In the past, the Biennale has appeared in major cities like Venice, Sidney and Istanbul. It has attracted millions of tourists each and every year it has been organised, and now it’s time for Kyiv to be included on that list of artistic cities. As a metropolis that lays claim to an incredible history, replete with ancient masterpieces, contemporary art is something we also do quite well. It is for these two reasons the Biennale, held at the massive Mystetsky Arsenal, will be here in our city come May next year.
An Artistic Platform
The Biennale acts as a kind of marker in the development of artistic civilisation. Ukraine, among others, has been lacking in such a large-scale event. Daring to hold this international art forum in our capital next year, the country will not only show itself to the world, but those who attend will also be able to see the world in Ukraine. This alone is a huge incentive for Ukraine’s artists of today working in the contemporary genre, and requires them to step up to the accepted standards of Europe.
Before anyone even sees what’s inside, however, we already have a trump card in hand: the architectural showpiece that is Mystetsky Arsenal. Turning into a museum of world contemporary art, uniting Ukrainian authenticity and international trends, this venue will be home to a number of well-respected art-critics and curators over the coming months. A couple worth noting include the above-mentioned head curator, David Elliot; the Mystetsky Arsenal custodian in charge of special projects, Oleksandr Solovyov; and Russian art-critic and curator responsible for theory and education, Kateryna Dyogot. Supported by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kyiv municipal authority, Mystetsky Arsenal is promising a high-level art-event.
Leading the team, Mr Elliot is a well-known British curator and art-historian who was invited specifically to make this first Kyiv Biennale one to remember. Having nicely come from the Sidney Biennale held in 2010, turning Australia into an artistic sensation, he himself is intensely interested in contemporary art, Russian avant-garde art and the visual culture that is Eastern Europe and Asia, and is known for his knack at integrating Western and not-so-Western art. However, he also believes that Ukraine has exhausted its image of a post-Soviet country on the international scene and that it’s time for it to show off its cultural potential: “It’s important to provide an international platform for Ukrainian artists, which does not make allowances for them but allows them, from that very same platform, to see the very best works of the world.”
Rebirth and Apocalypse
It is to this end the title for Biennale 2012 is “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”. These are the very same words that come from the novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and were written about the days during the French Revolution. Dickens himself made it quite clear that these words in particular could have been written about any point in history. Even 200 years on, says Elliot, we are still in the best of times and the worst of times. While that may be true, perhaps its significance is better explained in the subtitle of this exhibition: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art. According to the British historian, this dialectical designation was chosen on purpose to stress the natural cycle of time and history. “To find the worst in the best, and the best in the worst is the only chance of survival on this planet.”
Concentrated around four main ideas, which are not exclusive but do at times overlap, the first concept inherent in this exhibition is The Unrest Spirit. It contemplates the idea that people gain strength from their beliefs, myths and the conception of the universe, all of which is ungoverned by material desire or need. The second concept is In The Name Of Order, where, under the pretext of rationalism, power attempts to dominate culture through the creation of hierarchy. The third concept is The Flesh. This shows the human body wholly: its appetites, its interests and its limitations. And finally, we have The Unquiet Dream which looks at the apocalypse, our nightmares and the disasters that occur in our lives, without which people would be unable to change.
Considering the concept as a whole, Elliot says there have been Biennales in the past that focused on the artistic history of areas, regions or approaches. He, however, will be concentrating on contemporary art, using the most recent works by Ukrainian artists. This, he says, in addition to “good curation and good artists” is what makes for a successful Biennale. “Because if one chooses the art works correctly, then through the present one can see what is behind and what could be in the future.”
Having worked in Japan earlier this year organising an exhibition of Japanese contemporary art with rebirth as its theme, David Elliott’s apocalyptic ideas for this next big exhibition are not a coincidence. Hinting slightly at the problems Ukraine faces currently, the curator believes the country and specifically contemporary artists, with their own viewpoint and approach, can indeed provide the tools and maybe even some of the answers to many of the problems. “No one tells contemporary artists what to think, feel or create. Nor does anyone tell visitors to the Biennale what they should think or experience – it’s up to them. However, if they want information, if they want to get closer to the art or see the background of it – they will get it in Mystetsky Arsenal.”
Speaking to the interaction of contemporary art and its Ukrainian audience, Elliot says, “It’s difficult to really define what Ukrainian contemporary art is like today. If we take the late 80s and 90s, I can say there was some really good photography done here. Now, it looks as if everything can be found – painting, video-art, installation. I don’t want to define contemporary art in national terms, as to whether it’s British or Ukrainian. It’s more about the quality of artistic works which reflect reality. If artists do it well then that’s a great gift.”
Taken in by the charm of the actual building that is Mystetsky Arsenal, Elliot smiles when he says, “I came here to see the spirits and ghosts of this building. I’m happy to say we’ve got on very well. I haven’t had many nightmares so far and hope there will be no nightmares in the future!” The huge indoor and outdoor space of Mystetsky Arsenal should be quite advantageous for an art-exhibition like the one Mr Elliot will be heading up, and he says other venues in town should also get themselves ready. “I hope the caf?s, restaurants, bookshops and of course the toilets will be ready by then so that the needs of everyone can be catered to!”
Art Biennale 2012 will commence in Kyiv on 17 May at Mystetsky Arsenal and will continue on through to the end of July 2012. Stay posted to What’s On for more information in the coming months