For its inaugural 2012 outing, the Kyiv Biennale supplemented its exhibition “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art” (that cheerful title courtesy of curator David Elliot) with a series of lectures known as the Discussion Platform. In 2012, this platform was curated by the Moscow-based Katya Degot. Titled “Art After the End of the World,” the series of talks featured an impressive line-up of what can now safely be considered Degot’s A-Team: Renata Salecl, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Oksana Timofeeva, Maria Hlavajova, Anton Vidokle, and of course, Boris Groys.
A few weeks ago, word went out that Groys and Maria Lind would be teaming up to take over the Discussion Platform for the 2014 biennale. It didn’t take long for the pair to receive a petition, courtesy of ArtLeaks. The September 29 open letter addressed an incident of censorship that had taken place over the summer in the Mystetskyi Arsenale, former home of Gogolfest and current home of the Biennale. Opened July 27, the exhibition “Great and Grand” was dedicated to 1025 years since the baptism of Kyivan Rus. For his contribution, artist Vladimir Kuznetsov had chosen to present “the people’s perspective on the current situation in the Ukraine” with his mural Koliivschyna: Judgement Day, 2013. According to the original concept, the work would tell the tale of an incident in Vradieka, where citizens stormed the police department after a 29-year-old woman was brutally raped and beaten by members of the force. While Arsenale director Natalya Zabolotna and curator Alexander Solovyev had perhaps imagined a tribute to the people’s hunger for justice, the finished mural pictured offenders – including a couple of priests thrown in for spice – burning in a hell that looked suspiciously like Chernobyl. The image was promptly painted over with black. Another work, Vasyl Tsalagov’s Molotov Cocktail, was also censored – we’re sorry, “removed” (the Arsenale maintains that the work was removed because it didn’t go with the theme) – for reasons which can be intuited from the title.
On August 1, 2013, ArtLeaks helped to circulate an open letter calling for a boycott of the Mystetski Arsenale and its programming, until they acknowledged that the July incident was indeed an act of censorship. It was signed by the Art Worker’s Self-Defense Initiative. On September 29, this same organization redirected their letter to Groys and Lind, acquainting them with the situation and announcing that the August 1 letter had as yet received no reply.
Now Groys has responded with a letter of his own, to Zabolotna, announcing his withdrawal from the project. Our translation follows below [Again, this is Baibakov Art Projects’ unofficial translation, for the purposes of this blog alone]:
As I made clear in our interview, it seems possible to participate in this project only if I feel comfortable with it. Unfortunately, I do not feel comfortable with the 2nd Kyiv Biennale, as I have the increasingly sense that the Ukrainian art scene is entirely focused on its own internal problems. Under these conditions, I do not see much possibility in organizing a serious, international discussion platform. First and foremost, I think it would be annoying to the invited participants, as I am certain that they will be listened to or understood, only pressed to respond to the conversations going on within the Ukraine.
For this reason, with this letter I relieve myself of the duties of organizing the Discussion Platform for the 2nd Kyiv Biennale and hereby annul the contract that we have signed.
I regret that I have had to take this course of action. This decision does not mean that I subscribe to the call to boycott the Biennale. On the contrary, I consider this call to be incorrect and harmful to art systems. I am grateful for the invitation and for the good faith that you have shown towards me. I simply do not see for myself how it is possible to organize this platform in Kiev in a way that I deem in accordance with my expectations for a responsible and rational debate.
[Again, this was our translation and the emphasis is ours. Find the original, in Russian, here.]
As to be expected, this letter has ignited a perfect storm on social network conversations on everything from the “comfort” of the curator, to the rhetoric of the Ukrainian ultra-left movements, to the best intentions of “international discussion platforms” in general. (We’re particularly enjoying the comments between Degot and former PinchukArtCentre Prize winner Nikita Kadan.) We’ll keep you posted on what comes out of all of this debate (something tells us it may prove more interesting than another round of the A-Team.)