In search of the wow effect
A review of the exhibit Ukraine WOW Interactive Exhibition. November 14th 2019 – March 29th 2020, Kyiv Ukraine.
The Ukraine WOW Interactive Exhibition was held in a new exhibition space at the Kyiv Central Station. The vast premises had not been used since 2000, but the station’s administration decided to give a new life to empty spaces such as this one, highlighting the endless possibilities of modernisation in the city. Indeed, after the conclusion of Ukraine WOW, UkrZaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways) plans to continue using the space for exhibitions and cultural and artistic events. Ukraine WOW thus became a pioneer for events of its kind. All proceeds from the exhibition ticket sales will go to social projects organised by the railway company.
Ukraine WOW was created in co-operation with Ukrainian Railways and the Gres Todorchuk Agency. It was curated by Yevgeny Stasinevich and Ksenia Malykh, and the design of the exhibition was developed by Banda. Ukraine WOW opened on November 14th 2019 and immediately attracted a great number of visitors, not least because of the numerous partners and effective marketing via social media such as YouTube. At first the exhibition was to run until December 29th, but the closing of the exhibition was postponed twice, eventually ending on March 29th 2020.
The exhibition amazes by its originality and modernity. In the 21st century, successful art events are characterised by speed, interaction with art objects, bright backlights, innovative technologies and a constant effort to astonish the audience. Ukraine WOW certainly followed these contemporary codes. The exhibition also broke stereotypes by successfully involving a state-owned enterprise, Ukrainian Railways, emphasizing the possibilities of such cooperation and proving that state partners need not be indifferent.
Initially, the organizers of the exhibition wanted to tell the story of the Ukrainian railroads, describing how they unite all regions, cities and villages, mountains and seas, and people of all generations and professions. Yet the creative concept was broadened, because the creators realised that presenting the Ukrainian railway required telling the story of Ukraine itself. Starting off on an epic journey through Ukraine WOW, the visitors were instantly immersed with all their senses. The exhibition revived childhood memories, almost turning the visitors back into children. Everything around was made deliberately large and gigantic so that the adults could experience the forgotten perception of being a small carefree child. At the same time, the children were able to encounter a new reality that was twice as big to them. The exhibition included unfamiliar music, astounding vehicles and VR glasses with a variety of themes, where one could fly over the Motherland monument, walk around the restored Nevitske Castle, take a look around a train cabin and see the “Number 9” – the most powerful blast furnace in Europe!
“My deep conviction is that if we want to be interesting to our children, then we must understand that the new generation is absolutely “gadgetised” and your exhibition, whatever it is, will compete with dreams, movies, cafés, meeting with friends, with phones and Instagram. If you want to be attractive, you have to speak to them in their language” – says Yaroslava Gres in a YouTube video released a day before the opening. Authors and experts have written about the necessity of paying careful attention to the museum space of the 21st century: the art, but also the placement of the art pieces is very important in modern exhibitions. The ability to notice the peculiarities of object location provides a truly deep impression of what was seen.
Ukraine WOW was organised in seven story blocks: At First Sight, Conversation, The Landscape Out of the Window, Dreams, Train station, Collect luggage, and Arrival. Visitors were given a chance to experience breath-taking landscapes, smell the fragrance of the steppe and hear the noise of the sea. Visitors could take captivating photos in front of an amber wall, a brilliant installation of anthracite, in the famous Ukrainian tunnel of love and inside an authentic train wagon painted in its entirety with illusory lines. On top of that, George Narbut’s unique alphabet was put on display, as well as a recreation of the mazanka (traditional Ukrainian village house), where the walls were covered with works of Polina Rayko. One of the most emotional parts of Ukraine WOW was dedicated to Crimea: “We recorded the stories of people who left Crimea due to various circumstances. These drawings and words are very painful. In this zone we want to say that we remember and it is vitally important to keep this in mind and to tell the story, in order to not forget about these people, nor about Crimea, because Crimea is Ukraine,” said Yaroslava Gres. Besides the room of recollections, the exhibition also presented a map of Ukraine, where each visitor could leave a yellow or pink sticker for the place they would truly wish to visit. There was not an empty spot on the Crimean part, the whole peninsula was completely filled with stickers.
We are WOW
An interesting reflection can be made about children’s perceptions of art depending on their age, which was taken into account by the organisers. For example, children between ages five and seven tend to learn through action. They desire to touch the exhibits and have a tendency to live what they see at exhibits through mimics and movements. Ukraine WOW was designed to be compatible with all types of visitors, and children could thus appreciate the liveliness of the project through movement and sensory games. At ages eight to ten, children tend to immediately capture the mood of an artwork, the author’s aspirations and its results. They notice the differences of shapes, colours and shades, and are very observant of minute details. From age eleven to thirteen, children have a more profound understanding of art objects. Older children are also interested to hear the history behind the work, because it helps them to build deeper value to what they observe. Knowing these gradual changes in children’s minds, the organisers provided gripping exhibition objects corresponding to each age category.
Ukraine WOW presented comprehensive information about Ukrainian scholars, writers, poets, artists, inventors, renowned architecture, cinematography, first political parties, geographical features, minerals and types of our soil. For instance, there was a possibility to see how samples of black soil differ from each other in Ukraine. The section “Collect luggage” featured a hundred playful puzzles and quizzes. Many showpieces also provided fun facts about the history of railway stations in Ukraine. One such example was the train Number 45/46 “Lysychansk–Uzhhorod” that crosses all of Ukraine in 31 hours covering 1,646 kilometres – the information went alongside a 10 minute accelerated video of the journey.
In the final part, the “Arrival”, lights were put together in the shape of a living heart, as if an art prototype of the organ was hanging in the air. The heart starts beating faster as the visitors approach it closer, and the colours of the lights change as well. These effects meant to symbolise the physiological changes experienced with the feelings of affection and love. As the manifesto of the Ukraine WOW exhibition states: “It is through our joint efforts that we change the country, make it worthy of admiration and love. We visualize it. Ukraine is WOW because we are WOW.”
The event left an undisputedly holistic impression of cultural satiety. The restoration of abandoned sites for exhibit use and their modernisation through contemporary societal projects entails a visible shift towards a future society. It is true to say that the younger generation is increasingly preoccupied with digital technologies, but that does not mean that children are less capable or gifted than previous generations. It is not useless to speak with children about modern art or any topic, because it all makes sense when the information and images are revealed in a language that is understandable to them. This was the case in this unique and modern exhibition which hopefully paved the way for more to come.
Nataliya Parshchyk is a student of decorative and applied arts at the Lviv National Academy of Arts.