The Calvert Journal: This is the second Ukrainian biennial, and you have called it the School of Kyiv. Could you describe its concept?
Georg Schöllhammer/Hedwig Saxenhuber: This is the first biennial in its new manifestation. We had worked for more than a year with the Mystetski Arsenal, which hosted the first biennial, and then they decided not to be able to do it, for good reasons. That was at the end of March. We restarted the project because a lot of our international, especially Ukrainian, friends — artists, intellectual activists of all kinds — said that they really wanted a forum for encounter, a space that might be able to imagine a way out of the crisis in which Ukraine finds itself trapped a year after Maidan. We decided to do that with the help of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a Kiev-based think tank. As this biennial was during wartime it didn’t make sense to have another group show. We had to open it up to the general public, allowing spaces in which to reflect on and put forward suggestions for the present and future. We called these “schools”, deciding that they should function in the exhibition spaces on a permanent basis. But equally, we didn’t want to organise a civic forum and call it a biennial. We needed the counter-worlds, incommensurabilities and complexities of art to propose another vision: a more complicated, challenging proposition for the future. It was very important to do this on an international basis, with the help of international institutions and artists, so we could stage it as a European biennial at the core of a geopolitical debate about the futures of the wider continent, which for us includes Russia.
TCJ: You have spent more than a year on the project and have closely worked with artists in Ukraine. What areas of Ukrainian art do you hope to bring to international attention?
GS/HS: A very good young art scene has developed here in the past ten years in spite of a difficult institutional environment. These artists have not been able to display their art internationally through the typical avenues of studying at Goldsmiths, Maastricht, or the Rijksakademie. So we are working with them, commissioning them and embedding them in an international show. Some well known avant-garde figures have come from the territory that is now Ukraine, from Malevich and Bulgakov to Gogol and Louise Nevelson. But there is also a late Soviet avant-garde which goes back to the 1970s. Other eastern European countries have done a lot to re-establish these narratives — think about Július Koller — but not so much has been done about it in Ukraine. We are trying to show some seminal figures, be they from Odesa, Lviv, or Kiev. They’ve been a real inspiration for the younger generation, such as the R.E.P. Group.
Good art is always reflecting the reality it’s in, but there are different narratives to those of being trapped in crisis
Also, Kiev has an important realist painting academy. It has international students from China and the Gulf. So there is this para-art world that is receiving education from Kiev, and we thought it would be wise to confront that, given all the other debates about realism that have reappeared within the art world recently: new figurative painting being widely received on the west coast of the US and in parts of New York, to a critical politically-engaged realism that has its roots in South America. We wanted to implement a wider perspective on that, hence one of our schools had to be the School of Realism.
TCJ: What was the motivation in having international “outposts” for the School of Kyiv, such as in Vienna, Prague, Bucharest and Sofia?
We thought this should be a European biennial, so early on we found partner institutions that wanted to join in. It’s a bit similar to what had happened to the Belgrade scene during the Yugoslav wars. There is an exposure of trauma and crisis, but it has to be counter-read. Good art is always reflecting the reality it’s in, but there are different narratives to those of being trapped in crisis.
TCJ: There are 40 Russian artists and thinkers participating in the School of Kyiv. How has this relationship played out in the context of artistic and intellectual participation?
GS/HS: These days a Ukrainian and a Russian intellectual rarely engage one another in an open debate, and it’s the same with art. We tried to avoid making it into a bipolar thing, with Ukrainians just speaking to Russians and Russians speaking to Ukrainians. We tried to bring it into an arena of international discourse. Otherwise we would essentialise the conflict. It’s very important for us to keep lines of dialogue open between the conflicting parties. We see propaganda walls fortifying themselves, even in the liberal intellectual world, and we thought this biennial should be a forum for encounters to take place across these divides.
Art can enable types of knowledge to flourish that are freer and enable different perspectives
TCJ: You have described the biennial as an “open societal project”, and emphasised the diverse range of people involved.
GS/HS: We are inviting refugees to take part in our projects, as well as the citizens and students of Kiev. There is a documentary filmmaking school as part of the School of Kyiv that tries to analyse the propaganda wars and give visual evidence of a different sort from commercial media or news channels. In some ways the biennial is very much a localised art project, but it is also readable as an international project under a set of certain local conditions. Our friends at the VCRC are especially interested in seeing the political dimension of this, whether in the context of institutionalisation or of the art or educational system here. It is really trying to address other forms of teaching and encountering and learning.
TCJ: What kinds of after-effects do you hope the biennial will leave on the city and the people of Kiev?
GS/HS: The after-effects are happening already. We have asked artists — Nikita Kadan for example — to create a new display in the Museum of History. Some of the schools will be continuing after the biennial closes. In trying to establish encounters internationally between artists and intellectuals from Russia and Ukraine, we hope to leave it as a forum outside the political arena but within the arena of civil thought. We are told here — both by interns and by intellectuals — that there is a need to reconsider certain structures of education. There aren’t many self-organised ones. Art can enable types of knowledge to flourish that are freer and enable different perspectives.
TCJ: What do you want the Ukrainian art scene to look like in five or ten years?
GS/HS: I want it to continue developing as it is, but with more international prominence. The artists are good here, some of them really good, so the change I’d like to see is on an institutional and structural level. Finding more mid- and smaller-sized spaces for art, for example. The main space of the School of Kyiv is ideal — 3,500-4,000 square metres of beautiful exhibition space that can be used multifunctionally. Maybe somebody could self-run it, perhaps with some investment. A lot of international artists think, “Can I really come to this war zone, this crisis spot?” But when they have been to Kiev, they go home with a different idea of this country and this city, which has had to navigate between different cultural realms for a thousand years. They realise that this is one of Europe’s cultural capitals and that it could be a point of departure were it not trapped at a geopolitical dead end.