Contemporary Ukrainian artists, film-makers and writers pay tribute to earlier generations who created a futuristic moment in 20th century art in the Postponed Futures show at London’s GRAD gallery.
What was their future is now our distant past – but the future remains to be made, as the title suggests. The weight of history, of historic repression in the Stalin period is there, but also a sense of possibility.
Kyiv-born Nikita Kadan along with writers Konstantin Akinsha and Oleksiy Radynski have created an intriguing visual and written dialogue between past and present. The soaring weightlessness of the Soviet – and Ukrainian – avant-garde comes to life in the work of contemporary Ukrainian artist Lada Nakonechna.
In GRAD’s beautiful space near Oxford Circus there is a tantalising glimpse into a generation of artists who are well up there as classics alongside the more famous colleagues like El Lissitsky and Kyiv-born Malevich. Art works from the modernist period are set together with highly contemporary ones, reflecting today’s struggles in Ukraine.
Small but precious paintings and designs by early Ukrainian Modernists Boris Kosarev, Vasyl Ermilov and Oleksandr Bohomazov hang like jewels on the GRAD walls.
Ermilov, for example, who was born in Kharkhiv in 1894, trained in Moscow. He worked with other Constructivists such as El Lissitsky in the early 1920s as a major Soviet designer. But, under Stalin, he was accused of “formalism” because he deviated from the state-imposed dogma of Socialist Realism.
Kadan’s re-creation of Ermilov’s Monument to Three Revolutions from 1924-25 is firmly set in the present. On the pristine white plinth is a strange object: teacups, fused together in a superheated gray mass. The artist retrieved this meteor-like thing from the ruins of a house in the Donbass area, pulverised by artillery strikes from Russian-led separatists.
Wall-based multi-media works, also by Kadan, strangely combine coal, black soil and vintage photographs of Soviet-era ceremonies and monuments.
Lada Nakonechna references the shocking devastation suffered by people in East Ukraine in her cut-outs from 2015. Her Merge Visible compositions have a visual purity reminiscent of the early avant-gardes, even though they are slivers of photos taken in today’s war zone.
Curator-artist Kadan is a member of the Revolutionary Experimental Space artist group and co-founder of the Hudrada Artistic curatorial and activist group. He points to the “universal, international nature of the artistic avant-garde and its close connection with radical, liberating movements.” Contemporary artists are still beholden to the achievements of this time.
He notes that, “While the ‘Russian avant-garde’ exists, we must insist on a distinct Ukrainian one. The latter was repressed in the 1930s with particular cruelty due to the return to a centralised and authoritarian form of rule in an inversion of the early soviet policy of Ukrainisation’’ as Stalinist rule took hold throughout the Soviet Union.
A second space is devoted to Grey Horses, a 44-minute film by Mykola Ridnyi, which interweaves reminiscences of his great-grandfather with actions by a young group of anarchists. In one scene, a group of young people chat, while sitting on a rooftop. They want to understand the truth about the deaths during the 2014 Maidan uprising which overthrew Yanukovych and at the Trade Union House in Odessa later that year.
As part of this exploration, Konstantin Akinsha discusses the nature of the Ukrainian avant-garde. While he notes that Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa gave birth to the shooting stars of early 20th century Modernism, he strikes a balanced, anti-nationalist note. Oleksiy Radynski’s essay Against ‘national avant-garde’ is perhaps the most revealing.
Akinsha dislikes the terms Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde. He prefers to understand these outstanding artists as part of a Soviet avant-garde, given that they were not only Russians or Ukrainians but also Latvians, Belarusians and Georgians and many nationalities.
In the big picture being offered by London’s galleries, museums and libraries commemorating the Russian revolution of 1917, here is a more modest but distinct voice.
GRAD has given space for an understanding of how modernism and internationalism are still powerful and relevant. Not to be viewed with blind optimism, but in the context of today’s realities and possibilities. Time to realise that postponed future indeed.
Postponed Futures is at the GRAD Gallery, 3-4a Little Portland Street, W1W 7JB. Free admission.