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Arten Voloktin with his "Irreversible Beauty"

As Ukraine cools toward a simmering point, its artists are still stirring the cultural stew and hoping to keep it from bursting into open flame.

Ukraine’s latest sorrows brought flocks of artists and cultural icons rushing to her defense, but they arrived as divided in loyalties as the rest of the nation. Hazarding bullets and batons, artists risked it all to stand for a united Ukraine while juggling their own doubts.

Last weekend “Fear and Hope” (May 17-Oct. 5) opened at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, featuring three, young, award-winning Ukrainians. Surprisingly nonpartisan and reflective, the exhibit examines the crisis from different perspectives and ponders Ukraine’s love-hate relationship and historic ties with Russia.

A scorched wall in the shape of Ukraine beneath fire and violence was Zhanna Kadyrova’s contribution.

“It’s my reflection on the fact that our country is trying to break free of the Soviet past,” Kadyrova explained.

Artem Volokitin’s spectacular and roiling paintings of explosion and fire stretch across huge canvases at the show. Irreversible Beauty (I and II) cathartically express his experience of “war, life and creation,” as well as emptiness and personal loss.

Curator Bjorn Geldhof hopes that Pinchuk Art Centre will allow artists to be critical, yet as non-partisan as possible.

Speaking to the Art Newspaper, Geldhof observed, “The artistic response is an urgent one, you can see it in all their work; they’re dealing with it all the time.”

But not all artists are so philosophical and non-violently inclined. Valery Boldyrev lost his eye to a rubber bullet last January while attempting to deliver a Molotov cocktail to police – which they didn’t take so well. A member of the Barbakan art group, Boldyrev manned the barricades and vowed to defend a free Ukraine to the death.

This isn’t the first time Lenin’s oil of vitriol was tossed back in the face of those saddled with his legacy, even if they didn’t choose to be. It’s one of those twists of history.

"La paloma de paz" (peace dov), origami doves created from a book on the KGB

Many Ukrainian exhibits and museums events are either being put off, reconsidered or recast with the political tinder in mind.

The Kiev Biennale of Contemporary Art, which had only lifted off on its maiden flight in 2012, is now postponed until 2015. Volodymyr Kadygrob, Biennale director, explained last February that “it’s not the right time … potential aggression from Russia is quite high.”

East of the border Russian artists are either supporting Ukrainian independence – or not.

In a possibly politically orchestrated move, 511 art and cultural workers and institutional art leaders signed a document supporting Russia’s presence and actions in Crimea and Ukraine.

“Our common history and common roots, our culture and its spiritual sources, our fundamental values and our language have united us forever,” the document reads. “That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.”

Sounds like it came straight from the heart and makes a good case for the U.S. to annex Canada or Australia, should we so desire.

A rival petition from Ukrainian activists appeals to Russian colleagues for support. At least 130 Russian artists had signed it as of March 8, according to a Radio Free Europe report. They strongly denounce Russian military intervention in Ukraine and condemn the “unprecedented anti-Ukrainian campaign” on Russian television and press.

Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova, one of the most famed signatories, encountered a “barrage of hate messages” since she took her stand for Ukrainians. The conflict “has bitterly polarized Russians” she says, and other signers have similarly felt the heat.

Another high-profile art skirmish is Manifesta 10, which is scheduled to show in the grand Hermitage in St. Petersburg from June 28-Oct. 31. Manifesta is the wandering European contemporary art biennial, which had the misfortune of landing in Russia in a very bad year.

Kasper König, the German curator of Manifesta, has had to defend the exhibit for months now, asking artists to ignore the Crimean issue for a wee bit.

He asserts, “The Hermitage is defending the territory of art,” and “provocations or hysterical art” [or politically hot subjects] will not help much.

"Final Installation of New Ukraine," by Alexej Zaika

Artists have withdrawn because of Russian aggression in Crimea, and discussions have been hot and volatile across Europe.

König cleverly appealed to deserting Western artists by enraging them to even greater wrath by citing Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda law.” He’s managed to win some back, encouraging them to subvert the “anti-gay” laws from the bastion of the Hermitage. This, König claims, is far more appropriate than “adopting a simplistic ‘activist’ stance.”

Ukranian artists responded to König and his appeals saying, “Culture cannot let itself be taken hostage by regimes; it needs to retain real freedom, unlimited by restrictive law. Culture cannot be passive.”

Art is vitally important as other bridges between Russia and the West are “being burned,” rallied Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage. He revealed to a London audience that “unlike the Olympics” the Manifesta was not very popular with Russians. That and Russia’s new laws against obscenity and offending religion made a much more appealing challenge to Western artists anyway.

This may not be significant but … little has been written about the self-proclaimed initiator of the uprisings.

Mustafa Nayem, a popular Ukrainian journalist born in Afghanistan, claimed that his Facebook query last November was the original catalyst of it all.

“Was anyone planning to go to the Maidan?” he claims to have posted, and 1,000 people eventually came to the square as a result. Most were his Facebook “friends … from the creative class,” as he describes them.

Nayem’s encouraging words to the masses were almost Maoist – just slogans: “People want to participate in politics now … and they see their leaders for what they are – really old. If you asked [deposed Ukrainian leader] Yanukovych or some others about Facebook, they wouldn’t understand what it could do.”

So is this is a giant experiment to see if a Facebook call alone could foment a revolution – or a serious reaction to oppression and corruption?

I found Nayem’s laudatory description of his starring role in George Soros’ Open Society Foundation website, which I understand funds a large portion Nayem’s “free” Hromadskse TV. Although it uses the words “open” and “free” and is not state controlled, I really have bad feelings about anything Soros has touched – being the political anti-Midas.

Back to art …

Online art project Artists Support Ukraine, founded by three Ukrainian curators, is gaining a mob of support across the globe. The campaign hosts an open call to artists everywhere to submit art that “makes a statement” supporting a peaceful, free Crimea.

The project aims to draw attention to the worsening situation and has an open call for artists and creatives to submit work that makes a statement “to promote peace and freedom” in Crimea.

Plenty concerned over the Crimean invasion, they are even more nervous over Russian propaganda and media campaigns that distort the situation (labeling protestors as neo-Nazis, fascists, thugs and so on.)

“Dark rightwing forces have taken over the government,” proclaim the state-run Russian media (not that ours is much more or less benighted).

“This is a simulated media fiction,” the group declares in Dazed Digital. “That’s why it is so important to speak from an international artistic community, which has always been a perfect model for diversity.”

The hashtag #supportukraine refers back to the campaign and pages of art.

While proclaiming the need to stand “against military aggression, propaganda and injustice” in Ukraine, it would be great if the art community would expand this energy and goodwill to Nigeria, Syria, North Korea and Southern Sudan while they are at it.

Then we may finally see what the combined focus of the arts on injustice and oppression might accomplish.

Sources: The Hermitage Museum; theartnewspaper.com; www.dazeddigital.com; Radio Free Europe; www.rferl.org; The Guardian online.

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