What is the use of art and its institutions for a society in the midst of a foreign military invasion combined with an intense civic feud, and with the economy collapsing under the damage that is being inflicted both by global financial institutions and local oligarchs?
These questions have been haunting the 2nd Kyiv Biennial—entitled “The School of Kyiv” and curated by Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer—almost since the planning for it began. A month ago, the host institution of the biennial, Mystetsky Arsenal in Kyiv, unilaterally withdrew from the project, citing its inability to guarantee the safety of the biennial’s participants and the artworks exhibited. The curators immediately declared that they would go on with the project independently, in collaboration with the local art community and civic organizations.
In a country that just went through a revolution and is now going through a war, there seems to be a need to use the tools provided by art and its institutions (such as the biennial) to deal with many urgent issues. The School of Kyiv is now being based on a network of self-organized art groups and grassroots communities. Its focus on education and research aims to create a discourse around the ongoing Ukrainian turmoil—a discourse that will go beyond the simplified views of the conflict available in the mass media.
In a press conference on April 17 in Kyiv, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer declared that The School of Kyiv will create “a space of reflection, breaking down barriers, building bridges, and imagining scenarios for the future.” This seems like a bold promise in a situation where the so-called Minsk II agreement between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is quickly deteriorating into what some fear could be an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine. Even though Ukraine’s capital is located nearly a thousand kilometers away from the current war zone, the repercussions of the conflict are felt in Kyiv in many ways. In the two days preceding the curators’ press conference, two political figures linked to the pre-revolutionary government were murdered in Kyiv, and their assassinations are widely perceived as attempts to destabilize the fragile political equilibrium in Ukraine.
During the press conference, the representatives of the local art scene involved in The School of Kyiv claimed that one of the roles of the project would be to reclaim the emancipatory potential of the Maidan uprising, which was quickly neutralized by Russian military aggression. This would be a major test for the transformative role of art, which has been the subject of passionate debate in the local scene for years—and is now becoming an urgent practical need.