- Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 April 2013 01:28
The first International Biennale of Contemporary Art in the Ukraine took place 17 May-30 July 2012, writes Sajid Rizvi.
Arsenale, named after an 18th century former military compound recently converted into an art space in central Kyiv (Kiev), will open 17 May 2012 under the artistic direction of David Elliott.
The event is being organised through a collaboration of Ukraine's Ministry of Culture, the Kyiv City State Administration, the State Directory for Affairs and the Mystetskyi Arsenal, originally built as an aerospace and weapons factory, abandoned or neglected for years and then brought to greater attention as an art venue, where several events took place in 2011.
This year's biennial apparently will be the first in a series of major international exhibitions planned for the venue. No doubt the resonances of the Arsenale in Venice and Beijing's former military factories turned to art as ammunition for change will help the cause of Kyiv.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Mykhailo Kulyniak said, "Ukraine has been waiting for such a powerful cultural initiative as the first Kyiv Biennale for a long time. I believe that this innovative project will certify new benchmarks in the state cultural politics. Due to the first Kyiv Biennale, Ukraine will present its new image to the international art community – an image of the country for the 21st century."
Ukraine as a nebulous state began to appear on the east European-Caucasian map in the ninth century but underwent tumultuous events and frequent threats to its existence right through its history. The former Soviet Ukrainian Republic threw off the Russian yoke when the USSR collapsed and Ukraine declared itself independent on 24 August 1991.
Like Russia and other neighbouring states, Ukraine is both the West and the East, its history replete with epoch-making events involving the former Ottoman empire, Iran/Persia and modern Turkey, the rest of eastern and central Europe, Inner and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Ukraine continues to have relations with Russian peers that are never devoid of passion.
The organisers hope the Biennale will help stimulate Ukraine's economy, in particular tourism, and establish Kyiv/Kiev as a dynamic cultural hub.
Elliott's appointment, announced at a news conference, was expected. The pioneering director of the then Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, now Modern Art Oxford, is a seasoned selector of what is good, timely and cutting-edge.
Elliott made his mark with The Beauty of Distance. Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, the 17th Biennale of Sydney in 2010, which received record attendances. He was founding director of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and more recently the first director of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
Elliott said "the international art community’s perception of Ukraine as some kind of a post-Soviet hinterland has changed. It is therefore a great challenge for me to organise the first Ukrainian Biennale, that not only opens the unique space of Mystetskyi Arsenal to the world, but also offers a new vision of the country, its art, and its place in the world."
The inaugural exhibition is titled The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art. It's not clear how much of that title owes to input from the hosts. Ukraine has had its share of all of those happenings, in art as in politics.
The exhibition will take as its central theme a widely perceived cyclical nature of contemporary art and explore how that end product relates to lives today and continually changing perspectives of the past and future.
With Elliott at the artistic helm the event is expected to bring together creations from all over the world, including the Commonwealth of Independent States -- former Soviet Union republics and regions. That includes Ukrainian art, of which so little is known.
The CIS, formed in the twilight of the USSR, is a more potent organization than the British Commonwealth with a more proactive effort by the former master, Russia, to maintain a rapport with former possessions. It will be instructive to see how CIS art fares, with its constituents' varying approaches to art, art education, art policy and so on. Censorship remains an everyday diet, like bread and water, in much of the CIS.
The exhibition is intended to be organised around four ideas or hubs:
- The Restless Spirit looks at the way in which we derive strength from beliefs, myths and concepts of the universe that are not governed by material need;
- In the Name of Order examines how under the pretext of rationalism power attempts to dominate culture through the creation of self-serving hierarchies;
- Flesh takes the human body, its appetites, desires and limitations as its central theme;
- The Unquiet Dream focuses on nightmares and premonitions of disaster, without which we are unable to change.
Out of the numerous Biennale events worldwide, Kyiv’s Biennale at the Mystetskyi Arsenal promises to be one of the few such events so far that, like the Whitney Biennale in New York and the Tate Triennial London (though not in 2012), are organised around a permanent venue.
Arsenal Director Natalia Zabolotna said, "Mystetskyi Arsenal is an ambitious project to establish new standards in the cultural life of Ukraine, with outstanding exhibitions that will win international renown. Art has the power to inspire and build bridges, and our goal is to bring Ukraine’s artistic and cultural heritage onto the world stage."
Others involved with the programme include Olexandr Soloviov (Ukraine), curator of the special programme and Ekaterina Degot (Russia), curator of what the organisers call the Theoretical Platform.
Coinciding with the main event, Arsenale will present a parallel programme in a variety of cultural venues in Kyiv.
The Arsenal as an art venue had an auspicious start in 2011, when it was the scene of three major events, two contemporary and one to do with the historical and traditional arts. Independent: New art of the new country 1991-2011 (23 August-18 September 2011) showcased contemporary Ukrainian art. Art Kyiv contemporary art fair 24 November-4 December 2011, sub-titled 60 years of Modern and Contemporary Art, was an opportunity for artists and gallerists to hone their marketing skills, exchange ideas and be exposed to art from elsewhere. The Grand Antique Salon (9-18 December 2011) gave Ukrainians new ideas of what their neglected family heirlooms may be worth in the months or years to come.
Arsenale International Biennale of Contemporary Art. 17 May-30 July 2012. Mystetskyi Arsenal, 10 Lavrska Street, Kyiv, Ukraine.
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