New YorkMiguel Abreu Gallery
Organized by Lika Volk
September 15 – October 23, 202
At first glance, reality seems stable, but the probability of death from a bomb is high enough to make the future conditional, leaving you with only the present moment. It is not the desired “presence in the moment,” but rather an absence in it. In a sense, you have already died, now you can join the front.
– Lika Volk, curator of Stolen Sun
A small table with several smooth oblong river-washed stones placed informally on its surface greets me as I enter. Objects of beauty whose situation for being in this gallery is war, they resemble loaves of hard tack homemade bread. The effect is homey and inviting; harsh and ironic. Some are sliced and fall in welcome stacks as if waiting to be placed on a dinner plate.
The radiating pattern of thousands of years of geologic time exposed by the slicing of the rock, reveals generations of mineral accumulation and erosion that make each stone unique to its place, endurance, and fundamental being. The stones were pulled from the mountain river in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine where artist Zhanna Kadyrova was forced to flee from Kyiv in the second week of the Russian occupation of Ukraine in 2022. The title, Palianytsia, is the Ukrainian word for round wheat bread. Over the past few months, Ukrainians have noticed how difficult it is for Russian occupiers to pronounce this simple word for a basic Ukrainian food source, so it has become a code word—a password that did not exist before this phase of the war—for someone suspicious.
Palianytsia (2022) is a perfect instantiation of what Lika Volk, the soft-spoken artist curator of this tiny but monumental show says in her letter to the viewer that accompanies this show,
You have no future. Everything that was envisioned, projected, speculated, sold, claimed, sent into space, came crashing down with war. Everything in this gallery is real, except for you. You have been compromised, exposed, radiated and excised […] We look for the agency of all elements (stone, metal, wood, sound) upon which we place signs (meanings), as a hope that the aggressor’s ability to destroy is limited.
Although she discovered Kadyrova’s Palianytsia on the scrolling virtual landscape of Instagram, the physical agency of the piece spoke to her. “I saw it here in this gallery space.” Volk lives in both New York and Ukraine. She flew to meet her and brought the stones to Miguel Abreu on Orchard Street in a suitcase. Standing in line at the border for almost eight hours, she wondered what would happen if they questioned her even though she had her pass from the Ministry of Culture declaring they were works of art.
Further into the space, to the right of Palianytsia, I see what looks like a star shaped modernist sculpture made from crossed railroad ties. On it, a book with a bright orange cover and Cyrillic text is affixed with a huge industrial clamp so the information in the book cannot be accessed. The title is in Russian. Volk tells me that it is a well-known Russian art history book from the 1970s, Struggle for Progressive Realism in Art in Foreign Countries. In my ignorance of urban warfare, and the context of the white cube we are in, I do not recognize the force and meaning of the structure that the book is clamped to. I am too inured by the association of such material (steel I-beams or railroad ties) with the countless modernist junk sculptures, usually in red or orange, that lay waste to my experience—provincial and rarified—of New York urban space, so I did not know what Volk meant when she referred to it as a “hedgehog.” Yet such anti-tank “Czech hedgehogs” (they were invented in World War II by the Czechoslovakians) are everywhere in urban Ukraine, which is why Kyiv artist Nikita Kadan, who collaborates with architects, sociologists, and human rights activists and makes art about “what is in his view” (Volk), sent a drawing of one to the gallery so it could be fabricated and placed in the gallery.
Although the work should be imagined as an actual hedgehog from the streets of Kyiv, it is preposterous and impossible to suggest that the gallery actually ship a battered “found” hedgehog from the streets, but that is how I imagined the piece, not made of new and unscathed steel L-beams as it was before me, but reamed and broken by the striations and disfigurements of a Russian tank that it had collapsed/crushed/interrupted/ blocked/destroyed before the tank could enter a neighborhood in Kyiv. “Everything in this gallery is real,” says Volk.
Nikita Kadan’s art also emerges from damage. His sculpture Irpin (2022), in the center of the gallery, is made from a piece of shrapnel pocked roofing iron taken from a secondary school in Irpin, a small town near Kyiv under Russian occupation. He has set the iron sheet on a pole, like a stiff, resilient flag whose shrapnel wounds resemble stars. The pole is held in place by stacks of closed books facing down. We do not know what the titles are or even what the subject matter is; the books are stacks of non-utilitarian philosophical knowledge that has no meaning in this context of war and yet, they are what holds the “flag” of Irpin in place.
On the wall near Irpin, are four collages titled Protections of Plants (2014–2022) (2022), also made by Kadan. Cut illustrations of local flora such as wheat and nuts are collaged over the surface of photographs of forensic evidence of war crimes against forests, neighborhoods, and villages scarred and destroyed by Russian aggression. In one collage, we see the contour of a five-point rocket ripped into the flesh of a tree, outlined in neon orange, which is the actual residue left by the heat and impact of the rocket as it exploded into the tree. Kadan dots the photograph with cut-out illustrations of wheat from old books. “So often with war, we think only of the humans,” says Volk as we look at the collage, “But everyone who is in the war, when they see plants surviving—just the grass or trunk of a tree—you know how special life feels.” In another collage, I mistake the red coming through the chipped exterior of an apartment building for bits of raw meat, but it is only the red of the bricks exposed by the blast.
In Protections of Plants and Alexandra Kadzevich’s devastating collection of collaged and found-object paintings on pieces of broken, dried, discarded, and weathered wood, installed in the back corner of the gallery, I am reminded of the origins of collage and the impact of using found objects in the works of Dada and surrealism during and in the wake of World War I, when war and art, in particular the European avant garde, were siblings and origins of one another.
Although the threat of Putin’s use of twenty-first century nuclear weapons—as real and possible as ever—is among the horrors of today’s war in Ukraine, it is World War I, more than any other war, that the works on view in Stolen Sun evoke. Volk’s title Stolen Sun underscores the toll on men—the sons (and uncles, fathers, brothers, lovers) of Ukraine, even though women of all ages and generations are of course, also fighting. Volk says,
The double meaning of “son” and “sun” in English is important to me. In Odessa, where I am from, ‘victory over the sun’ is a reference to the avant-garde and many of the well know Russian avant-garde artists were from Ukraine, like Malevich.
As she and I fall into a discussion of the thick palette of Russia’s imperial overreach taken up by European art history’s designation of a movement known as The Russian avant-garde, she reminds me of the historical specificity of Ukraine as a nation of resistance rooted in the sensibility of artists. She tells me,
In terms of making artwork itself, most people feel that it is just important to keep working. That in and of itself is what is required. It is the opposite of “art means nothing in war,” because there is a creativity and spirit that everyone has noticed in the Ukrainian response. When the occupation started, it wasn’t a small group of people who rallied, it was everyone—people would take cookware and wear it on their heads. The people in Ukraine don’t comply with the myth of the artist or art as above or separate.
For this reason, the individual pieces of Kadzevich’s wall installation, dated between 2017–2022, are the curatorial punctum of Stolen Sun. Although these works were not inspired by or even made (except for one or two) during the 2022 escalation of the Russian invasion, they incarnate the collective and creative spirit of Ukraine.
Scattered on the wall, like seashells on the beach, Kadzevich’s paintings are unheroic in a grand sense. Yet, each and every one is as precious and loud as the mark of eccentricity and experience they allude to. On one horizontal chunk of dried wood titled The Fragility of Distance (Hrupkost Distanczij) (2021) is a ski jumper. On a splintered triangle of wood, titled Tomorrow (2020), a portrait of a man—inexact yet poignant—in a maroon sweatshirt or sweater is struck by the streak of white paint that cascades down the rough grain of the dried out and broken piece of wood; thick daubs of paint suggest the shadow next to him of a future context. In Extensive area (2020) a history of scarring, adhesion, and wear and tear of the wood itself sets the mood of a scene of clouds and sea amidst suggestions of buildings exploded or merely carried away by time and the robin’s egg blue of the paint.
I sit in the basement to watch Repeat After Me (2022), made by the collective, OPEN GROUP (Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach, Anton Varga), which is on a continuous loop with microphones and stools set up to suggest the interactivity of a Karaoke bar. On the screen, various internally displaced refugees who are living in camps in Lviv, have been asked to mimic the specific memories and sounds of war they have escaped. Some sit in a square, near their bland but clean temporary housing. Others are situated amid innocuous natural clearings.
Thinking of what Volk said to me, I can’t help but think how alive the plants and trees of these otherwise insignificant spots of nature might be to these refugees. They are asked to mimic war sounds because in the weeks before the outbreak of war, a multipage manual was distributed throughout Ukraine by the State Emergency Situations Service of Ukraine on how to behave when under attack based on one’s degree of familiarity with the sounds of weapons. A woman, perhaps in her thirties but with an expression of a person who is much older, sits in the shade of trees with her hands on her knees. The sub-title reads: UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUW. Her expression is flat. “Repeat after me.” The camera cuts to a close up as she puts her lips together and makes the sound again: UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUW. She is making the sound of an alarm. When the scene is repeated, the first seven “U’s” of the sub-title are in yellow. Another man, loose black t-shirt, grey hair and beard, his legs spread, puffs out his cheeks: TDDURRSHHTTZHH TTZHT!
Behind the clearing of shrubs and trees where he sits, we see an apartment building, and a person standing at the edge of the clearing, perhaps a friend waiting for him to finish. The man stares at us, “Repeat after me so you remember.” TDDURRSHHTTZHH TTZHT! The scene repeats but this time with no sound, only the subtitle of Dada-esque nonsense letters meant to translate the sound of MRL—Multiple rocket launcher—shelling. TDDURRSHHTTZHH TTZHT! The next slide gives us the definition of the MRL, ending with the sentence, “Since the beginning of the war in 2014, numerous pieces of evidence have been documented that Russia actively uses various types of MRL (122-mm “Grad,” “Tornado-G,” as well as 220 mm “Uragan” and 300 mm “Smerch”) to cover attack populated towns and cities, which is a direct war crime.”
During the first two weeks of the war, I had the impression that art was only a dream, that I had only dreamed these twenty years of my professional life. And that art was absolutely powerless and ephemeral in comparison to the ruthless machinery of war that destroys peaceful cities and human lives. I don’t think that way anymore, and I see that every artistic gesture makes us visible, and our voices heard!—Zhanna Kadyrova
Stolen Sun is only the tiniest evidence of the art and resistance currently living and fighting in Ukraine. The viewer is tasked with an engagement with artistic gestures whose reality overwhelms the white cube; creating language from stone, from steel, from wood and vowels, to stage the everyday incomprehensible of war. This is work that does not “tell,” that does not report. It makes us work instead, work to “feel” our unreal. It is art of the future, happening now.