Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not Closed, Just Locked: Exhibit Censorship in Kyiv

Anyone in the American museum field is probably familiar with the cases of censorship and attempted censorship that have roiled American museum practice (and in some cases the public) over the last few decades:  Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum, the National Portrait Gallery,  the Enola Gay controversy, and of course, Robert Mapplethorpe.   The resolution of each situation is different,  but in every case,  issues of free speech and the importance of showing sometimes controversial art have been brought into public conversation.

When I was in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar in 2009, I taught a course at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA).  One of independent Ukraine's most distinguished universities it was (and is) home to a lively, passionate group of students--I've been lucky enough to stay in touch with many of those who experimented with me in class.

But recently,  the openness, artistic enterprise and academic freedom have come under fire at NaUKMA.  Here's the story,  from Vasyl Cherepanyn, director of the Visual Culture Research Center at the University.
On February 10th, 2012, the President of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvit banned the exhibition of the Visual Culture Research Center “Ukrainian Body” that explored the issues of corporality in contemporary Ukrainian society. Serhiy Kvit explained his decision in the following way: “It’s not an exhibition, it’s shit”. After the act of censorship, which drew a wide response in the Ukrainian and foreign media, the President of NaUKMA has initiated a number of bureaucratic restrictions against the Visual Culture Research Center as the organizers of the exhibition. On February 23rd the Academic Council of the university led by Serhiy Kvit passed a resolution to bar the activities of VCRC.

On March 12th, the President of NaUKMA Serhiy Kvit made a resolution on the prohibition of all events and exhibitions in the Old Academic building, where the Visual Culture Research Center has been working since 2008, referring to the building's “condition conducive to accident”. Despite its “accident rate” the galleries of Old Academic building are shortly to be used as the library archives. Hence the President of NaUKMA closed the VCRC's exhibition “Ukrainian Body” at first, then the Center itself, and eventually the premises where the VCRC is conducting events, announcing their “condition conducive to accident”.
Those interested can read more in a recent NY Times article (yes, sorry about the paywall) in which the president describes the space as "not closed, just locked" and watch this video (with English subtitles) that includes interviews with the university president, artists, and project curators.   For many,  the attention brought to contemporary art in Ukraine's capital not been entirely negative.  In the Times article,  Kateryna Botanova, the director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art , comments,  “I absolutely believe that the closing of this exhibition is the most important thing that has happened in Ukrainian contemporary art in quite some years...It shows that contemporary art is not always beautiful and glamorous. Art can be subversive and a place for discussion.”

I think of Ukraine as a place where lively conversation--the subversive discussions that Kateryna mentions--is still emerging as an accepted part of civic life. As museum colleagues around the world, I hope that we can all encourage that conversation--in Ukraine--and in our own communities.  If you want to support the re-opening of the center,  you can do so by joining me--and many others (including historians Timothy Snyder of Yale and David Walkowitz of NYU, David Elliott, curator of the first Kyiv International Biennale,  and other artists, scholars and curators from around the world) in signing this online petition.


Unknown said...
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Sasha K(...) said...

It appears that "lively conversation" is an immoral concept to some who speak louder, and claim political, physical, intellectual and moral superiority. This is inheritance from a society where ideology of few Orwellian pigs was rendered a religion.

Ned R. said...

I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this case also look into the "Caution, Religion!" exhibit that went up in the privately-owned Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow a few years back. It was a knowingly provocative art exhibit that was met with more than just censorship.

I emphasize that the museum is privately owned because this particular chapter goes beyond the discussion of public funding — it cuts straight to the heart of defining and defending free speech.

I won't post links so you can do your own research, but an internet search for "Caution, Religion!" will lead you to a number of sources.