“In the darkest of times, tending a garden was considered to be an act of confidence.” So starts the curatorial statement for Ukraine’s Second Biennale of Young Art—a sprawling show budding across the equally sprawling city of Kharkiv in the country’s northeast. The use of the past tense in that introduction stands at odds with the message connoted by the work on view, the lion’s share of which emphasizes that trouble is not a problem of the past, but an epidemic of the present that must be met head on.
The Biennale, loosely based on the idea of the artist as “a gardener of culture” sowing the seeds of courage in uncertain times, is anchored in two venues on opposite ends of Kharkiv’s Freedom Square: the YermilovCentre and the original Hotel Kharkiv building. The twin presentations could not be more different.
The closest thing Ukraine has to a kunsthalle, Yermilov Centre is based in a subterranean space tucked on the side of V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. The space itself is a concrete bunker—rigid and cavernous. The weight of the mega university upstairs rests on the institution’s shoulders. It’s a heavy load. At times, the Biennale presentation therein suffers from the strain—intellectual fatigue. The most robust work turns the bookish burden into a buoy, as with Larion Lozovyi’s “Machine and Garden” (2016-2018) and Andrii Rachynskyi and Danyil Revkovskyi’s “Darkness” (2019). The Kyiv-based Lozovyi’s two-channel video leverages Soviet-era film clips of fertile agrarian expanses to contest the neutrality of the landscape genre. The Ukrainian breadbasket feeds modern Ukrainian nationalism, as it has fed all manner of competing ideologies over centuries. Bucolic pastures have dogmatic powers.
Lozovyi is poetic and nostalgic, Rachynskyi and Revkovskyi are bombastic and projective. Their multimedia installation “Darkness” occupies two adjacent closets in the YermilovCentre’s ancillary basement storage area. Paraphrasing the plot of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), “Darkness” is a pessimistic meditation on the potential outcomes of Ukraine’s grinding eastern conflict. The work sees Revkovskyi inhabit the role of an insane colonel commanding an extralegal battalion of adolescent murderers. Boys play war, and not as a game at recess. Rachynskyi is on a mission to liquidate Revkovskyi and his foot soldiers. The story unfolds in primary materials (maps, forms, documentary images, etc.) clipped to the walls and stacked on a well-worn desk. Battle plans take shape. Weapons are at the ready. Blood and guts of the wrong shade of red spill out on the soil. Incendiary and illogical, “Darkness” is devilishly feisty. One leaves the basement wanting more from this brash duo.
The hits keep coming across the street in the old hotel. Much credit is owed to the team at FORMA, the exhibition architects, for transforming a creaking carcass of antiquated excess into a knockout gallery grounds defined by plywood and crumbling crown moulding. The apparatchiks are rolling in their graves. The color palette is hunks of dusty turquoise punctuated by hi-vis orange.
The hotel’s faded glory is the perfect fertilizer for contemporary projects. This is especially the case for Vasylyna Burianyk’s “Fragments of Organisms” (2013-2019), a series of conceptual textiles submerged in brine-filled aquariums. Made in consultation with Kharkiv Oblast’s State Environmental Inspectorate, Burianyk’s textiles indicate the forms of native species. The specimens appear ancient and infected, yet obstinately alive - absorbing the light which floods through the panoramic windows.
Further down the floor, Yevhen Samborskyi continues his commitment to collaborative action. His Biennale entry, “The Garden” (2019), is a blossom-packed map of Kharkiv jointly painted by Samborskyi and employees of the municipal communal services. In a city where it is damn near impossible to buy a postcard, it’s revivifying to see a work with such verve.
Mapping is a motif that repeats across many of the installations. Denys Metelin uses the technique for self-reflection. His “Biography” (2019) unwinds in an immersive graphic diorama. In part of his room, Metelin caricatures his personal history in a style leaning heavily on his background in street art. In another, he draws thirteen thousand figures to memorialize the approximate number of casualties in the aforementioned eastern conflict. And across from that, he draws punching portraits of climactic moments in said conflict. The work’s component parts compete for the viewer’s attention rather than work in cohesion for an overall effect. Nevertheless, the ensuing sense of being torn between moods and modes of thinking seems an apt, if unsettling, distillation of the day’s disquietude.
So whose star rises when disquiet reigns? One room over from Metelin, Anton Lapov tracks this question in real time. The Sievierodonetsk-based artist’s “#hero (Museum Media Exhibit for the Department of Modern History of Ukraine)” (2016) is a projected web search of the eponymous hashtag. A live exercise in patriotic education, “#hero” is a web of constantly changing faces - old and young, uniformed and plainclothes. No context about which causes the faces fight for is given. Their valor is viral, yet generic and unproven.
Soon after comes the culminating encounter; visitors emerge out of the corridor onto the hotel’s awning. To what does one owe the privilege of inhabiting such a vantage? It’s easy to get swept away by the panorama; then one turns towards the exit and finds themselves in the crosshairs of Serhii Hryhorian’s deceptively-titled “Winter Gardening” (2014-2019). The Biennale’s capstone work, “Winter Gardening” is a functioning greenhouse in the shape of a scale-model tank. That which grows can also kill, but the plastic meant to keep the energy in has burst at the seams and blows in the breeze. Seeds spray, not bullets.
Like any university town, Kharkiv is awash in aspirations. The city’s Biennale is born of the same stuff. Each artist’s agenda often appears more alike than unalike the next. Likemindedness can quickly turn to complacency, but, for now, there is strength in numbers.
The generation on view is moving forward fast in close rank. Exit to Freedom Square and fall in line.