The Art of the Ukraine War
An exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art in the Graduate Center’s James Gallery spotlights the human and cultural stakes of the war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Sai was about to open a solo show in Kyiv on February 24, 2022, when history intervened. The gallery, lined with artworks Sai had made in response to the 2014 Russian invasion and subsequent attacks on eastern Ukraine, transformed into a shelter for Sai and his artist friends as Russia initiated war, bombing Kyiv and other large cities.
“My exhibition about air bombing was transformed into a shelter. So psychedelic,” Sai texted his friend Tetiana Khodakivska, a Ukrainian filmmaker in New York. He sent photos of the makeshift shelter. They spoke about how to bring the world’s attention to the atrocities that were unfolding.
The photos stuck in Khodakivsa’s mind. They highlighted the absurdity and cruelty of the attack, the uncertainty for Ukrainian art and artists, she said. She called Sai to propose a new exhibition: a show of projected images of Ukrainian contemporary art. Sai agreed and, through colleagues, Khodakivska reached out to Katherine Carl, the curator of the Graduate Center’s James Gallery and an expert in Eastern European art. Carl seized the opportunity, and with Sai and Khodakivsa as well as Nikita Kadan and Ksenia Malykh in Ukraine and Inga Lāce, C-MAP Central and Eastern Europe Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, planned the show. Ten months later, on December 14, the exhibition, Hi-Resolution: Ukrainian Culture and Contemporary Art Now!, opened in the gallery’s Fifth Avenue space.
Visitors can see the works of 38 Ukrainian artists, including those of Sai and Kadan. But, other than two walls of colorful war posters created by artists, no artworks hang in the space. Instead, in the main room of the gallery the artworks, which include paintings, drawings, photographs, and videos made between 1988 and 2022, flash on and off the walls as projected images.
Projectors placed throughout the room rotate through the images, giving the exhibition the feel of a giant slideshow and emphasizing the ephemeral nature of the art.
The images that come and go symbolize the attack on Ukrainians and their culture, Carl said. Khodakivska added that the video projections highlight the simultaneous feeling of presence and absence felt by Ukrainians.
Visitors cast shadows on the art when they stand close to it. This blocking of the art is another symbol.
“You may not see the artwork behind your own shadow,” Khodakivska said, “but by making a step, doing something actively, you can open the art and be able to see it. That was very important for us to show that we are living through this time together.”
The projections also allow for a plethora of art, which is another intention of the curators. “It was just so important to show the abundance, the magnitude of Ukrainian art creation,” Carl said, “and that there's a history, an art history, and historical touchpoints.”
Carl pointed to an image of White Horse, a 2014 watercolor by Illia Isupov. The artist adapts a classic equestrian portrait to depict the bloody Maidan Revolution. The painting, like many in the show, is full of historical references and jokes that serve as memes, said Carl.
Art from 1988 through the 2010s spans about half of the gallery. The other half is devoted to art and posters made since the start of the war. The effect is a dialogue between the past and the present. Many of the older artworks satirize Russian culture or repression or convey the ironies of Ukraine’s emerging democracy and capitalism. In these works, humor often trumps horror. The walls with the 2022 artworks, by contrast, are darker in mood.
In a series of paintings that are shown near the front of the gallery, Sai depicts the smoke plumes that exploded from bombed buildings in Kyiv and other areas throughout the war. He used heavy brushstrokes and splatters of thick, sculptural, black rubber paint on white backgrounds to create stark and jarring images. Sai, who flew in from Kyiv to set up the exhibition, began the series of over 300 paintings as a diversion from a video that showed the suffering Ukrainians were enduring. “They were blasting us with huge missiles,” he said, which led to massive amounts of smoke, “like in the movies.”
We are the price, a screen print with those words in black all-caps against a smoky sky, by Nikita Kadan, flashes on the wall at the far end of the gallery. It sums up the looming loss and annihilation that the show depicts.
Near the middle of the exhibition stands a wall covered on both sides in anti-war posters designed by Sai and three other artists for use in protests around the world. In bold graphics that incorporate the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag along with red, black, and white, the artists convey their patriotism, the suffering of their people, and the bloodthirst of Russia.
The gallery makes use of its Fifth Avenue location to display 18 posters in its large picture windows, broadcasting to the public that the war is ongoing.
“Not all artwork works on Fifth Avenue,” Carl said. “But those posters that are supposed to speak loudly, graphically, and quickly make a point, and everybody knows what that is.”
Carl intended for the show to be a wake-up call about the war as it slogs on into a dangerous period. “We knew that the winter would be a time when Ukraine would suffer really badly in the war, and that’s exactly what Putin did,” she said.
The exhibition, Carl said, illustrates Ukrainian artists’ “generative and creative and imaginative way of looking at a really desperate, violent situation. I think it's the most powerful thing to be able to combat the genocide with cultural creation.”
Planning the exhibition with artists in Ukraine gave Carl a visceral sense of the human cost of the war. “We were working together and just kind of going into the project, realizing, we just don't know,” Carl said, fighting back tears. “I was starting to make a deep connection with this collaborative group and then having to come to terms with, we just don't know if they're still going to be there.”
If You Go...
The exhibition is on view through February 10 at the Graduate Center's James Gallery, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.
The collaborative project is curated by Oleksiy Sai, Tetiana Khodakivsa, Nikita Kadan, Ksenia Malykh, Katherine Carl, and Inga Lāce. Chris Lowery, Whitney Evanson, Lauren Rosenblum, and Lanning Smith helped prepare the exhibition.
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