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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Michael Murphenko’s cultural nomadism

22 May, 2007 - 00:00
MICHAEL MURPHENKO’S VENUS

Several years ago I was the curator of two shows involving the artist Michael Murphenko, which took place within a short time of each other. One of them, entitled “Purification,” was organized with my colleague Kostiantyn Doroshenko as a kind of a review of topical Ukrainian cultural achievements, focusing on artists whose works, in our opinion, had an international context. We also included works that we thought could serve as Ukraine’s calling card for people abroad who want to familiarize themselves with Ukraine’s cultural diversity. The show became this calling card. After being displayed at the National Artists Union, it was supposed to move to the Ukrainian Institute in New York.

Murphenko was the only artist among the show’s participants. In the last few years the Australian, Michael Murphy, who was educated in Belgium and is married to a Ukrainian woman (hence his quasi-Ukrainian pseudonym) has been living and painting in Kyiv. At the time we thought that his canvases and prints were like a fresh breeze in modern Ukrainian art — perhaps because we lacked new faces and ideas.

“Purification” was never shown in New York, for a number of reasons. It was the end of year 2004 and the stormy political events in Ukraine changed a lot of plans. Two years after the originally scheduled date Murphenko’s exhibit was shown at the Ukrainian Institute, after Kyiv’s Tadzio Gallery hosted his show called “Hilism.”

“Hilism” features Murphenko’s paintings and graphic works. His art is saturated with color and subject matter, yet they have a definite non- figurative trend. His graphics are of smaller format but more on the conceptual side. The title of the exhibition is a truncated version of the word “nihilism,” the denial of a denial..

It is hard to say whether Murphenko is part of the contemporary Ukrainian art community or the establishment. From what I know, he is distancing himself from both; he does not belong to any old or new clans (we do have clans in our art). Nor is he active in any art-affiliated endeavors (e.g., fighting or joining up with the Ministry of Culture, picketing the Verkhovna Rada, etc.). In the years that he has spent in Ukraine he has become an easily recognizable and popular artist, as evidenced by the sale of several works during the opening of “Hilism.”

The Australian Michael Murphy is a successful Ukrainian artist by the name of Murphenko, which forces people to treat Michael somewhat differently — not like some sort of strange artifact that was brought by destiny to Ukraine. Murphenko is a sign of Ukraine’s integration into the modern globalized world.

We are traditionally proud of Ukrainian artists who settle abroad and attain success, but do not miss an opportunity to remind people of their ethnic origins. Indeed, we have no other choice than to rejoice in their overseas achievements. Often this is the only way Ukraine can declare its presence on the international art scene or remind people about itself. Talented Ukrainians have migrated from their country over a number of centuries and the concept is all too familiar to us, so much so that we are amazed to see an influx of foreigners, people who come to our country to reveal their creative potential.

If you think about Ukraine as a part of Europe, you have to admit that among the indices that make Ukraine so very different from other European countries is the degree of homogeneity in our society. Rather than looking up statistics on the ethnic composition of Ukraine’s population, we should be looking around here to see people who are strikingly like one another. In Ukraine there are either too few “non-traditional” nationalities (i.e., non-Ukrainians: Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars), or they live in compact communities in order to protect themselves from active cultural interaction with other ethnic communities.

In today’s world, ethnic and cultural diversity is a hallmark of a country’s progress, its adequate response to current challenges. You can hear dozens of languages spoken in a single city district of New York, Paris, Warsaw, or Budapest and see people from various parts of the world. Creative representatives of various nationalities do not feel oppressed in any way in their new milieu. On the contrary, they are inspired by the possibility of taking a different look at their own cultural heritage, obtaining information from other people who are not like them at all, and in the end they come up with essentially new art forms. This is contemporary art in all its multifaceted beauty. The very nature of this art is cosmopolitan, and cultural nomadism is its determinative process.

Kyiv is still not as diversified as Warsaw. A European capital is traditionally a trendsetter in terms of openness and absence of any signs of xenophobia. For now, most foreigners in Kyiv are either refugees or foreign personnel. None of them are actively involved in the cultural sphere.

This makes Murphenko probably the only example of a cosmopolitan artist, a natural representative of contemporary art, who came to Ukraine in search of creative self-realization. His style is different from what we are accustomed to in Ukraine. It stems from a different art school. This is undoubtedly a plus in diluting our modern, homogenous Ukrainian artistic community (the same is true of our society as a whole) which thinks according to the same old patterns.

Perhaps the reason why Murphenko does not take part in the so- called public life of our artistic establishment is not because of the language barrier (Michael speaks Ukrainian well) or technical reasons. It must be a matter of principle: his concept of the artist’s role in society is very different from ours, which was established in Ukraine during the decades of Soviet rule. To this artist, playing up to the government apparatus would seem nonsensical at best.

This is how we see him. New York will probably look at Michael as an even more entangled rebus, as a man representing Western civilization, who settled in an enigmatic Eastern European country known solely for the fact that two years ago a consolidated effort was made so that a democratic presidential election could take place. What unites Ukrainian and US art lovers is genuine interest in Murphenko’s art, whose talent manifested itself not in his native, well-off Australia but in stormy and unpredictable Ukraine.

By Yevhen MINKO, special to The Day
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