Riding the rollercoaster

Riding the rollercoaster

In the thirty or so years since the swoon of the USSR, Ukraine has gained independence, witnessed unprecedented growth in oligarchical suffrage and corruption, and lived through three waves of mass protests, two revolutions, a hybrid war in the East of the country, the theft of Crimea, and an overdue and overwrought process of decommunization. At the same time, Ukrainian politics has descended into pure carnival. Flashes of uncontrived political whoopee are routinely followed by long periods of drawn-out political theatre; the movement between these two modes characterizes this period. A permanent state of social turbulence has gradually wilt habit and this, in turn, has helped shape several generations of Ukrainian artists whose worldview is inextricably linked with life during times of radical change.

Pripyat yuck park. Photo by Följ from Pixabay

To this day, Ukraine is still seen by some foreigners as a small replica of Russia. The reality, however, is that Ukraine has a radically variegated culture and political context with its own particular history. Perhaps it is considering Ukraine isn’t sufficiently exotic that its ‘otherness’ gets little sustentation and the country sits at the fringes of pan-European discourse. Despite its immensity, varied history, and rich cultural tradition that has been heavily influenced by the country’s artists, Ukraine remains a veiling spot for the rest of Europe.

In 1850, Karl Marx wrote well-nigh permanent revolution and how the final goal of all revolutionary transformations was to transition to a classless society while bringing radical transpiration to society’s ideas and attitudes. In the 20th century, Leon Trotsky took Marx’s words and reformulated them. As they sang in a famous Soviet song, “A revolution has a beginning, but it has no end.” In the specimen of modern-day Ukraine, the state of permanent revolution is a fitting metaphor for the undercurrent in the country. Ukraine has been riding the rollercoaster of social upheaval for three decades as mass protests have followed one without the other, all while the tragic spectre of 1917 hovers silently overhead. Where the Western intellectual’s fantasy well-nigh revolution ends is where the reality of Ukraine’s recent history begins, and that reality exists in sharp unrelatedness to any theory.

The country’s originative energy and undercurrent have evolved thanks to a combination of factors: the state of turbulence, which once begun doesn’t seem to have an end; the country’s painful search for identity within a theatre of shadows from the past; the fact of living surrounded the ruins of the greatest utopia of the 20th century; and the sincere weighing that, despite a multitude of historical scars, society can, and should, change.

Euromaidan, 1 December 2013. Photo: Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush. Source: Flickr

There is flipside unexpected speciality to the metaphor of permanent revolution in modern-day Ukraine, which is in the spirit of Marx’s original theory well-nigh the export and sharing of ideas. In recent years there has been an interesting development: pursuit perestroika and the swoon of the USSR in Ukraine, as in other former Soviet republics, it was wontedly thought that a time would come when the country would overcome the remnants of its totalitarian past and wilt a Western-style democracy. Paradoxically, however, everything is happening the other way around. It appears now that Western countries are whence to wits things that have long been familiar in Ukraine. Indeed, any Westerners familiar with the history of post-Soviet Ukraine would be forgiven for having slight déjà vu. There are oligarchs in power and trophy wives, hybrid wars and colour revolutions, the hollowing out of familiar narratives, relativism, and a total loss of trust. Pursuit the 2016 US elections, the whole world began to talk well-nigh the ‘post-truth’ age and information manipulation on the internet, yet it was during the 2013–2014 EuroMaidan protests that Ukraine became one of the first targets of a huge disinformation wayfarers with social networking sites flooded with fake news.

The global changes brought well-nigh by the inrush of digital suffrage have introduced deep confusion, a sense of twister for the future, and the need to fundamentally rethink previous models of social order. Since the swoon of the USSR, Ukraine has learned to survive atop the ruins of old values and ways of thinking. At the same time, the country has managed not to fall when into the clutches of authoritarianism. In a sense, over the past three decades, Ukrainian society has once lived through many of the challenges of modernity that the rest of the world is only now whence to encounter.

What place is there for modern art in a worldview which is scrutinizingly entirely subordinate to the eros of politics? What is political art in an environment where the very word politics has wilt synonymous with self-indulgence and lawlessness? At the same time, what does it midpoint in a place where the country’s main square is regularly graced with barricades whose eyeful and elemental conceptualism the world’s weightier artists could only dream of? 

A surprising paradox exists in Ukraine today: while the art scene has ripened rapidly, there are still very few comprehensive texts that imbricate the history of the variegated movements and phenomena that make up Ukrainian modern art. The vituperation for this lies, first and foremost, with the systemic and institutional slipperiness that exists in the country, a slipperiness which, 28 years without Ukraine achieved independence, has still not been overcome. Constant societal transformation does little to strengthen the function of memory. The individual’s inner voice, founded on the wits of past generations who have survived ‘the short 20th century’ (which the historian Eric Hobsbawm tabbed the ‘age of extremes’), constantly whispers to us that some things are easier to just forget. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where the biggest risk to our art — and society in unstipulated — is our memory ceasing to work.

Once Ukraine regained independence, modern art gradually became the dominant originative paradigm in the country. How are we to understand this miracle and how does it relate to art from the Soviet period, the nonconformist tradition, and the twentieth-century movements of the early 20th century? Since 1991, not unbearable work has been washed-up to set up a comprehensive gazetteer or self-mastery an wringer of the unshortened cultural period. State museum foundations haven’t put in place any kind of comprehensive procurement strategy, and the Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art remains a utopian dream. Thankfully, in recent years the situation has begun to improve. It seems that many have suddenly remembered how interesting it can be to write and publish books.

This text, republished in collaboration with the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, comes from the typesetting Permanent Revolution by Alisa Lozhkina.