Exhibition on the Day of IZOLYATSIA. Photo: Olena Makarenko
On 9 June 2017, the once Donetsk-located creative platform IZOLYATSIA marked the third year since it moved to Kyiv.
“I do not know what Americans feel on 9/11, but for us the 9th of June is a special day. However, we do not want to mark it as a day of exile, but as a day of renaissance,” said Liubov Mykhailova, the founder of the creative platform, during a festival to mark the anniversary the Day of IZOLYATSIA. The platform was located in a territory of a broken factory of insulating materials. Nowadays the building is seized by the Russian collaborators of the “Donetsk People’s republic” and turned into a prison. ISOLYATSIA moved to Kyiv and was hosted by the Shipbuilding and Shiprepairing Plant, where it rents one of the buildings.
Since the war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014 until now, experts and ordinary people still try to find reasons why this conflict became possible in Donbas. For sure, the largest share of responsibility lays on the Kremlin which was preparing the ground for its aggression during long years before. However, there are a lot of other important reasons. One of them was the cultural isolation of the industrial region of Donbas. In its cities, life, including its cultural aspect, revolves around huge enterprises. And there was no strong force which would be interested in changing the cultural atmosphere. But this doesn’t mean that there were no attempts. IZOLYATSIA was a platform which main goal was intellectual development of Donetsk Oblast.
The art in Donbas and its patrons
IZOLYATSIA’s founder Liubov Mykhailova is the daughter of the last head of the insulating materials factory. She wanted to invest in culture and to change the cultural landscape of the whole oblast. There were other patrons too – other heads of factories and companies.
Mykhailo Glubokyi, the PR director of IZOLYATSIA, says they held a principled position to not cooperate with companies known for their relations with criminals or the mafia:
“The founder was the head of a factory in Horlivka [a city in Donetsk Oblast]. It produced pitch black, a kind of oil used for producing different materials, including aluminum. She set the goal to make it possible to sell these products to the EU, US, Latin America etc. For this, the standards and the whole cycle should have been replaced. And it was different from what other Donetsk companies which were oriented on Russia were doing. They did not have a need to change. They were just trading with Russia which had the same standards. Companies like them were not our investors. But we collaborated with enterprises which saw Donbas in its development, including in the intellectual direction.”
The investors of IZOLYATSIA wanted to follow the successful examples of transformations in other post-industrial regions around the world. Hlubokyi gives an example of Ruhrgebiet, a mining region in Germany. A large share of production there was recognized as being too resource-intensive, so they switched to culture. Later the region turned into one of cultural centers in Germany.
IZOLYATSIA was an alternative to local Donbas culture. But how did the cultural landscape of the Donetsk Oblast look like in the first place?
“We tried to interact with the local government. But then the mayor of Donetsk gave a municipal gallery to be managed by his friends. So he appeared only in that gallery to open exhibitions, which inluded photos such as a miner holding the football stadium Donbas Arena in his hand. Probably there was a demand for such art in the local council,” sadly sneers Glubokyi.
IZOLYATSIA in its turn not only criticized it, but showed how another type of art can look like.
The end of art
Glubokyi recalls that there was no process of moving from Donetsk. The members of the team were in Kyiv when they found out that their building in Donetsk was seized by the self-proclaimed Russian-installed authorities. He himself just returned France then and has never come back home:
“There was no time to reflect and we started to act immediately.”
The organizers started writing to different partners, including international ones, and organizing meetings in Kyiv near the Administration of President to save the art which was left in Donetsk.
Despite the fast reaction of the partners, there had no chances to save it.
“In the Soviet Union, products were allocated depending of the status of a city. As Donetsk was a city of miners, and a miner was considered the pinnacle of evolution, the city had, for example, better sausages than Russia’s Rostov-on-Don. The same was with art. The Donetsk Art Museum had a big collection of Polish artists and classical Russian paintings. In Horlivka there is a museum with a big collection of Nicholas Roerich. He was famous, but the Soviet authorities did not take him well. As museums did not want to work with such problematic materials, they were located only in Horlivka, somewhere on Russia’s Far East, and in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg. Also his works are represented in a museum in New York. During the last years, there were many discussions about what to do with them. We don’t know what happened to his works, if they exist or not. Maybe, only counterfeits are left in Horlivka,” explains Glubokyi
During the Euromaidan protests which took place in Kyiv during the winter of 2013-2014, rallies in support of Euromaidan weren’t possible in Donetsk. First, its residents were separated from the real situation about the pro-democracy uprising by a wall of Russian and pro-government propaganda. Second, the probability of the local law enforcement, or thugs hired by the authorities, using physical power against the protesters was much more probable than in other regions.
When the Kremlin-directed separatist movements sprouted all over southeastern Ukraine in March 2014, the local officials under pressure of the Russian-backed militias made a decision to conduct a referendum on the future of Donetsk.
However, some Donetsk residents tried to resist the pressure of the Russian-backed forces and came to protests supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. At a rally on 13 March 2014, they were cruelly beaten by the pro-Russian forces.
The last pro-Ukrainian rally took place in Donetsk on 25 April 2014.
On 11 May, a “referendum” under gunpoint was held, according to the results of which the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” announced its creation. It is noteworthy that during these events the majority of members of the local law enforcement betrayed Ukraine.
During the last period of IZOLYATSIYA in Donetsk the exhibition devoted to the freedom of a Cuban artist was planned.
“We worried about it, because it was the work which supported the Euromaidan revolution which was in full play at that time [in February of 2014 – Ed.]. Euromaidan protests in Donetsk were impossible, as people were beaten and intimidated for supporting the movement. Finally, the artist refused to come to Donetsk. He said that he was afraid for himself and for his team because of the situation in the country. We were surprised because we were there and still doing everything,” remembers Mykhailo.
Glubokyi says that nowadays there is no space for modern art in Donetsk at all. He recalls the case which probably became the last example of it there.
IZOLYATSIA used to cooperate with Serhiy Zakharov, an interior designer who had a hobby to draw people, who is now famed as the “Ukrainian Banksy..” A few days after the city was occupied by Russian-led forces he got up early in the morning to draw caricatures of the leaders of the Russian puppet “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) and to put them up in different places of the city. His famous work is a caricature of Igor Girkin, a Russian colonel, and one of the Russian “founding fathers of the ‘DNR’” with a gun at his temple and the caption “Just Do It.”
“They identified them through the phone calls, as they have sophisticated equipment. They broke his ribs and held him for several months in prison. Then he was released but without documents. Zakharov was fastened to another person and they lived as one body for weeks. When he was released, he just sat in to a bus and went to a hospital. This moment touched me: he just came out of prison, and people were going to work, regular life was happening all around, but he just experienced torture. Later he returned for the documents and they captured him again for a long time,” Glubokyi recalls.
After he was released again, the artist managed to come to Kyiv. He also took encrypted disks with photos of Donetsk with him.
“It was the only example of underground art when an artist at his own risk decided to express his thoughts and to show what he saw around him,” concludes Glubokyi.
Nowadays in free Ukraine
Now, a part of IZOLYATSIA’s mission is to tell the world about the situation in eastern Ukraine. Also it organizes and supports cultural initiatives in Donbas territories which are controlled by the Ukrainian government.
In Kyiv, it has a creative hub called IZONE which helps to pay for some activities of IZOLYATSIA. The commercial component consists of renting premises for different events, and catering. Still, many projects and events are held with the support of donors and grants.
Besides the exhibitions, lectures, and performances held in IZOLYATSIA’s new home in Kyiv and events elsewhere, it tries to influence the culture-related processes at the governmental level.
The Biennale. One of IZOLYATSIYA’s accomplishments is the establishment of a transparent competition for the selection of a coordinator for the Ukrainian pavilion at the famous world art festival Venice Biennale. As told by Glubokyi, previously the Ministry of Culture selected its the coordinator with no interaction with the artistic environment. The platform managed to change this approach:
“We sent the team to Warsaw as we knew the curator of the Polish pavilion. She got us in touch with people involved in the Biennale. We communicated a lot and then took this knowledge to Ukraine. However, in 2015 the Ministry of Culture said that there is no money. Viktor Pinchuk [Ukrainian oligarch and patron of art – Ed.] said that he has money. So the Ministry of Culture entrusted it to him,” says Glubokyi.
Pinchuk rented a plot of land, built a construction from glass, took an artist from his surroundings and brought the most popular Ukrainian band Okean Elzy there. The project had the name “Hope.”
The activists of IZOLYATSIA made an alternative performance at Biennale. It was called “On Vacation.” They gave a military uniform with a caption On Vacation on the back to people and suggested them to take a photo in it in a pavilion of a country which they consider an occupant. It was an allusion to Russian soldiers and officials who were saying that there are no Russian troops in Donbas.
“For us it was important that we didn’t run only around the Russian pavilion. We interacted with the audience. Americans went to the US pavilion, somehow they considered themselves as occupants. There were people who were going to the pavilion of Israel. There were different views. However, they realized that the feeling which they express by such an actions is what has happened to us,” says Glubokyi.
He also remembers that at first the members of Russian pavilion called the police, but later they realized that it brings more attention and did not interfere.
IZOLYATSIA’s performance received much more coverage in western media than the official Ukrainian pavilion.
“When we came back we continued the process. And in 2016, an open competition was organized. It did not look like we wanted, however the good thing is that it took place,” says Glubokyi..
The Lenin. After the Euromaidan Revolution, the process of decommunization was launched in Ukraine. Dozens of Lenin’s monuments across the whole country were toppled, starting from the one in the center of Kyiv.
“We wanted to launch a discussion about street space, on the modern place of monuments in people’s lives, historical memory,” says Glubokyi.
The activists opened a competition for the artists from across the world. The task was to transform the place were Lenin used to stay in Kyiv. Mexican artist Cynthia Gutierrez’s who suggested to build a ladder to the pedestal won.
“Everybody could have look at the city from the point of view of Lenin. It also symbolized how leaders are lifted onto pedestals and how they go down; how people lift leaders up and then feel frustration,” explains Glubokyi.
That action was held without the support of the cultural department. However, when half a year later IZOLYATSIA was doing a second installation on Lenin’s pedestal, the local government already helped. The installation consisted of three faces with neon lighting – Lenin with red, Madonna with yellow and Virgin Mary with green. It symbolized three possible paths of Ukrainian society – back to a socialist one, a global one related to pop culture, and conservative religious. The local government support this installation with electricity for the lighting.
“They saw that there were no provocations in it,” says Glubokyi.
When IZOLYATSIA organized its third installation on Lenin’s pedestal in 2017, one with fragrant herbs appearing to grow out of the monument, the local government supported it officially and came to the opening. That is how a collaboration with the authorities was established.
Glubokyi said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the government institution which is most open for collaboration.
The Day of IZOLYATSIA was devoted to the Donetsk period of the foundation. This day, the exhibition “House of Culture” devoted to abandoned Palace of Culture in Horlivka took place. Also there was a screening of the documentary film EURO 2012 in Donetsk by Andrey Gorokhov and DDK group. It showed people of Donetsk during the time when the football championship was held.
“It’s hard to say whether 3 years is a long time. But I can say for sure that now after 3 years in Kyiv we stand firmly on the ground. We feel very confident about what we are doing. It’s not about survival anymore. It’s about looking into the future. We have this great building which our team renovated with our own hands. We have wonderful friends. And we have a wonderful feeling that with these hands we will build our future, no matter what our politicians do today. And we will come back to Donetsk for sure,” said Mykhailova on the Day of IZOLYATSIA.
- Donbas war refugee turns shrapnel into works of art to raise funds for Ukrainian army
- Ukrainian artist takes folk tradition of paper-cutting to monumental levels
- “Culture can help us stitch our country together without blood”: Crimean Tatar filmmaker
- Paintings of Ukrainian Naïve Art icon Prymachenko come to life
- Ukrainian story of Wassily Kandinsky and newly found watercolors featured in new book
- World’s largest urban art project #ArtUnitedUs launches in Kyiv, Ukraine
- Giant modern art gallery opened in Kyiv old Soviet factory