12 April 2018

Right at the peak of political tensions in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations caused by the law on education adopted by the Ukrainian parliament and two days before parliamentary elections in Hungary on top of that, Ludwig Museum opened a wide-scale exhibition of Ukrainian contemporary art titled Permanent Revolution. Konstantin Doroshenko, contemporary art critic and curator, is here to tell us about the exhibition, its concept and works presented in Budapest.

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Budapest on the eve of the election is all covered with posters of Jobbik party promising salvation from the imaginary migrant hordes. In the center of the city a visitor can discover a curious portrait sculpture of Miklos Horthy, a Hungarian dictator from World War II times. He was Hitler’s ally and rear admiral, a die-hard nationalist who wasn’t able to save his motherland either from mass killings of Jews or Red Army occupation; he was later taken out to Germany by Nazis and finished his days in Portugal. The sculpture stands behind a metal fence and is covered with a transparent plastic rectangular block to avoid any acts of vandalism. Just around the corner, the tourists are offered T-shirts portraying ancient inhabitants of Hungarian territories as wild Asian nomads with bows, swords and bloodthirsty grins. The newspapers parade headlines about the notorious wall as protection against refugees. In the country where the ancestors of the indigenous population came to the fertile European grounds from the faraway Ural, all this leaves a grotesque impression.

When choosing the title of Ukrainian art project in Hungarian capital, curators Alisa Lozhkina and Konstantin Akinsha together with Julia Fabenyi, Ludwig Museum director in Budapest, took an idea of permanent revolution. It was first brought up by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but in the end stuck to a man born in Kherson province (now Kirovohrad region in Ukraine, still not renamed according to decommunization policy) – and that was no one other than Leon Trotsky. According to him, the socialist revolution should be permanent and not happen by stages; it can win only if it is continuous. The proletariat, using revolutionary moods of its class antagonists, bourgeoisie and peasants, must not allow them to take root in power, but instead only enhance the revolutionary terror. Besides, the revolution process should be exported all over the world as the definitive victory of the working-class can be only global. This approach ran counter to Stalin’s plan of building socialism in a given country, was condemned and rejected along with other concepts joined under the notion of “Trotskyism.” Trotsky and Trotskyism influenced the minds of numerous leftist thinkers, in particular, Mao Zedong, film director Jean-Luc Godard, and philosopher Alain Badiou, but all this is a totally different story.

Zhanna Kadyrova UNTITLED

“Permanent revolution” is a cliché that rings true for culture the world over, while the message of the exhibition created by Lozhkina and Akinsha in Ludwig Museum takes us to the experience of Ukrainian liberation movement, the country’s struggle for freedom and state independence that extended to one hundred years. Just like in the song of Ukrainian Rebel Army Lenta za lentoyu (Belt by Belt, meaning the belt of a machine gun), Ukrainian revolution came wave by wave: from declarations of Central Rada until Maidan of 2013, from hetmanists, anarchists, Troystkyists (Christian Rakovsky, one of the first heads in the Council of People’s Commissars, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, also belonged to that group), ZUNR (Western Ukrainian People’s Republic), Avgustin Voloshin, post-war guerrillas, dissidents of the sixties, people who voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991, miners’ strikes and marches, “Ukraine without Kuchma” (second president), and to Maidan of 2004 our country was finding the way to itself.

Ukraine as a territory with a permanent will for freedom, with an ancient experience of democratic will expression (Kyiv residents could chase away their knyaz (prince) they were not happy with; Polish kings, Crimean Khans, and Cossack hetmans were elected and did not pass their power down to their heirs), remains a land where pluralism of thoughts is inevitable. Here, freedom includes varying opinions, and single-mindedness, even in the years of past trials, contradicts the freedom’s primary value.

In many senses, this slowed down the formation of steady state but also remained a driving force in the will for independence. The contradiction the Ukrainian nation is so fortunately doomed to, i.e., the need for existence in cultural and individualist diversity, makes Ukraine a place where a live political organism rejecting authoritarianism and totalitarianism is being formed.

This is the way Ukraine is presented in Permanent Revolution: it is full of both vital energy and contradictions; it is positive about moving forward without ignoring or annihilating those contradictions. External aggression and annexation of territories naturally actualize such cohesion. Still, this cohesion can be only about rejecting anti-democratic tendencies and “the ties that bind,” with our external enemy as their embodiment. Quite logically, this enemy would like us to search for an enemy inside and sink into discords: all according to “divide and conquer” principle. But if we are to believe that art intuits the future, Ukraine’s competence in its urge for freedom is possible through respect of own diversity.

Permanent revolution fragment of the exposition


Therefore, the demonstration of statements criticizing our present in the exhibition of Budapest museum is rather telling. A great example would be a graphic fresco by Anatoliy Belov created specially for this exhibition and raising the issues of liberating sexuality, brewing conflict in its perception, stigmatization of LGBT community by radical traditionalist forces inspired by religious fanaticism of Russky Mir (Russian world), or a video by Oleksandr Roitburd Eros and Thanatos of Victorious Proletariat in Dziga Vertov’s Psychomotor Paranoia which was showcased in Ukrainian Brand project in Kyiv in 2002. The documentation of David Chichkan’s exhibition destroyed in Kyiv Center for Visual Culture (2017) becomes an essential highlight of the collection as well, bringing to light varying understandings of the socialist, capitalist and revolutionary, the just and dejected in contemporary Ukrainian society.

The second installation by Roman from Burn of Reality series was separately mentioned in the speech of Ukrainian ambassador in Hungary Lyubov Nepop at the exhibition’s opening. She referred to this work as an image allowing to feel what Ukrainians and Ukraine are going through today. The following logical step would have been the acquisition of this work as an element of décor for the embassy; one might guess they don’t have the budget for that. Burn of Reality appeals to the sensual and crudely declares pain: the cardboard sheets of impressive size burned through by the artist portray a charred wound. This work serves to remind Europe yet again about the feelings of Ukrainian citizens. In 2017, the installation was showcased as a separate project at ArtVilnius fair by curators Diana Stomene and Sonata Balyutskaite.

Роман Михайлов

Another visually clear, even poster-like installation of Permanent Revolution is Siberia by Nikita Shalenniy, also acknowledged at ArtVilnius. In 2015, it was created there for the first time and noted as the best installation of the forum. A large panel of towels made in China creates a threatening graphic image of Siberian taiga, hinting that China’s expansion into this region becomes more visible day to day.

Mykyta Shalenniy, Black Siberia

There are also works adding depth to the historical and artistic reflection of Permanent Revolution and the image of Ukrainian contemporary art in general; traditionally, this is Donbass-Chocolate by Arsen Savadov -- amazing the audience with social surrealism, as if captured in the agonizing eyes of the dying Soviet beast, and producing this effect with each exhibition starting from the first one in 1997, and The Red Series by Boris Mikhailov (1968-75), a cast of cynicism, despondency and deformity of Soviet mundanity in the times of stagnation. Mikhailov’s series brings us back to the understanding that will for freedom was brewing in Ukraine under Brezhnev’s mould; that we saw the hypocrisy around us, and prisoners of conscience continued their creative work though they kept perishing in Soviet camps even during Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The panorama of drawings from Kyiv Diary by Vlada Ralko (2013-15) is one of the exhibition’s checkpoints and the artist’s major projects. The cycle absorbed Vlada’s understanding of the corporal and emotional, protruded or rejected by the philistine mind, intertwined with official and creative kitsch, chthonian ethics, symbols of pain and propaganda figures. Kyiv Diary is a graphical code of the disaster of emotions Kyiv residents lived through during endless night shootings and explosions, inspiring chants and funeral feasts of the Maidan, news and frustrations from the beginning of the war. The cycle evinced, concentrated and rethought the aesthetical world Vlada created on her creative path. It is interesting to note that several drawings in the series were made by Ralko in Budapest where she spent several days for the anniversary of Budapest Memorandum signing; this document gave Ukraine guarantees of territorial integrity in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons.

Влада Ралко

The exhibition which took place with the support of Zenko Foundation combined 37 artists and art groups. Art patron Zenko Aftanaziv justly believes contemporary museum representation to be strategically important not only for Ukrainian contemporary art but also for Europe to understand our country, primarily as we identify ourselves and our vision for the future with this part of the world. Unlike a gallery or a festival, a museum is the territory of institutional and academic legitimization of artistic phenomena.

Museum recognition means recognition from the community of equals where you cannot hide behind claims about somebody’s goodwill, whim or sufficient financial means.

European art critique also notes the convincing nature of museum statement. For example, this is what Wilhelm Droste says in his report for Deutschlandfunk: “The Palace of Arts (where Ludwig Museum is located – editor’s note) is one of the most beautiful new buildings in the city, with large windows and terraces showcasing Budapest from its most charming side. This contrast of wounds and destruction in artworks and the exceptionally well-organized space adds more vibe to the exhibition. Even Bertolt Brecht couldn’t have been more insistent.”

It is hard to imagine a better place than Ludwig Museum in Budapest for the start of Ukrainian contemporary art expansion in the European museum world. German collector Peter Ludwig was the first in Europe to develop a systemic interest in the art of the Warsaw Bloc, breaking the tradition of judging everything east of the “iron curtain” as ideologically and formally outdated. Coming to the exhibitions of young artists in the capitals of socialist countries, he bought works that he later combined in his exhibitions with the works of contemporary art classics from the western world.

Presently Ludwig Museums showcasing works from Peter’s collection exist in Beijing, Cuba, Saint Petersburg, and his name is a marker of expert recognition. In the 1980s, Peter Ludwig personally acquired several works of then-Soviet progressive artists for his museum in Aachen. Among them is modern Ukrainian classic, Vladimir Budnikov. His presence at the opening of Permanent Revolution is yet another sign of vitality and continuity of Ukrainian artistic tradition in harmony with the world and time.