In 2013, a revolution began in Ukraine, followed by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. This could not pass without leaving an impact on Ukrainian political art. At first, the crisis had a positive creative effect which manifested itself in the formation of the problem of identity. Later, this impulse tilted toward nationalism and led to decommunization. According to researchers, it could be destructive and lead to the erasure of historical memory.
Prior to the revolution, President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Protests began all over Ukraine as people who were frustrated with their country’s policy turned toward Russia. In the beginning the protests were mainly led by students. They expressed their discontent with peaceful marches and creative actions. Soon the authorities violently dispersed the youth from Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square in the center of Kyiv.
The betrayal of the government led to the state of preparedness of the art troop. The main square of the country turned into a communication platform for performers. Ivan Semesyuk described how the protesting artists spent their time on Maidan from morning to night, staging exhibitions and literary readings. Architect Dmitri Zhyla designed the Barbican pavilion, where these people could rest and bask. The pavilion first became an art residence for liberal artists. Then it turned into a fortification. There, along with the creation of posters, they mixed Molotov cocktails:
Philosopher Viktor Malakhov wrote about the protests: “Maidan is a quite interesting sociocultural phenomenon – how unexpectedly and irreparably modernist revolutionism, postmodernist festivity, the harsh, blood-and-fire-smelling archaic of either the late Middle Ages or the eternal Civil War, and something else, some deep motif of standing for truth, are intertwined in it.”
The photographs did not simply reflect current events on Maidan, they aestheticized the protests. Boris Mikhailov created a series of photographs that, at first glance, might seem staged. Despite the exploratory nature of the pictures, they are not without aesthetics. We are able to notice the symbolic details and the colors. The artist himself called the protests a theatrical performance:
After the bloody events at the end of Maidan, the next strike on Ukraine was the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Acceptance and reinterpretation of recent and current events characterize Ukrainian political art from this time. One such example is the work of Nikita Kadan, The Possessed Can Witness in Court. It contains metal shelves with the artist’s works and objects from the collection of the National Museum of History of Ukraine. The installation is an archive, preserving the Soviet history of Crimea and Donbas. The objects are removed from their historical narrative and placed in a neutral zone. Thus, once symbolizing a particular ideology, they express nothing in this context.
The installation Shelter is a small square space consisting of two tiers. On the top, stuffed deer stand amid ruins of war, in front of barricades made of car tires. The deer refer to the Donetsk Local History Museum, destroyed during the conflict. The lower tier looks like a bomb shelter. There are two-story bunks filled with earth and celery sprouts from it. Kadan uses familiar images to speak of the indomitability of war and the incipient hope.
Alevtina Kakhidze’s installation-reminiscence Stories of Polunitsa Andriivnya, or Zhdanivka eloquently recounts the difficult period for Ukraine from 2014 to 2018 from the perspective of one family. The collected items are drawings, propaganda newspaper pieces, and recordings of phone conversations between the artist and her mother who lived in the separatist-occupied Donetsk region.
Maria Kulikovska protested the annexation of Crimea in her performance 254. Action in Russia. The artist wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag and lay down on the stairs of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. She links the annexation to the uncertainty of the local population and pressure from Russian propaganda:
As part of the performance Raft CrimeA, Kulikovska drifted along the Dnipro River. This was a metaphor for the vulnerability of Ukrainian citizens who have lost their homes due to the annexation. The artist interprets the orange life raft as a peninsula that seems to be attached but can come off at any moment. She is afraid that after what’s happened anyone can wake up and find themselves unwillingly in a foreign country with power and weapons.