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Navigating Intertia, and Sailors in Skirts – Revisiting “Alchemic Surrender” (1994) on a Ukrainian Battleship

Navigating Intertia, and Sailors in Skirts – Revisiting “Alchemic Surrender” (1994) on a Ukrainian Battleship

Tatiana Kochubinska
Alchemic Surrender Ukrainian art


Oksana Chepelyk Chronicles of Fortinbras, 2001 Digitized 35mm film, 30’
Oksana Chepelyk. Chronicles of Fortinbras, 2001. Digitized 35mm film, 30’. Photograph courtesy of PinchukArtCenter.

“Ukrainian cultural necrophilia, the love for inert, dead, and depleted art forms.” — an off-screen voice narrates in Chronicles of Fortinbras (2001). “Ukrainian culture doesn’t feel the passage of time,” — the voice goes on. It is a film by Oksana Chepelyk that takes its name from a feminist essay written by Oksana Zabuzhko, visualizing its contents. Created on the threshold of a new century and millennium the director summarizes the first decade of Ukrainian independence; the outcome in Ukraine is likened to women falling victims to the totality of men – it is dark and untimely.

To many the fall of the iron curtain was seen as an opportunity for the newly opened country in which an emerging cultural environment was ready for “sowing” new art forms. The Soros Foundation, for instance, established branch offices of its contemporary art centers across the former Soviet Union to support local cultural growth, Ukraine’s capital was no exception. Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), Kyiv operated between 1993 – 2008. 

The word “curator” at the post-Soviet territory was associated with the KGB men, Kuzma, however was integral in developing the art world in the ‘90s in Ukraine. In his book The Curatorial Turn: From Practice To Discourse, Paul O’Neill describes a curator “who has a more creative and active part to play within the production of art itself” as a “creative co-producer.” This is true for Marta Kuzma, a curator and the first program director of SCCA in Kyiv, who assisted in the creation of site-specific artworks, philosophic interpretation of the works, and provided curatorial support while looking at art through a political lens.

Alchemic Surrender Ukrainian art
Illustration from the catalog of “Alchemic Surrender,” 1994. All photographs courtesy of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.

The pick up of this peculiarity of the Ukrainian society, mentality, and culture that Chepelyk presents in her film is reflected most strikingly in the exhibition “Alchemic Surrender” held on July 20-21, 1994 onboard the naval warship Slavutych in Sevastopol, Crimea as part of the Chersonese Games festival – organized by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art. For the project, Kuzma played the role of a creative co-producer, and her choice of location has become a political gesture of increasing impact.

Kuzma has emphasized the political context of the early 1990s as a time of complete anarchy that in her opinion bolstered young artists to find their energy discharge through nonconventional actions. In a not altogether forgotten world of double standards, subversive behavior provided a means for a younger generation of artists to realize projects publicly in a context characterized by an anarchical internal condition. Kuzma’s invitation to organize an art exhibition on a battleship in Sevastopol seemed plausible only as a result of this condition.

The search for alternative locations as a result of a lack of exhibition spaces and the certain ideological pressure that followed the available ones added to the overall crisis of exhibition-making in the Ukrainian art world. The art critic and curator Oleksandr Solovyov defines it as one of the key problems of art of the 1990s. Up till 1994, Ukraine has held a range of exhibitions, which rethought the “time flow” of that time, linked to the certain place and its history. “Invitation for Discussion” (1987), “Theatre of Things, or Ecology of Subjects” (1988) initiated by Yurii Sokolov (1946-2018), “Defloration” (1990) curated by Heorhii Kosovan, and “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” (1993) curated by Anatol Stepanenko are among them.

The exhibition “Alchemic Surrender” is interesting not only from the perspective of its site-specific character but first and foremost by its political awareness and mindfulness of the cultural gesture. The project was implemented in a society, according to Kuzma, which “was shaped by military conflicts.” The feeling of the split as a problematic point of our future was the curator’s vision. The issues raised by the exhibition — disputed territories, the language issue as a self-perpetuating reason for political and social manipulation, the patriarchal character of the society — have escalated, and remain relevant today.

The naval ship is the representation of power, state might, and stability, on the just-opened territory – the shadow of its closure during Soviet still lingering in the heroic city of Sevastopol. It was a perfect location for the political statement, which emphasized political unsteadiness, fluctuation, and uncertainty. All the works for “Alchemic Surrender” were created on the ship. Fully immersed, the artists, perceived by the ship crew as half-freaks because of their appearance, lived on the ship for a week and mostly created site-specific and sometimes participatory works, ironically problematizing the political situation, which was changing beneath their eyes. These works were predominantly using the game strategy, which was afterward conceptualized by the curator.

Documentation, Voices of Love by Arsen Savadov and Heorhii Senchenko in “Alchemic Surrender,” 1994.

In their work “Sacrifice to the War God”, Sergey Bratkov and Boris Mikhailov played with the superstitions and prejudices about the woman’s presence on board. Perhaps, the most ironic gesture, as in this case the presence of the woman aboard — the exhibition curator — shifted the accents in the understanding of the commanding, when the curator’s voice was parity, and maybe even more substantial than the voice of a sea captain. It was here where the video “Voices of Love” by Arsen Savadov and Heorhii Senchenko, which is paradigmatic for the art of the 1990s, was created, and it became the outcome of the deep dive, of interaction between the artists and the ship crew. For the first time in their art practice, the artists used the motive of ballet skirts, dressing the naval ship sailors in them, confronting strength, fragility, and masculinity – the closed nature of the masculine community and the image of ballet, which became exported during the Soviet times, and after the 1991 coup embodied the double standard practice.

Illia Chichkan, Sleeping Princes of Ukraine, 1994.

On the ship, Illia Chichkan created one of his most transgressive works, putting photographs of mutated fetuses onto illuminators, which subsequently found its reflection in his series Sleeping Princes of Ukraine — a cynical, but nevertheless poignant statement about the post-Chornobyl carnival. Other artists created more lively works, using irony to escape from responsibility. In the exhibition catalog published by Soros Contemporary Art Centre in 1997 Kuzma equates this approach to a common lack of meaning in relation to the production of art in the Ukrainian art of the time.

“Alchemic Surrender”, which took place only months before the signature of the Budapest Memorandum, appears to be an integral curator project with a certain position and vision as a gesamtkunstwerk, where the ambitions, energy, time, social divide, political conflict, and a naval ship merged together. Along the ship perimeter, Kuzma placed white flags with printed photos by Dmytro Baltermants. Never missing a beat, Balterman is a distinguished photojournalist, most notable for his non-fiction shots of the Great Patriotic War. The inclusion of the photographs demonstrated the shift of political paradigm, suggesting artistic discourse as a counterbalance for the militarist one, or anticipating the new stage of the capitulation of 2014.

“Alchemic Surrender” suggested the format of art in the exhibition, connected with the criticism of the artwork as an object when space of exhibition was given critical precedence. To this effect, the exhibition may seem to be one of the most important milestones in Ukrainian art and one of the ways to comprehend and write the history of Ukrainian art of the time. Boris Buden in his text “Art after the End of the Society” says that “even if the art history is over, it’s subject — art production — goes on living. Artists go on creating artworks, they just cannot claim that their works represent a certain moment of art history.” The curatorial statement “Alchemic Surrender” has come to represent a moment of history, having captured and documented changing times, foreseeing the future of our present.

In the exhibition catalog, Kuzma writes: “Sevastopol was a city associated in the international press throughout 1993 and 1994 as the next possible Sarajevo”. Ten years later the ship would forcibly change hands during the annexation of Crimea. In 2014, the Slavutych ship became part of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation. Now, twenty years later the military conflict at Donbas is compared to the situation in Kosovo, looking back at the artistic rigor, urgency, but also resignation to humor felt by the artists of “Alchemic Surrender” it is clear that they were faced with an impossible situation, perceiving the moment that was to come.

Based on the materials of the PinchukArtCentre’s Research Platform.

A version of this article was also published in ArtsLooker

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