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War Hasn’t Stopped the Kyiv Biennial. It’s Multiplied It.

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Containment is a strategy that works only so long; the war will not stay put, the war will come to you. The Kyiv Biennial, a key fixture of contemporary art in Eastern Europe over the past decade, has opened its fifth edition on time and at full scale, but not (or not principally) at home. It has taken flight, spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. It has multiplied itself into a major European festival on war, democracy and the waning promise of solidarity. It has a scholar’s ambition but a slacker’s style; it spans a continent even as it anchors itself in Kyiv. It’s the most energizing exhibition of the year.

I say as much even though I saw only a fraction of it — the part taking place in Vienna, where independent art spaces across the city have turned over their galleries to their Ukrainian colleagues and friends. (A large swath of contemporary Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and still today Vienna is the only city in so-called Western Europe with a direct train connection to Kyiv.) The Kyiv Biennial this year has brought together more than 50 artists and collectives to its temporary Austrian exile, with artists from Ukraine, some still at home and others refugees, exhibiting alongside others from Poland, Slovakia and Romania, but also Colombia, Cuba, Syria.

In Vienna’s leafy Leopoldstadt neighborhood, I saw forensic analyses of war crimes, but also underdressed voguers writhing to Ukrainian electronica. In a former car dealership, I took a virtual-reality walk-through of a destroyed Soviet sculpture studio. An empty office in the immigrant-rich 20th district has become a pocket of queer Kyiv, with testimony from gay soldiers on the front lines collected by Anton Shebetko, and a bitterly funny documentary by the young artist Vladislav Plisetsky of club-kid life in wartime.

But the Kyiv-in-Vienna show is just the half of it. Just as many artists are taking part in Kyiv Biennial programming in six other cities, as well as its hometown. The show got underway in early October at the Dovzhenko Center, Kyiv’s film institute and one of the most dynamic of all Ukrainian cultural institutions, where more than a dozen artists and filmmakers plumbed the history of Soviet cinema for an exhibition on the theme of the Dnipro, the river that runs through the capital. Next came premieres in Ivano-Frankivsk and Uzhhorod, two cities in the relatively safe west of Ukraine, by both visiting foreigners and Ukrainians displaced from the east.

Last week a critical component of the biennial opened in Lublin, Poland, not far from the border with Ukraine: a showcase of works by painters, photographers and musicians in the Ukrainian armed forces, some still on the front lines, others recovering from injuries. “A lot of Ukrainian artists became, for different reasons, out of their practice,” one of the biennial’s curators, Serge Klymko, told me at the opening in Vienna, amid a scrum of young Ukrainians, many of whom are now living in the city. “One of the points was to reunite the community that was torn by the war.”

That all of this has come together at such scale and speed, inside and outside Ukraine, is a testament to the trust built over years between Ukraine’s independent artists and their colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe. You cannot raise money for a large exhibition this fast, and to share the load the Kyiv Biennial has relied on its friends in Tranzit, a network of independent art institutions from Budapest to Warsaw that have defended free expression against a variety of populist governments and business intrusions.

And unlike the dozens of other biennials and triennials that pullulated across the globe in the 2000s, Kyiv’s has never been driven by a culture ministry or a development agency. Most of the funding for the 2023 edition comes from the European Union and from American and European foundations. Ukrainian men cannot leave the country without special permission under the current martial law; many of their works are either digital videos or small objects and works on paper, hand-carried on the bus or train.

“Obviously, because of the predicament that we’re in, we had to change our usual modus operandi,” said Vasyl Cherepanyn, a founder of Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center, which organizes the biennial. “We cannot just grab a bunch of good names and people from abroad and bring them to Kyiv. But at the same time, we are not a state actor. It’s an initiative that is totally bottom-up. Even institutional cooperation within Ukraine is very much based on informal or personal contacts. If the state mechanisms are being disrupted, the informal part still survives.”

Like so many good things about Ukrainian culture, the Kyiv Biennial was born out of the Maidan Revolution, the 2014 democratic uprising that ousted the country’s Kremlin-backed president. Maidan ushered in a nationwide cultural renewal, and Kyiv enjoyed an explosion of activity in art, fashion and, especially, electronic music. But the revolution, and the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas that followed, also triggered careless destruction of Kyiv’s Soviet-era public spaces, as nationalists took out their frustrations at the present on the monuments of the past.

From the start, through site-specific projects set amid Kyiv’s unloved and threatened 20th-century architecture, the biennial has tried to think through Ukraine’s Soviet history, rather than externalize it as some Russian intercession. That decolonial approach to the Soviet past has taken on profound new importance during the full-scale war. As Russia continues its direct assault on Ukrainian cultural heritage, Ukrainian authorities are ripping down statues and sanding away murals. The biennial has always striven for a subtler view of history, and in Vienna, the De Ne De Collective — a group of artists who have led preservation efforts for Soviet murals and mosaics in eastern Ukraine — has strewn one gallery with the shards of a chandelier from a destroyed cinema in Dnipro.

Yet this is decidedly not an “emergency” biennial, nor does it content itself with the hoary notion that an exhibition can stop the bombs from falling. (“They feel lots of solidarity,” Cherepanyn said mockingly of the audiences for those “raising-awareness” shows, “but then they go back to their everyday lives.”) By reuniting Ukrainian artists with European colleagues who showed in past biennials, such as Hito Steyerl and Wolfgang Tillmans, this show makes plain that Kyiv is already a central node in Europe’s cultural networks. The 2023 Kyiv Biennial does not want to show its Viennese public a calamity taking place “elsewhere.” It wants to demonstrate that we are all already facing threats to a common democratic future — and it is too late to duck the fight.

The full-scale war has now entered its 20th month. Kyiv still stands, but the counteroffensive has been slow, and a new and far more hopeless conflict in the Middle East has overshadowed the continuing violence. (On Nov. 1, Russia shelled more Ukrainian cities and towns than on any day this year, according to Ukrainian officials.) When Cherepanyn first saw the cameraphone footage of murdered ravers in the Israeli desert, he told me, “I felt like I am back to Bucha.” The Kyiv Biennial does look directly at the Israeli-Palestinian situation, notably in a video by the Czech artist Tomáš Kajánek of American tourists in Israel gleefully participating in a “security training” course. It was hard not to worry, though, as I made my way across Vienna for this truly important show, that its democratic and consensual spirit was already in retreat.

One of the most beautiful, and bleak, works in the 2023 Kyiv Biennial was made by Nikolay Karabinovych, a young Jewish artist and D.J. from Odesa. It’s called “The Story of the City Where Two Colors Disappeared,” and it consists of streetscapes in cloudy, dowdy Brussels: bakery, gas station, parking garage, construction site. There is nothing much to look at here, until you see a little Ukrainian flag sticker peeling from a shop window, and then another obscured by an advertisement. Suddenly, you start hunting for fleeting visions of blue and yellow — the colors of Ukraine, but also the colors of Europe, the colors of a commitment we thought we had made to peace — in this drab cityscape. They appear only briefly, and they are already fading out.

2023 Kyiv Biennial
Through Dec. 14 at various locations in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe; 2023.kyivbiennial.org.

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