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On the State of Culture in Ukraine. An Interview with Jerzy Onuch. Part One

We present the first part of an interview with Jerzy Onuch: “Because It Is Different Here. Ukrainian Project Dubai”. Paweł Laufer is talking to the former director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kyiv and former director of the Polish Institute in Kyiv about the present-day status of Ukrainian art. 


Jerzy Onuch, source: Fundacja Open Culture

Jerzy Onuch, source: Open Culture Foundation

Paweł Laufer: How would you tell a person having next to no idea about Ukrainian art about the condition of culture in Ukraine? How to talk about it with people who may not know where Ukraine is?

Jerzy Onuch: Talking about something that cannot be likened to anything or contrasted with the conditions in another country is exceedingly difficult. How can you explain the situation in Poland or Ukraine to an American who has nothing like the Ministry of Culture, let alone the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, in his domestic system?

Every time when I have a similar conversation, and that conversation is about a bit more than just eliciting my quick and witty response on a television program, then it is necessary to provide a broader context. Some abstract talk about the fact that there are artists in Ukraine makes no sense. The information that Ukraine has cultural institutions does not take us anywhere either. Of course, they are artists and there are institutions. But only through a comparison to the functioning of similar institutions in other countries, you can see what it is really like. It seems that comparison is the key word here. It comes easy to us, Poles. Together with Ukrainians, we share a similar historical experience. And you cannot overlook the context of twenty years of Ukrainian independence. However, I would avoid direct comparisons, too. You can say that “in comparison” Ukraine has everything, but on the other hand…

P. L.: It has not…

J. O.: No, it has not… I would put it differently: culture and cultural infrastructure in Ukraine are there as long as democracy is there. It is and it is not. It is – compared to what is happening in Belarus – and it is not – compared to how things are, for example, in Poland.

P. L.: How do you assess the condition of art in contemporary Ukraine from your own perspective and experience as former head of the Polish Institute in Kyiv and associate in the Soros Foundation?

J. O.: In a way, I feel responsible for what has happened in Ukrainian art over the last fifteen years.

P. L.: You were behind a major turning point in Ukrainian art.

J. O.: When I came to Ukraine in 1997 to assume the position of director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kyiv (CCA), I thought that it would be feasible to import or transfer the liberal model of art from the West (whatever we mean by “the West”). I found that a kind of benchmark or boundary points should be set or transplanted from some well-tested ground. The boundary points in which Ukrainian contemporary art could flourish.

When I left the Soros Foundation and Ukraine, I was wondering if it had really been the best way to go. Indeed, we elaborated patterns, mechanisms, and operations. But in a way, it was a shortcut. With hindsight, I have such an impression when I see how things have evolved over time.

P. L.: Do the mechanisms that were triggered back then still operate?

J. O.: This is a separate question. They do operate and do not operate at the same time. However, this Soros-like thinking has been around until today: some things can be done by taking shortcuts. The activities of the Soros Foundation had a strong educational component. In fact, this is how I approached the Centre for Contemporary Art: as an educational rather than artistic project. Whatever started to emerge later in the artistic field, just to mention the Pinchuk Art Centre, which I called a “Dubai project,” or the first biennial held in Kyiv (nobody knows if another one will ever be held) and known as the Arsenale 2012, is just like the “Dubai project”: it comes down to the creation of artistic reality in Ukraine through importing art, artists, and managers while neglecting our own contribution. This is like building the artistic reality based on the money-come-first scheme.

The crucial question here is whether – either inside or outside this scheme – the Ukrainian artistic reality builds up its substance or has just entered a developmental cul-de-sac. It is also a question whether this scheme encourages new initiatives or just promotes those that are set up for effect, and whether they take root in the Ukrainian cultural soil. These are some ways of thinking in Ukraine that can be illustrated by analogy with the Ukrainian football. Ukraine has two very good soccer teams: Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. However, their teams could be put together and play anywhere. The clubs do not exist because there are 50 or 100 thousand Ukrainian boys having perfect exercise conditions and the most talented ones are selected for the first line-up. They exist and thrive because of two powerful business communities that decided to create world-class teams. In Shakhtar Donetsk, 90% of players are not Ukrainian. This means something. While Dynamo Kyiv maintains a soccer talent school, Donetsk follows the rule: “the sky is the limit,” money is not an obstacle, every good player can be purchased.

Similar mechanisms have led to the upsurge in the specific dynamics of Ukrainian productions. Earlier, you mentioned the turning point in Ukrainian art. Certainly, that turning point meant that the new generation began to gaze towards and integrate with the world of art outside Ukraine. But still, the temptation to take shortcuts and refrain from own initiatives is strong, especially that something has really clicked in the mechanisms governing art since the late 1990s. The dominating trend is to hire a great curator from abroad and let them do everything for us. Great, but what is the ultimate outcome of that?

P. L.: You advance an opinion that the culture management in Ukraine is import-driven. Curators, artists, footballers are imported rather than sourced and trained in Ukraine; no pressure is put on developing the domestic art base indispensable for an independent and legitimate presence in the European cultural discourse.

J. O.: I am a proponent of such a model of culture or sports development in which people can take advantage of an extensive infrastructure and educational facilities. This should not be analysed in terms of export and import; instead, there should be more focus on the necessity to create a robust internal market.

P. L.: Do you think that such an internal market actually exists in Ukraine?

J. O.: Germans did not build the Mercedes to export it. They just wanted to have a reliable car. And only after the car had proved good indeed, they started to export it.
Ukraine is not the only one making this mistake – I think that Poland is making it too. Look, we are about to have the whole Edinburgh at our feet. Within three weeks of Edinburgh International Festival 2012, 180 events will be held featuring Polish artists! My goodness! This is nine events per day!

P. L.: Who is going to consume so much of Poland?

J. O.: Good question! Another one is: How many people can we attract if we put up nine events every day? Well, forget the figures. When we look at what we have fit for export, it turns out that there are no more than five names that keep surfacing all the time. This is not what it is all about.

We have the Polish Film Institute (PFI) and make more than fifty Polish films, including co-productions, a year. When the PFI was established, the production was about twelve films a year. The problem is that today we do make fifty films, but these are average films. Romania produces about twenty films a year, having no PFI equivalent, and their cinema is in great demand. I am convinced that if we continue the process with the PFI, there is a high probability that we will wait to see such productions that would go beyond the home cinematography. This is even truer of Ukraine.

There is an urgent need for the best possible culture base that will yield fruit in the long term. Even if it does not produce a competitive export product, there is no guarantee of that, the greatest value of such a situation will be that once you have this base, anything built of it will stay at home and will be our own, which, at the same time, does not imply cultural isolationism in any case.

P. L.: What is the condition of this base and its infrastructure?

J. O.: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, whatever was created under that system and for that system degenerated and decayed. Some things were privatized, some ceased to exist; many institutions simply died out. The larger and more serious institutions were far more entangled in the previous system and, by extension, less prone to change and adaptation. They could not respond to the challenges of the time, they had no tools. Most of them were out-of-date, underfunded and doing bad in terms of infrastructure. And nobody was able to find a motivation to modernize them. No change mechanism was available.

When I lived in Ukraine, and it was thirteen years altogether, not a single cultural institution was established. The same was true about concert halls, galleries, museums, etc. Indeed, new sporting arenas were built for Euro 2012, yet as regards the cultural infrastructure, nothing has improved over the twenty years of independence. Kyiv with its multi-million population has a city philharmonic hall that is housed in the old tsarist merchants’ club. It can hold the audience of about 800 people. Be serious. Infrastructure is absolutely fundamental. When I managed the Polish Institute in Kyiv, we did suffer from cultural infrastructure issues. We were not able to find partners offering an adequate technical base.

Translated by Konrad Szulga

The interview supplied courtesy to the Open Culture Foundation and is outside the Creative Commons license.


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