A Stronghold of Rulers and Rebels With the recent death toll jumping to nearly 100 and 1,000 injured, Hrushevskoho Street, one of the strongholds of EuroMaidan’s three-month-long protests, made headlines around the globe. It was here, on 19 January the country’s stand against government corruption, abuse of power, and the violation of human rights turned from peaceful protest to all-out revolution. Having witnessed much over the years, Hrushevskoho is a street with a history, and not only care of recent days.
Acelebrity using their status and intelligence to influence public views and opinion is rarely seen in modern society, even less so in Ukraine. Here, the majority of celebs use their time, effort, and money to enhance or further their career rather than put their name to something that can do good for others. However, as EuroMaidan intensifies, some are making themselves heard – and they fall either side of the EuroMaidan divide.
It used to be that when rebellion and revolution occurred, the intellectual, creative, and spiritual elite would be front and centre.
People have been writing on walls since the dawn of civilisation, we call it graffiti, and ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Sometimes it is merely the creator wanting to leave his or her mark; sometimes there is an underlying social or political reason. And it is due to the latter that graffiti has exploded across Kyiv in recent months. Anti dictator messages aside, we peel back a few layers of paint to look at graffiti in the city in general.
Having come to Kyiv to launch an unprecedented project entitled You+Me, Candice Breitz has opened the doors to an incredibly accommodating venture with Ukrainian artists. The offer was made with any enterprisingly creative individual, that he who shaped a likeness of her, in any medium, form or method, would then have the opportunity to display that work at the ever-industrious Pinchuk Art Centre; alongside her own exhibition of video and photographic pieces of course.
Open to new experiences, new influences, and new friends, she has come to the capital with eyes wide open in the attempts to better understand herself as well as this quickly evolving country through the eyes of her contemporaries.
Meeting in the stark white atmosphere of the Sky Art Cafe, Candice Breitz, with her own ashen hair and dazzlingly orange fingernails, fits in perfectly. Her tough schedule in Kyiv is saturated with interviews and meetings, so after a few quick calls on her cell pertaining to the business at hand, she turns, smiles and gives me the go ahead.
“On one hand, this project gives me an excuse to learn about and meet as many Ukraine-based artists as possible; it offers me a way into the artist community. On the other hand, it gives the community access to me as an international visitor, and in essence hold a mirror up to Kyiv, while Kyiv holds a mirror up to me.”
For all those deciding to participate in her little project, Breitz leaves behind an autobiographical memento and imparts some very intimate and private details about herself. What it was like growing up in a family of doctors in Johannesburg; the fact that she works too much; her likes which include vinegar, borsch, and bad moods; the fact that she hates being under the careful watch of the public eye; the fact that she is allergic to garlic, and so on are just a few things you’ll learn. At the end of her small offering is a brief diatribe on how she hates writing about herself as a stranger. But as this latest project is all about being a stranger, this seems to be a common theme for the accomplished Breitz. “I have offered myself as a platform for cultural exchange. The challenge for the Ukrainian artist will be how to deal with me as a stranger, and the challenge for me will be how to deal with Ukrainian artists as strangers,” she says.
Well versed in some of these personal details already, I can’t help but ask this able-minded woman if she was even slightly afraid about opening herself up so fully. Her answer, however surprises me: “The self is fiction, and it will be up to those who read these small details to decide whether they are true or not. Ultimately, the audience, the public, the viewers will be left with the challenge of deciding whether this portrait reveals the true me, tells the truth of who I am, or whether it paints quite a new and complex portrait of who the Kyiv art community is.”
Keeping up with all of the art events that take place in our fine capital, What’s On will also submit a piece that will be displayed alongside this exhibition. We certainly hope she likes it. But approval aside, the project allows for submissions by professionals and non-professionals alike and I have to wonder whether she is concerned at all about the quality of works that will soon be in the hands of the gallery. “I’m not a curator or a historian,” she admits. “It’s not my position to decide what’s good or bad. Neither is it my position to decide whether somebody is an artist or not. The project cannot fail, it will be interesting regardless of what happens. The final result will tell a story, and that story can only be interesting.”
Studying art and art history in Johannesburg, Chicago and New York, Candice Breitz confesses that becoming an artist was a good way to avoid reality. While her parents didn’t quite understand her artistic desires, they supported it, and taking advantage of being her own boss, she chose videography and photography as her medium. “Video is a very accessible media today. Not every babushka will understand abstract art, but most everybody has exposure to television, the internet, cinema... I am interested in speaking in a language that everybody can understand.”
Sticking to this more contemporary idea of art, I’m curious to hear what specifically this means for Breitz, where she gets her ideas from, and why she thinks our current vision of art is less concerned about seeking the truth (as it seemed to be centuries ago) and more concerned about commercial gains. “I don’t believe that there is such a thing as truth. Truth and fiction are the same things, we manufacture our own truth. What is interesting in art is that every artist defines for himself a set of rules. For me it is important to make work which is accessible.”
Spending just one more week in Kyiv, Breitz has plans that include Rodina Mat, the ancient Lavra and other such monasteries, Ukrainian villages, brushing up on her Ukrainian alphabet, and of course learning a little more about horilka. She says, “Meeting people who live in the city is the most interesting for me, being invited into their homes, trying to understand what a day looks like for them, how the city works. It often happens that my interactions with people are far more interesting than the city’s attractions, like Rodina Mat for example!”
Knowing that her past has included some very significant cities, including her current home in East Berlin, I ask her how she would compare them with our own historic metropolis. Nodding, she says, “East Berlin was so influenced by the Soviet UNI0N that it’s still easy to get good Russian or Ukrainian food there. Our skies are similar, we also have long cold winters. But one of the things that’s been interesting to discover is the humour of the Ukrainian people. People here have a very good sense of humour. They like to laugh at life and maybe that has something to do with survival.”
Having travelled and exhibited in many cities around the world (2010 alone had her in Bombay, Frankfurt, London, Zurich, New York and our own Kyiv), Breitz mentions how she doesn’t really feel at home anywhere in the world. But perhaps that’s a good thing, as she admits, “I don’t feel restricted by my South Africaness, or my Germaness. I feel free from the things which usually tie people down and I’m very open to experiments. I’m free to work anywhere in the world.” And it may be this exact freedom which makes her work and her as a person so very interesting.
Throughout EuroMaidan much has been made of Ukrainians making a stand for their rights. What exactly those rights are were never clearly defined. Ukraine ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1952. The first article of the Declaration states all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The ousted and overthrown Ukrainian government showed to the world they don’t understand the meaning of these words.
Pulling Strings Located on Hrushevskoho Street – the epicentre of EuroMaidan violence, home to battles, blazes and barricades – children’s favourite the Academic Puppet Theatre had to shut down in February. Nevertheless, it is getting ready to reopen this March with a renewed repertoire to bring some laughter back to a scene of tragedy. Operating (not manipulating) puppets is a subtle art that can make kids laugh and adults cry. What’s On meets Mykola Petrenko, art director of the Theatre, to learn more about those who pull the strings behind the show.