Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.


Dancing to a different tune

pic of oranges on sale

Oranges and pomegranates on sale at all the markets

Flower sellers at every metro station

Flower sellers at every metro station

At this time of year, when everywhere looks grey and unkempt, the fruit and flower sellers of Kyiv are a particular delight – brightening up the underground markets, or, wrapped up against the cold at their outdoor stalls, supplying Vitamin C in the form of oranges for Kyiv’s population of 3 million people.

I enjoyed 2 dance productions back to back this week – the first the Kyiv Modern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, created by one of Ukraine’s foremost choreographers, Radu Potlikaru (see interview here for more info about his work). Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I enjoyed the playful choreography, the loose dance style and the humour in the piece, and the packed theatre loved it. Radu Potlikaru himself was part of the creative team working on the Sochi Olympics Opening spectacular, so it was a surprise to see him back in the theatre, able to enjoy the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

The next evening, I went to the National Opera House of Ukraine for  the first time. Again, a packed theatre, this time for a “ballet fantasie” version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, created by David Aydysh, for which tickets cost from 50UAH to 250UAH (£4 to £20). I had no idea what to expect…and ended up completely transported to another world: a beautiful traditional theatre building, imaginative choreography and strong design, impressive staging skills that included flying both performers and scenery silkysmoothly, and over 40 classically trained ballet dancers – all those pointy toes! I came out feeling giddy and lightheaded and wanted to dance my way home. I went and ate beetroot salad with herring instead, just to keep it earthy.

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

The third delight of the week was my visit to the Museum of Dreams exhibition inspired by the life and work of Sergei Paradzhanov, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated film directors. Born in Georgia to Armenian parents, imprisoned under Soviet rule, and exiled to Georgia at the end of his life, he was a maverick artist who danced to a different tune… his work includes films like The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – one of Ukraine’s most important 20th century films; and collages, mostly made during his imprisonment.

Film maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented on  “His way of thinking, his paradoxical poetic vision…the ability to love beauty and the ability to be absolutely free within his own vision”   and to me, his work feels sumptuous, fantastical, and bravely defiant of the harsh greyness that seems to have been the default Soviet setting.

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

The Museum itself is found down some steps in a block of flats and opens two evenings a week, and 1pm – 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Run by two dedicated curators, Alina and Viktoria, and their team of helpers, I was struck by what love has gone into this exhibition. Beautifully displayed objects and photographs, video, audio, collage and trinkets…and a wishing well in the middle of the room.

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Privately run, it receives hardly any financial support, so I hope that the people of Kyiv visit in large numbers (well, not too many at once – the space is tiny!) and make a donation if they like what they discover there.

If you live in Kyiv, do go and see this exhibition before it finishes on March 16. It’s in the Pechersk district, just a 5 minute walk from the Druzhby Novodiv metro.

In another conversation with some British Council Young Learners we looked at museums in the UK, and they outlined their choices about which museums they would like to visit after looking at the websites of institutions like the National Football Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council's Young Learners

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council’s Young Learners

They recomYoung Learners - Kristinamended museums I should visit here, and two of the young people had brought in some examples of Ukrainian culture – in the shape of vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts)… Kristina is shown here wearing her vinok (a headdress of flowers worn by girls) and holding the ubiquitous Kalina berries.

Derry to Kyiv, via Grayson Perry & the Turner Prize.

Adrian Street and his father, 1973 (photo- Dennis Hutchinson) Dennis Hutchinson 2012

Image: Adrian Street and his father at Brynmawr Colliery Wales, 1973 © Dennis Hutchinson, from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition

My recent orgy of visual arts, which included visiting Izolyatsia in Donetsk (subject of an earlier blog), saw me visit the Modern Art Research Institute part of Ukraine’s National Academy of Arts, for their latest exhibition: “Industrial Eden” is the 6th project under the Ukrainian platform “New Directions”, in which more than 30 artists present their vision of utopia built on boundless faith in the scientific and technical progress. The exhibition included large-scale installations, newsreel and documentary video, photography, and painting, and there are panel discussions with artists and curators.

Meanwhile on my desk here sits the picture above, from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition which opened back home in Manchester the week I left, and which explores the impact of the Industrial Revolution (reviewed here: Creative Tourist reviews Jeremy Deller at Manchester City Art Gallery.

Both came to mind when I was listening to Grayson Perry’s recent BBC Reith Lectures (3. Nice Rebellion, Welcome In) – in which he argues that art has lost its ability to be revolutionary and truly innovative (if indeed that’s what we want our art to be)…artists no longer drive innovation and change, it’s technology that is radically altering the way we see and interact with the world.

Perry warns his audience in Derry/Londonderry, currently basking in the positive impact of its year as UK Capital of Culture, that artists are now “the shock troops of gentrification” – and he urges Derry, and other cities that have invested in culture, to ensure that they maintain affordable spaces for creative people to live and work even as the “dead hand of the property developer moves in” to once bohemian areas which have become cool because artists have occupied previously undesirable or derelict space.

Grayson Perry was awarded the Turner Prize in 2003 and is the first contemporary artist to deliver the BBC’s Reith Lectures -still available to download via BBC I-player for radio, which I can get (but TV isn’t available to those outside of UK). He is best known for his ceramic works, print making, drawing, sculpture and tapestries as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser. (I think he’d love the glam rock cross dressing of Adrian Street!)

Nominated for this year’s Turner Prize is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who I met at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv on Friday, where her first solo exhibition in eastern Europe opened, on the back of her winning the Future Generation Art Prize. (The competition is open to all artists up to the age of 35, and applications are invited via

Lynette’s painting practice involves creating one canvas per day, and if not completed by the end of the day, the painting is discarded. Coincidentally, her work is also currently being displayed in Derry as part of the Turner Prize exhibition there. Listen to this account from yesterday’s Pure Culture show if you want to understand more about her work and can’t get to either Kyiv or Derry: BBC Radio Foyle: Pure Culture review of Turner Prize nominee, L Y-B.

Crucial to a healthy arts scene is critical debate, and support for artist development. And there’s not much state support for either here in Ukraine.

1003715 10151513228037021_623939075_nI met the dedicated team at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CSM) who run Korydor the only independent magazine in Ukraine encouraging critical discourse around contemporary culture; and when money allows, they do projects in the public realm, including one earlier this year at the location of the former Yunist factory in Podil, where I live. Which explains why I had come across a temporary cinema, sculpture, music and a little coffee stall in a derelict space just behind my flat, on one of my evening wanderings. CSA organised SPACES: Architecture of Common [Ground] in May, after working with local people who were opposing plans for a new shopping centre being built there.

During the past few years, Kyiv has seen aggressive property development and, with that, the all too familiar destruction of both historical sites and public space, so CSA’s project aimed to develop strategies of revitalization of urban spaces through art practice, and thus to create better dialogue between big business interests and local citizens.

“Ukrainians just start to learn to invest in new knowledge, new experiences, in art, literature, film as with current political situation it becomes more and more clear that big politics and big businesses are caught in a vicious cycle of power games, and funding culture is too big of a luxury for them. In such conditions (self)education, mutual support and desire to change the surrounding reality become one of a few ways out of the fatal Ukrainian circle, where all great ideas and initiatives disappear.

For three years Korydor has followed these principles by touching upon the most critical and burning social and political issues through culture: we write about the quality of life, censorship, human rights and rights to creativity, public dialogue and cultural policies, nationalism and social consensus. We have educational projects: we post videos and transcripts of lectures and discussions, organized by CSM and partners, publish translations of important articles from foreign magazines and online publications, work with young journalists and critics.”  Korydor

As this statement makes clear, the conditions here for small independent organisations are very tough, so it felt very good to connect with 3 Ukrainian women so committed to supporting socially engaged arts practice that aims to stimulate people to actively work together to change their city, and safeguard public spaces.

And I hope to do some work with this team – we are planning a presentation for journalists and cultural commentators and artists about the experience of British cities in the North of England, so that they might learn from our mistakes and our successes.

I will be pointing them towards the work of artists and curators like Michael Trainor, one of the artists who kickstarted the redevelopment of Manchester’s Northern Quarter – Northern Quarter stories; and Kerenza Maclarnan, whose work with Buddleia or in North Manchester may offer inspiration.

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And towards the story of Urban Splash, an unusual property developer from the North of England committed to high standards of architectural design (and community engagement) in its regeneration projects – and in Tom Bloxham, a chairman who understands the value of the arts in the public realm and was Chair of Arts Council England: North West.  Check out his story via Transformation Perhaps the government and some of Ukraine’s oligarchs could learn from this story before too much of Kyiv’s old city disappears.