There was no revolution. There was an uprising
Interview with Volodymyr Kostyrko and Yevhen Ravski, artists and creators of a series of paintings titled “Ukraine. Waiting for a hero”. Interviewer: Zofia Fenikowska
ZOFIA FENIKOWSKA: What kind of heroes does Ukraine need after the EuroMaidan?
VOLODYMYR KOSTYRKO: Had we known that such an uprising was going to take place, we would not have talked about heroes at all. The circumstances created heroes and there was no choice when it comes to the kind of heroes needed. Simply put, if there is an uprising, with killings and victims, there are also heroes. Are they needed? If I was a father and someone killed my son who would then be referred to as a hero, I would say that we do not need any heroes. Thus from a humanist perspective, I think that heroes are not needed. It is the circumstances that create heroes.
Does the fact that people become heroes have an influence on society and its development?
VK: I don’t know if it influences the development of the society. If there is a victim, h/she cannot be forgotten. If h/she was, the sacrifice would be futile. At the same time, however, as they say, Ukraine is a good idea, but a futile cause…
One of the main protagonists of your exhibition is Mytusa. Is he a sort of archetype of a hero for you? Can he be compared to the heroes of the EuroMaidan as he sacrificed his life for his ideals?
VK: In the case of Mytusa, as in the case of any other hero, when a man is killed by those in power there are competing interpretations. One of them, referred to as a social or anarchist interpretation, says that Mytusa was an insurgent against the ruler, and the ruler killed not only him but also the rest of the insurgents. In fact, the folkore says that it was Volhynia’s overlord who invaded Galicia and killed all the Galicians, including the bard, Mytusa. We do not know if the bard really existed or if it is a collective image, as Mytusa can be read as “My tu są” (“We are here”). I do not know if his name can be interpreted with a reference to the Polish language, but at that time languages differed between each other much less than they do now, thus ‘są’ or ‘sut’ appeared in this or another version. Therefore, yes, it is an archetype – a collective image.
So Mytusa is not a historical figure?
VK: There are no grounds to claim that this is not a historical figure, but we can make a hypothesis that it is a collective image, as none of the chronicles mentions bards, they do not appear in historical accounts; yet, suddenly, one is mentioned. A bishop was killed, the whole nobility was murdered, yet the stress has been put on the bard named Mytusa. We have not seen it in any other chronicles. Therefore we can suppose that the bard was fictitious.
In your painting, the bard is a well-built, strong man, who looks more of a warrior than a singer.
VK: He is a renegade, an anarchist. The point is that on the one hand it is a traditional painting, but on the other, the images are taken from pop culture. It is a sort of mockery of some stereotypes, so that the process of painting is not boring. There is some sublimation.
Does it have any connection with the values embodied by the protagonists?
VK: Practically all of our works carry certain messages and, of course, they are related to some values. This character was a part of a project titled “Rococo is not dead,” which dealt with the role of the Enlightenment in the formation of contemporary society, contemporary nations, etc. It all began then. It would be interesting to juxtapose the two, as in Kyiv everything which is associated with rococo (referring to the 18th century “Late Baroque” movement) is like Africa, so alien … while dollars and Washington are the things which can be associated with Kyiv today.
Is this why you have chosen the topic of rococo?
VK: Yes, I think we all should be grateful to the Enlightenment in particular. Maybe Romanticism too, but it grew out of the Enlightenment. We owe to the Enlightenment the fact that we have never forgotten the Renaissance and the classics. Because these are all controversial topics, maybe a critic will be found who will look at the paintings, write an article and people will understand that “we also stem from that period”.
It seems that geography is quite important for you; you often refer to topics related to Lviv and western Ukraine.
VK: Until recently our region was in a sense ignored and only in the past few years have people begun taking an interest in it. Many artists who came to us from Ivano-Frankivsk, from Luck, have all developed international careers. Yet, until recently there were serious divisions in art and one could feel them.
YEVHEN RAVSKI: In the 1990s there was a turn, Kyiv became the most important city and it was understandable that if you wanted to have a career, you had to go to Kyiv. Before that, people from Kyiv would go to Moscow.
VK: The economic situation in the city has changed and in my opinion it created many opportunities. I am certain that the quantity translates into quality when it comes to the artists. They no longer have to go to Kyiv. They can live in Lviv and because of its architecture and work opportunities, Lviv looks completely different today and has a very different image.
Can you see a relationship between the development of the artistic sphere and the formation of civil society in Lviv?
VK: Civil society emerged in this or another form in Galicia almost at the same time as in Kyiv, but is much stronger because we do not have the same access to power, there are fewer dependencies on the authorities and state institutions than in Kyiv. That is why, in Lviv, the civil society is more present and more visible. Even our style of city management is closer to the western model than, for example, in Kyiv. We are far from perfect, but in this sense the situation here is the best in Ukraine.
Yevhen, you chose Virmenska Street in Lviv for the location of your Iliad, does it have any significance?
YR: This space is simply Lviv. There is a Renaissance portal there and I chose it deliberately…
The streets of Lviv as a fighting space…?
YR: Lviv is a beautiful city, why not paint it, especially in such a way?
VK: It was at that time when we thought that if something happens… I mean, it can happen anywhere, but we thought that [the EuroMaidan] would not happen in Kyiv.
VK: What was achieved in Kyiv over three months, we would have achieved within a week. Why sit and wait? There was the militia and bezpieka (secret services – editor’s note); burn them and that’s it! The Maidan was taking place in a ministerial district with a number of governmental offices. If an organisation occupied a building, a minister would come and say: “go away, what are you doing?” And despite the fact that they had guys in balaclavas in the back, the organisers would leave. The cameras were everywhere. It was difficult to watch. Everyone thought that they finally reached the point when they had to take the ministries over, as it was clear that the functioning of the state had to be interrupted.
What was missing was decisiveness?
VK: At the time people spoke about a revolution and what everyone took for granted was: no talks, the abolition of the government and the state. We are turning the flag around or better coming up with a new one.
What are your feelings now? Has the revolution brought any significant changes?
VK: There was no revolution. There was an uprising, which has transformed into a war. The system has never lost control, it was just transferred from one party to another. The party that was in power at the time is now in the opposition. And our current president is the founder of the party, the very same, which is now in the opposition and which used to be in power. And this is why we cannot call it a revolution. There is no doubt that it was an uprising, this is clear. And it is clear that it has been transformed into an armed conflict, if not a war. There are no planes or bombardments, like in Syria, or ethnic cleansing, but there is a military conflict and people die every day. And this is a terrible price to pay for what happened. We do not even control our border. It means that the authorities still control everything and if anything happens, they say: “we have a war, don’t we?” which implies that the nation has to be supportive of the authorities. We thought that we tie their hands, but in fact it was them who tied ours.
It has been impossible to implement reforms…
VK: Nothing can be done! Although some journalists in Kyiv say that war is the best time to put pressure on the authorities, since people have access to weapons. The quantity of weapons in theory is controlled but the amount of the uncontrolled ones increases, so the war in itself does not work in favour of the authorities. And this gives the activists an opportunity to somehow persuade the government to act. It sounds paradoxical, but we do trust in this paradox, as this is our only hope. At the same time, however, the government says: “We cannot implement any reforms, because of the war.” In reality the authorities have sabotaged what the society hoped for.
What can the society do to change the situation?
VK: The problem is that nothing can be changed. An election cannot be held, as it would mean the loss of control for those in power. This is the price we are paying and they say that we will have to pay an even higher price. I don’t know what will happen if control over everything is lost. Everything would fall apart.
A civil war?
VK: Yes, a civil war. One that will not be led by activists, but by cynics and Russian agents. Activists will be removed first. It will be a total chaos.
Are you planning to explore this topic with your art?
VK: My plan was to write an autobiography and then to take care of the artists; organise them in a proper subculture of activists, revolutionaries and so on.
Do you mean artists connected in Lviv, or in general?
VK: Artists in general. We only localise universal themes in Lviv. The point is that our society has to stop being so local and become more like other societies in the world. It would be easy to do with our streets, but I am not sure about our society.
Volodymyr Kostyrko and Yevhen Ravski are Ukrainian artists of a new generation living and working in Lviv. They identify with an approach referred to as the New-Old Masters’ style. In their paintings they use tools characteristic for rococo and baroque. Their last project “Ukraine. Waiting for a Hero” features mythological and fantastical figures predicting an imminent conflict and the appearance of a new hero.
Zofia Fenikowska is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe. She has an MA in Ukrainian language studies from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.