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Venice Biennale

Nikita Kadan: How culture survives in wartime

From the Venice Biennale, we spoke with Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan about his hybrid artworks and turning down Putin's patronage.

“I consider myself an anti-fascist artist” Photo: Julia Prezewowsky

In the midst of war, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan has been posting images of Russian war crimes and searching for ways to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage. In April, his work was included in the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom now on at the Venice Biennale.

You’ve expressed frustration with the misconception that the war only started with the recent invasion, when it actually began with the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Why do you think the West has been so slow to react?

In 2014, international media were initially quite attentive to the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas. But then Ukraine and the war in east Ukraine just went out of fashion. People of the West just said: “It’s okay, it’s somewhere in Ukraine, one of those shithole countries, we don’t need to go deeper into this.” Now Putin’s rhetoric is not just anti-Ukrainian, but anti-Western. And so we are fashionable again – we are succeeding in the market of attention.

The German government has been particularly slow to respond. Some believe it’s down to its dependence on Russian gas, while others attribute it to the legacy of Nazi atrocities committed in Eastern Europe. Do these acts of violence still resonate in Ukraine?

Yes, of course – and Russia always uses this idea of their victory over Germany to give more legitimacy to the current aggression. On the other hand, there is an open neo-fascism in today’s Russian state. For Putin, Ukrainians are Russians poisoned by Western liberalism. And he has to beautify this imperial body from this disease, from this poison. Actually, his political attitude is quite biological. It’s the biologicalisation of political thought. And the Russian Federation is, in fact, a multi-ethnic empire – but there was always a white Russian man on the throne, dominating over hundreds of ethnic groups.

I consider myself an anti-fascist artist… I have tried to deconstruct the fascist mode of thinking

Much of your work deals with the legacy of historical acts of violence – how the memory of past events has become a political battleground and a tool for manipulation…

I consider myself an anti-fascist artist, and in a deeper and more complex sense I have tried to deconstruct the fascist mode of thinking. Fascist manipulation is very much connected with historical images of victims – it’s like taking the dead bodies from the past and forcing them to go into battle again. Judith Butler wrote about the difference between “grievable” and “ungrievable”: the sacred victims on our side versus the unreal victims from their side. It’s a hierarchy of dead people, whereas I imagine a unity among those people, starting their own struggle against those who are alive – against their nationalism, their capitalism, their patriarchy. Like some Internationale of dead people: Dead people of the world, unite!

Far-right parties in Germany share many of the same views as Putin – the preference for a ‘strongman’ leader, opposition to the EU and NATO. But now, with the invasion of Ukraine, they’re at a loss as to who they should support…

The extreme right wing in Europe are Putin’s agents. And they didn’t just share these views: they are a part of his system. The Europe that closes its door to migrants, that returns to so-called traditional values, and that dissolves and therefore supports local nationalisms – that is a Putin-friendly Europe.

How much of a threat are far-right movements in the Ukraine?

Society here is very diverse and very poor. It’s questions of survival, not questions of identity. It is an illusion to think Ukrainians question their national identity when most just sell potatoes at the market. These right-wing groups always try to use war as an opportunity to go from the margins to the centre – and they never succeed. They are a part of Ukrainian society, a quite ugly part of society, but they do not dominate. You know, I’m telling this from the position of someone who was attacked by them many times. They attacked our exhibitions, feminist conferences, clubs where queer people meet and the various places of the electronic music scene. So I have always had them as my own enemies – I know them face to face.

One of your most famous works ‘The Shelter’ (2015) is a two-level construction, a strange hybrid of a museum and a bomb shelter. What were you exploring in this work?

The upper level was my recreation of a photo showing the Donetsk Regional Museum of Local History after the shelling, while the lower part was an underground bomb shelter with plants growing out of black soil on the bunk beds. This work shows the fragile balance between life and survival. And for life, we need culture. I was also interested in how culture survives during war time. Now I am in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the west of Ukraine, where we are helping to transport our heritage out of the country. But our main goal here is to create a space for artists during the war who are displaced inside the country. People of male gender can’t cross the border except in really special cases, but a lot of female artists stayed in the country as well.

What do you think of that policy?

I know about people who refused their male identity – people who are non-binary, transgender, queer – but they still have this “M” in their passport. Not only are some of them unwilling or unable to fight, but also any post-Soviet army can be a very unfriendly place for queer person. Now, some homosexual men are fighting with the army, and some lesbians as well, but it’s their decision – they’re there as volunteers, they made the decision to join an army. So it’s complicated. As an artist, I don’t really have any other skills. I don’t want to feel guilty about all this. Maybe there will be a moment of pure self-defence where you must fight or die. Sometimes life gives us challenges that we have to answer through practice, not through words. I have a very mixed position about this. I was asked to leave temporarily, to be involved at the Venice Biennale. They decided my presence was important, so I got to drink a few glasses of Prosecco on the Grand Canal before returning to Ukraine.

You refused to be a part of Walter Smerling’s Diversity United exhibition at Tempelhof after you discovered that Putin was one of the patrons. What happened?

I got a polite letter from German curators inviting me to join – but there was no mark of Russian involvement except for the fact that, after Berlin and Paris, the show will be exhibited in a Russian museum. All these great artists were involved, people who were so important to me, including young leftist anti-fascist artists from the West, who are my friends. But at the very end of the invitation was a footnote in small letters that said it will be under the patronage of three presidents: Steinmeier, Macron and Putin. What? You’re proposing that I should exhibit under the patronage of Putin? Like, guys – are you crazy? I wrote to them about Russia’s war crimes on Ukrainian territory, but I didn’t get an answer.

A lot of households are taking in Ukrainians and doing their best to support. What else can we do to help?

Give more visibility to Ukrainian culture, and participate in saving Ukrainian heritage. If you’re in the media, you should write about Ukraine and don’t avoid critical issues like closing the sky. For lots of people in the West, it will mean crossing a red line and starting World War III. But look, Putin crosses these red lines one by one himself. This war is against the West. So maybe better to join the fight on Ukrainian territory before he touches your territory. Otherwise, we urgently need donations to NGOs that bring medicine to the Ukrainian border or supply humanitarian aid. We need practical help now.

  • This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom, Scuola della Misericordia, Venice Through Aug 7
Nikita Kadan

BIO: Nikita Kadan was born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1982. Working in painting, graphics, and installation, he often collaborates with architects and human rights activists. In 2011 he won the PinchukArtCentre Prize and in 2022 the Shevchenko National Prize.