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Places We Love | Art and the Ukrainian East

It was an extremely warm, but windy Saturday at the end of June, in the seaside Scottish University town of St Andrews. Whilst the expansive graduation festivities around town were beautiful and almost all encompassing, the opening of ‘Places We Love | Art and the Ukrainian East’, at the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, on that Saturday remains a highlight. A combination of the compassionate group of organisers and attendees, the feeling of a renewed vigour since this was an in person opportunity to share after a prolonged period of isolation, and the beauty of the warm summer day.

The exhibition was organised by the Centre for Contemporary Art in collaboration with the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies and the Centre for Art and Politics at the University of St Andrews. While I was aware of the escalation of the war on Ukraine and attempted to educate myself about the gravity and intensity of the atrocities being experienced by the Ukrainian people, I never anticipated the extent to which going to the opening, viewing the art on display and interacting with people there would impact me.

The exhibition was housed across two distinct spaces in the Botanic Garden, the Pergola and the Garden Bothy, each a space of unique character that echoed and complemented the themes explored by individual artists. All of the organisers, academics, and members of the community present at the opening were warm, and their welcoming nature, willingness to talk and discuss various issues, and their commitment to bringing people together, facilitated the creation of a safe yet extremely self-reflexive space.

A few weeks after the opening, I had the opportunity to speak with Victoria Donovan, Kate Cowcher, Catherine Spencer, and Darya Tsymbalyuka bout the conceptualisation, process of development and implications of the exhibition.

1. In the Preface to ‘Limits of Collaboration: Art, Ethics and Donbas’, you write, in context of the escalation of the war upon Ukraine in February 2022,

‘There was little space and time to write, and writing in an analytical style has felt redundant, indulgent even. Creative and curatorial work has also seemed impossible.’

When did the idea of the exhibition first emerge, and how did you develop it in context of the escalation of the war and the great personal and political crises that many artists, writers and organisers experienced (and continue to experience)?

VSD: Writing about the Ukrainian East, now the focus of the most intense fighting in the war, has felt too timely, too real, drawing the artifice of academic discourse into sharp focus. When Russia escalated its war against Ukraine, many of us who work on the country’s history and culture felt unable to continue with “business as usual” and reached for other, more concrete ways to support family, friends and colleagues through the provision of shelter, fundraising, and professional support. The idea for the exhibition emerged in this exceptional moment.

We had been planning to organise some kind of book launch with our co-authors in Ukraine when Limits of Collaboration was published. The Russian attacks on Kyiv, however, meant that the book got stuck in press and its publication only completed when the Ukrainian army pushed the invaders back from the North. At this in-between moment, in March, I think, Kate approached me with an idea to curate an event to support Ukrainian artists impacted by the war. I suggested that the event be linked in some way to the book launch and, together with Darya and Catherine, we decided that an exhibition, which foregrounded the work of our artist-collaborators and at the same time fundraised for them through a print sale, would be the best format.

While the exhibition was produced at a time of emergency, its format is actually very fitting with the thinking behind and ethics of the project overall. As the title of the book suggests, our subject was both the art and creativity of the Ukrainian East, and the question of how academics can work in equitable and ethical ways with artists and curators to produce work that does not exploit and extract, but has benefit for all. I think that the visibility that the exhibition brought to Ukrainian artists’ work and the concrete benefit of the fundraising element reflects this thinking.

KC: Exhibitions, even small-scale ones, usually take months to put together, but we knew, given the escalating invasion, that this project needed to be rapidly coordinated if it was to be supportive of the artists in question. Both Catherine and I read the introduction to Victoria and Darya’s book, and were so inspired by how emotionally and intellectually honest it was about its intentions, its methods and its potential shortfalls. Once we saw images of the artwork in the book, it became clear that a verbal discussion of its contents would never do them justice. We were really grateful that the artists trusted us to select and make prints of their work, and to install them without their being present in St Andrews.

CS: We were able to host the exhibition through the St Andrews Centre for Contemporary Art, which was initially founded in 2018 but which Kate and I have Co-Directed together since mid-2022. Our shared ambition for the Centre is that, as well as pursuing long-term collaborative projects, it can be responsive to urgent questions and issues - and precisely in ways that, as Victoria has eloquently outlined, aspire to be supportive rather than extractive. In our discussions with Victoria and Darya, it was immediately apparent that an exhibition and print sale to raise awareness and funds would be a tangible way of showing solidarity with artists whose work has engaged with the Ukrainian East over the last decade, and that our hopes for how the Centre might evolve in the long-term within St Andrews dovetailed with their feminist ethos of collective working. We were very grateful to receive additional funding through the Centre for Art and Politics and the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central, and Eastern European Studies, enabling us to build a curatorial infrastructure as part of the exhibition’s praxis.

KC: We approached the Botanic Garden as a host a month before we planned to install. Darya had worked with them before, since her work engages paleobotanical histories. Given the time frame, we never expected them to say yes. They were immediately supportive - offering the Bothy, as well as use of the Pergola, a former glasshouse that is now exposed to the elements. The latter presented some practical challenges (namely ensuring that certain artworks were weather-proof), but the rusted, industrial look of the structure resonated very powerfully with Oleksandr Kuchinskyi’s collages using historic photographs from Mariupol and a series by Victor ‘Corwic’ Zasypkin featuring digitally enhanced photographs of Donetsk’s cityscape. In this way, the exhibition evolved with a necessary urgency, but it was, in unexpected ways, quite organic too.

2. The book also emphasises on collaboration as a central approach in developing inclusive methodologies. How has a collaborative approach influenced the production of the exhibition? Can you tell us a bit more about the process of co-creation with various artists, academics, and curators?

VSD: When discussing the collaborative methods that we used in this project at the exhibition’s closing event, Catherine said that the fact that the book had managed to engender an exhibition so quickly and easily, with the agreement and cooperation of all artists involved, was in some way a reflection of the kinds of productive solidarity that can emerge from this model of practice. I think that’s true. Without romanticizing the collaborative process, which has been difficult and has sometimes resulted in conflict, I think the sustained discussions that we have had with our partners, their involvement in all stages of planning and development, created relationships of trust that are necessary to bring an exhibition like this into being so quickly. It would not have been possible to have created an event like this without already having worked together so closely for so many years. On the one hand, our artist partners in Ukraine already know what we are about, and trust that we are not looking to exploit their situations for our own professional benefit. On the other hand, having worked and talked with this group for such a long time, we already knew their work and the conditions that produced it very intimately and could select and present the material without difficulty.

Knowing both Catherine’s and Kate’s research, I knew that they would grasp the principles and ethics of the project without us needing to do much explaining, and that we could work together with a shared understanding of what we were trying to achieve. They read parts of our book (not a given when you do an engagement event with people!) and understood the importance of derelict spaces in our discussion of art practice in the Ukrainian East. Because they were prepared to engage with this level of seriousness, we found a common language in the curatorial practice. The pergola (a decommissioned glass house which is part of the Botanical Garden’s rewilding initiative) quickly became a resonant space to install parts of the exhibition. This is also meaningful collaboration in the spirit of our project. Engaging with and understanding each other’s thinking and responding to that in your own practice. It was an absolute privilege to work with them on this exhibition.

KC: The exhibition would not have happened without the lively use of a group text messaging! Every major decision was put through our messaging group and, when necessary, relayed by Victoria or Darya to the artists. Photographs were exchanged, word documents circulated and group-edited. Everyone responded quickly and enthusiastically. A project like this, on such a tight time frame and budget, can only succeed if everyone is ready and willing to participate. The frequent, creative and relaxed nature of our communications meant that this project was never the product of formal meetings, but rather that of a lively, supportive conversation.

3. In part due to its geographical location, St Andrews is often described as a ‘bubble’. This description at times may lead to a disjoint and distance from harsh realities and global phenomenon. At the same time, the community is extremely international and close knit. How have students, scholars and residents of the town engaged with the exhibition and beyond that the escalation of the war on Ukraine?

VSD: We planned the exhibition for around the time of graduation and The Open to try to maximise engagement and sales. In reality, the exhibition did not attract hordes of parents and golfers but a more select community of visitors who were incredibly sensitive to the themes and already invested, sometimes in the most personal ways, in the impact of Russia’s war.

Perhaps the most meaningful kind of engagement has been on the part of the new arrivals to St Andrews from Ukraine. Our new colleague, Nadiia Akulova, who was displaced from her home of Melitopol, where she was head of the Department of Ukrainian Literature, helped us to install the exhibition. She had not long arrived in Fife with her mum, Iryna, and this was the first “professional” thing that we did together. Nadiia has a very good eye and helped us install the works by Oleksandr Kuchynskyi, displaced from Sieverodonetsk, and Viktor “Corwic” Zasypkin, displaced from Donetsk in 2014, in the Botanical Garden. I asked her what impressions she had of the works she was installing. She said that seeing all of these familiar places was very intense and moving, and that she wanted to write something in response to the exhibition. I hope that she will: her review is the one that matters to me most.

We also had visitors from Sumy who had arrived in St Andrews just the day before. Katya is originally from Kreminna, not far from Sieverodonetsk. We discussed Viktor’s “Red Skies of Donetsk” series and Katya talked about the sunsets in her hometown which were very similar. Her kids enjoyed clambering through the rewilding pergola as we talked, having fun jumping from the bridge and doing circuits. Later, she left a message in our response book which read:

“Thank you for the exhibition! It reminded me of my native Donbas. Such strong work.

Thank you Scotland for your warm welcome.

Glory to Ukraine. Peace to Ukraine.

Katerina from Kreminna.”

4. The process of putting together any project comes with multiple challenges and moments of celebration. In this case, as previously established, the process would have been furthermore arduous, ‘sweaty work’, to borrow from the book once again. Are there any specific moments (of pain or hope) that stand out as highlights during the process of developing the exhibition?

KC: Academia can be a strange and amorphous career to pursue. I’m not, here, referring to the enormous structural problems in our sector, particularly its enduring inequalities and massive labour insecurities (though these remain issues we are all deeply concerned about). If you are privileged enough, as Victoria, Catherine and I are, to be in a permanent academic position, you are expected to manage your time such that you fulfill teaching, admin and research requirements accordingly. Your ‘research’ time is largely expected to be spent producing peer-reviewable, publishable work or things that can be measured by certain rubrics as being ‘impactful’. A project like this, a last-minute, make-shift exhibition (a ‘sweaty’ project, indeed) with no intricately planned or obviously publishable outcomes does not easily fit into the institutional expectations of academic labour. Some might see this as the kind of thing we ought to do in our spare time. However, we saw this as a professional priority, not as a side project. The impetus of the exhibition demanded we practice the things we engage intellectually or abstractly in our writings and classroom. That is to both promote (and show solidarity with) artists whose work shifts perspectives, excavates lost histories and critically illuminates a moment in time. Russia’s war on Ukraine demanded urgency, something that the slow-moving world of academic labour is rarely equipped for.

CS: I wholeheartedly echo everything Kate says above. One of the challenges that I think we all grapple with in different ways is trying to create structures of solidarity from within academic frameworks that often function according to what are ultimately very extractive, hierarchical and exploitative approaches to knowledge ‘production’, and which we inevitably reproduce. I think both Kate and I were struck by how Darya and Victoria included a copy of their Ethical Review Application form for the project as one of the images in their introduction to the Limits of Collaboration book, in an attempt to make visible the hidden structures of academia - some of which are important, in that I don’t think any of us are remotely suggesting that we shouldn’t actively reflect on the ethical implications of our research! - but which can morph quickly into inhumane bureaucratic tools, which are closely imbricated with racialised immigration law and border violence, and exacerbate precarity, inequality and exclusion. This is particularly so in the context of working for an elitist institution in the Global North and part of Europe which has constructed itself as ‘Western’, and was obviously something we were all conscious of here.

But to move from the ‘sweaty’ (a concept that strikes me as so useful for the way it communicates concern, care and labour at bodily and emotional levels) to the celebratory, one of the structures of support which manifested itself during the exhibition was totally unexpected but incredibly poetic. The St Andrews Botanic Garden have planted loads of climbers in the pergola, and during the exhibition run several of these wreathed themselves rapidly around the works on display there by Oleksandr and Victor. As both series on display engaged with what might be understood as archival images - Oleksandr’s images are based on photographs from museum archives, and Victor’s draw on his own personal archive of images - this organic response on the part of the plants very visibly manifested the ideas about loss, but also about the power of memory and its potential to engender regrowth and renewal, that the artworks themselves contain.

DT: Totally agree with Kate and Catherine, for me this exhibition, as many other projects I worked on has been a lot about finding creative ways of hacking institutions with all their rules and agenda, and trying to redistribute power and resources. This comes with a constant frustration, as ultimately the conflict lies between the neoliberal (often instrumenalising and extractivist) agenda of the institutions and what you perceive is the best way to do something together with and for communities.

5. If there is one thing you would like people to take away from the exhibition, what would it be?

VSD: Ukraine war fatigue is already in evidence. News of the war, if it is there at all in the national and regional media, is now fairly far down the page, or as an inset of thematic articles. We will continue to tour the exhibition, our next stop is Generator Projects in Dundee this autumn / winter, and after that it may also travel to Wales and England. One of my wishes would be that it reminds people that the war in Ukraine is still happening six months later, that people are still being killed and displaced, that cities are being razed to the ground, and that an aggressive neo-colonial Russia is pushing the bloody tide of its occupation further into the East. I would also hope that the exhibition reminds people that the Ukrainian East is far more than an industrialized periphery and a war zone, that it was before this war a hub of creativity, activism and resistance. This is a history of the region that the Russian occupiers are now trying to wipe from the historical record.

DT: I agree with Victoria. As the title implies, I would like people to think about Ukraine as a loved place. I also hope people follow the artists featured in the exhibition: Oleksandr Kuchynskyi and his online visual archive, Masha Pronina, and Victor “Corwic” Zasypkin. You can also find some of my work online. In addition to making art, many artists are also actively involved in helping communities in Ukraine. If you are interested to explore art from the east of Ukraine and not only, further, I strongly recommend Freefilmers cinemovement. At the moment, they are engaged in helping many people in Ukraine, and you can learn about them and their initiatives, as well as donate here:

6. How did being a part of this project impact your own personal practice as art historians, academics, curators, artists?

CS: Speaking personally, this is only the second time I have ever ‘curated’ anything (!), so it has been a hugely important part of an ongoing part of what feels like an evolving and changing relationship with ‘art history’ as a discipline. The previous exhibition (Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism, co-curated with Caroline Gausden, Kirsten Lloyd and Nat Raha at Glasgow Women’s Library in 2021) was also in what might be termed an ‘unconventional’ space - i.e. not a ‘white cube’ gallery space, but rather a library which grew out of grassroots organising and which understands itself to be a living resource for its audiences and communities. Although these two projects have been very different, they have both been informed by a strong feminist ethos, and which seek to embed rather than take, and to host exchange, debate and ideas. We won’t have always been able to achieve that, but in both exhibitions there has I think been a conscious creative effort to collectively re-think and re-imagine existing infrastructures, and that’s definitely something I hope to continue doing.

7. While all the art works included were extremely striking and thematically and stylistically powerful, are there any specific works that particularly spoke to you / you would like to highlight?

VSD: I love Masha Pronina’s work. Masha is a collage artist who, before the escalation of the war, focused her work on communist legacies, ecological issues, and feminist critiques. In November 2021 I met her at Platforma Tyu in Mariupol, where she worked as an artist, curator and mentor for local teens, including LGBTQ+ teens. One of her collages was on display when I visited: a divided cellophane curtain hung from the ceiling onto which she had glued fragments of images of communist leaders and their writings taken from canonical Soviet-era texts. The work suggested the unwanted intimacy of communist past. The cut-out fragments of Lenin’s and Stalin’s faces leered from the strips of plastic which resembled a shower curtain of sorts. When you passed beneath them, they touched your body lightly, leaving their invisible trace. If Tyu was about anything it was about laying bare the ideological forces that still violently govern bodies and minds, patriarchal and other exclusionary structures that cause people to feel isolated and alienated in their everyday lives. The collages on display at the exhibition were produced following the invasion and make use of the same practices to show the omnipresence of symbolic violence that accompanies the physical violence of war.

KC: I found Viktor ‘Corwic’ Zasypkin’s black and white photographs from Donetsk around 2012 immensely powerful. It would be too simplistic to reduce their attraction to their seeming nostalgia or, in the wake of the invasion, any sense of impending melancholy. They are moving because of their ordinariness: ladies in fur coats stopping for a brief chat on their daily walk, a dog sitting quietly on a damp street, a local band gathered in the snow for a concert. Some of the photos are overtly about the photographer’s position, evident, for example, in centrally framed shot of the joyful, hand-in-hand young couple in heavy boots, the young woman laughing hysterically. In others, like the over-the-shoulder snapshot of huddled commuter, the photographer is a bystander. This shifting of perspectives lends the series a multiplicity that builds a quiet, endearing, though not overly romanticised, picture of Donetsk a decade ago.

Darya suggested the exhibition title, Places We Love, as a kind of wordplay - one that both overtly shows affection for somewhere, but which also showcases places in which love is shared. The latter was a clear rebuttal of the overly familiar dehumanised imagery of war zones. In this context, Victor’s photographs are not saccharine or nostalgic, but emotionally complex, and defiant.

8. Any other comments.

DT: I just wanted to thank Kate, Catherine, and Victoria, really. By the time we were planning the exhibition I was already quite burned out and overstretched between several Ukraine-related commitments and figuring my precarious postdoctoral migrant life. Most of the time I was all over the place, and only because of their commitment, patience, and amazing energy was this exhibition possible - despite all temporal, financial, institutional, and spatial constraints. I believe for Kate and Catherine this was also the first time working with Ukrainian stories, and their engagement and a deep dive into new contexts for me was an act of solidarity, as much of professionalism. I was very touched with how much thoughtfulness, curiosity, and tenderness they treated the stories Victoria, Dmytro, Victor, Kateryna, Oleksandr, and I have been writing about, and Masha, Victor, Oleksandr, and I have been telling through visual means.

L-R: Catherine Spencer, Kate Cowcher, Darya Tsymbalyuk, Victoria Donovan

Places We Love developed from the book Limits of Collaboration: Art, Ethics and Donbas (Kyiv: Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung, 2022), by Victoria Donovan and Darya Tsymbalyuk with Dmytro Chempurnyi, Viktor ‘Corwic’ Zasypkin, Oleksandr Kuchynskyi and Katerina Siryk. The exhibition was co-organised by Kate Cowcher, Victoria Donovan, Catherine Spencer, and Darya Tsymbalyuk. It featured the work of four contemporary Ukrainian artists: Viktor ‘Corwic' Zasypkin, Masha Pronina, Oleksandr Kuchynskyi and Darya Tsymbalyuk.

The exhibition was hosted at the St Andrews Botanic Garden between 18th June and 24th July. Artworks were on display in The Garden Bothy and The Pergola. The exhibition was accompanied by a weekend print sale, with all proceeds going to Ukrainian artists. Ranging from photography to montage to painting, these works provided insights into industrial heritage, pre-war cityscapes, the violence of military incursions, and the multiple lives and loves of the Donbas region. Donbas (Donetsk Coal Basin) is an industrial region in the east of Ukraine, which since 2014 has been partially occupied by Russia, and where war has been ongoing for eight years. Places featured in this exhibition include Mariupol, Sieverodonetsk, and Donetsk, now sadly familiar to international audiences because of Russian atrocities.

A special thank you to Victoria, Kate, Catherine and Darya for taking the time to answer our questions and speak with us about this exhibition. The images featured in this article are a combination of some taken by us and others shared with us kindly by the organisers.



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