Welcome to Our Ruins: Nikita Kadan in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist & Sebastian Clark
When the war began, the Ukrainian artist, writer, and activist Nikita Kadan moved into a bunker. There, he continued drawing and working on his projects to preserve cultural heritage. Like other men between the ages of 18 and 60, Kadan is unable to leave the country, but he was invited by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to install his work in the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom at the Venice Biennale – a brief respite where he was also married to his artist partner AntiGonna by Nan Goldin. Here, he talks to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and founder of isolarii Sebastian Clark via Zoom on March 13, 2022, about the past still being in the subjunctive and the need for a new anti-fascism.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I’m so happy to see you, and hope that you’re safe, or as safe as you can be.
Nikita Kadan: Yes, thank you.
Sebastian Clark: Are you still sheltering in the gallery?
No, I’m in my apartment now. I was in the underground gallery for two weeks, and then I really needed a change, so I went to my apartment for two nights. Tomorrow, I’ll be back in the gallery.
HUO: The Voloshyn Gallery?
HUO: Is it an artist-run space?
No. It’s a private gallery, but it was once a Soviet bomb shelter, and now it’s turned into a shelter again.
HUO: And so now you’re basically living with the artworks.
Yes. I made a small group show, just to create an environment for myself. Only a few people visited. There are works from early twentieth-century modernism, like David Burliuk – who was the godfather of Russian futurism but was actually from Ukraine – and Konstantin-Vadim Ignatov – a nonconformist artist from the 1970s – and some contemporary works.
HUO: And you also make work there?
Yes, I do drawings there. Some were in Artforum and are on my Instagram now. I’m doing more too.
SC: You have just been awarded the Shevchenko Prize from Volodymyr Zelensky. It must be strange, during all of this.
Yes, it’s a national prize for culture in Ukraine. In a peaceful time, I would have very mixed feelings about it, but during wartime, it’s rather different. I wanted to give the prize money to these humanitarian, self-organized initiatives, like bringing medicine to old people or feeding the people in the mental health hospital, but Zelensky said on TV, “I’ll give the prize money after Ukrainian victory.” So, I have to wait.
SC: What are your feelings about the war at the moment?
Fairly normal, but I’m busy organizing some events in support of Ukraine and also some art exhibitions. We just opened a video show, “A Letter from the Front” at Castello di Rivoli in Turin.
HUO: And you’re showing your video work there?
I’m curating it. I made the selection, and there’s one film that I made in collaboration with artist AntiGonna, and also the works made by the collective I was part of, REP. It was active between 2004 and 2014.
HUO: Previously you have talked about the importance of saving Ukraine’s heritage and you mentioned Maria Prymachenko’s works, which have been destroyed. But I was particularly touched by your description of these incredible artworks by Feodosiy Tetianych, these fragile biotechnospheres. Are these works now in safety or still at risk?
Some are in Ivano-Frankivsk in the west of Ukraine, and some of them were taken by Tetianych’s daughter to Centre Pompidou in Paris. Also, Bart De Baere was really supportive in saving these works, and people from MSN (Museum of Modern Art) in Warsaw. This artist was a totally unknown figure before, and I tried to make people pay attention to him. He was a cosmist and ecologist artist who was active in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. He had an idea of the universe as an endless body, and he considered all the planets to be organs of this body. He was ecologically minded and imagined so-called biotechnospheres, which people of the future would live in.
HUO: So, they’re technological, biological artworks?
Yes. He saw them as a kind of costume that would be a continuation of the body into an architectural construction. So, the body transforms to the clothes, and the clothes transform to the building, and the building transforms to a cosmic shape. He made these cosmic costumes from garbage, and he walked through Kyiv in them during the Soviet years. He was considered a mad man, so he wasn’t oppressed by the KGB. He had this protective image of a mentally unstable person, but he was actually very, very smart.
He died in 2007 but I knew him the last three years of his life. Just this morning, I had a walk with his son, who’s responsible for the heritage and we talked about what can be done.
HUO: Apart from saving the heritage, the other thing is, of course, what can be done to help artists who are working now. What do you think would be the best way to support artists in the Ukraine?
I’m trying to use art history as a key to open up some paradoxes of political history.
Most of the female artists who were well known got international residences. It’s great that all these residences provided a space to refugee artists. Those of us who’ve stayed in Kyiv are not starving. We have food in the shops. This is fine. We can find the shelters. But we can’t earn money. It’s impossible, and some private collectors buy our work to support us. With institutional collections, it’s not a question of charity, but of a responsibility to the quality of the collection. If Pompidou or M HKA (Museum of Modern Art Antwerp) or MSN pay attention, it’s a great chance to give this heritage to the world. Before the war, we tried hard to make them interested, but only Anton Vidokle published our material about Tetianych in Cosmic Bulletin.
For me, it’s also about making our experience visible through art. We’re invited to speak to the media, and to participate in panels. There were events in Ljubljana, in Paris, and there was this projection of Ukrainian artworks on the façade of the Leopold Museum in Vienna, amongst others.
We can do things abroad, even from the shelter. It inspires and supports us a lot. And representing such strong experience is also something valuable. So, yes, it’s simple things like visibility that give us more chances to survive, and the material support, especially for those who have no income in these conditions. And it’s different for the refugee artists. They need residences and stipends, so they can stay in the West for months.
SC: Are you going to join them? Are you going to stay in Ukraine?
I have to stay in Ukraine, because males can’t cross the border whether they wish to or not. I have different scenarios. I may stay here or go to the west of the country with my close friend, Lesia Khomenko. She wants to establish a sort of commune for artists near Kosiv in the Carpathian region. It’s the far western part of Ukraine, close to Romania. Also, I thought maybe I could try to act as a journalist. Yesterday, we got this protective vest for my friend Yevgenia.
HUO: You have worked previously with elements of critical journalism and have said elsewhere that your political practice has become more historiographical: you’ve looked at previous occurrences of destroyed museums and burned archives.
My early works, from around 2010/11 like Procedure Room used appropriated images of all these torture practices in Ukraine. And I got this award at the Pinchuk Art Centre for the sculpture Pedestal. I consider these works statements in a situation of urgency. But later, I started to deal with images of destroyed museums or burnt archives, and then with this forgotten chapter in the history of art – Ukrainian modernism – unknown to the rest of the world.
I’m trying to use art history as a key to open up some paradoxes of political history. So, my works have become more multi-dimensional, and over the last eight years, they’ve contained a lot of references to art history and this multi-layered narration, sometimes with very opaque poetic elements. Before, I was more like what’s called an activist artist, acting sharply in a situation of urgency.
HUO: This whole idea of working with Ukrainian modernism has to do with a protest against forgetting. In many parts of the world, we have forgotten histories.
In Ukraine, we had something called the “politics of decommunization,” which means erasing information about the Soviet past – not just erasing Soviet propaganda, but erasing information, erasing knowledge, and erasing experience. And it was a kind of catastrophe. Actually, it mirrors what’s going on in Russia, this weird hybridization of Stalinism and orthodox Christianity, imperialism and the cynicism of today’s politics. It’s very anti-historical.
SC: In the catalogue to your retrospective at Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv over the summer, “Stone Hits Stone,” there was a line saying, “history doesn’t need to be as it was.” Many artists are typically concerned with giving form to the future, but you’re treating history like clay. You’re interested in the counterfactual.
One project that’s an example of this is called “Mutilated Myth” (2020). It’s based on the graphic works of Bruno Schulz, a Polish-Jewish modernist who worked in Drohobycz on current Ukrainian territory.
History doesn’t need to be as it was.
HUO: Yes, I have many books on Bruno Schulz. I also love his writing.
He’s my favorite artist. Maybe my trio is Schulz, Beckett, and Andrei Platonov. As an artist, he started with these masochist and fetishistic graphics, and then his version of Goya’s Caprichos, influenced by Kubin, and by different symbolist artists, by Surrealism, but mainly by Goya. But first of all, it was masochist and fetishist images of dominatrix women, naked or partly naked in the streets of some fantastic city, with a very miserable, ugly man, kneeling on the ground near the women’s feet. I found a hypnotizing and terrible similarity between these and the photographs of the Lviv pogrom from 1941. It’s something so ethically perverted. For me, comparing these two types of images was about how we look at things through an ethical prism. It was like using similarity as an instrument for distinction. Schulz was killed during a similar pogrom – violent anti-Jewish action in Drohobycz in 1942. He was shot in the street. So, I work with such dimensions, like art, history, political history, and the politics of our way of looking at things.
HUO: You mentioned Andrei Platonov. He’s the existentialist writer, who lived in the 1940s, no?
He started in the 1920s, and he was active until the 40s.
HUO: What makes him one of the three most important inspirations for you?
He has this very special political sensitivity. He deconstructed and reconstructed language to make it political. He tried to find the most appropriate words for the new political sensitivity of revolutionary times. His experiments with language were also connected with poverty and starvation, and he had this very special poverty of means of expression. He's so difficult to translate.
HUO: In 2019, I saw an exhibition in Vienna of yours, the “Project of Ruins,” which connects again to destruction and ruins.
It’s an example of this work I’ve been doing on Ukrainian modernism. I reconstructed the pedestals of the monuments built by Ivan Kavaleridze in the 1920s. He was a Ukrainian avant-garde sculptor and filmmaker. He created three monuments, two to the Bolshevik leader from Donbas called Artem, and one to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, and they were created in absolutely the same manner, combining Cubo-Futurist, Constructivist, and Expressionist elements. It’s a very varied mixture. And one of these monuments to Artem was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. The other monument to Artem stayed, but in 2017, Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko demanded that it be destroyed because it’s a communist monument. It was one of the most important modernist artworks of Ukrainian history, and it wasn’t removable. It was very much connected with the landscape. And the Taras Shevchenko monument was partly reworked in the Soviet era. They made a more realistic head for it. It’s like a Cubist figure, but with an academically made face. It looks absurd. And it’s still there. So, in my show there were three pedestals and the political history of three monuments. And also, there was the work Victory (White Shelf) (2017), a model made from the sketch for the unrealized Monument to Three Revolutions by Ukrainian artist Vasyl Yermilov, from 1926, and the melted ceramic cups that I found on the ruins in a war zone in Donbas. I travelled to Donbas several times after 2014, and I picked up some fragments of the ruins and put them on this very pure white geometric model of an avant-garde monument.
SC: You very actively engage with the legacy of the 20th Century “avant-garde”– those “iconoclasts” who “tore down” the visual parameters of everyday life. But that means you’re in fact doing something antithetical, practicing a kind of radical preservation, amid the ruins, as you say. And for you this is a political position, whether it’s in context of Aleppo or now Ukraine.
The war has been going on for eight years already. My first trip to Donbas was together with Yevgenia Belorusets in the autumn of 2014. And then I went back several times and worked with historical museums there. I was in a museum turned into a bomb shelter. So, this sheltering in a gallery, it's not the first time in my life. Museums were turned into shelters and a space to try to preserve cultural heritage from destruction, as well as for your survival. It’s been the theme of my work for quite a long time.
I made this installation, The Shelter, at Istanbul Biennial in 2015. This two-story construction uses the photo of Donetsk Local History Museum destroyed by shelling, with stuffed animals standing in between the ruins. But I added rubber tires to the ruins, and so the ruins were transformed into barricades. In a morphological sense, ruin and barricade can be quite similar, but a barricade is about hope. A ruin is not.
And the lower part of this construction was like a bomb shelter, like a place of pure survival. And there were multi-story beds, but instead of people on them, there were just plants growing, pure vegetation. Like survival in its purity.
HUO: You’ve also been doing a lot of direct political work. Can you tell us a little bit about your revolutionary experimental collective REM and whether it still exists? Because it was actually founded after the Orange Revolution in 2004, but then went on for many years?
We made quite a lot of works together between 2004 and 2014. Each of us had a single practice, but we were a collective body. Also, we had a curatorial collective called Hudrada, and now I run an artist-run space called Dzherelo in Kyiv, together with artists Alina Kleitman and Dana Kosmina. We really developed this very grassroots, self-organized scene.
SC: How does something like the REP collective relate to what you’re thinking about or might imagine for your rural art commune in the west? And I want to get back to what you said before about artists as journalists. I think that's super interesting.
If the “Working room” residence project happens, maybe we’ll return to the methods of REP. And, regarding journalism, yes, our works were sort of using these methods, but also it was a very poetic form of action. So, it wasn’t just going to dangerous places, taking some snapshots, and bringing them to a safe place and doing this war porn or poverty porn and so on. No, we tried to have this element of poetry and deep critique, critiquing the very structure of language.
HUO: In relation to poetry, the poet Galina Rymbu is very important for you and a contemporary of yours. You’ve collaborated, right?
I have these very simple words attacking my brain all the time: We are the price. We are the price to be paid.
Yes, Galina is my very good friend. She made a dialogue with me. It was published. Actually, she wanted to write something quite comprehensive about my work, but it's not so easy for her to start something new. She’s in Lviv now with her child. And I took three books into my shelter in the Voloshyn Gallery: Bruno Schulz, Jean Genet’s book about Rembrandt, and Galina’s book Life in Space (2020). And also, there’s a small album of Joan Miró. This is what I have on my bed in the underground shelter.
HUO: I was also thinking about Goya, as somehow being the proto photojournalist, in a way. You know, if you think about the Disasters of War and particularly the Peninsular War of 1808 to 1814, where he visited the Spanish countryside. Goya came to my mind in relation to this idea of the artist as a journalist.
Yes, and at the same time, his “Disparates” are really fantastic. You trust them as a journalist’s report. But they’re no less fantastic than his Capriccios.
HUO: I’m curious about your own writing – if you also write?
I do write, but my writings aren’t translated, they’re mostly in Russian. And I wrote them over the course of many years, mainly for Moscow Art magazine. Victor Misiano is always asking me to write something. And also, I started to be a part of the editorial team of Prostory Magazine, founded by Yevgenia Belorusets. And there’s an artist and writer, Yuri Leiderman. He was in this well-known Medical Hermeneutics group during Perestroika. But then he made brilliant works of his own. And we made some dialogues on art in a very, very poetic manner, and one of them about Tetianych was published by Anton Vidokle in his Cosmic Bulletin. It’s translated into English. I consider him to be my teacher.
HUO: I've always been very interested in creating visibility for artists’ unrealized projects to help them to get realized. And, of course, the reason why projects are unrealized can be very broad. It can be because a project is too big to be realized or it takes too much time to be realized. It can also be too expensive, or censorship can be the reason for an unrealized project. I was curious about your unrealized projects.
I have several. Some of them are really complex in a technical sense. I wanted to build a huge museum vitrine with a fragment of a Soviet modernist sculpture from Ukraine and a dust storm inside, like a permanent storm of dust. Technically, it’s possible, but you need people who do high-quality special effects maybe for cinema and who can produce a permanent dust storm in a limited space. So, this sculpture would be standing there with clouds of dust flying around and you look at it through the glass. Another project is unrealized because of the possibility of political censorship. In the Soviet Union, there were museums of Atheism, and they were created in churches. They were like models of cosmic ships hanging in the spaces of churches, or displays devoted to the evolution of life, to Darwinism, and they connected with the architecture of these huge orthodox temples. And after 1991, almost all of these museums were destroyed, and the buildings were given back to the church. And I want to re-appropriate one church building, to recreate a museum of Atheism. This is such a unique type of museum institution, which doesn’t have analogues elsewhere in the world, and at least one of them should be preserved. Maybe these priests, these people of the church, would be so kind as to give one ancient temple back to culture and enlightenment. Maybe we should build a nice new cozy modern church for them instead. But if they gave one old temple to us, we could recreate the museum that was there during the twentieth century.
HUO: I have one last question. What do you think readers can actively do, in terms of the crisis, the war?
During these two weeks, I’ve had plenty of discussions with Western people, and more and more I hear from them that support for Ukraine will cause the start of World War III – that if they make a step like closing the sky, if they support Ukraine too much, Putin will cross the red line and terrible things will happen to Western countries. But I have these very simple words attacking my brain all the time: We are the price. We are the price to be paid. Russia is just killing us in front of the doors of the Western world – these good, strong, protected doors – and those who are inside cannot go out and help us because their health and their prosperity, but also their families, their children, will be at risk. They feel deeply concerned. They feel terrible pity for us, but they cannot do much to help. They cannot call the police because there is no police force on the planet. So, they look through this door, and watch the crime happening in front of it.
Sometimes they even try to give us through the cat flap something we can protect ourselves with, like a small hammer. But they will not open the door to let us in or to go out and try to help us, because those who kill us are much bigger. We’re of an incomparable scale. It isn’t an equal fight. So, I'm thinking that we are the price, we are the price you pay. And it’s a terrible thought.
I understand that this metaphor sounds like blaming the Western world. I’m conscious of this, but in fact, I don’t want to blame. It’s just that this metaphor and these words are attacking my mind. And it would be good if people in the West understood that the logic of Putin’s politics is his intention to cross these red lines anyhow. Maybe today you’ll give us to him, and you’ll postpone the catastrophe. But it will happen, not tonight, but maybe tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow. But to stop him just in front of your door would be pragmatically better than to have a terrible, disastrous fight on your own territory tomorrow. Okay, then welcome to our ruins. Protect yourselves here. And don’t see protecting us as a form of political charity. Protect yourself together with us. It’s our common interest. Protect yourself together with us, and together with those Russians who suffer from Putin’s regime. This regime turns out to be openly fascist. It’s not just fascist as a political pejorative, like naming pure evil. No, it’s fascist in a very rational sense of political history.
And now it’s time for a new anti-fascism, which has nothing to do with anti-Russian xenophobia. We should be against Russian imperialism, and against Russia’s extreme right-wing colonialist state. I think it’s our common interest. It’s about our common survival.