “Memory of Unconsciousness.” The exhibition was solemnly opened on June 8, 2016 by Ambassador of Ukraine to the US Valerii Chaly and President of the Wilson Center Jane Harman. It is her personal invitation that enticed the artist to bring his works to Washington. Harman served a few terms at the US Senate, where she was particularly concerned with security and defense issues. Given that she heads a world-renowned think tank now, her turn to cultural diplomacy as a kind of soft power is significant. The US is one of the pioneers in this dynamic industry which is growing in popularity. The Kennan Institute, which is a constituent part of the Wilson Center, sees cultural diplomacy as one of its strategic directions, its director Matthew Rojansky stresses. It was the Kennan Institute Ukraine, led by Kateryna Smahlii, that initiated and conducted, jointly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, two Forums of Cultural Diplomacy at the National Diplomatic Academy in April 2016 and June 2015. It also devoted two issues of its Agora magazine to theoretical and practical issues of cultural diplomacy.
Sydorenko’s project “Memory of Unconsciousness” (curators Natalia Musiienko and Natalia Shpitkovska) consists of photo, video, and sculptural works belonging to three cycles by that master: “Millstones of Time,” “Authentication,” and “Depersonalization,” which are well-known in Ukraine as well as in the US, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. The artist explores important themes of memory and time, attempts to get rid of totalitarian worldview and achieve a new and higher level of social communication. The project is in tune with the themes addressed in other studies conducted by the Kennan Institute – namely, a series of lectures by leading Ukrainian writers, comparative studies of New Orleans and Odesa, and the Kyiv art space study. This is an important milestone of the joint Ukrainian-American research effort, since Sydorenko is also the founding director of the National Academy of Arts of Ukraine (NAAU)’s Institute of Contemporary Art and vice president of the NAAU.
The opening of the exhibition was preceded by a podium discussion at the Wilson Center which dealt with the need to involve contemporary art in the promotion of Ukraine and was moderated by deputy director of the Kennan Institute William Pomeranz. In his speech, Sydorenko, in particular, stressed that his central theme was the transitioning person who is engulfed by their own changing consciousness. The project now being presented in Washington focuses on metaphorical exploration of history and human resistance to totalitarianism, human development under changed social and political conditions. Through the medium of art, the artist strives to rethink his own and collective past as well as overcome it through the same. This is a concept of an exodus from the colonial world which occurs through the natural change of generations over time, and, above all, due to attempts to make such a move. As in any work, the good beginning is half the battle here. As president Wilson remarked once, the significance of man is not measured by his own confidence, but rather by the number of people who trust him.
The podium discussion’s participants also included Hanna Hopko, Kateryna Smahlii, and Olha Ivanova. Smahlii offered a video report on the work of the Kennan Institute, told those present about its cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine in the field of cultural diplomacy, as well as the institute’s experts’ analysis of the Ukrainian cultural diplomacy’s efficiency in six foreign capitals, and stressed the need to expand numbers of Ukraine’s friends through this means. She stressed that Hopko, in her capacity as chair of a parliamentary committee, was successfully lobbying for more attention to cultural diplomacy on the part of the Ukrainian government, and Ukrainian diplomatic missions were starting to heed expert advice.
Cultural Attache of the Embassy of Ukraine to the US Olha Ivanova thanked the Ukrainian community for its contribution to the Ukrainian cultural diplomacy work in the US and restated her willingness to expand the audience by going beyond the traditional target groups, bringing new image of Ukraine to the young generation in the US, including young professionals and college students as well as various expert groups. She described the embassy’s work in that field: the crowded screening of the Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom film at the Wilson Center (directed by Yevhen Afineievsky) and success of the long-term project Art of the Maidan (created and curated by Natalia Musiienko), which, by the way, also had its first foreign presentation at the Wilson Center in February 2015.
Hanna Hopko, who chairs the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine’s foreign affairs committee, stressed the importance of promoting a modern face of Ukraine and thanked the artist and all the organizers for making this exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art happen. At the same time, she stressed the importance of preserving and communicating our true history, because culture is our identity, according to the MP. She presented Den’s publication Ukraine Incognita. TOP 25, which asks unanswered questions, including “What kind of country is Ukraine?” The whole world learned what the Ukrainian nation was like during the Euromaidan, and then in time of occupation of Crimea and war in our eastern regions, as well as when Jamala spoke about the pain of her people and family and won the Eurovision contest. The MP is sure that Ukraine can offer a model of reform for its region.
Sydorenko’s exhibition at the Wilson Center shows that the most successful cultural diplomacy projects are ones made as co-productions, by institutions of culture in cooperation with the nation’s missions abroad, think tanks, local Ukrainian communities. Only joint efforts can convey a modern image of Ukraine and simultaneously create it.