Author: Pavel Lembersky
Photo by Alexei Zagdansky
PEREMOHA/victory/ukr. — a group exhibition featuring five Ukrainian women artists — opened on March 22 in the Bronx River Art Center to mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. This breathtaking show, curated with great compassion and style by Ukrainian-born New York artist and curator Irina Danilova, was transposed to BRAC almost in its entirety from WhiteBox art space in the East Village, where it originally had its month-long premiere last December. Ms. Danilova aims to present the young multidisciplinary Ukrainian artists with the intent of fostering a deeper connection between the struggles of a young European nation’s people during a tragic calamity and American audiences. The exhibition’s organizers’ declared motivations are lucid and far-reaching: to examine life-affirming themes of Courage, Love for the Land, Friendship, Strength, Freedom and Democracy evoked through the artists’ works and to honor the Ukrainian/American mutual effort in the fight against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and to help Ukraine achieve ultimate victory over the aggressor.
The show’s participants came of age in the independent Ukraine that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were just entering adulthood during the Russian occupation of Crimea and its military incursion into the Donbass. Most of the featured artists have been displaced from their native land by the current war and at present live and work in exile. All the PEREMOHA artists have become known in Ukraine for their courageous outspokenness. They are now gaining recognition and acclaim throughout Europe for their strength in confronting oppression and horrors of war.
Natalia Lisova, Arbor Amor
Photo Maria Gandish
One of the notable additions to the BRAC incarnation of PEREMOHA, which translates to “victory” in Ukrainian, was the opening-night performance of Lullaby, a work of heartbreaking beauty and poignance. In this piece, the artist Daria Koltsova (b. 1987, Kharkiv), barefoot and dressed in a traditional white “vyshivanka” embroidered shirt, sat on the Art Center’s floor for long stretches of time quietly molding stylized clay babies’ heads, their tiny mouths agape in silent agony, their skulls crowned with spine-chilling holes, while accompanied by the sound of an acapella wordless lullaby sung by a female voice. Thus, the Ms. Koltsova live Lullaby performance, for which she traveled from her exile in England, acquired the gravity of a genuine funeral rite, imbued with profound grief for the countless children killed by the aggressor since the onset of the war. A stunning video documenting the Lullaby performance, originally presented in the Ukrainian Pavilion at World Economic Forum in Davos, was on view at the PEREMOHA exhibit in WhiteBox and is to be shown again at BRAC. On the opening night, Ms. Koltsova’s live performance’s companion video piece was projected on a big screen. In the video, a hand can be observed hastily applying multiple charcoal tally marks to long horizontal lines on the wall. Each mark represents the artist’s response to the ever-growing number of children lost in the war, as well as her various experiences with the war, such as reports of artillery strikes hitting Ukrainian cities, air raids warnings, numerous civilian fatalities, and distraught phone calls from the artist’s family and friends. In effect, the piece represents a chart of the artist’s emotional reaction to the immeasurable devastation of the war until the entire screen turns black because of the sheer number of such lines. As the screen becomes unsuitable for further use of charcoal, the artist, in a signifying reversal, abandons it in favor of scratching the now black wall, which leaves white marks on it. This process then continues until the surface becomes white again and suitable for a new application of charcoal tally marks. As the piece transitions between black and white, there seems no respite or escape from the overriding negativity of the artist’s turmoil in the face of the grim realities of war.
Another Ms. Koltsova’s work titled Theory of Protection consists of the photographs of installations that the artist began creating in 2015. This piece has since evolved into an international art project turned flash mob, in that it was gradually embraced and adopted by consulates, museums, The Copenhagen Democracy Summit 2022, art galleries, and private spaces worldwide, with close to two hundred participating locations in total. It features windows taped in a variety of patterns, appropriating a practice employed to protect inhabitants of buildings from shattered glass during air raids. The windows were taped according to Ms. Koltsova’s designs at PEREMOHA the WhiteBox edition, where the piece effectively served as the signature calling card for the exhibition. These manifestations of international solidarity with a nation at war also highlight the fragile nature of democracy and seek to remind the viewers of how crucial it is to protect it from the imperialist ambitions of ruthless dictators. “It is particularly rewarding to witness art transforming itself to such a degree that it turns into something if not necessarily functional then capable of playing a bigger part than was initially envisioned,” said Ms. Koltsova about her project during a phone interview.
It is in such works as Ms. Koltsova’s Lullaby that the PEREMOHA exhibit foregrounds the plight of the most vulnerable among the collateral casualties of war: the children. Since the onset of hostilities thousands of Ukrainian children have been killed or injured by enemy fire, at the rate of five per day, while tens of thousands have been taken to Russian camps, and millions have been displaced. Natalia Lisova (b. 1980, Vynnitsa), a performance, installation and land artist, who has remained in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, seeks to address the wartime traumas of children by working with them in art camps. Such camps are often set up in towns that have been liberated or in territories cleared of mines. According to Ms. Lisova, children are the most innocent and unprotected among us, and face the greatest challenges in coping with the tragedy of human loss. They struggle the most to adapt to new living conditions, and it is more difficult for them to consciously accept the ongoing changes and limitations. “They require help getting used to new rules of conduct. While adults focus on issues of first priority, childhood traumas don’t get the required attention, and this can jeopardize the development of a well-adjusted and well-informed new generation.”
Olia Fedorova, Anger Exercises
Photo Irina Danilova
In her social and artistic practices, Ms. Lisova confronts childhood traumas head-on in art therapy workshops that include drawing, sculpture and dance as amply documented by the artist’s PEREMOHA piece titled Stress Relief Art Programs in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi for the Children Relocated by the War. The artwork is comprised of multiple photographs depicting teenage Ukrainians engaged in a variety of art-related group activities. These include creating sculptures of their favorite foods (hot-dogs, pizza, dolma, pasta), using organic materials such as leaves, branches, bark, stones, pinecones, flowers and hay. Ms. Lisova poignantly expresses a hope that such improvised snacks will remain to exist solely as art objects and that it never becomes necessary to actually consume them for survival. Ms. Lisova’s other pieces on view are drawn from her pre-war ecological performances that lean toward unobtrusive lyrical symbolism. Examples include Arbor Amor (2015), a digital photo of a performance that features the artist obscured by a tree trunk she hugs in a winter forest, with light snow falling gently on the ground between the surrounding trees. Alpha-Omega (2016) is another digital photo of a performance, capturing a lateral view of the artist, nude and caught in repose between two huge boulders as if cradled in the stone embrace of Mother Earth. Overdone (2015) is a digital photo of an installation with tomatoes and nails, depicting a sequence of events in which a nail is gradually driven deeper into a tomato by an invisible hammer until the tomato is smashed into shapeless pulp. Dichotomous dynamics of man-made vs organic are easily evident in the piece, as are the destructive implications of a collision between the contrasting entities represented thereby. The Overdone digital photo brings to mind a statement made by PEREMOHA’s curator Ms. Danilova, which partially asserts that “war is an inherently masculine conflict. While combat, both literally and symbolically, pertains to men, women by default belong to the anti-war movement.”
Maria Proshkowska’s (b. 1986, Kyiv) striking life-size photograph made in 2017 is a body art piece that has been taken to its logical and aesthetic extreme. The image features the fully nude artist, her eyes closed, lying supine inside of a transparent bag that has seemingly been abandoned in a gravel-covered ditch, where patches of grass emerge through the gravel. While the artist claims that the piece aims to represent the subject’s efforts to isolate herself and “build a barrier between herself and the world around her,” viewers aware of the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine will be quick to contextualize the work as a post-mortem representation of the artist in a body bag, associating her with untold nameless casualties of war.
Daria Koltsova, Lullaby
Photo by Irina Danilova
Ms. Proshkowska’s proactive and quietly menacing work on display is a video documentation of her performance titled Macogon (February, 2022). In this piece the solitary artist sits in a camp chair in a field near Kyiv, just sixty-two hours before the invasion, meticulously sharpening old coins embedded in a mortar using a file, thereby repurposing a kitchen utensil for possible use in hand-to-hand combat. Ms. Proshkowska comments on this transformation from the domestic space to that of the warfare, stating: “I could not have known what terrible events would unfold in Ukraine, but I felt anger, destruction, and uncertainty. I direct all my anger towards the enemy on behalf of the millions of Ukrainian women serving in the Ukrainian army, who were forced to leave their homes, volunteer, and fight for the common cause. I am proud of you all. I am you.”
The youngest artist featured in the exhibition, Olia Fedorova (b. 1994, Kharkiv), initially presented at WhiteBox her land art diptych of digital prints from her Open Air Exercise series (2021). The prints showcase the artist, dressed in white, performing yoga exercises in a dark forest with the afterglow of the sunset (or perhaps a fire) visible through the bare trees in the background. The diptych that suggests an attempt to maintain inner peace and balance in the face of the chaos and adversity closing in on her homeland is accompanied by a set of succinct directions.
In stark contrast to Ms. Fedorova’s land art pieces suffused with evocative lyricism is the forthrightness of her PEREMOHA text art work from Anger Exercises series. The piece on view reads, “Don’t Ask Me to Fight My Anger As Long As My Anger Helps Me Fight.” This loud cry for resistance written in all caps on four wide parallel strips of white paper is but one of Ms. Fedorova’s many text art pieces the artist was forced to focus her practices on instead of her habitual “interaction with the environment as a semantic space”, rendered unavailable because of the war. Reduced to living and working in Kharkiv bomb shelters, the artists had to make do with materials at hand: paper and bedsheets. Another Ms. Fedorova’s powerful text piece (not in the show) implores, in Russian, with red lettering on a crumpled white background, “Russia, Give Me Back My Youth.”
Maria Proshkowska, The Ark
Photo Andrei Lobov
“But for sure it is not just about a pure rage, not just about anger towards russians who came to eliminate us”, Ms. Fedorova declares in her paean to Ukraine on her website. “It is about love. Love for your family, friends, pets, for towns or villages, for some specific streets in them, parks or trees, or just for how nice and warm the sun shines there in early autumn. But also, it is a bigger love, something that is hard even to define or verbalize. Loving Ukraine is not only about land, people or childhood memories. It is love for the idea of Ukraine, for everything Ukraine represents and stands for. The idea of Ukraine is freedom.”
Maria Kulikovska (b. 1988, Kerch, Crimea) is a multimedia artist, architect, actionist-performer, researcher and lecturer who works with the themes of femininity, queerness, corporeality in relation to power and borders, as well as the subjects of the forced migration, exile and war. The artist’s pieces offered to the PEREMOHA viewer examine the boundaries of the tolerable. Among them are photos of sculptures made from ballistic soap – a material designed to simulate the density and properties of human tissue used in forensic investigations and ballistic testing – with the addition of blood, semen, and plant juice. These sculptures were originally exhibited at Izolyatsia Art Center in Donetsk. When that venue was captured and looted by Donetsk People’s Republic militants, a group of pro-Russian terrorists used Ms. Kulikovska’s soap sculptures of armless females for target practice. These acts of violence turned her delicate, ephemeral latter-day Venuses into objects of cancel culture avant la lettre, a dreary case of public participatory art of a most destructive and barbaric kind of collaboration.
As an extension of the same ballistic soap project, Ms. Kulikovska has created hand and foot sculptures made of similarly fortified material. These self-portrait fragments incorporate visible bullets, further emphasizing the motif of violence established in the aforementioned Overdone photograph by Ms. Lisova, in which invasive metal objects wreak similarly senseless destruction on organic matter.
However, the pièce de resistance of the show was Ms. Kulikovska’s dinner set of “non-breakable polymer, microwave and dishwasher safe” plates decorated with prints of brutally disfigured female body parts all done in red. Among these disturbing images is the belly of a pregnant woman with a bloodied fetus inside, and a smudge of a handgun juxtaposed with a pair of elongated breasts. This visceral work defiantly titled A Dinner Set for Those Who Are Watching Bloody News While Having Dinner, is indeed a show-stopper, and it may well be a challenge to go much further than Ms. Kulikovska does with this complacency-shattering piece in bringing the war in Ukraine home to the American gallery-going audiences removed from the situation geographically and emotionally.
Reflecting on the profound impact of PEREMOHA/victory/ukr. exhibition both at WhiteBox Art Space and now at BRAC made me think of Gabriel Rockhill’s insightful book-length study titled Radical History & the Politics of Art. In his volume the French-American cultural critic argues that art and politics may not actually exist as two distinct and separate entities. This idea resonates with Jacque Ranciere’s assertion that “art and politics are consubstantial,” in other words, the two share a common essence and are inextricably linked. This conclusion seems particularly spot-on when one considers PEREMOHA exhibit in its totality. The featured artists’ commitment to the cause of Ukraine’s fight for her independence speaks for itself. Fully conversant with the idioms of contemporary art, the Ukrainian artists deploy them adeptly and purposely towards political ends with an out-and-out verve and relentless abandon. Wartime art of five young Ukrainian artists is making profound life-and-death statements in a manner that is both loud and clear.
Maria Kulikovska, Bullet
Another example of art engaging with the struggle in Ukraine in a visceral way is the work of Ukrainian-born, New York street photographer Alexei Zagdansky (b. 1982, Kyiv, in the US since age ten). By capturing the American perspective on the conflict through his lens, Mr. Zagdansky presents a unique viewpoint that reflects both his cultural background and his experiences in the United States. Since the first day of war Mr. Zagdansky has been photographing multiple NYC rallies and demonstrations in support of Ukraine. Having taken part in thirty of such public displays of American solidarity with Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russian aggression, Mr. Zagdansky has documented these events and created a video slide show comprised of 170 photographs selected from the many hundreds that he has taken around the city beginning on the first day of the war on February 24, 2022 and continuing to the present date. It was a particularly stirring experience to recognize familiar streets, squares, and parks revitalized and transformed by multitudes carrying the Ukrainian national blue and yellow flags and banners of various shapes and sizes. Through Mr. Zagdansky’s lens, New York City has attained a sense of sweeping grandeur reminiscent of a Christo project, with the entire city enveloped in blue and yellow, interspersed with quite a few star-spangled patches, all serving one unambiguous purpose: to help stop Russian aggression in Ukraine.
A toddler in a “vyshivanka” shirt, the poster that reads “Russia Is A Terrorist State” in her tiny hands; a stern-looking young woman, the Ukrainian Trident coat of arms gracing her baseball hat and whose sign says, “Why Does Russia Continue to Rape, Torture and Kill our Families?; a lady with a blue-and-yellow wreath on her head dressed from head to toe in black, pressing a red broken heart to her chest in front of the New York Russian Consulate — the images and slogans captured by Mr. Zagdansky stay with the viewer. Think a variety of public participatory street and text art in their own right: “Stop Putin!”… “Stop the Genocide!”… “Release Ukrainian Prisoners!”… “Every Russian is Guilty”… “Ukraine Needs Your Support”… “I Need Ammo, Not a Ride”… “Save Ukraine, Stop Putler”… “Russian Soldiers Rape Children”… “Save Mariupol”… “RuZZian, Burn in Hell!”… “Say it with Me: Genocide”… “Putin, Hands Off Ukraine”… “Full Embargo of Russia”… “Stand with Ukraine!”… “Russia is a Terrorist State”… “No War”… “TERRORUSSIA MH17”… “My State is Killing People: Stop the War”… “Arm Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers: Stop the War”… “F*ck Putin”… “Love Wins, Ukraine Prevails”… “Thank You USA”… “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”
You can say that again. And again. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! The long-standing battle cry of the Armed Forces of Ukraine resonates on both sides of the Atlantic.
Curator: IRINA DANILOVA
OLIA FEDOROVA, DARIA KOLTSOVA, MARIA KULIKOVSKA, NATALIA LISOVA, MARIA PROSHKOWSKA Photo documentation of New York City rallies by ALEXEI ZAGDANSKY
March 22 — April 29, 2023
Gallery Hours: Tue — Fri 2:30-6pm; Sat 12-5pm
Bronx River Art Center, 1087 East Tremont Ave., Bronx, NY