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Waiting for the Kiev Biennale

“Everything happens in due place and due time. No phenomenon or event ever occurs earlier or later than it might, but only when it is ready” – Nataliia Zabolotna, Commissioner of the Kiev Biennale in her foreword to the exhibition catalogue.

Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kiev

Everyone involved in large-scale art events occasionally suffers the classic anxiety dream where the audience shows up and they’re not ready on time.

Last month in Kiev however I watched with horror as it happened in reality. What should have been a major cultural event  – the First Kyiv International Biennale of Contemporary Art – palpably wasn’t alright on the night.

To be honest I had my doubts about the organization in Kiev almost as soon as they contacted me out of the blue a few weeks before the Biennale was due to start. Despite much emailing back and forth with their London-based PR company, my travel arrangements were only confirmed at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, just a little over 24 hours before I was due to set off.

Once I arrived in Kiev, there wasn’t a single aspect of my schedule that didn’t go awry to one degree or another. That’s not an exaggeration. Even rescheduled arrangements were re-rescheduled minutes before they were meant to happen. And more than once they never happened at all.

I began to suspect that this was something more than inefficiency when the main press conference was postponed, a lunch date with the show’s artistic director David Elliott evaporated from the schedule when I was actually en route to meet him, and it seemed that the minders accompanying press people like myself were doing anything they could think of, including taking us on absurdly time-consuming museum visits and throwing us lavish slow-motion meals, rather than let us actually visit the Biennale.

When we finally got to the enormous venue, the Mystetskyi Arsenal, it was plain that things were in a state of utter chaos.

David Elliott (center) at the much delayed Kiev Biennale press conference

Poor old David Elliott (who must have realized he’d tempted fate by calling the show “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”) was left to sweat it out and apologize in front of the assembled press corps. But even after he’d done that we weren’t allowed inside the building for the scheduled press view. I found myself standing with Calum Sutton – the man who had actually been hired to handle the Biennale’s press coverage outside of eastern Europe – as a security thug threatened him with physical violence when he tried to take us journalists inside.

Jack & Dinos Chapman, "Fucking Dinosaurs" (2011) Courtesy of White Cube, London

The irony was that once we got inside the Arsenal there was actually some remarkable work in there. A wonderful installation by Song Dong filled one huge space.  Jake and Dinos Chapman – not usually among my favorite artists, nor yours I suspect – have created a huge and rather telling installation of zombified Nazis encountering abstract sculpture. The Russian outfit AES + F presented a mesmerizing visionary super-wide-screen video installation. Yinka Shonibare’s large-scale photographs also looked splendid.

Work crews struggle to hang Ola Kolehmainen's "Composition with David and Goliath" (2008) in time for the opening

Elsewhere though it was about as bad as it gets. In some areas the entire floor was missing. One of my New York gallery friends told me on the eve of the opening that, “The Kiev team is utterly disorganized; the space is filthy; there was no electricity or running water in the building until two days ago; and there are no installers on hand whatsoever! Total chaos!  Disastrous!” Phyllida Barlow, who installed a house-sized work, discovered that it had been moved after she’d completed it, and described the whole experience as, “Torture, torture, torture!”  Shirazeh Houshiary told me that it had been one of the worst experiences she had ever had. Paul McCarthy simply didn’t show.

Maybe I shouldn’t have expected anything different. But it’s not as though this was some small-scale independent operation. It was organized with the support of every office in the Ukrainian government from the president on down. Still, as you may have noticed, Ukraine doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations. When I visited, its former prime minister was in jail in circumstances described by the EU as “justice applied selectively under political motivation”. Only a couple of days before I traveled the Financial Times judged that what had “always been an oligarchic state now often seems like a Mafia state”; and while I was there members of parliament debating the official use of the Russian language started throwing punches. One of them finished up in the hospital. When I typed the words “Kiev” and “tourism” into google one of the first links I tried turned out to be for an escort service. “I enjoy driving fast cars and shopping nice lingerie,” one of their “city guides” purrs. “I adore having coffe in the nice city cafe with a smiling gentleman. And I love giving my slime in return …” (That is verbatim. I didn’t make it up.)

"I speak English!"

Ironically it would seem that the contemporary art business – which I have often criticized for its tendency to be much more concerned with business than art came up against a financial model that it could not cope with. In a post-Soviet culture where corruption underpins all commercial activity, concepts like importance and urgency are determined purely by how much someone is willing to pay for them. Officials and contractors accustomed to kickbacks and favors are not going to put themselves out just because somebody has the bizarre idea that art is good for us.

On the other hand, no such problems appeared to have afflicted other areas of business.  As a trade-off for their support of the Biennale, Samsung were dubbed its “Innovative Partner” and had display stands for their copy of the iPad littered around the Arsenal – sometimes right in the middle of someone’s installation. They seemed to have had no problems getting their stuff ready on time. As artists still struggled with chaos, and the beautiful people of Kiev waited to be admitted – this too way behind schedule – the little Samsung displays were overseen by pretty young women crisply turned out in their tight cream uniforms, veritable houri of graft.

Samsung at the Kiev Biennale (Photo:Sherman Sam)

Of course, very shortly we’ll be hearing a great deal more about Ukraine. The European soccer tournament they’re hosting alongside neighboring Poland kicks off Friday (June 8) and will play itself out on television screens around the world. I suspect that its organization will be more efficiently greased than the Biennale’s. If it fares no better, there’ll be real trouble.

(Thanks to the Kiev Bienniale for covering my travel and accommodation expenses, and to Sutton PR, London, for hosting my visit. A slightly different version of this piece is due to appear at Total Theatre Review.)


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