Maidan Nezalezhnosti (literally: Independence Square) in Kiev, Ukraine has a particular significance which in many ways goes back to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Beginning in 1989 with the student led protests against Soviet occupation, the square has played host to a series of political demonstrations aimed at altering Ukraine’s post communist leadership and direction. In an article for Frieze Magazine last year, artist Sean Snyder and Olga Bryukhovetska, a Professor of Cultural Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine highlighted the significance of the square, often simply known as ‘Maidan’ (‘square’) in Ukraine’s ongoing political turmoil. This was further illustrated when the square was blocked off in the early 2000s as part of a rebuilding program; a move viewed by many as an attempt to restrict the use of the square for the purpose of political demonstration in a tacit acknowledgement of its history as a site of political action.
In the same article, the pair discusses the way activists used the space in the most recent round of political upheavals beginning in November 2013 as many protested for closer ties to the EU and called for the resignation of then President Viktor Yanukovych (together with a host of other demands too complicated to fully explore here). Among the activities they list was a series of performative actions undertaken under the title Write on Your Forehead, where individuals would write slogans or derogatory comments on their foreheads, thereby reclaiming language and transforming an act of humiliation into one of civil disobedience. One such example was Nikita Kadan, who took an insult shouted at him during a presentation and turned it on its head by writing “provocateur and degenerate” on his forehead.
In his new exhibition at Waterside Contemporary, Limits of Responsibility, Kadan again returns to Maidan as his source material as part of the artists first solo showing in the UK. In many respects, the civil disobedience of his performance is once more evident in his work, this time explored through the improvised accommodation left by protesters at the site. Specifically, Kadan here revisits the small gardens built by activists to grow vegetables, simultaneously speaking to the pragmatic necessity of occupying a public space and making a more symbolic reference to the relationship between the people and the soil of their country.
The show can be read as a kind of cycle, beginning in the back left corner of the gallery space with a series of slides featuring protesters gathered in their makeshift lodgings in the middle of the square. Some of these are vaguely familiar from others shown in various news reports but the majority are more intimate; an almost private window through which the viewer can see behind the scenes. Among the photographs are several of what appear to be informal allotments created to grow food in amongst tents and other provisional dwellings. From here the work then moves to a series of beautiful collages, featuring what appear to be semi-destroyed or bombed out buildings with printed images of vegetables and roots pasted over the top. In one images they appear to be lined up like exemplars in some sort of text, a kind of scientific or instructional motif which also appears elsewhere in the exhibition
Following alongside these are a series of stunning watercolour works, which feature the almost surrealistic melding of natural, human and architectural bodies together. Kadan’s suggestion of the link between people and place is on show here, as is his attempt to blur the lines between these different elements and show their dynamic interconnectedness. The works feel visually similar to the kind you might find in horticultural or anatomical texts, ostensibly scientific with a kind of unbiased observational weight. Visually the works are gorgeous, beautiful poetic shapes that captivate as they seem to dissolve in front of the viewer. In keeping with the cyclical nature of the exhibition, they represent a further development of the visual abstraction evident in the collages, as each body of works dilutes and blurs the elements found in the slideshow.
The highlight of the show however is the sculptural installation in the centre of the space, which underpins Kadan’s political and social commentary, while tying the whole body of work together and bringing it back to the source material of slideshow. Created from an instructional pamphlet on how to demonstrate agricultural achievement produced by the Soviet bureaucracy, the installation features 3 tilted display boards, the middle of which sits atop a square garden box holding lettuce and herbs. The model itself is an identical match to the image in the Soviet pamphlet, also illustrated in 3 small panels near the door of the exhibition, yet the works connection with the images featured in the slideshow is uncanny. When you view the box from low down, you can actually see the slides playing in the background through the gap between the central board and the garden box, including images of their use by protesters at Maidan.
There is a nice irony at play here too. Collectivised Agriculture (and often the failure to achieve its efficient realisation) is one of the hallmarks of the early-mid 20th Century period in communist countries like the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. Among many discussions of this phenomenon are stories of forced relocations, purges, punishments, unrealistic quotas and famine. Kadan manages to slyly address this in the organic collectivised nature of the protester’s ramshackle plots and allotments at Maidan, an understated commentary on the merits of its intent and motivation. Here, the democratic will of the people achieves what the bureaucracy driven failed state utopias of yore could not.
Kadan’s installation here is made all the stronger by the fact that the boards are a crisp, blank white. There is no propaganda or electioneering, either in reference to the protests in Ukraine or anything else. The work reads like a careful and considered criticism not of one side over the other, but the apparent dichotomy at play as a whole. Given the immense wealth of pieces on Ukraine’s Revolution, proclaiming everything from blistering anti-Russian vitriol to the assertion that the new rulers of the country were in fact Neo-Fascists, this approach reads as a kind of stoic taking of the high ground, a damning criticism delivered by silent omission.
By Will Gresson
Nikita Kadan’s Limits of Responsibility is on show at Waterside Contemporary in London until April 4, 2015.