KATERYNA FILYUK SOCIAL CONTRACT—HOW UKRAINIAN SOCIETY COMES TO TERMS WITH ITS DUBIOUS PAST
Leninfall, besieged statues, rabid processes of de-communisation, anti-terrorist operations in Donbass, the hell of Maidan, nationalist movements—Ukraine has had it all. Kateryna Filyuk explores the emergence of a different kind of negotiation between the public space, society, the past, and contemporary art.
DOOMED STATUES, OR HOW TO REJECT YOUR OWN PAST
In his famous ongoing series of photographs On Vacation Bulgarian artist Luchezar Boyadjiev digitally erases riders from innumerable equestrian monuments scattered all over the world, ironically summoning “Don’t blame the animal for whatever happens, has happened or will happen in the public space!” One of the depicted riders-on-vacation is the equestrian statue of Red Army Commander Nikolay Shchors, a majestic monument that overlooks Kiev’s Shevchenko Boulevard. Similarly to thousands of other statues around Ukraine, the landmark falls under the laws of decommunisation, adopted by the Parliament on April 9th, 2015, and, ever since its legalisation, the witch-hunt has been fully embraced and put in practice by Ukrainian bureaucrats and activists. At first, with the wiping out of Lenin’s monuments, the prosecuting pursuit soon touched upon everything that contained Soviet symbols and could be supposedly classified as Communist propaganda. Cities, villages, and streets received new names. One such example is as Dnipropetrovsk, one of the most populated cities in Eastern Ukraine, which was renamed into Dnipro. The second part of the compound word was a reference to Grigory Petrovsky, the leader of the Bolshevik and Soviet Communist Party, who was one of the masterminds behind the Holodomor artificial famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. During the last two years 1012 localities were renamed altogether. Whilst authorities reported the successful accomplishment of repeated waves of decommunisation, the aforementioned Shchors has (so far) remained untouched. Despite the few spontaneous attempts to dismantle it, comrade Shchors, almost miraculously, is still there—and, at the same time, he is not. For a Soviet hero in his own right, born into a family of kulaks, appointed commander while suppressing the Ukrainian fight for independence, and, ultimately, dying in battle at 24 for the rebellious deed of the October Revolution, Shchors should have been wiped off the face of Earth immediately by the law of decommunisation.
How was it possible, though, for commander Shchors to survive? Whereas Boyadjiev suggested sending the rider on vacation, Ukrainian authorities decided to camouflage the whole thing by wrapping it up with enormous bicolour—blue and yellow—fabric, indeed resembling the national Ukrainian flag. As the turn of events follows, the cover-up was done in order to eliminate the allegedly displeasing monuments during the Independence Day celebration (!), while, at the same time, to decorate the city with a much more cherished and pride-inducing national symbol. Four months after the Independence Day, the blue and yellow semi-transparent cube, with the easily recognisable equestrian silhouette inside of it, is still there. Following this symbolic cloak of dissimulation, the attempts at decommunisation have not been necessarily brought to an end, yet they have been partially silenced. Whereas the bridge toward the past cannot seem to be possibly crossed by all sides, the walls that surround comrade Shchors are yet another ineffectual, temporal, and highly compromising solution to a much more intricate issue.
As a matter of fact, the reasons as to why comrade Shchors hasn’t been removed yet are widespread and, to a certain degree, still uncertain—a more practical explanation would be that the statue is considerable in size and located on a very busy street, so its demolition would surely cause an unwanted level of distress for the already quite hectic Kievan drivers. Concomitantly, the local art community has repeatedly pleaded for the unequivocal artistic value of the monument. By viewing it as a piece of art, the statue’s supporters claim that the symbolic, reminiscent bridge to Communism is broken, thus, purging the monument from all its ideological connotations of the recent past. If comrade Shchors was not to overlook Shevchenko boulevard any more, the reasoning put forward is that the statue should, instead, be promptly removed, preserved, and valued somewhere else, yet not brutally destroyed. From this particular perspective, the decommunisation decree becomes an invasive and unwarranted practice that is rejected by the more progressive side of society, primarily interested in making peace with their own past, in building bridges and not erecting walls.
Yet, just a few hundreds meters away from Shchors who still stands trapped in oblivion and dispute, equally impressive historical points unravel on the axes of Shevchenko Boulevard. Walking along the avenue, one can notice the place where Lenin used to stand, whose statue was toppled down on December 8th, 2013 during the Euromaidan protests. The statue’s destruction was widely filmed, shared, and commented upon via social media platforms, later triggering the symbolic Leninfall around the country. In what seemed to be a paradoxical consumerist positioning vis-à-vis art and, at the same time, a fetishisation of the communist past, pieces of the statue were set aside for sale online: Lenin’s palm was estimated at 1000 hryvnia (36€), a part of his hand: 750 hryvnia (27€), while the breast and legs were sold, in bulk: 50 hryvnia per kilo (2€). Over the past years, photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sebastien Gobert have unsuccessfully been trying to re-locate Lenin’s torso, which seems to have vanished right after the demolition, as part of their After Lenin research project. This is another side of decommunisation, as many monuments removed from public space had disappeared into thin air, either being sold for (s)crap or settling in the private collection of Ukrainian oligarchs who secretly fetishise doomed Communist art.
The symbolic impact of an empty Lenin pedestal is hard to overstate. Despite the numerous proposals coming from NGOs, individual artists, and representatives of certain political parties, this space has remained vacant, and the lack of governmental action represents an abashment, ultimately epitomising a nation that has not found its own way yet. The problematic dynamics of decommunising public spaces, as well as the brutality with which the monuments are typically liquidated, have undoubtedly led to an exponential growth of frustration within society. It once again signals that decommunisation is nothing less but a highly politicised undertaking of the current government, a hegemonic directive that dictates the erasure of the past by using the exact same methods the communists had utilised in order to remove the traces of the previous political order nearly a hundred years ago. Ultimately, in the Crimean context, it represents an ostentatious anti-Russian manifestation, as toward the even farther East everything Soviet-related flourishes and is venerated.
ART INTERVENTIONS: BRIDGE TOWARD THE PAST?
In an attempt to acknowledge the uncertainty of the moment, in conjunction with using the public space as a means of further socio-political reflection, a temporary artistic intervention Inhabiting Shadows by Mexican artist Cynthia Gutierrez was set at the former site of Lenin’s monument in July, 2016. Being selected via an open call announced by IZOLYATSIA* (Platform for Cultural Initiatives, a non-profit institution initially established in Donetsk and had been relocated to a shipyard in Kyiv because their territory was seized by the militia of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”) the project focused on the temporariness of the suggested construction, but also on the need to face the shadows of the past in order to move forward. Inhabiting Shadows allowed beholders to transit up the stairs, step on the pedestal and occupy the empty space for a few moments of introspection. The intervention provided passers-by with the chance to reflect upon the past, to temporarily substitute its ghost, to actively inhabit its dark shadows, and, for the vacant space itself, to become personalised and humanised. Through these emotions that guide Ukrainians toward reconciling with their own past, citizens may now head toward the light promised by brighter horizons. Despite being a temporary installation (which will eventually have Lenin’s fate as well), Inhabiting Shadows integrated the remains of an older monument, without focusing on the visible structure, but preeminently on the people transitioning it and coming to peace with their life-histories. It was an intervention in perpetual construction, where everyone who crossed it had the chance to become a part of an identity that changes through time, along with the people themselves.
Three months later another temporary installation was established on the very same spot: Endless Celebration by Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi, which took the form of 3 meters high blinking neon shadow-figures of Lenin, pop singer Madonna, and Virgin Mary. Appropriating a medium commonly used in advertising, Bakhshi highlights the fact that any public sculpture can be used to advertise or even impose certain values, ideas, and principles. In this particular case, by making use of the metaphor of a traffic light, he integrates Lenin’s head in a bullet (red), Madonna’s figure in a star (yellow), and Virgin Mary’s face in a circle (green), ultimately, commenting upon the recent historical events in Ukraine. The opening date intentionally coincided with the celebration of the Great October Revolution which, since not so long ago, has been doomed to oblivion in contemporary Ukraine. The commemoration of certain historical events, as well as common flower-laying ceremonies, are direct instruments of propaganda. In this respect, the inauguration of Endless Celebration represents an act of non-celebration, the liberation from the burden of Soviet propaganda and attempts to desacralise the ideologically imbued site once again. Rather contradictorily, the atemporality of Bakhshi’s celebration is eventually eroded by its very own perpetual nature: through over-repetitions, rituals lose their power, and, in consequence, become non-celebratory, useless, and forgotten.
In a situation where Ukrainians still linger upon the Soviet past, while, at the same time, increasingly seem to rely upon the European Union and its values, the acknowledgement of the possible options seems essential in order to make the right choice. Therefore, the artist doesn’t interfere; rather, he tries to visualise things that are already present in the reality of the social world. In the case of Bakhshi’s intervention, a questionnaire is placed next to the temporary installation so that urban residents have the opportunity to express their opinion about the current installation, but also to propose an alternative for a future monument. This poses another relevant question: who has the authority to decide the fate of an old monument and the birth of a new one? Finally, after the Euromaidan, a hopeful desire toward public discussion has been steadily building, instead of wordlessly accepting the government’s decisions. Even though the Ukrainian society is far from unity at the moment, the increasing (yet still modest) participatory reactions may finally lead us somewhere.
SOCIAL CONTRACT: A BRIDGE TOWARD THE FUTURE?
Both installations at the former site of the Lenin monument were a part of a bigger project entitled Social Contract, which aimed to create an opportune space for discussion concerning the functionality and prospect of commemorative objects in the public space. To reach a consensus or at least to draft the way to bridging divisions, the stakeholders (namely, the art community, society at large, and authorities) have to come together and actually start a conversation. So far, we are quite far away from such progress, mainly because each group seems to be considerably self-enclosed and unmotivated to interact with the other.
Social Contract, borrowing its name from political philosophy and appealing to the idea that the state is a product of the individuals’ consents, intends to provide a platform for discussion by introducing a series of temporary installations. The movement bears in mind the idea that through open discussions, agreements may be reached on any matters (commemorative objects in the public space included). After all, neither Shchors’ or Lenin’s monuments, nor Gutierrez’s or Bakhshi’s artistic interventions do not have purely decorative purposes; transcending mere aesthetics, they have the capacity to enable and signify the collective memory of a nation, denomination or community. Therefore, any intention to manipulate the form, content, or message of commemorative objects inevitably prompts to the distortion and radical alteration of the past. The Ukrainian government consciously or not aspires to build a new nation by eradicating art from the public space, being under the illusion that by physically removing the traces of the Soviet past from the public domain, they will also eliminate the deeply-ingrained Soviet mentality and block over 70 years or so of irreconcilable memories.
It is pretty clear that, in the ongoing monumental battle that unfolds in Ukraine, the political connotation of landmarks outdoes and fights off any artistic merit. It goes without saying that Ukraine has a very complex memory landscape and somehow, at this particular moment, the nation-state is being forced by various reasons and events to deal with these haunting spectres of the past. One shall not forget that, historically, commemorative objects were used to cultivate or manipulate the memories regarding a specific past and largely served as a propagandistic tool of political expression, especially as a great deal of historical figures were perceived as heroes by some, and as traitors by others. The most eloquent example is the conflicting image of the nationalist movement leader, Stepan Bandera. If Western Ukraine celebrates him as a strong advocate for the Ukrainian independence, the East condemns him for cooperating with Nazi Germany, for killing his Ukrainian blood brothers, as well as for the ethnic cleansing in the region. In 2010, Bandera was awarded the posthumous Hero of Ukraine title. Rather understandably, the act has immediately been condemned by Polish and Jewish organisations, as well as the European Parliament and war veterans. Eventually, the award was officially revoked in 2011. Under these conditions, the manipulative potential of any public monument that comes to occupy the vacant place remains active (and, at high potentialities, as well), so could be used by different political parties to fight for hegemony and to strengthen particular values.
What I find most regrettable up to this day is that the retrospective viewpoint has prevailed over the prospective one. With Ukrainian authorities being primarily occupied with erasing the past instead of constructing prospects for the future, the governmental discussions over the meaning, design, or purpose of the new monuments—regardless of their urgency—are very difficult to be ignited. History shows that regular Ukrainians are usually much faster in taking matters into their own hands than their government. In the hell of Maidan, they soon learned how to self-organise and fundraise; since then, NGOs, initiative groups, and other adjacent movements have been erecting monuments to pay tribute to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes—or, to the people who were killed during the Euromaidan clashes in the fall and winter of 2013-2014—, and war casualties—or, the soldiers of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donbass. This process, despite being orientated toward the future and that created new heroes by justifying certain narratives related to nation-building, remains very biased. As a matter of fact, there is no legitimate artistic tradition that could represent the post-Soviet, Ukrainian identity. The socialist-realist canon needs to be abandoned (for obvious reasons), and, because it has ruled for over 70 years, it effectively blocked both Modernist traditions and contemporary art movements that could have rejuvenated the local scene. Due to this mixture of artistic and political factors, the good intentions of paying tribute to our beloved ones result in extremely bizarre, tasteless monuments with zero aesthetic value. The clash between the politico-ideological meaning of each newly constructed monument and the emotional element will always prevail in the public discourse, thus, leaving the questioning of artistic quality an unforgivable offence and betrayal to the nation and its heroes. In these conditions, critique becomes absolutely unacceptable.
THE MONUMENT OF HOPE
Regardless of their beneficial or detrimental outcome, three equally powerful tendencies can be found to govern the public space: first of all, weak governmental attempts to induce total amnesia by removing any traces of the Soviet past; second, the highly symbolic yet ambiguous empty pedestal that epitomises the frozen and forever prone to postponement, highly-bureaucratic decision-making of the Ukrainian government, as well as the indecisiveness of the public sphere; finally, a people’s monument that commemorates new heroes, yet bears problematic artistic merits. In this intricate entanglement, no definite decision is yet to be made, no new marble idols to be built on a square. For these reasons, the process itself becomes of great interest, as reaching a consensus may seem indeed problematic. Nevertheless, looking on the bright side, decommunisation has had its own advantageous consequences, one of which being its ability to open up dialogue opportunities by bringing together diverse social groups—regular citizens, authorities, as well as artists and experts—that have re-constructed the conditions for various scenarios. In their hopeful attempt to find a viable solution, this varied aggregation of input may reveal an otherwise unthinkable solidarity between all stakeholders involved in the matter. More than ever, artists are provided a rare opportunity to actually get involved in socio-political change and utilise their ideas for the good of the society.
Looking prospectively, there might be a remote chance to start questioning critically the very existence of monuments in the public space, as they have arguably become obsolete in the 21st century, making way for other forms of commemoration. The Holodomor (Famine-Genocide in Ukraine) memorial ceremony, which takes place every year on the fourth Saturday of November, represents a powerful instance of how monuments of the future could look like. By lightening a candle at their windows, millions of Ukrainians from all over the world participate in the commemoration of the man-made famine victims that took place between 1932-1933. Despite that the Holodomor Remembrance Day has a memorial complex erected in Kiev in 2008, the simple gesture of lightening a candle becomes a much more powerful tool of unification for an otherwise disassociated nation. In sketching an alternative vision of monuments, community-orientated rituals seem to have an enhanced capacity of potentiating people’s longings. In an age when bringing together a nation seems increasingly unachievable, the sense of belonging—and its subsequent hope nourished by such celebratory moments—becomes essential and necessary.