On March 20, one year and two days after Russia annexed the region of Crimea, the organizers of the Kiev Biennale published a statement indicating that the biennial, which had been rescheduled from summer 2014 to summer 2015 due to hostilities with Russia and separatist rebels, would be canceled. The reason given Friday by Nataliia Zabolotna, director of organizing venue Mystetskyi Arsenale, was the ongoing political instability of the country, and was stated in the contractual language of force majeure — a legal term freeing parties from agreed-upon duties in the event of extenuating external circumstances. That the situation in Ukraine remains dire is well known, the subject of extensive headlines in the press, with a brittle ceasefire brokered last month with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s troubled eastern regions.
Soon after last week’s announcement, however, a release was circulated by email from biennial curators Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schölhammer denouncing the cancellation and indicating that they intend to forge ahead with their project at a different venue in the Ukrainian capital. “The Arsenal, the organizational entity of the Biennale has unilaterally and without any warning cancelled their participation in the project,” the pair wrote. Though this was “bad news at first sight,” they continued, “this created a movement of solidarity and willingness to make the Biennale happen without the Arsenale.” Finally, Saxenhuber and Schölhammer criticized the public rationale given by Arsenale, a cavernous state exhibition space located in a 19th-century weapons arsenal. “The reasons behind this are not the ones mentioned in the letter but are purely political. Our concept was too political for them and they just wanted to host an event,” they wrote.
Representatives of the Mystetskyi Arsenale, however, dispute these claims, stating that problems had roiled the delayed project since at least August 2014, when an earlier attempt at cancellation on grounds of instability was made but ultimately renegotiated. “It had nothing to do with politics… we knew they [Saxenhuber and Schölhammer] were involved in political art projects, we knew what kind of art they were presenting, and we chose them consciously — we've been working with them too long to not understand what kind of art they support,” Alisa Lozhkina, deputy director of Mystetskyi Arsenale and a member of the organizational committee of Arsenale, told ARTINFO by phone.
And while the security risk in the country remains present, the broader question of funding also weighed heavily on the biennial project, which was budgeted at $2 million and set to include around 100 artists. “We were speaking about cancellation for a month before, we were telling them there are issues,” Lozhkina said. “At that time they assured us they could find some international funding for the project, [but] it’s March and we started having to pay some bills and planning everything, and there were no grants,” she added.
Reached by email, Saxenhuber agreed that the curatorial team had offered to fundraise, and claimed that grants were forthcoming. “A lot of things were on the way but cut through the termination. We worked on the basis of solidarity and did not get any honorarium since December 2013,” Saxenhuber said. (Arsenale confirms this, but notes that several research trips were paid for by their organization since.) Nonetheless, Lozhkina says, as a state-run institution, Arsenale was tied to a very difficult environment for cultural funding in the country, with budgets slashed due to the political situation. Insuring the artworks was apparently also an issue, as “insurance companies don’t want to work with this country,” according to Lozhkina.
It remains unclear what the future of the Kiev Biennial, first held in 2012 with the British curator David Elliott, will be. The project developed by Saxenhuber and Schölhammer will go forward with the theme of “The School of Kiev,” but it will not be called the Second Kiev Biennale. “We want Europe and the world no longer to look at the Ukraine as one of the crisis spots but as one of the richest cultural landscapes in Europe and create a space of civil reflection and encounters,” Saxenhuber said, indicating that a timetable for the new effort will be announced at a press conference next month.
Though the curatorial duo claimed to have secured further state support, they declined to name individual funders before the April press conference, citing only the private Visual Culture Research Centre as a partner. In an opinion article published Wednesday in the Ukrainian “New Times” newspaper, publicist Alex Radinsky of the Visual Culture Research Centre slammed Arsenale for the cancellation. Both Radinsky and the curators, in their original emailed statement, cite a 2012 incident in which a work by Vladimir Kuznetsov was painted over in an ad-hoc decision by Arsenale director Nataliia Zabolotna, who found the work’s anti-religious theme offensive to the neighboring Lavra monastery, which had co-organized the exhibition and whose existence the show was meant to honor. (How a dissident artist made it into an exhibition meant to celebrate a monastery is a mystery.) A boycott stemming from the incident prompted curator Boris Groys to pull out of participation in the planned second iteration of the Biennale in 2013. Lozhkina also referenced the incident in a follow-up email to ARTINFO. “They might also try to manipulate the old scandal with the [Kuznetsov] painting,” she wrote. “When we started working with Hedwig and Georg we were hoping that this collaboration will help us heal the wounds of the past, but now I see that it was a mistake. They are literally trying to hijack the project and are playing a very dirty game.”
Indeed, the break with Saxenhuber and Schölhammer is not nearly as clean as with Groys, given the time spent with Arsenale developing the biennial’s concept since late 2013. “Now [Saxenhuber and Schölhammer] pretend to be modest and very sincere and want to help Ukrainians and our country, but with Arsenale it seemed like they wanted to make some money and make a big project,” Lozhkina said, before striking a conciliatory note. “We wish them luck with whatever they are making, we have nothing against them. The only problem we have is we don’t want to spoil our reputation.”