Odessa…a reason to return to Ukraine

poster - superukraineWhen I left Ukraine in April, I found it hard to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues so I made it easier for myself by stating that I wasn’t actually saying goodbye [forever?] because I would be coming back.

And now I’m packing a suitcase and checking the weather forecast. [I know it’s only the British who feel the need to pack clothes for every season when we go on holiday, but that’s because the average holiday week in July in the UK can contain wind, torrential rain, sunburn, relentless drizzle and fog, often in the space of a single day].

I’ll be visiting the Odessa International Film Festival this weekend, after stopping over in Kyiv to see friends, and to see what the capital city looks like in summer, rather than winter.

Stephen Frears will be in Odessa as one of the featured film makers at the 2014 Film Festival; and Hitchcock’s Blackmail will also form part of the Opening weekend, screened to an audience of thousands sitting on the Potemkin Steps. This year’s Film Festival is taking place, despite huge obstacles and with few resources, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Producer, Julia Sinkevych, and her team – she writes ” It is challenging this year, and probably the most difficult project in my career and in careers of my colleagues due to the situation in Ukraine”.

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Ukraine is still in the news here in Britain but weekly, not daily. And the situation is still tense, especially in the eastern regions: a month ago, Izolyatsia – a vibrant platform for contemporary culture in Donetsk [see previous posts] was taken over by pro-Russian separatists; and my friend Olga wrote, after another murder in the centre of Donetsk ” It’s awful, and the most terrible thing is that we are kind of getting used to gun shootings and deaths of ordinary people.”

But she ended her email “Anyway, life is going on and kids are going on dancing, singing and doing a lot of interesting things. Besides, it is our common history which should be kept through generations.”

People’s resilience in the face of conflict is remarkable; and Olga’s positive statement, and the determination of the Odessa Film Festival team to go ahead with this year’s festival, is testament to that.

On a more mundane note, I’m looking forward to sitting on those Potemkin Steps (made famous thanks to Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin)  by the shores of the Black Sea, in Ukraine’s third largest city, which was officially founded by Catherine The Great in 1794. By 1824, Pushkin was writing of Odessa that “its air was full of all Europe”, in reference to its extremely diverse population.

I’m also looking forward to taking a battered yellow marshrutka around town, eating a bowl of borscht, getting a receipt in a little box, seeing Napolean cake on every menu, and seeing friends and colleagues at the British Council in Kyiv, and in Odessa…


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. http://www.artcult.org.ua/en/project/12

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 www.futuregenerationartprize.org).

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 http://buddleiacommissions.wordpress.com/ 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 http://www.urbansplash.co.uk/about-us/our-story/our-book. Perhaps the government and some of Ukraine’s oligarchs could learn from this story before too much of Kyiv’s old city disappears.

Visiting Donetsk

I left Kyiv for the first time this week.

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back...

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back…

A 7 hour express train ride across flat farmlands to the Donbas, the industrial region of eastern Ukraine, where factories and mines – or rather terricones (slag heaps) as the visible evidence of the mining & mineral extraction below – dominate the landscape.

In the heart of the Donbas is Donetsk, a city of more than 1 million people founded by a Welshman, John Hughes from Merthyr Tydfil, who set up an iron works and coal mines there in 1869… the city was known as Hughesovska or Yuzovka until 1961.Ukraine’s mines remain dangerous places to work, and fatal accidents underground are not uncommon – safety standards are not high and equipment is outdated. Check out Hughesovka if you want to read more of the story of John Hughes.

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

For an industrial city that flaunts its wealth with a main street full of luxury shops, there’s a surprising lack of cultural venues…one municipal “art museum”, an Opera House that employs a full time company of more than 500 people (and presents just 9 performances a month!), and some strange references to Liverpool.

for fans of alive music...

for fans of alive music…

And yet, at the site of a former factory which produced insulation materials for the whole of the Soviet Union, there’s an amazingly exciting contemporary arts project, IZOLYATSIA Platform for Cultural Initiatives.

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

The new Director, Paco De Blas, and Communications manager Olga Yefimova both kindly gave up a morning to show me around the site – where exhibitions populate dilapidated buildings, and artworks created through ambitious residency programmes and collaborations with world class artists are visible/audible.

I particularly liked Leandro Erlich’s Invisible Train – an audio piece that creates the sensation, through sound, of a train rushing past on the overhead pipes that crisscross the site.


Huddled in rooms around the factory were groups of artists at work, and IZOLYATSIA is home to IZOLAB, Ukraine’s first FABLAB a small scale digital fabrication workshop with open access to high end equipment like 3D printing, and an environment dedicated to experiment, play and research.

Project manager Konstantin Leonenko showed me a prototype pasta robot, and I discovered there’s a whole world of pasta architecture out there – where engineers & architects are using pasta to design and research new constructions! Check out this spaghetti bridge structure which weighed 98gms, and supported a load of 466kg before it collapsed  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORhjC-TslA4

pic of giant samovar

Giant samovar at the site of the Art Fair

Thanks to Paco de Blas, Olga Yefimova and everyone at IZOLYATSIA for making one Creative Consultant for the British Council feel so welcome.

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape