“Shevchenko’s Quantum Leap” by the artist Oleksandr Grekhov has become another test for our society – the test on the ability to refuse from the imposed canons and to look at the classics of the Ukrainian literature from a new perspective without excess glorification and monumentality. About rethinking of classics, consolidation of society, promo-effect of the “right-wing” and the art that cannot be beyond politics – in the interview with the author of the project.
In an interview, you said that “we were tortured by Shevchenko at school”, and that “nobody can’t look at him anymore”. It was July last year. Now, a significant part of Ukrainians looked at Shevchenko from a different perspective. What goal have you set starting the work on “Quantum Leap”?
A general concept of the project, perhaps, has come at the fifteenth illustration, not earlier. Shevchenko went out of his classic images to “Quantum Leap”. The goal was overdone, I haven’t expected such a stormy reaction, I can’t remember Shevchenko being discussed as much as now and not only on the Internet but also on the public transport, at home etc.
What was your personal attitude towards Shevchenko in childhood? When did you realize that it would be best, as Malkovych said, to “take off Shevchenko’s stupid hat and kozhukh”? (kozhukh – Ukrainian fur coat – ED)
My school was held in the nineties, all the first textbook versions went through me, including Ukrainian literature, in which not only Shevchenko but also our entire pantheon of writers was presented as endless fighters with serious faces like monuments, not living people. Perhaps, I bore the traces of all this in mind. For years, I haven’t read our classics, only contemporary Ukrainian authors but immediately after the project began I explored new Shevchenko. So this project is successful at least for me.
Rethinking of classical culture – is it a complicated process? How was it working on Shevchenko’s presentation? Have you limited yourself within the workflow?
Needless to say how complicated it was! So we tried to move to the side of one of the possible Shevchenko’s presentation, not to rethinking one because this is a very difficult topic. I often say ‘we’ because this project was conducted together with the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko and it wouldn’t have been done without the museum and the manager – Anastasia Abolyesheva. All female images, for example, were suggested by the museum, there were no censorship and restriction during the work on the project. I am grateful for this.
On the flip side, we often talk about the rethinking of the culture but few remember school biography of Shevchenko. I guess nobody thinks that hat with kozhukh were a new fad of that time. Where is the balance between rethinking and obvious ignorance? What do we lack more?
The balance is hard to find. We can tell the facts of biography, yet people would say that this is not true. There is some omnipresent issue with an unwillingness to learn the truth. I usually say there wouldn’t be such a sharp exit from the comfort zone if there had been small similar excerpts from a biography in the school curriculum like with a kozhukh and a hat, then there would be no such reaction in society. But it will work with the future generations, where to find the balance now, unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.
I’ll be boring but still: if we take a canonical Shevchenko and say straightforwardly to everyone: he was an ordinary person, as we are, he loved drinking, could get drunk – don’t we risk to lose some conventional ideas?
There is a good example from America where they are not afraid of experimenting with national heroes. They are everywhere in different ways: on the cans of beans, on strange graffiti, they are alive, they interact with the modern world, and somehow it’s impossible to say that the Americans humiliate their past, instead, they give it a new life, here and now.
All the story about your exhibition, the reaction of part of society – does it mean that some percent of Ukrainians is still too conservative? How to battle this?
The conservatives are not so much but they do exist. And everything would be alright, in any country there are conservatives, but they defend their comfort zone too aggressively, while not offering anything in return. Or rather they do offer – not to change, not to touch, but this isn’t working in the modern world. I hope that the project will become the catalyst at least in that part that belongs to the culture and then some people will change their mind. But we need time for this.
Instead, the reaction to the destruction of your artwork by another part of society is something like the “Stena Sracha” (from Ukrainian – ‘the wall of bullshit’ – ED) by a Kharkiv artist Hamlet. Your artworks have been recently tried to paste again. In this case, has the art become a certain gasket, a tool for dialogue, consolidation or is it still a monologue?
The fact that a large part of society has stood up for the defense indicates the consolidation. Sometimes there are different people with different ideologies and goals, but they all realized that something is wrong and they don’t want to live in such a country. But still, the monologue is going when the majority tries to render the thought to the minority, but the minority doesn’t want to listen even though “the explanatory work” is ongoing, so there may be some good.
Apart from Shevchenko, you drew other classics of the world and in particular Ukrainian literature. Khvyliovyi, Bahrianyi… Do they have a chance for their own “quantum leap”?
I don’t think that I would take somebody to the “Quantum Leap”, it will be the repetition and I’m no longer interested. And colleagues have already done similar to Franko, Ukrainka, etc., what I truly welcome. But I will work on other characters. I love Bahrianyi, I plan a graphic novel based on his Trappers, I hope to finish it once. There were plans for a series of illustrations of Executed Renaissance generation, a big and important topic for me.
You said that the destruction of the artworks and the closure of the exhibition can contribute to the emergence of long-awaited “working mechanisms of communication and response to similar incidents”. What kind of mechanisms did you talk about?
Nobody knows. In fact, people who are engaged in art, write to me, they try to find the solution but all this is just consultations and proposals. We are planning a wide dispute panel, it might be a thing. Similar had happened before but it’s the first time when the situation outstretched a narrow circle of an artist and their friends. And the main question which we all face now is safety! I don’t want before creating something, think whether it will be beaten / killed later only because it can’t be written in someone’s worldview.
Larysa Denysenko’s and Olha Herasymiuk’s books, the scandal with the sculptor Spartak Khachanov and now – “Shevchenko’s Quantum Leap”. Mistaken if I say that the “right-wing” is very good at “selling”? Do you think that your series would have the same success if not the intervention of Khort and “official harassment”?
It was better without such PR, really. In days of opening the exhibition, there were publications in media, TV storylines, it’s more likely that there won’t be such a circulation but we planned exhibitions in Lviv, Vinnytsa and Zhytomyr. This “PR” made us review your plans and now we have to struggle for the opportunity to go to another city.
By the way, about Khachanov. His situation and the story with “Quantum Leap” is an example of the fact that one often reacts to art through the prism not only of outlook but also of certain social and political views. What do you think about the thesis “the art is beyond politics”? Can the artists be isolated from the events in their country / ignore them?
Personally, I can’t imagine how one can exist beyond politics, paying utility bills, buying products in the shop. You already take part in the life of your country, pay the salaries of deputies, support army which defends you etc. And as a person who shows their artworks to others, you must think what you are showing and what might be the reaction to it at this stretch of time.
And finally, every time when I scroll the Facebook page and see my friends update their profile pictures with some of your artworks, I think: which of these Shevchenkos is closest to you?
The most beloved is one of the first in the series – David Bowie, one of the most favorite musicians. Apparently, therefore, the whole series began with him.
Interview by Dmytro Zhuravel