Who’s better: Nazism’s victim or Stalinism’s victim? It is a strange and, moreover, an outrageous question, isn’t it? But politician’s speeches often come down to “war of the dead”. Meanwhile, collective graves contain bones of victims and executioners, people of different nations and views. Mykyta Kadan, a Ukrainian artist, decided to give a new look at the “Volyn Tragedy” (Polish media call it “the massacre of Poles by Ukrainians”, however, modern Ukrainian historians state that those were Poles who were killing Ukrainians), which 75 years ago, became nearly the first early sign of today’s fake news and a hybrid war. Opinion talked to the artist and found out why Ukrainians are still the past-oriented, though the past is rather illusional.
Mykyta Kadan is a Ukrainian artist. He represented Ukraine at the 2015 Venice Biennale. His works are a part of museums in Munich, Antwerpen, Vienne, Dresden etc. He works with installations, graphics, painting, and graffiti. He collaborates with architects, human rights activists and sociologists in cross-disciplinary projects.
He has been introducing his project “(un)named” – reflections about ethnic cleansings and other kinds of violence in the 1930-40s. The exhibition offers Mykyta Kadan’s visual works and historians’ texts.
Many of your works focus on the USSR epoch but lately, you have been working on the war in Donbas theme. What made you return to this theme, particularly, to the darkest part of Soviet history?
What I am into now can be called the military time art. My works concerned Maidan, Crimea, and Donbas. But except for current events we have to react at immediately, we need to understand the general consistency of what is happening now. How events change from the time point of view, how current conflicts take energy from past conflict, take excuses of new crimes from the past. When artists react immediately, they are poorly informed like an average citizen who becomes not only a witness of history but its subject as well – like an actor in a play. Any person doesn’t obtain enough information about today’s conflicts. It produces many fakes, manipulations, propaganda.
Did you spend much time studying archives?
I took very famous photos of the Lviv pogrom which is wrapped in discussions not only by historians but also by people on the Internet. You don’t need to look for them in archives. I mean those photos of the 1940s victims, who are said to be Polish victims of Ukrainians in some sources and Ukrainian victims of Polish in other ones – they are forbearers of modern fake news. And when modern political conflicts are heated as never, when Ukrainian and post-Soviet problems are revealed in the form of the war – I considered it extremely important to look at these processes in terms of history. But for it, my disorientation could have turned into an ultimate one.
Is it possible to stay impartial while working with such materials?
Your feelings are always with you. Besides, there are my own political beliefs. At that time, there were different political powers who can call a different attitude. When I say that victims of Nazism, Stalinism, Ukrainian or Polish nationalism are equal, it doesn’t mean that these powers are equal for me. I don’t say that crimes of the Third Reich and the Home Army are the same in their scale. Anyway, I am politically committed, I have certain political ideas and beliefs about who initiated the massacre and who had to react and resist committing crimes as well.
Photos of tortures make you feel natural fear.
Of course, when people see violence, they always feel it, but in such cases, my professional cynicism is awake, my “surgeon’s look”. Any person who works on this theme feels some guilty pleasure. But it is important to analyze and realize why you got interested in it and where it leads you to.
However, many Polish and Ukrainian policymakers try not to bring it up saying “let’s forget and move on”.
Even those policymakers who are advocates of moderate, liberal-centrist views realize that no reconciliation is possible without recognition of historical crimes. But there are many far-right politicians who say that “our dead are better than your dead”. Only those who are politically blind or who are a part of the criminals’ game or have some advantage of them can speak about absolute oblivion. Spain saw the same situation after the death of Francisco Franco. These were his followers and those who got some advantage of his regime offered to “forget old conflicts and move on”.
What is your attitude to the current decommunization in Ukraine?
I think that we should finally finish this epoch of monumental commemoration, glorifying any heroes – at least in the form of a pathetic figurative sculpture. We should stop putting bronze Cossacks statues everywhere as we used to put Red Army soldiers. As for those which already exist, we should put them into museums of ideologies or propaganda – but in a paradox way, in the same places where they used to stand. It is the articulation which has to be changed, not a location. Informational plates on these monuments should explain why these monuments stand here – to free people from their hypnosis and make them look at them with a cold glance and make own conclusions. Finally, why are “glory monuments” more important than “shame monuments”? Such a change of a perspective will create a more mature opinion on this theme than a modern “decommunization” which is also an early sign of some ideology. I think that guys from the “National Corps” party who push over communistic monuments are equal to Komsomol members who gave posh speeches at the opening of these monuments 50 years ago.
Yes, it is a liberation from bureaucracy-paternal control and ideological monopoly in the society. It concerns a technique of ruling and the role of ideology in this technique. But there are new type problems: capitalistic mechanisms behind a bureaucracy screen support a fake democracy and “voting without choice” which substituted soviet “not voting”. With the help of ideological soft soaping and collective affects, ruling clans seem to keep the society in the state of a constant fever. They want to make us think that we have to immediately choose this bad guy because otherwise, a worse guy will come instead of him. We can hold politicians in contempt, even those whom we have elected, but we still think that if not for them – a social construction would have been ruined. This what “voting without choice” is like.
What should we do then?
Develop “the policy of the truth”. On the one hand, Ukraine was attacked by another country and it makes many things quite clear-cut. But on the other hand, it is important not to be influenced by the “jingoism affect” thinking that we can’t do without it during the war.
It is hard not to do so because now, a new mythology with our own heroes and enemies is being built.
We should develop a cold critical thinking and also remember that people are made of the same substance and everybody’s bones crack the same. History is like an execution pit which was dug by different executioners and where different victims lie layer by layer.
Does modern Ukrainian politics allow doing it in historical and cultural dimensions?
Until the Euromaidan 2013-2014, there was a constant feeling that in a cultural dimension, some minors repairs were conducted while the building was in an ultimate limit state. During the Euromaidan, it started to seem that the situation was changing. When dead people are carried out of the main square – it’s over, we can’t imitate democracy, politics, and culture anymore. In a while, the Trade Unions Building that had been on fire was covered with a jolly banner with a field, birds and patriotic mottos on it. New ideological bubbles began being blown. Maidans seem to happen here, again and again, the society will move from one to another like pupils pass the class. There will be far right and xenophobic Maidans. As well as liberal and pro-European. Either will be there left one, with social demands. Someday, an anarchistic Madian may happen.
There will be many Maidans but which one will make us lose our hankering for imitation – I don’t know. But once, a political practice and ideological decorations will become ill-placed. A cultural policy is a litmus test in this regard. The moment when an ideological decoration will become unneeded will be the moment of the fundamental transformation of the society.
Perhaps, this is why there are few activists and so little performance art?
There is much performance art because society is being transformed immensely. Performance art can use performance techniques not in the art as well. But performance art is not a monopoly tool of a protest, neither in art nor beyond it. The border between these territories is very elusive. It is not that important that Pavlensky (a Russian performance artist, now based in France – ED) identifies himself as an artist and The Yes Men (the duet of performance artists Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos who are famous for their provocative performances – ED) say that they are not artists.
Ukraine has people who make entertaining things – not in art. FEMEN was a group for pre-election provocations, and now it is a network movement. Documentation of its performances is exhibited. The crucial thing for them is to get attention in society. Performance art is a powerful thing. It can either be a tool of art or be absolutely beyond art. But there is a kind of art connected with studying social processes which requires a laboratory and quiet work.
Europeans seem to be more interested in our reflections than we are.
Some Ukrainian artists of different epochs are a part of a European cultural life. But when Ukrainian institutions make some “presentation” exhibitions, they most frequently cover it with a super patriotic sugar-coat and try to meet the expectations of Europeans, our officials made up on their own. After the Euromaidan, there were many Ukrainian exhibitions overseas – and there were no reflections, just glorifying the events. Consistently, it didn’t result in any regular interest in Ukraine. An explanation, giving some clues is more important than a demonstration that you are on “the right” side. Let the audience figure it out on its own, take art actively, reveal their own subjectivity. It’s way more interesting.
Interview by Kostiantyn Rul
Photo by Sasha Naselenko
You can check out the works of artist Mykyta Kadan on the website nikitakadan.com