The current political differences between Moscow and Kiev seem intractable. But it remains true that both governments have an interest in cultivating sustenance. Both governments need to eat.
A new London show by Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan revolves around a vegetable patch. Well-cared for lettuce and herbs grow in a square yard of rich, dark soil. The sight is nourishing, a stark contrast to the death toll of 5,000 killed since fighting began in 2013.
But there’s more to this installation than plantlife. Straddling the small plot is a three-panel display stand designed to celebrate Soviet agricultural planning. Unimpressed by the memory, Kadan leaves off the sloganeering. The boards are blank.
“I combine my works from, let’s say, confronting elements quite often,” Kadan tells me from Kiev via Skype.
“I use forms from Soviet neomodernism often and somehow they represent this gap between having a Soviet era project and . . . then doing things for purposes you understand, not as part of any ideological programme.”
You don’t need to look far to find a response. A slide carousel projects images of protest from the capital’s Independence Square, a pro-EU gathering which came to be known as the Euromaidan.
Here too they are growing food, albeit shabbily. Patches of greenery break out between makeshift tents. They indicate that non-Soviets can also sustain themselves. Supporters of European alliance can also reap a cabbage or two.
Programme or no programme the Maidan could claim a famous victory when in Feburary 2014, then president Yanukovych fled the Ukraine.
But the incumbent government was just as uneasy about the lively protest camp on their doorstep. Kadan recalls them wanting “a normal square,” but persistent occupiers of the Maidan saw a chance to create what might be “an instrument of permanent control of power”.
If Kiev was changed by events in its main square, so too were those who came to spend time there. “There was an experience of unity and an experience of violence and these were experiences which transformed us very much,” says Kadan.
The politics of the Maidan were eclectic; it encompassed liberals, leftists, and nationalists. So the artist reports back on a phenomenon of “postponed questions” which allowed the camp to resist outside aggression. Over 48 hours last February there were some 77 people killed in clashes with police and security.
So the vegetation at Waterside Contemporary is as much a memorial as it is a utopian proposal. And in the midst of the square’s garden, a mournful cross reminded passersby that this was a statement as well as a food source. “We have roots in the soil,” as Kadan puts it.
It is sad and predictable that the Maidan was in August destroyed. But that just makes this show in East London all the more luminous.
“What is happening in Ukraine is very untransparent,” says the artist. “It has to be analysed, researched, described, and somehow we need to make a step out and look at this from a certain distance.”
So the history of the Maidan can now begin to grow, much like the faded crops which creep around the blasted and pockmarked city in Kadan’s optimistic collage, as seen on the surrounding walls.
These need little political knowledge to read as a celebration of gardening over military power. Even tanks can be stopped, but plantlife never; guerrilla gardening remains a lot less contentious than guerrilla warfare.
When asked about the London context for his work, Kadan says: “I don’t consider it as an act of cultural diplomacy between Ukraine and Western Europe.” It’s not, he insists, cultural journalism. His square yard of crop cultivation is more personal than that.
“It’s maybe something between what happened in Ukraine, and in the world, and in me. So I think about such a constellation.”
And so from the earth to the stars, Kadan has revealed a poetry of resistance, an idea which travels well, even as it anchors a people to their public space.
Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility is at Waterside Contemporary, London, until April 4 2015
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