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

We present the second 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

P. L.: How do you assess the cultural cooperation and support that Ukraine has from other countries?

J. O.: The most important cultural institution operating in Ukraine is the classic type: the Goethe Institute, the British Council, the Polish Institute, the French Institute. They have pursued their policies in many ways. By my standards, the most interesting were the initiatives of the Goethe Institute and the British Council, not to mention the Polish Institute, which has had a special position and mission to accomplish. On the other hand, the French have focused on the presentation of their culture and preservation of its integrity. Germany, the UK, and Poland have concentrated on modernization projects. We wanted to help those communities, individuals and institutions in Ukraine that were ready to come to grips with projects and take the risk.

P. L.: Ukraine does not have institutions such as the Polish Institute and does not pursue any active, targeted, and deliberate cultural and promotional agenda abroad. Is the independent Ukrainian culture able to handle this on its own? And how can it do it? What can Ukrainian NGOs do about it?

J. O.: There is no doubt that a soft and well-crafted promotional policy of a country is extremely important. Especially for such countries as Ukraine, which has a great potential but either refuses to manage it or, if it does, it is done more by accident than design.

Just imagine that such an economic power like Germany spends 40% of the budget of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs on public and cultural diplomacy. These are staggering sums when given in absolute numerals. I do not know what percentage of the budget of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is expended on public and cultural diplomacy. I imagine that no more than 10%. Therefore, the German presence is overwhelming. Their economic presence, which seems obvious, is followed by the cultural and scientific one.

Speaking of non-governmental organizations in Ukraine, this sector is basically in good health. The question is if and to what extent it is effective. Do not forget that the people who make up this sector and work in it are the same Ukrainian citizens as those who sit in government institutions. They all must seek ways of co-existence and functioning in the same tradition. And since that tradition is largely the Soviet tradition, a lot of NGOs have not been able to entirely drop it. Even if Ukrainian NGOs often say that they are struggling with it. They do not practice what they officially declare.

A few months ago, the director of the Lviv Art Gallery of Painting, Boris Voznitsky, died in a car crash. A discussion was started on who should succeed him. Shortly after the accident, Urainska Pravda published a letter penned by a group of very prominent citizens. In the letter, they put forward a candidate for the vacated office, Taras Vozniak. I will not discuss Vozniak’s competence, he might actually be the best candidate for this position, but the letter did annoy me. It did not occur to any of these people, and these are fairly important figures in Ukrainian culture and science, that they should be doing their best to ensure a transparent selection process, or at least, any selection process. Instead, they concluded arbitrarily that they had a great candidate to lobby for. The same mechanism was applied when appointing former Soviet party secretaries. Of course, this is not only a Ukrainian problem.

P. L.: Transparency?

J. O.: The Ukrainian NGOs largely embody this way of thinking which I have often seen in Ukraine, and which comes down to the buzzword “Because it is different here.” I always heard people saying this when explaining why they needed to take such and such an action. When I started in Kyiv and wanted to do some things my way, which I believed was the right way, then I was confronted with the inescapable “It is different here.”

I remember that when I gathered the board of my foundation (CCA) and gave them a document to read (it addressed the conflict of interest within the board), it sparked a heated debate. The chairman suggested, “How about writing to Soros and trying to explain that it must be a little different with us.” I responded, “You can write it, but I will not send it.”

Straight line is the shortest distance between points A and B. Is the definition of straight line different in Ukraine? It seems so. When they seek the shortest distance between point A and B, they follow a different logic, and the best way does not need to be the shortest way. In Ukraine, there is a strong argument of the importance of local context and uniqueness. Consequently, some things cannot be done as they should be done, but they must be done differently. And we do see the effects of “doing things differently” in Ukraine.

P. L.: The effect is that it is different there?

J. O.: Yes, unfortunately. Otherwise, it would be normal, whatever that word means. In Ukraine, there is a constant escape from the standard because standards are inevitably linked to obligation and commitment. If we agree on some rules, then we need to stick to them. And if there are no rules, we can do as we please. And this is how Ukrainians prefer to go on. The case of the Lviv gallery that I mentioned earlier shows that they do not really want to change this system. “We want our way, we want our guy,” they say. Because this is the guy we trust, he will do what we like the most. For this reason, fortunately and most probably, he will not trigger any structural or systemic changes.

The other thing is short memory. Ukrainians refuse to accept certain achievements. They keep building things from scratch over and over again. I am monitoring what is left in terms of legacy after the CCA, which operated for 13 years. Judging by the statements of various cultural figures, that institution actually never existed. There was something, but nobody really knows what. Therefore, we need to start building from scratch again. More than that, some people who I used to work with, or who were with the Soros Foundation, and are now making their own careers behave as if they had just started. As if they were created ex nihilo, suddenly appearing out of nowhere, great and brilliant. They are reluctant to admit that they are in fact a product of the Soros Foundation and its standards. Had it not been for that great opening that they experienced thanks to Soros and the ability they received back then to act in Ukraine a little differently than “differently,” they would not be who they are where they are.

For some years, Lviv hosted an event called the Current Art Week. Not so long ago, my friends from Lviv told me that now this would be changed into a biennial. New organizers dismiss the old recognizable brand. They want to start building from nothing.

P. L.: For several years, you have been living in New York running the Polish Institute. Is Ukrainian art present in the Big Apple? Is it traceable in the USA in any way?

J. O.: It is present there, mainly thanks to the relatively well-functioning institutions run by the enlightened Ukrainian diaspora. These are not only folk dance groups supervised by Orthodox churches. The Ukrainians in the United States have institutions of tremendous importance. For example, the Ukrainian Museum in New York; although small, it is capable of putting up a professional exhibition. Columbia University offers Ukrainian studies (at Harriman Institute).

When it comes to Ukrainian contemporary art, it is generally absent, well, Ukraine as such is absent from here. In 2011, The New Museum in New York hosted a large exhibition Ostalgie, showcasing the art of the Eastern European countries; two Ukrainians were exhibited: Serhiy Zarva and Boris Mikhailov. The manner of presentation made their work dissolve in the “Russianness,” without any Ukrainian connotations preserved. Mikhailov also exhibited successfully at MoMA in 2011. But none of these events had to do with the promotion of the Ukrainian brand. The only Ukrainian trace in Mikhailov’s presentation was a label with his place of birth: Kharkiv, Ukraine. So Ukraine was mentioned as the place of artist’s birth. Well, there was no other way he could resolve that. Everybody is born somewhere. Here or there. But the question is: Where is all the Ukrainian context gone? The promotion of these events and artists did not receive any backing of the Ukrainian authorities.

We also invited Ukrainians to participate in certain projects of the Polish Institute in New York. For example, we invited the well-known historian Yaroslav Hrycak to a debate at Columbia University. During the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature, supervised by Salman Rushdie, Mykola Riabchuk took part in three panel discussions. With his speeches, he did more for the promotion of Poland than the Polish authors; in each of his presentations, he stressed that he had been invited by the Polish Institute of the Polish, that Poles are great organizers, and that Ukrainians should learn from their western neighbours how to promote their culture. Sounds a bit Machiavellian. To invite a Ukrainian to promote Poland. But, in a sense, this is inevitable. People like Riabchuk know both these places – Poland and Ukraine – and have something to say about them.

P. L.: Do you know of any solution or a possible scenario for the artistic community and the government that would help solve these problems in the Ukrainian “different conditions”?

J. O.: You have to understand what today’s Ukraine is in cultural terms and try to find a consensus. The Ukrainians have to complete the process of building their self-awareness. The truth is that neither side of the official cultural dialogue is ready for any consensus. And without this “any” consensus in Ukraine, there will be no progress at all. And this requires good will. There is a widespread conviction that there is no point in getting together and talking because the prevailing argument is that such discussions serve only one purpose: to find arguments against those who sit on the other side. Everybody seems to know that this will be all in vain. Without a thorough stocktaking, it will be very difficult to make a step forward. Otherwise, if taken, such steps will be short-term and accidental. Something can work or not.

Ukraine will be doomed to such a situation as long as its cultural elite refuse to try to debate. Now, Ukrainians lack a clear, shared, and commonly accepted narrative. They do not have a universal discourse. We must be aware of all the complications, but also Ukrainians themselves should try to forge their reality to the greatest possible extent. Bear in mind that when Ukraine did not exist as an independent state, Ukrainian culture was there anyway. So it is not true that if there is no sustainable and official support for culture, it will not grow; it will, maybe only slightly, but it will develop because it is a living culture of a great nation. This lack of support is also no excuse for denying the obligation to keep building it. On the other hand, state support must also be ensured because there is no point for a state to exist if it is not able to foster its own culture and protect its own identity, even if it is twisted, difficult, and hard to disambiguate.

What divides Ukrainians is not in fact so immense and painful as it may seem. Think about, for example, Italy; the Italian state is an artificial creation, put together from dozens of lands and communities which even today do not form a uniform whole. But they manage to function as a single state because there is a certain agreement, understanding, and consensus proposed and jointly adopted by the elite. However, if we looked at Italy more carefully, we would certainly spot a lot of diversity and multiplicity. They do have many reasons to disintegrate. Despite this, the country is still as one. Ukrainians could learn a lesson from Italians. What divides them is not that great and painful, but we have to be aware that the process of building, of growing the awareness and consolidating in Ukraine will take time.

You should also be frank about your own condition and not evade the bitter truth about your own weaknesses and shortcomings. There is nothing worse than telling lies, especially when you attempt to promote your own culture. Such lies are very easy to expose. It is much easier in sport: you either win or lose. It is much harder in arts, because you do not win medals. In the short run, media and PR tricks are used to maintain the feeling of success. Many people in Ukraine, especially from official circles, believe in the great success of Ukrainian culture. Hardly anyone wants to verify it.

Recently, Ukrainska Pravda published the Shanghai ranking of top 500 universities in 2012. The author bemoans that no single Ukrainian university is listed there. Actually, the Polish ones are also but a few.

P. L.: The Jagiellonian University and Warsaw University are ranked in the fourth hundred.

J. O.: For Ukrainian or Polish universities to be listed in the ranking, they must have recourse to new systemic solutions and standards, comparable to other universities that top the current rating. If such institutions operate in incomparable systems, they automatically drop out as they do not fit into international classifications. It does not mean that they are entirely bad, they just lack the relevant points of reference that may be useful as comparison categories. They operate in a completely different world. For example, if someone has a PhD from Harvard and Oxford, he or she cannot teach classes in Ukraine. Such degrees are not honoured in Ukraine. The purpose of that, I reckon, is to perpetuate the internal and safe status quo. By avoiding confrontation and comparison, we keep a good mood and fail to notice our imperfections. In Ukraine, there are about 350 universities (about 238 state-run and 107 private [editors’ note]); in the UK there are more than 80 universities, which is believed to be a lot; in Italy there are no more than 50 (state-run and private, [editors’ note]), and in Poland we have nearly 500 universities and colleges (132 state-run and 338 private [editors’ note]). As we can see, these figures have little bearing on reality. Lublin has 5 state universities. So what? One first-rate university in Lublin would probably suffice.

One of the huge culture-related problems in Ukraine is very conservative art schools; and by “conservative” I do not mean conservatism in a positive sense of teaching classical skills and art. I mean this peculiar and mythological dimension of “classicality” that is fostered there: “Here, we educate in a “classic” way.” Their “classic” should be understood as the training of artistic practices that are basic, safe, craft-oriented, set, and acceptable. In fact, Ukrainian art schools are completely blind to contemporary art. They leave no room for exploration. One international biennial of contemporary art, organized with hype in Kyiv (Arsenale 2012 [editors’ note]), will not change this situation.

As I said before speaking of the Ukrainian problem with memory, my colleagues from Lviv notified me about the biennial in Lviv, which had previously been called the Current Art Week. The newsletter says that Lviv is facing a great chance to become a cultural Venice of East-Central Europe.

P. L.: These are the peculiar comparisons to something already known and attempts to enchant the reality with brand-loaded catch-phrases. This is aimed to shore up the value of things. Usually, it has a suicidal and ultimately humiliating effect. You have to identify and explore your own capital. You have to build your own brand by capitalizing on your own resources.

J. O.: All these slogans and comparisons, most often written in English, do the trick only on the internal market. From outside, they look ridiculous and naive. If anyone at all can get through all this semantic confusion, they will try to test it. They will shrug their shoulders and ask, “What are they talking about?,” What is going on?,” “Show me your value?” Such attempts reveal a naive desire to prove that you are getting closer and mature enough to near some mythical ideal. This is a desperate call that “Look, we can do it too.” But nobody expects Lviv to be a cultural Venice of Eastern Europe. Be yourself but stay open to the world, to one another. And lastly, be open to yourselves.

Translated by Konrad Szulga


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

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