Enduring the Flag: A Review of Maria Kulikovska’s 254 Performance
Maria Kulikovska, 254 Performance, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, April 27 to May 4, 2022
For her durational performance 254 at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovska laid on the steps of the museum underneath the Ukrainian flag. From one Wednesday until the next between April 27 to May 4, 2022, and commencing daily at noon, 3pm, and 5pm, she performed an hour of passive action—an active disengagement that reaffirmed the relationship between fight and flight. The performance was a re-enactment of a protest that Kulikovska originally staged in 2014 at Manifesta 10, a contemporary art biennial that took place in St. Petersburg, for which she was briefly detained. This current iteration, a performance commission, demonstrates the tensions between human and artistic agency against the boundaries of nationalism and political claims of identarian progressivism.
Kulikovska was born in 1988 in the Crimean town of Kerch and currently lives in Linz, Austria. She has been hosted by the Upper Austrian State Museums since she left Kyiv in March 2022 when the war upon Ukraine began. Kulikovska’s multidisciplinary practice, which includes performance, sculpture, painting, and drawing, engages questions of identity, belonging, borders, and diaspora. For her 254 performance at the Neue Nationalgalerie, she arrived at the museum’s outside terrace space with her shoulders wrapped in a Ukrainian flag. She then laid down on the steps and draped the flag over her body, covering herself from head to toe. The blue and yellow colors of the flag—symbolizing the skies and fields of Ukraine—folded and crinkled to the point of solidification. For the next hour, the artist’s body remained motionless underneath the fabric. As an act of ongoing resistance, the willful entrapment of the body recast the contours of its physical shape in a sculptural dimension, making space for and giving time to an experience of vulnerability and exposure.
The concept of endurance is embedded within the thematic concerns of 254 and raises significant questions about our bodily existence and what it means to act or to be acted upon. The museum that served as a backdrop for this iteration of 254 was designed by Mies van der Rohe and stands between Potsdamer Platz and the Landwehr Canal—an area that was devastated by the Allied bombing of Berlin during World War II. Its vast atrium was conceptualized by Mies in relation to that destructive campaign, imagined as a “space of memorial import.” Realized as a large-scale hall, it is said to “resemble Mies’s rejected plan for a huge mausoleum to be built in commemoration of the World War I dead. (Edward Whittaker, “Art in the Age of Exception: Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper in Berlin,” in Revolutions: Mapping Culture, Community and Change from Ben Jonson to Angela Carter, edited by Warren Steele and Jennifer Craig (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), p. 27. See also Barry Bergdoll and Terence Riley, (eds.), Mies in Berlin, exhibition catalog (New York: Museum of Modern Art 2001), pp. 256-59, 358-61.) Therefore, an association between the museum’s architectural realization and a site of memorialization cannot be denied. Through Kulikovska’s performance, staged on the steps of the museum’s wide-open agora at the invitation of Director Klaus Biesenbach, the political is relocated and the wounds of war redeemed within the space occupied by a singular body.
254 foregrounds the courage of intentional exposure as the most critical aspect of Kulikovska’s performative stamina. As reflected by Lara Shalson, a number of debates in the field of performance studies have formed alongside the discursive axis of endurance, “including central arguments about the relationships between audience and performer, between performance art and political protest, between art and life, and between live performance and its documentation.”(Lara Shalson, Performing Endurance: Art and Politics since 1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 7. ) Unlike the “long-standing habit of regarding performance art as essentially breaking with form,”(Ibid, p. 8.) endurance here signals less the exhaustion of time, but rather indicates a risky spatial and social relation. Audiences and passerby gathered around her body, lying covered and crumbled in a fetal position in the middle of the plaza. Kulikovska’s durational camouflaging was accompanied by a security guard, yet presents self-endangerment, even potentially life-threatening acts of physical exposure in public space.
Encounters with the body’s objecthood are central to Kulikovska’s multimedia practice, which in addition to performance includes watercolor drawings of bodily forms and sculptural casts of the artist’s own body, often in soap and resin. The durational aspect of 254 must also be contextualized in how Kulikovska’s art and life are intimately intertwined. Her artistic trajectory for the past several years has been shaped by experiences of flight and as a consequence, living through emotional pain. In 2014, when the Crimean region was annexed by Russia, Kulikovska and her closest family members left their home. Kulikovska described that flight as a sudden experience of “becoming a ‘non-person;’”(Hannah Zafiropoulos, “Not by way of Kiev: Why are Ukraine’s artists abandoning its cultural epicentre?” The Calvert Journal, November 24, 2017. See https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9254/ukraine-art-Kyiv-art-scene-borders?_gl=1*abv9tz*_ga*MTcxMjQ5OTQ5OC4xNjUxNTIyNDI1*_ga_SQM7D3WT89*MTY1MTkzMzY3NC4yLjEuMTY1MTk0MDc3Ny4w.(Accessed 17 August 2022).) although her passport is registered in Crimea, she has since been unable to return.
Manifested in the Ukrainian flag –and in all flags– is a logic of representation that implies a hegemony of the symbolic and symbolized. Kulikovska’s performance engages this nationalist symbol and its many conflicted meanings. One might interpret her spatial action within the context of those who “live under” the flag and what that might mean in a state of war, ultimately building an effect of estrangement that destabilizes the flag’s nationalistic image. In Kulikovska’s performance, the act of rendering the self as “other” through absence (the literal covering up of the artist’s body with a flag), demands recognition of her presence.(Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge 1992), p. 149.) In this respect, Kulikovska’s performance is an act of sublimation and en/countering. Re-envisaged in a work of performance art, a national flag proposes a representational function, commenting on a state of social and political relations. When used as an instrument in performance, the flag blurs the lines between art and activism, performative action and protest. While the body wrapped in a flag is also a feature of sports matches, soldiers’ funerals, and other kinds of demonstrations that ultimately fall into a populist and nationalist framework, Kulikovska’s work is dismissive of any heroic gesture. Rather, the issues of patriotism and belonging reflected in the performance connect to the artist’s personal history.
It should be noted that the title 254 refers to the number that Kulikovska received as a registered refugee from occupied Crimea. In 2014, she rejected an invitation to participate in Manifesta 10, stating in an open letter that “as an artist and a citizen of Crimea, Ukraine, I cannot take money from the hand that brought trouble to my family, forcing them to flee from our home.” (Maria Kulikovska, “Q&A: Maria Kulikovska,” Interview with George King, Art Represent, December 6, 2015. See https://www.artrepresent.com/blog/maria-kulikovska-interview?_gl=1*1ti6smf*_ga*MTcxMjQ5OTQ5OC4xNjUxNTIyNDI1*_ga_SQM7D3WT89*MTY1MTkzMzY3NC4yLjEuMTY1MTkzMzY3NS4w. (Accessed 17 August 2022). ) Following the above-quoted open letter, in which she and fellow Ukrainian artists declared their position, Kulikovska staged 254 as an unannounced “political art action”(Ibid.) on the marble stairs in the entrance foyer of the Hermitage’s General Staff Building. She managed to lay under the Ukrainian flag for 25 minutes before it was pulled from her body by the security guards and the police were called.
After her initial action, Kulikovska has since re-performed 254, including in 2014 when it was re-enacted with multiple performers as part of a collective political action on Paris’s Boulevard de Charonne,(See Maria Kulikovska, “254: Collective Performance,” on the artist’s website: https://mariakulikovska.net/en/254-collective-performance-paris. (Accessed 17 August 2022).) and on May 1, 2015, this time with a hand-painted Crimean flag, which she washed in the waters of Moscow’s Moskva River, just below the Crimean Bridge.(See Maria Kulikovska, “White,” on the artist’s website: https://mariakulikovska.net/en/white?_gl=1*1brd5f7*_ga*MTAzOTI1Nzk0NC4xNjYwNzU2ODkw*_ga_SQM7D3WT89*MTY2MDc1Njg4OS4xLjEuMTY2MDc1NjkwMS4wLjAuMA. (Accessed 17 August 2022).) The flag’s iconographic return and close attachment to the body in Kulikovska’s work demonstrates how a simple exterior (of blue and yellow fabric) can enclose complexity and captivity with each iteration. In 2018, Kulikovska created a thematic series of silkscreen prints based on photographic documentation of the St. Petersburg performance. Following an impulse raised by the initial 254 performance, she later initiated the School of Political Performance in May 2017. This educational platform, co-organized with Uleg Vinnichenko, was created with the intention of sparking conceptual and critical reflections on performance and to tie Ukrainian artists more strongly to the cultural map of Europe.
Performative artistic actions that engage with iconic, national vexillological symbols reach back to the postwar period, taking their formal references from the media and political propaganda then transferring them into the world of art. However, in its ongoing form, 254 is driven by strong personal and social impetus, thus Kulikovska’s performance must be viewed as an action that testifies to the exhaustion of political sovereignty under a nationalist political agenda and makes a demand for endurance and solidarity. Embedding the body within the flag evokes recent memories of the Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013, when many protesters marched and stood with flags, while others painted their faces in the national colors of Ukraine. 254 demonstrates an inherently relational and contested political dimension. In 2014, when 254 was first performed, the annexation of Crimea had been widely condemned by European countries. The flag’s symbolism and Ukraine’s relationship to the continent reads differently in 2022, in the midst of a brutal conflict that raises new questions about the West’s involvement and responsibility.
Unlike the original 254 performance that enacted public space as a site of independent protest, this most recent version at the Neue Nationalgalerie arguably serves the moral investment of a Western public art institution as a gesture of political solidarity.(As a cooperation between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Gallery Weekend Berlin, 254 aimed to raise donations for Be an Angel e.V., an organization committed to establishing a sustainable integration for people with a history shaped by flight. ) The artist has, over the course of the past decade, built ties to art institutions in the so-called West, yet this iteration makes clear the complex reality of sovereignty and dependency that characterize the phenomenon of institutionally supported (artistic) migration. Read in such light, the proposition of re-staging 254 during Gallery Weekend Berlin shifts its meaning to functioning primarily as a symbolic gesture of solidarity. As a dispositive to introduce liberal balance in global politics, the blue-and-yellow flag indeed has gained an aura of cultural capital. In the context of Russia’s ongoing war upon Ukraine, statements of largely web-based solidarity have peaked over the sharing of Ukrainian-colored iconographies. It is against the background of the contemporary visual culture that the form of Kulikovska’s passive action must be read. In the context of capitalist societies, performed gestures of withdrawal are, almost by consensus, read as forms of “disinvestment” from socio-economic structure that demands our continuous self-investment. Arguably, this is reflected in the symbolic posturing of empty affirmations in the age of social media, exposing the categoric saturation of its representational dimension.
The institutional sanctioning of the work, therefore, also mirrors the staging of Western institutions in this very war through excessive symbolic involvement. As an act of (re-) presentation, the artist’s presence runs danger of becoming trapped in a corporate reality. However, Kulikovska’s performance still serves as an advocate for social change, translating the representative function of the flag itself and tying its iconography to the artist’s body and its vital existence. In Kulikovska’s performance, the body encrypts the flag, exposes its territorial concept by signifying its edges and folds, creating a new vernacular that engages the situational volatility between symbolic tension and its performative re-imagination.
During the performance, only Kulikovska’s hand was visible from underneath the flag, as it reached out into open space. Marked by its semi-isolation under the banner, the body willfully engages with its passivity. Her covered body also speaks of the tragedy of not being able to realize oneself in the place of one’s birth, of being held in a permanent state of in-between. The flag recasts the contours of the artist’s prone body into a sculptural form, a body on the verge of objecthood. However, the term object does not intend to describe inert matter devoid of any subjectivity. By contrast, it is anybody’s physical and psychic condition that leaves them vulnerable to the caring actions of others, thus in this sense, the body’s objecthood is what characterizes its (a)live existence. Kulikovska’s act of endurance highlights precisely this aspect, confronting audiences with a bold, material reference of identity and identification as a statement of entangled life. It translates the complex political symbolism of the flag as an exposed form of durational corporeality, challenging the idea of national binaries through the performative creation of a public interspace, where people are invited to move around in and to calibrate. The factor of endurance has implications for its audiences, too, transforming them into witnesses of a nation’s survival that is still at stake.