Prematurely aged and veined with cracks walls of the nineties mass high-rise housing made up all the view to the right and to the left from the highway. The only interruption of this vast monochromatic landscape was offered by the shiny shacks of the new churches, constructed almost overnight to fulfill the governmental program of enhancing “spirituality,” and massive voluptuous hips and breasts of women advertising luxury watches and bathroom tiles on the big boards. I was looking out of the car window as my mother drove us to Borispil Kiev airport to pick up Matt, trying to imagine how all this scenery would appear to his tired eyes, and whether it would seem worthy of a torturous thirty-hour-long non-direct flight from New York.
Traffic was slow, since police had cordoned off the road to let through the procession of shiny black Mercedez Benz’s carrying high-powered clergy and politicians. Black obsidian bullet-proof shells with soft-boiled bloated pompous man-mass inside. We waited as the governmental cars and their security escorts sped by, listening to the radio and making sarcastic comments about the special driving rules for state officials in Ukraine. This caravan was accompanying the relic of St. Andrews’s cross that had just been flown from Moscow to Kiev on the occasion of a celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus. The odd state-sanctioned holiday was one of the attempts of Yanukovich’s government to strengthen the spirit of Orthodox clericalism and reinforce Ukraine’s connections to Putin’s Russia. Very few of the people I talked to could answer with any degree of certainty whether St Andrew died on this cross, when he lived, how he died and if he had indeed reached Ukraine in his travels. Even fewer had an adequate response to the obvious question of why this celebration of the (forced) Christian Baptism became a state holiday in a multi-confessional country, where church is still officially separated from state. In the media and official discourse, the problem of the ever-narrowing proximity of religion and state has been modestly sheathed by the flower-patterned screen-term of “spiritual revival.” Despite, or, rather because of how hazy religious history and history in general is among the general population, the tide of patriotic reactionary mood was steadily rising.
The following day, from little to do and to shake off Matt’s jet lag, we headed to the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery where the cross was kept, to look at the scene of pilgrims protected by nervous and pimply teenage militia cadets. Coming into the sun out of the Arsenalnaja metro station (named for its proximity to Arsenal factory, whose Bolshevik workers rose against the forces of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1918 – a bloody confrontation that Dovzhenko directed his eponymous 1928 film about), we made our way through a heavy stream of pious women dressed in the long white, bearded black priests, and ice-cream eating girls from the provinces in colorful day-glow tight spandex. Headscarves, cloaks, and summer dresses - all inflated by the dusty summer wind.
Metal detectors and a heavy police presence by the gates of the monastery sapped the little ethnographic resolve we had to see the wonder of St. Andrew’s cross. Instead we contented ourselves with watching this panorama from across the street, leaning on the eighteenth-century fence around the Art Arsenal Museum of Contemporary Ukrainian Art, that on the occasion of this made-to-order religious holiday was advertising an exhibit with the humble title of “Great and Grand.” Our attention was drawn by the sound of a small squabble: one of the militia-guards, looking both embarrassed and aggressive, was ushering a well-dressed indignant middle-aged woman off the premises of the Art Center. The lady looked utterly ‘respectable,’ so I wondered what could have prompted such uncouth treatment. Later we found out that that must have been the aftermath of a group protest of artists against the censorship that took place there.
The story behind it goes like this.
Art Arsenal museum, founded by the dashing Natalia Zabolotnaya, a platinum-blonde wife of a deputy, positions itself as a main venue and vehicle of popularizing and supporting modern and contemporary art in Ukraine. To walk in step with the governmental line, the administration of this institution decided on the occasion of the anniversary of the Baptism, to somehow reconcile its ‘progressive’ orientation with the swelling clericalism, by gathering everyone and everything under the banner of ‘spirituality’ in art. Only a very supple and generous imagination may stretch far enough to make a connection between most of the very eclectic objects culled for the exhibition and the spirit of Christianity. For instance, the very first item that a visitor to Arsenal saw after the ticket booth, was a proudly displayed and lit Peugeot car of the latest model (no Chris Burden was crucified on it). Few halls down, the mammoth bones with ancient pagan carvings were juxtaposed next to constructivists sculptures.
To cite the press release:
“Great and Grand seeks to examine the civilizing effect of Christendom on the development of Ukrainian culture, and to demonstrate how the modern individual – embracing the history reflected in this sublime artistic legacy – involves himself in it, and invigorates the sense of what it is to be Ukrainian.”
It is not hard to guess that only a miracle could have prevented the internal contradictions of Arsenal’s politics from detonating, and sure enough, the explosion did go off. Please forgive my inability to suppress the obvious pun.
On the eve of the opening, Zabolotnaya was making final rounds examining the process of the installation. Passing by the “Last Judgment” mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, still in progress at that time, she found the vision of Apocalypse so genuinely disturbing, that she hastened to personally start painting it over with black paint. (It should be noted that she had commissioned the mural, and that it was both aesthetically and thematically consistent with Kuznetsov’s previous work of the same Kloyivshina cycle, named after the eighteenth-century Ukrainian peasant and Cossack rebellion against the Polish oppression.)
What frightened Zabolotnaya so?
Few low-quality phone photos of Kuznetsov’s mural survive. As commissioned, he painted a scene of the second coming of Christ, who arrives to earth to right all wrongs. Aided by Chernobyl firemen, angry pensioners, Pussy Riot members, workers, and a woman from Vardiivka village, whose unpunished rape and attempted murder by five policemen prompted a large popular protest
earlier that summer, Jesus ushers corrupt politicians together with clergy, mob members, their whores and luminous limos (the likes of which are not only likely to stop general traffic for hours, but also, have struck dead many of the pedestrians on the streets of Kiev and other cities of Ukraine, with their drivers not threatened by any persecution) straight into the fiery pit of hell.
When asked to comment on her actions, Zabolotnaya’s initial response was a model of populist fury: “the artist has offended his motherland, and it is an unforgivable crime, like offending one’s mother,” she said. In few days, however, she has come to her senses, and offered a more ‘sophisticated’ explanation, claiming (as per Boris Groys’ s theory) that curator is the new artist, and this act of vandalism is nothing other than her own personal performance.
Another artwork that was removed from the “Great and Grand” exhibition for censorial reasons, was a painting by Vasiliy Tsagolov titled “A Molotov Cocktail.”
Neo-suprematist Zabolotnaya to this day has not acknowledged an act of censorship and did not officially apologize to the artists. But somehow, by some magic working in reverse, all things censored by her manicured hand, sprung to life in Kiev in the time of just few months. Thousand of real Molotov cocktails were thrown into the air during November 2013-February 2014, a ring of fire, apocalyptic mood and a sense “of fighting the last battle”, and finally, a successful toppling and sending some of the tyrants if not directly to hell, then at least out of their cabinets, did come true. Even Zabolotnaya’s own monument to censorship – her black “square” (or rather, a rectangle), to which Kuznetsov’s scene of popular uprising, driven by an almost eschatological hope for the better, was reduced – reminds uncannily of the scorched blackness of Maidan after a battle of February 18-20, in which hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded by the president’s police forces.
I could not travel to Kiev while the events of Maidan protests were taking place, and have no first-hand account of it. What I know is gathered from anxiously following the pulse of fb posts from friends and text messages from parents. The surface of spectacular images of riots, barricades, and wounded easily ossifies into something so cinematic that it becomes impossible to recognize familiar streets behind this sheen. Please forgive me this all-too formal juxtaposition of two black cards (the censored panorama of popular indignation and a tarred square covered with flowers for the dead), in which I try to read the past and the future.
Burnt Maidan remains a degree zero, though. There is hope, made so much sharper by all the people who were willing and did die for it, that it will become a foundational site of less corrupt, less repressive, and reactionary Ukraine. And then there is a threat of it becoming a monument to the devastation and censorship that Putin’s forces threaten Ukraine with.
With the few spasmodic flickers, florescent lamp in the bathroom steadies itself to illuminate plastic black marble tiles, swamp green toilet, sink and a bathtub, into which I was submerging myself to the soundtrack of some horror film or other every late night of the past week. Besides that, my hotel room in Madrid boasts a red couch, a mirrored wall, and a balcony with a fake plant on it and a view of a beige concrete well of a courtyard from which a soundtrack of multiple turned on tv-sets and domestic negotiations is heard at all times. Having come into this unexpected luxury of a solitary living in a city that is foreign but not unfamiliar (and therefore not demanding immediate tourist attention), I’ve allowed myself to go deranged for few days: stay up until 8am, sleep until 4pm, sleep until 10pm - have dreams as profound as Mariana Trench, shamanic flights of omnipresence on which I would encounter all friends and their spaces, everybody and everything that I was worried about missing or losing altogether. I would wake up deeply happy, just to realize that the square-shaped bit of sky above the well of my brick fortress has grown grey again and that satisfaction of having apologized and been reconciled with everybody, with having established complete fullness of life and memory is also dissolving, and I could return to a stupefied blowing of smoke into my reflection in the wall mirror.
This fake black marble was perfect, emblematic somehow, it made some sense for the entire environment that could be consumed without even leaving my cavernous room. What did I remember about Madrid anyway? Baroque churches, pious pomp, black Goyas - figures soaring over dumb and inarticulate landscape, witches and giants made more real in their nightmarish flesh for being such a low ridicule of the familiar pathos of pink and fat gods, heroes and goddesses. All of it was right there, in an absurdity of a plastic fossil that was not supposed to remind of anything, and yet still could offer a face of Jesus or whatever one wished - and spit it out as something I knew was an object of missing, of desire - an artifice that is, a total theatre of (cheap) matter.
"Baby, I stopped reading tea-leaves and coffee grounds to understand the vicissitudes of our life together, apart, together. All that was too bitter and too noble. Now I just blow pink bubble gum and stare at the ripples on the cheap-ass plastic marble tiles and the flicker of light reflected in my filled bath."
Down below, the street are crowded by rich tight-lipped old women with their flat patent shoes and stiff hairdos. The hotel is in the middle of expensive, pompous, conservative and fascist neighborhood of Salamanca. (A nice addendum, is that they used to hold human zoos in the El Retiro garden nearby in the late nineteenth-century. But I did not dream of these atrocities - only of the secret and heavy life of the tropical plants in the Botanical Garden). I also found out that Will More, a Movida muse of predictable frail, pale, aristocratic & vampiric appeal lived nearby at his family apartment - it is very easy to imagine him surrounded by all the powdered nazi half-corpses shackled in their heavy gold chains.
Late, adamantly cold April. The truck was driving away from New York City up north to the Delaware County, I was huddled in the back, looking out of my window. The landscape moving behind the glass was hypnotic and uninviting – like a clear pool of cold water into which one stares without the slightest desire to jump in. Bare trees, stretches of empty fields underneath blue-gray stain of sunless sky – it was a picture of stoic sternness and emptiness sharpened with potential and expectation. Close-up though, when under my rubber soles, the earth turned out to be an indecent, brown, deep, and slippery mess, slurping below the hair layer of dead colorless grass.
It was the mud season upstate, and mud was king. Downward-pulling dominating force of erasure and inertia.
I was on my way to visit my friend Tianna, an artist and a musician, who four years ago came there from the city to reconsider her life-strategy, and ended up staying, having embraced organic farming as something to learn, take on as a full-hearted purpose, a promise of a business and income down the line, and also perhaps as an exercise in gaining peace of mind through practicing labor-camp type of penance. She is now living on the property of a former Madison avenue advertisement agent, and together they are trying to build a farm. Neither has extensive farming experience, so this is a very brave venture of cultivating uncollaborating and infinitely demanding land. Which, at the end of the battle day, he owns and Tianna does not.
We saw none of it the first night, though. When Sunny pulled her car by Tianna’s house, it was already dark, and the field stretching in front of the porch was a foggy and howling mystery (no stars), and remained that way until the morning.
Out of this dark plane came an incongruous cast of characters invited to dinner that night, absurd enough for the city, but made even less comprehensible in the setting of this wooden cabin, beaten from every side by the storm winds:
A young British woman of clear grey eyes and rather cynical and macabre sense of humor – a daughter of a famous screen writer, a cook, and a teacher of English and Tibetan for the homeschooled children of local Buddhists.
An owner of an expensive restaurant in Park Slope that offers organic fair of fetishized jams, cheeses, and pickled goods, all treated with reverie fitting for exotic spices. He was born and grew up upstate, made his fortune as a builder and so had redeeming proletarian directness to him.
A Dutch former model and her former scaterboarding pro corn-blond American husband who is also a carpenter, and an eighth child of zealously religious parents. Together they run a forbiddingly expensive organic pizzeria in the adjoining town.
A maker of goat cheese and her seven year-old daughter Haley, the latter digging through the box of Tianna’s trinkets and souvenirs, and forcing her tell one painful story of loss after another.
A calm, independent, yet affectionate black and white cat named Panther, who claimed Tianna as his owner. I respected him instantly. (The following evening, when the storm erupted fully, Panther walked through the mud-filled wind as unperturbed, unhurried and noble as ever, deigning to come and sit his soaking wet and dirty body in the ray of a table lamp light only very late into the night.)
The demographic was rather checkovian: all bourgeois people, mostly petty, who were driven to live the country life by an ambition to secure something – a homestead, a business, a family. But all that we heard from them were no foundational tales, but rather stories of endless slippages, break-ups and heart-breaks. This melodramatic leitmotif was the red thread interweaving the narratives of extremely hard and precarious labor. Matt remarked that just moving into the frontier prairie environment does not ensure adulthood and the ability to commit to anything or anyone, if it has not been acquired earlier.
The following day I woke up on the floor as Tianna and Jordi were stepping over me, preparing breakfast and discussing the news. (Manhunt was going on in Boston. I was having massive dreams of detection and persecution.)
Tianna starts out every morning at six and toils until eight at night, taking care of pigs, chickens, and vegetables that seem as demanding and fickle as little children, perpetually in danger of freezing or overheating to death. Work is constant, hard, and financially untenable – there is little to none governmental support for the organic farmers, and all of them are desperately in debt.
After a full day of labor of Sisyphal emergency, pushing against the inert swampy land that constantly threatens to swallow all efforts, she took us to dinner to the restaurant run by the Dutch-American couple. There, vegetables grown by her and people like her, are transformed into $15 pizzas (hence instantly made unaffordable for her) and served in the decorum of sensitive minimalism to rich New Yorkers who come upstate for the weekend. The atmosphere struck me as strange: lions and lambs, ascetics and epicureans, poor artists and rich patrons were sitting at the same tables, admiring what bucolic escapes have to offer, reminiscing about the Occupy and the emotional bonding across the class lines that it provided, and discussing NY art scene. All was very pretty, but my head started to boil: “what will happen in five years, after the yuppies colonize the town as a vacation spot and Tianna loses the last chance to buy land, since the prices would go up”? “Is there any attempt made on behalf of the farmers to cut costs by organizing some kind of equipment or labor share?” I understand the need to cultivate local market, but these people of money privide just a short-term respite, treating food as another cultural commodity and helping to fashion the relationship between farmers and buyers as the one between artists and art patrons.”, “Nothing is essential, everything is an object of luxury.” I unleashed some tamer version of this nervous monologue onto a wife of a MoMa curator sitting next to me – she instantly put on a apologetic tone in response to my implicit accusations: “We brought our property last year, and we got so very lucky, and it was still very cheap”.
After the dinner, the entire party drove off from the pizzeria to the house of a German fashion designer (Tianna said that he exuded sex; I did not think so, but there was a perpetual guttural kind of vibration to him), and his canary boyfriend in pink polo shirt and yellow pullover. Bearskins and furs were spread, mannered design objects in perfect order, family silver mentioned more than once. Everybody found the couple funny and charming. I hated the jovial fuckers. Fashion designer was enthusiastically orating late into the night about his plan of opening an auction house for household antique items. “No concept, but it will help build the community”. Farmers were giving polite exhausted smiles, and falling asleep one after another like flies.
At the end of the night, MoMa curator and his wife gave everybody a hug.
“Why doesn’t anyone ostracize those clowns?” was my question. Because they can feed the rest expensive cheese at the end of their impossible work day, because they can afford to buy organic food has been abstracted into an art object, because they help to reproduce familiar situations of hustling for sponsors who would support your work in exchange of your cultural cache of having “real life experience”.
All that is solid melts into air, even carrots, even dirt.