The First Kyiv International Biennale of Contemporary Art ARSENALE 2012


Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa's <em>Golden Lotus</em> (2012, waterproof fabric inflated by motor, diameter 11m), produced specially for Kyiv, bloomed in the city's central Independence Square in April before being placed in the courtyard in front of Mystetskyi Arsenal. Image courtesy of the author.

The First Kyiv International Biennale of Contemporary Art ARSENALE 2012 [], which took place concurrently with the Euro 2012 football championship hosted by Ukraine and Poland, had a dual aim to present high-quality artworks from all over the world in Kyiv and to display Ukrainian contemporary artists to the world on par with their international counterparts. Commissioned by Nataliia Zabolotna, the Biennale featured: Main Project “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art” (curator David Elliott); Special Project “Double Game” (curator Oleksandr Soloviov with coordination by Fabio Cavalucci, Director of Zamek Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw); Historical Project “Ancient Forms;” and numerous satellite projects in art spaces all over Ukraine as part of its Parallel Program.

David Elliott’s Main Project included politically charged works like Nikita Kadan’s Procedure Room (2009-10); Vandy Rattana’s photographs and video from the project Bomb Ponds (2009); and Chto Delat?’s Russian Woods (2012), but it left an overall impression of aesthetic objects arranged to fill the massive space of the main exhibition hall of the National Cultural-Art and Museum Complex “Mystetskyi Arsenal.” Although each work was accompanied by a paragraph offering historical context and interpretation by the curator, the objects were often received by visitors as backdrops for personal photographs. The Special Project “Double Game” was more compact in space and scope, and thus, offered a more cohesive presentation of the current concerns of Ukrainian and Polish contemporary artists – the body (vulnerable, social, mortal); space (imagined, public, saturated with memory or hope); modes of perception (physiological and of surrounding socio-political events). Both projects were contained in the main Arsenal building on the grounds of the complex, alongside a chichi cafe; a canopied stage for ceremonial events; the ancient stone babas of the Historical Project; benches and lounge chairs for visitors – all encircling Choi Jeong Hwa’s Golden Lotus, which presided over a central fountain and whose petals hypnotically raised and lowered. Photographer Kostiantyn Strilets made a number of visits to Mystetskyi Arsenal to investigate the context of the Biennale – its architectural setting, its staff, local visitors – and its relationship to Kyiv, Ukraine. His photographs reflect the project’s emphasis on representation and formal concerns, where the gaze slides along the surface and meaning often arises from chance juxtapositions.

Introduction/Captions by Larissa Babij (Kyiv)

All photos by Kostiantyn Strilets

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David Elliott's Main Project collected various considerations of "best" and "worst" in relation to current realities and historical heritage. Sergey Bratkov, <em>Long Live the Bad Things of Today, for Tomorrow Will Be Good</em>, 2010, digital photographic print, neon, 180 x 635 cm. Image courtesy of the author.The old military Arsenal built in 1783-1801 has been minimally renovated to accommodate art exhibitions and events; its vast ceilings, long colonnaded galleries, natural light and occasional pigeons play a strong role in the perception of exhibited artworks. Image courtesy of the author.Shigeo Toya, <em>Woods IX</em>, 2008, wood, ashes, acrylic, 30 pieces, 220 x 30 x 30 cm each. Image courtesy of the author.At times it seemed like Elliott's primary challenge was how to fill the massive space of Mystetskyi Arsenal. He succeeded, but he needn't have tried so hard. A visitor contemplates Miwa Yanagi's <em>Windswept Women III</em>, 2009, diasec, 400 x 300 cm. Image courtesy of the author. On the second floor, with its lower ceilings and more frequent dividing walls, visitors could experience more intimately individual videos and smaller drawings like Olga Chernysheva's series <em>A figure protected by…</em>, 2011-12, charcoal on paper. Many of the works were humble and candid, inviting the viewer to see the world for a moment through the artist's eyes. Image courtesy of the author. Over 20 Ukrainian artists, like Lesya Khomenko (<em>Polar Bear Swimmers</em>, 2007, acrylic on canvas, series, 200 x 150 cm each) and Mykola Matsenko (painting at left) were among the more than 100 whose works were presented in the Main Project. Image courtesy of the author. Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev's <em>Red Carpet</em> (2009-12, felt installation, 1.5 x 2 x 10 m) ironized on the glamor associated with contemporary art, especially as it is often perceived in post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, at events like ARSENALE. Image courtesy of the author. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's <em>Monument to a Lost Civilization</em> (1998-99, room installation: wood, prints, tables, models, framed panels, mixed media, including 140 artworks, 25 x 25 m), a comprehensive exhibit occupying a large corner gallery, was like a museum in itself, presenting the Kabakovs' decades of artistic reflection on life in the Soviet Union. Even if it was a token contribution, the installation was both an island – set off from the other works by its strong authorial voice and density of critical reflection – and a cornerstone of the exhibition – for its personal insight into the local past. Image courtesy of the author.Similarly self-contained, Yayoi Kusama's <em>Footprints to the Future</em> (2012, site-specific mixed media installation, 14 x 7 m) was a hit with visitors; at the Biennale's close the artist was one of three recipients of an "Audience Choice Award." Image courtesy of the author. Decoratively dressed visitors, like this one before Wang Qingsong's <em>Temple</em> (2011, c-print, 180 x 300 cm), were as much of an attraction for other viewers as the works themselves. Image courtesy of the author.Jake and Dinos Chapman's <em>The Dark Destroyer</em> (2011, painted steel, clothed mannequins, taxidermied birds and painted bronze, dimensions variable) offers a parodical alternate view on the historical 1937 exhibition of "degenerate art" in Nazi Germany; in Kyiv, it was a favorite site for photo-shoots. Image courtesy of the author. Many of the Main Project's works, like Madein Company's <em>Prey-Qiaoting Road</em>, Baoshan District, Shanghai, China, 2011 (oil on canvas, 190 x 126 cm), remained cloaked in an aura of the curious and exotic, perhaps intriguing and befuddling visitors, but never quite openly communicating with the audience. Image courtesy of the author.Editors' noteZhanna Kadyrova, <em>Core</em>, 2012. Image courtesy of the author.Oleksiy Sai's installation <em>Inner Mongolia</em>, 2012, is a yurt-like structure wrapped in cellophane that visitors can enter. Image courtesy of the author. Alevtina Kakhidze strolls past Gamlet Zinkovskyi's installation <em>Alone with yourself</em>, 2012, with her dog Duchamp in the performance <em>A WALK with Duchamp or The Rendezvous</em>, 2012. Image courtesy of the author. Igor Gusev, <em>Who is trying to rewrite history?</em>, 2012, installation. Image courtesy of the author. Taras Kamennoy, <em>Devices of Identity Formation</em>, 2012, installation. Image courtesy of the author.Franciszek Orlowski's slideshow <em>Kiss of Love</em>, 2008, documents a performance on a public park bench, in which the artist exchanged his clothing with that of a homeless man, piece by piece. Image courtesy of the author.The Historical Project "Ancient Forms" brought kurgan stelae (stone <em>babas</em>) from nine Ukrainian museums to stand at the periphery of Mystetskyi Arsenal's territory. Image courtesy of the author. One of the many golden domes of Kyiv's Monastery of the Caves peeks out from behind Choi Jeong Hwa's <em>Golden Lotus</em>. Image courtesy of the author.



Kostiantyn Strilets is a photographer and designer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. His website showcases his photos of Ukrainian contemporary art events. Since 2010, he has been contributing to the online publications,, and the journal Art Ukraine. His work has also been shown in Kyiv in “1986. Two Views” (group exhibition), “London. First Exhibition” (solo show), and published in the Ukrainian photography journal 5.6.