A conversation with Andrea Lissoni, Giulia Colletti and artist Nikita Kadan
The following text is an edited excerpt from the live conversation with Andrea Lissoni, Artistic Director at Haus der Kunst, Giulia Colletti, Curator of Public Programs and Digital Sphere at Castellodi Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, and artist Nikita Kadan taking place last April 10 in the frame of A Letter from the Front, a program of filmic works and moving images by contemporary artists from Ukraine originally commissioned and produced by Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and currently touring internationally.
Andrea Lissoni I’m delighted to host a conversation with artist Nikita Kadan and Giulia Colletti, curator at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. We are going to talk about A Letter from the Front, a program of filmic works and moving images by contemporary artists from Ukraine, commissioned and produced by Castello di Rivoli in February 2022, subsequently presented at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and currently on view at Haus der Kunst in Munich until April 18. As an institution, we wanted to ask what it means in this moment to cooperate in support of Ukraine. I am extremely grateful to my colleagues Luisa Seipp and Emma Enderby. We started collaborating with Castello di Rivoli, and in less than four days we launched the program, opening the exhibition space and enabling audiences to encounter this meaningful and dramatically compelling selection of works. It is now my great pleasure to introduce Nikita Kadan and Giulia Colletti. I would like to ask to them where the program came from. How did you launch this project in such a short time, just a few days after the terrifying and devastating invasion of Ukraine?
Giulia Colletti Thank you, Andrea, for hosting Nikita and me. I would also like to thank your great team, who supported us over these weeks, and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Nikita for inviting me to co-curate A Letter from the Front. Their friendship dates back to 2015, when he presented the installation The Shelter in the frame of the14th Istanbul Biennial 2015 titled SALT. Following the invasion of Ukraine in February, we took the cue from that piece to engage in a broader conversation with Nikita, who was sheltering in the basement of Voloshyn Gallery in Kyiv at the time. Our discussions resulted in this program, which reflects various aspects of Ukrainian reality while opening up a multivocal experience of this part of the world. The featured moving images and filmic works were produced way before the latest invasion: the war has been going on since spring 2014. Ukrainian artists who are participating in the project were trapped in the cities under siege or had managed to take refuge in the border areas or in neighboring countries. Some of them were unable to recover their hard drives before leaving their homes and studios, and therefore A Letter from the Front also deals with the ways in which artworks are saved in digital format on servers, clouds, and web platforms. Nikita managed to pull together a consistent and cohesive program while remaining in Kyiv. It seems to me that this project primarily speaks of the intense relationship between artists in troubled times.
Nikita Kadan Although I’m here as curator of A Letter from the Front, I consider myself primarily an artist. It’s my only practice in professional terms and in terms of life choice. But the generation that emerged on the Ukrainian art scene in the mid-2000s lacked both a curatorial and institutional approach. We are used to organizing or representing ourselves. When we’re invited by Western institutions, they seem to have a more structured approach. We find ourselves in a regime of unequal partnership, which we try to make equal by using alternative skills from our side. And the so-called curating is based on our local networks and how Ukrainian art communities work. I’ve worked at various levels of collaboration with the artists. Some of them create their own project spaces, where they exhibit the works of other artists; others feature fellow artists in their films. In the film Lucid Skin, 2019, AntiGonna, for example, features many artists fromf the Ukrainian art scene, including me. Alina Kleytman appears in the guise of a dancing girl in a club. Yaroslav Futymsky plays the villain, who attacks my character. His works Flag is Burning, 2019, and Second Attempt, 2019, are in turn featured in the program. These artists are used to living, working together, and supporting each other. I’m fond of these contacts, which I’ve been establishing for many years. A Letter from the Front speaks about our community network. When I was asked to choose a series of artworks from Ukraine, I already had a few in mind, since I’m aware of those that are relevant to what we’re currently experiencing. However, a few of these artists fled the country without taking their hard drives or laptops with them. As Giulia said, lots of the works only existed online, maybe in a raw quality. Thus, the reality of the war influenced the program a lot, since the choices were made in a state of urgency, which operated even in the most basic technical sense. And this is a form of representation in itself.
G.C. Yes, I fully agree with you, Nikita. While we were drafting the program and discussing how to present the selection of works, we had a willingness to defend “poor” images and sounds. Rather than correcting colors or equalizing audio, our shared intention was to reflect the reality you were coping with. This is also true in terms of accidental gaps in language. A few institutions with which we later collaborated, such as Haus der Kunst, felt that subtitles would allow the audience to delve into the issues, while others preferred not to have them. It’s a matter of bonding with communities, which is connected to what you were mentioning before. Despite everything, you strive for a sense of belonging, even in the small group show TpИBoΓa that you recently arranged at Voloshyn gallery. The show also includes contemporary works by artists from your network, such as Lesia Khomenko, Mykola Ridnyi, and Oleksiy Sai, who are featured in A Letter from the Front. In a previous interview, you said that this exhibition is a way of holding onto something peace-related in your life ‒ to culture as something that you can embrace.
N.K. It is. But the title of the show also carries subtle meanings. On the one hand, TpИBoΓa stands for “civil defense siren”; on the other, it refers to a feeling of deep anxiety. The show feeds into the situation of urgency we’re living in, where we believe we make certain choices, whereas in fact choices are falling on us. For three days after February 24, I stayed in my apartment. I was in a weird state of mind. I convinced myself the war wouldn’t last long so I should sleep most of the time to get through it. I was half asleep, binge-watching the movies of Ingmar Bergman. I got this idea that the war would last for just over a month and then it would stop. But then my friends and my ex-wife forced me to wake up; they were sending messages such as “You must find a shelter. You can’t stay in your apartment. It’s too dangerous!” They were persistent. I didn’t know how to hide from them, just as I didn’t know where to go to hide from the bombs. Eventually, my friends Lesya Khomenko and Olexiy Sai invited me to join them in Voloshyn Gallery, which had been turned into a bomb shelter. I thought “OK, this is a nice place. I’m among friends.” The gallery is a space where we exhibited several times and where I used to work. They had some wine, some books, and art. We could spend time in a fairly normal way. However, in the following days, Lesya and Oleksiy, decided to leave with their children, as the situation was getting worse. I then stayed there with the gallery assistant, her sister and her sister’s partner. We survived, trying to get some hot food, and focusing on a sort of daily routine, such as washing up… At some point, in the gallery storage I found some interesting pieces, including – as you were saying – the early- and mid-20th-century works of David Burliuk, a Ukrainian artist and “father of Russian futurist paintings; works from the 1970s by Constantin-Vadim Ignatov, Kyiv-based Soviet non-conformist; works by Oleg Golosiy, the key figure of Ukrainian postmodern painting of 1980–90s. Thus, I decided to arrange a small group show next to my mattress, which was now surrounded by majestic artworks. You know, when you can’t either go out or influence the situation, you need to use your spare time to fight the anxiety and the fear.
G.C. In a conversation you had a few weeks ago with Carolyn, you said that your mental health has improved a lot since the invasion and is better than it has been for two years. It seems counterintuitive, but in fact you managed to arrange the show, and to find space in the gallery for a small studio in which to keep drawing as well. Prior to departing for Venice, where you’re currently situated, you were even considering moving to Ivano-Frankivsk and then to the Carpathians to work on a housing project for displaced artists. To me, these factors echo the interdependence of fear and hope, which strongly resonates in your works.
N.K. In late January and early February, I was in terrible condition in terms of mental health. I was suffering from a terrible depression. Following February 24 – once I overcame the “sleep-walking” mode I was talking about – I got a very strong impulse to survive. I was not the only one in Ukraine who felt it. Sometimes we deal with stress hormones and mental health in a paradoxical way. In those days I was deeply focused on the show; I then also made lots of interviews with Western media. I made it clear that this war is a common struggle, since addressing Ukraine isn’t a philanthropic deed. It is in fact a Western duty. My statements sound controversial to Western audiences because there’s a contradiction between my message and their understanding of their own interests. Ukrainian art can create moral uneasiness, and so I kept on working, drawing, releasing interviews in a sort of hyperactive state. Then we came up with A Letter from the Front, which is now touring all over Europe, as well as the proposal to establish the housing project with and for other artists. The villages in the Carpathians look very special: the houses are far from each other. We could probably share a pretty big house. The area where I live in Kyiv has been bombed; there was a lot of destruction. And the neighborhood where my studio is located is one of the most dangerous in the city. Most likely I will move to the Carpathians at my return to Ukraine. I am currently in Venice because the Urkrainian Ministry of Culture has authorized me to leave the country for a few weeks – I guess they understand that my presence here is opportune for Ukrainian cultural diplomacy. I’m going to install my work in the frame of a Ukrainian show in Scuola Grande della Misericordia, which will open on April 21 and then go to Brussels, where a show on Ukrainian art will open soon. Once my temporary permit expires, I’ll fully focus on the residency program in the Carpathian Mountains, which I have the feeling will be a lasting communal project.
G.C. I would like to go back to your drawings. One of your latest series is inspired by so-called Soviet Modernism. As you stated in a publication of yours, ‘SovMod’ refers to the Soviet architecture of the 1960–80s that’s being brutally destroyed or reconstructed for commercial purposes in today’s Ukraine. Those who participate in the SovMod movement treat this architecture as if it represented a dead modernity, in a rather historicist way. On a few occasions, you noticed how such an encounter between aesthetics and politics contains something paradoxical. For me, the SovMod you described strongly resonates with the subject of the war, with the monuments in Ukraine, which you’ve often investigated. And this recently resurfaced when the Russian army, which was supposed to “protect” the Soviet legacy destroyed the WWII monument in Kremenets, and Ukrainians protected the monument to painter Ilva Repin in front of the National Museum Kyiv Art Gallery – which in the past was the Kiev National Museum of Russian Art – from iconoclasm.
N.K. Yes, your considerations reflect the complex issues at stake. I’ve been dealing with the paradoxes of the politics of memory since 2004. I pictured modernist skulls by Picasso right after 2015, following the Maidan protests, when President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office in 2014. The destruction of Soviet monuments and statues gained particular momentum after the destruction of the Kyiv Lenin statue on December 8, 2013. The memory of the Soviet era was erased. I understand this – millions of Ukrainians were either killed or repressed during the Soviet era, which had colonial aspects. To be clear, it’s not my intention to describe the situation through a post-socialist lens, since it’s more complicated than that. I feel though, that we could use decolonial optics here to consider the universalist aspect of the communist project. The paradox stands in the use of the notion of communism. On the one hand, Putin sounds anti-communist himself. His ideology is essentially anti-revolutionary, since he uses certain aspects of the Soviet legacy as well as some of the Stalinist or post-Cold War rhetoric to feed his ideology. On the other hand, Ukrainian authors and artists from the 1960–80s were producing Soviet art and architecture, which was “protected” and supported by the State. This is the case of dissident artist and human rights activist Alla Horska, whose monumental works are in the Museum of Antifascist Resistance in Krasnodon, but who was found murdered under mysterious circumstances in her father-in-law Vasyl Symonenko’s apartment in Vasilkiv, Kyiv. It’s believed that Alla and Vasyl were targeted by the KGB for publishing evidence of mass executions in Bykivnia Forest. But there’s also the case of artist, architect, composer, and critic Florian Yuriev, whose family was oppressed by Stalinism. He made anti-Stalinist and anti-Soviet works throughout the 1960–80s, but he didn’t exhibit them in public. Nonetheless, he was a prominent Soviet architect, who created the Ufo Building, a symbolic monument to Soviet Modernism. These figures were “enemies” of the Soviet system but also somehow part of it. Now their practices fall into what’s called “Soviet Modernism,” but in the Soviet Union, modernism never had a positive connotation. It had rather a pejorative political meaning. In fact, I found plenty of Soviet anti-modernist propaganda books against Western modernism. In particular, they used Picasso’s paintings of skulls as a symbol of modernist ugliness and anti-humanism. I like to think of the skulls as like fetishes, protecting these modernist buildings from destruction. However, while in the past decade the buildings were ruined by Ukrainian State or private developers, now they’re ruined by Russian missiles.
On the night of the Ukrainian invasion, Putin made a sort of historical lecture on Russian TV, stating that Russia should protect the Soviet heritage as well as the WWI commemoration monuments on Ukrainian territory. But in a schizophrenic act of erasing, the Russian army is destroying the same heritage it was supposed to protect. On the other hand, there are many Ukrainians who, despite the campaigns to boycott Russian culture, are in fact preserving their legacy. I have rather a moderate position: I’m for boycotting any collaboration with Russian-state-run institutions and Russian corporate money. Big private art centers in Moscow or San Petersburg are financed from the same the pockets as Putin’s war machines are. I’m calling for a boycott of Russian state institutions and corporate money, but not Russian culture in itself. I fully support Ukrainians who are currently protecting Russian culture from the Russian army and State.
A.L. Thank you for such a strong statement, Nikita. It reverberates your decision to reject the invitation to participate in the exhibition Diversity United, which opened at the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in 2021, before touring to Moscow and Paris. You refused because it was organized under the patronage of the three presidents Emmanuel Macron, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Vladimir Putin. Your decision resonates strongly in this very moment here in Germany. In fact, the very same group of businessman behind that operation are involved in the unethical operation of Kunsthalle Berlin, at former airport in Berlin. A group of art world figures spoke out against the establishing of the art center and explicitly the cultural consultant Walter Smerling, alarmed as they were by his unethical policy with funding. Your gesture as much as the gesture of those figures says a lot about what an artist can do. What does it mean to be an artist today? Well, it also seems to mean having the right to say no. I would like to ask you something completely different yet connected to such an issue. You used quite often the word ‘protection’ in our conversation. There is a sentence staying with me from AntiGonna’s film Lucid Skin with you as a main character, «I would like to make my borders permeable, to lend its protection to the others. » This quote stayed with me because of the context where is stated, which is the ecstatic stage of the dance floor. Why did you write it? And what did you mean by this? I keep on quoting, «surrendering defenses and lending them over […] if you lose something at one place, it does not mean it appears in another one. » What relationship exists between protection and bodies?
I would like to ask something completely different yet connected to this issue. You quite often use the word “protection” in our conversations. A sentence from AntiGonna’s film Lucid Skin with you as a protagonist sticks with me: “I would like to make my borders permeable, to lend their protection to others.” This quote stayed with me because of the context in which it was stated, which is the ecstatic stage of the dance floor. I’d like to ask you, why did you write this? And what did you mean by it?
N.K. I wrote this script in a rather poetic way; there were lots of things behind it. It deals with a feeling of guilt, with privileged position, and with the understanding that despite the fact that you’re in a better position than others, you don’t deserve more than they do. Somehow, it’s also related to the survivor syndrome I’m currently experiencing while in Venice. I wrote these few poetic fragments, and artist AntiGonna built their scenario around them, bringing some stories from their life into it. The result was the scene in a nightclub, where you’re giving your own skin away, trying to allow the other to overcome your protective borders. It could also be interpreted like a body, in which some organs are protected and some exposed, such as the breasts, the testicles, or the eyeballs. They’re vulnerable, fragile, less protected. This body is Europe, and Ukraine is an overexposed part of it, very fragile and unprotected in a situation of external attack.
A.L. The body is at the core of another film featured in the program, which is Yarema Malashchuk’s & Roman Himey’s Dedicated to the Youth of the World II, 2019. It is a journey into an episode of rave culture, but it’s split in two. I felt a strong sensation in that second part when the youth leave the club. It is a kind of collective body stuck in a suspended time of waiting. It’s a kind of terrorizing, a condition that puts you in an uncomfortable situation – which is exactly what I felt you were describing about bodies and protection in the state of separation.
N.K. There are inner cues interlinking the films featured in A Letter from the Front. This is the case with Lucid Skin and Dedicated to the Youth of the World II, which both deal with clubbing. Following the outbreak of the war, there was a strong development of the Kiev techno scene. It was a reaction of society, a statement of “We don’t want to be in a situation when we’re only the victims. We want something more. We’ll defend our right to have a life.” Such a form of hypersensitivity is mirrored in Katya Libkind’s film Where Are Your Big Ears Dear Dead Grandma?, 2021, which reconstructs a nonexistent conversation on her dead grandmother’s birthday, but also in Alina Kleytman’s Responsibility, 2017, where the artist attempt to overcome her traumas by establishing an intimate poetics with the viewer.. The sense of fragility is also found in Yaroslav Futymsky’s Flag is Burning, 2019, and Second Attempt, 2019. As anarchist activist, in his practice he praises the escapism as a matter of struggle yet he is currently supporting Ukrainian cause by cooking for refugees in Lviv. He is now fully engaged in mundane commitments for people who lost their home, supporting with very basic need. Thus, the films explore both the mundane and the catastrophic, manifesting the state of collapse as well as forms of self-recovery.
A.L. This is a question we were often asked during the past few weeks, “Why are these works dated to ten, five, four years ago?” As an institution, we answer that this is an incredible opportunity to check the symptoms, and to acknowledge the intimate territorial representation, the landscape that the artists have been depicting, how important it is to be engaged in witnessing through the work and being aware. Our impression from the selected filmic works is that there’s such a sense of trembling; you can perceive the anticipation of something that may happen – and actually is happening. This aims to be an acknowledgement, and let’s say a sort of inspiration, for all those who don’t necessarily expect to be creators but are making communities, which is definitely what you made with A Letter from the Front in collaboration with Giulia.
G.C. I would like to pick up from Nikita’s considerations on bodily exposure and vulnerability to ask a last question. While we’re considering Europe as a corpse with limbs, I cannot help but think about how marginal areas are the ones most affected by traumatic events, but which will nevertheless eventually necrotize the torso. Thus, for me, this notion of marginality is somehow related to the realm of the catastrophe. In A Letter from the Front, this sphere recurs quite often. While expanding on her work Switch on Red, 2016, Lada Nakonechna suggests that we “place ourselves inside the catastrophe [instead of outside] and to think about finding ways to speak about it from the position of being within.” How do you deal with the notion of the catastrophe?
N.K. With the selected films, I wanted to touch upon different contexts of Ukrainian life. I guess in every war there’s always some grain of catastrophe growing inside, and these films unveil the seeds of this tribulation. In fact, the entity of the catastrophe is pretty ambiguous. On the one hand, it attacks you when you don’t expect it, like a stone falling on your head. On the other hand, it is about finding our real selves; it is a wake-up call from the sleeping mode we go through in everyday life. It’s about realizing that we’re something very different from what we thought we were. Of course, it is shocking. Maybe we’d prefer to keep on sleeping because even if you succeed in overcoming the catastrophe and in surviving, it will never be the same. Thus, the catastrophe is a tremendous transformative process of subjectivity.
A.L. These are terrifying words. Do you have any feelings or premonition about what is awaiting in next weeks? What are your feelings?
N.K. I do not like to play the role of the oracle, but I have to say that this war will last for a long time. The media are talking about the “epic battle” for Donbas as something unexpected, but this has been going on since spring 2014. I have been travelling to Donbas since autumn 2014. I had a first trip together with the brilliant Ukrainian writer and photographer Yevgenia Belorusetz. Each year I collaborate with local historical museums; we launch some cultural projects there, such as the reconstruction of the so-called ‘Biotechnosphere’ by the great Ukrainian Cosmist ecologist artist Fedir Tetyanych from the 1980s. This year, we intended to produce a new biotech sphere in Bosnia. Thus, I was in Donbas at a time when the war in the east of Ukraine was covered in the Western media. And then I was there when the Western world forgot about it. Totally. When the war in Ukraine went out of fashion. February 24 came as a surprise for Europeans. Lots of them called it the start of the war in Ukraine, without acknowledging that it’s been going on for eight years. Putin brought terrible things to Donbas as well as Mariupol. We have seen them. I do not want … you know…either frightening you or creating additional dramatic effect. But we have seen how things work with this army and with this State. I hope Europe will join us in such a dramatic moment as it is really time to stop this machine of killing. This has to be stopped. Neither temporary negotiations nor agreements. Just get down to practicality and stop it.
A.L. It is even more dramatic than what one would have expected. I do not know what your position is towards someone like Sergei Loznitsa – also considering is very recent choice to withdraw from the Ukrainian Film Academy, that makes me think of the nationalism you spoke about – but thanks to his film Donbass, featured at the Festival de Cannes back in 2018, in Europe there has recently been a certain understanding of the situation in Donbas that you were mentioning. Anyway, I completely agree with you. It is perhaps not known and not understood that it has been eight years since the outbreak of the conflict and the situation is still terrifying. What else can we add but fostering any form of protection? As you mentioned; support, kinship, and perhaps also a sense of never giving up is raising in such an emergency state. I appeal to a state of mind, but also a state of bodies. I cannot help but be supportive and truly thankful for your commitment, your choices, your words, your approach to life and your serious, deep, open-minded way of sharing what needs to be shared. I also thank once again Giulia and Carolyn, my institution, and any others which are keen on finding different ways of being active and involved, even remotely. Being together is the most important posture we can perform in this catastrophe.
G.C. Exactly, Andrea. Thanks to you, to Nikita, and all the involved artists. Because of their generosity we are able to get a broader perspective on what is happening, what has already dramatically happened. Your generosity is a generative gesture of openness for us, as art practitioners, ‘troublemakers’, and institutional ambassador. Nikita, your words burn into the skin reminding us of the urgency of echoing your voices. I hope we will still be able to amplify your message and dance with the catastrophe instead of merely being subjugated to it.
N.K. Thank you.