Future Offerings

Kate Sutton on the 4th Future Generation Art Prize in Kyiv

Left: PinchukArtCentre's founder Victor Pinchuk and artistic director Bjorn Geldhof. (Photo: Sergey Ilin, PinchukArCentre) Right: Artist Nikita Kadan with  Future Generation Art Prize nominee Ibrahim Mahama. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

WHEN THE PINCHUKARTCENTRE first announced the Future Generation Art Prize in 2010, the competition’s name was met with some cynicism, if only because, in the context of the art world at that time, the “future” was dubious at best—a few laps around Art Basel’s Statements section followed by a fiery demise at Philips and then maybe an embarrassing afterlife hosting Miami parties for struggling luxury brands.

Nearly seven years later, “the future” invites a different cynicism. Not to be one of those Americans who makes everything about Trump, but . . . Suffice to say, just a month into his official presidency, the prospect of a tomorrow at all hangs on perilously thin strings.

It was partially for the distraction from social-media doomsaying that I flew to Kyiv last Friday for an exhibition of the twenty-one artists and collectives short-listed for the FGAP’s fourth edition, which had been delayed a year due to political unrest. Trump’s Twitter-thuggery may have effectively ousted Ukraine from the front page, but the country’s conflicts are far from resolved. That Wednesday witnessed the March of National Dignity, where thousands commemorated the third anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution. Meanwhile, I felt increasingly sheepish having to converse with cab drivers and trolley-bus ticket-takers in Russian.

Left: Future Generation Art Prize nominees Vajiko Chachkhiani and Aslı Çavuşoğlu. Right: FGAP nominees Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Firelei Báez, and Phoebe Boswell.

Further violating decorum, on arrival I ambushed PinchukArtCentre artistic director Bjorn Geldhof with questions over hotel breakfast (generally understood as a social no-fly zone). “Putting together a project like this, bringing in all of these international artists and producing new commissions with them—it’s a tremendous investment,” he admitted. “This is why we originally decided to delay. But now we’ve realized that we have to risk this investment, because the international conversation has to continue. Even as I look back on the first Future Generation from 2010, the impact the prize has had on the local scene has been amazing. We can’t quit now.”

This resonance is perhaps partially due to the community-accented lilt of previous commissions (see FGAP 2014 winner Carlos Motta’s Patriots, Citizens, Lovers . . ., a collaboration with local LGBTQI activists and their support networks). A portion of the credit, however, should go to the other initiatives Geldhof has spearheaded, including the conversion of one of the exhibition spaces into a library and a project that recruits emerging Ukrainian art historians to research the country’s art scene. “It’s important to get these art historians while they’re young, so they are not as dug into their narratives,” Geldhof said, grinning. “But also so that they have the fire to keep up with these older artists, you know, drinking vodka late in the evenings to get all the good stories.” Spoken with the voice of experience.

Geldhof heads up this year’s jury—international curators Nicholas Baume, Iwona Blazwick, Mami Kataoka, Koyo Kouoh, Jérôme Sans, and Jochen Volz—that will decide the recipient of the $100,000 grand prize, to be announced later this month. The exhibition of work by the short-listed artists will then travel to Venice, where Geldhof will reinstall the show with help from Anna Smolak, the prize’s first guest curator, who oversaw the Kyiv edition.

While these kinds of showcases are known to be uneven, the Krakow-based curator’s presence makes a tremendous difference. In just three months, Smolak managed to root out unlikely continuities among twenty-one artists and collectives, ranging from Martine Syms, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Li Ran, and Phoebe Boswell to Vajiko Chachkhiani and Sasha Pirogova, due to represent Georgia and Russia, respectively, at this year’s Venice Biennale. For the opening piece, Smolak worked with Sol Calero to refigure the Venezuelan artist’s Casa de Cambio, a brightly colored exchange booth where visitors can barter for Calero’s drawings.

Left: Artist Zhanna Kadyrova. Right: Curator and critic Katya Taylor with Platforma editor-in-chief Yuriy Marchenko.

“We adapted it so that it now echoes the previous format of the Pinchuk reception room, with the artist’s desk and the chairs where the institution’s used to be,” Smolak explained. As an additional touch, the suspended waiting-room-style monitors now broadcast videos from Kharkiv’s SOSka Group, creating an additional tension between Calero’s candy-colored tropicana and the comely squalor of the Ukrainian countryside.

On the next floor, Smolak’s pairing of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s sumptuous paintings and Firelei Baez’s gorgeous collages and book-cover interventions (“a visual archive of the margins,” as the curator put it) gained an additional element of drama from the bass line of Vivian Caccuri’s nearby Oratorio (Tidal Wave), 2017. The Brazilian artist’s sound piece seeks to rectify Christianity’s musical tradition of shunning low frequencies by using forbidden “pagan beats” to compose an Ambrosian hymn. She blasted the hymn from a minishrine of subwoofers, which sent the flames of attendant candles bouncing along with the bass. Down the hall, Iván Argote played sound to a different effect, rounding out a new film with a voice-over from a Femen activist he had met in Paris. “As a political refugee, she might not be able to travel back home. But at least her voice can still be heard here,” Argote reasoned.

The lunacy of current affairs was further illustrated (literally) by Andy Holden’s film Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape, 2011–16, in which the artist’s animated avatar leads the audience through a lecture on how the specific quantum mechanics of the cartoon world—i.e., the idea that gravity doesn’t take effect until you acknowledge it, glancing down at your feet to discover you ran off the cliff five steps back—find parallels in our current political situation (cut to clips of the Arab Spring or Trump goofily gliding down that fateful escalator). The walls in Holden’s screening room immersed the viewers in a brilliant, Kermity green. “When I do this live, I have an actual green screen on hand, so I can pop in and out of the cartoon landscape as I’m speaking,” Holden explained. I jotted down the dates for his upcoming Tate performance. (More potential distraction?)

Left: FGAP nominee Kemang Wa Lehulere with Stevenson Gallery's Lerato Bereng. Right: FGAP nominee Li Ran.

The youngest of the nominees, twenty-five-year-old Rebecca Moss, has already built up her own semicomic persona as “that artist.” Last September, she had been on board Hanjin’s Geneva, traveling from Vancouver to Shanghai as part of the “Twenty-Three Days at Sea” program offered by Access Gallery. A week into Moss’s journey, however, the shipping company went belly up, and the ship was refused port. For two weeks, it drifted aimlessly around the Pacific, until it was at last allowed to dock in Tokyo. “It was really frustrating at the time, yes, but, when you step back and look at the situation, it was also admittedly hilarious and absurd,” Moss mused. “It’s probably what led me to make these videos,” she added, motioning toward a line of monitors showing loops of simple, endearingly stupid actions, such as the artist in a frog costume, pogo-sticking in a puddle, or a peony rustling hesitantly in the breeze from a whoopee cushion.

As I passed through the rooms, I couldn’t help but remark how sensual the experience of the exhibition was. It wasn’t just Caccuri’s bass line, rattling one’s rib cage. The exhibition space was rich with smells, ranging from the botanical canopy covering Baez’s cave-like installation to the loamy earth, coal, and ash of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Mabu/mubu/mmu (all variations of the word for “soil”) to the gritty funk of Non Orientable Nkansa II. 1901–2030, Ibrahim Mahama’s towering installation of three hundred shoemaker boxes, some sourced from Ghana, others “re-created.” “I dated it 1901–2030 to reflect the materials and the memory of the history of these systems of trade,” Mahama told me. I was so overwhelmed by the presentation, it didn’t occur to me to ask him why his history extended into the future.

Tackling the times even more directly was Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Future Tense, 2017. In Turkey, things have escalated to the point where journalists can no longer professionally address current events. The only people who can speak about politics with impunity are fortune-tellers. “Now you have all these fortune-tellers getting invited to speak on the evening news,” Çavuşoğlu recounted. “It’s like our version of ‘Fake News.’” For her commission, the artist worked with clairvoyants from across the country, compiling a sixteen-page newspaper from clippings ranging from “Coup in Two Months” to “Two Jaguars Are Running Towards India.”

Left: Damage to Davyd Chychkan's exhibition “Lost Opportunity” at VCRC. Right: FGAP curator Anna Smolak with Sol Calero's Casa de Cambio.

Contemplating the unpredictability of the present, I took a break from the PinchukArtCentre to pay my respects to the Visual Culture Research Centre, where Serhiy Klymko, Yustyna Kravchuk, and Ruslana Koziyenko talked me through Davyd Chychkan’s solo exhibition “The Lost Opportunity.” Titled after the fizzling out of the Maidan movement, the show originally opened on February 2. Just five days later, however, a group of masked men stormed the space and proceeded to tear up the artist’s intricate watercolors, spray-painting the walls with nationalist slogans such as Slava Ukrayini (“Glory to the Ukraine”). I found myself almost charmed by a wall neatly branded with the word mozhlyvist’ (possibility). “That’s kind of poetic,” I pointed out. “That wasn’t theirs,” Klymko shot back, explaining that the artist had painted the exhibition title on the walls as part of the original installation.

To avoid other such misunderstandings, when the VCRC elected to reopen the show, destruction and all, they added video footage of the attack, as well as a written statement. “We want to be clear that this isn’t an artwork,” Kravchuk stressed. “But people need to understand what they are looking at.” Watching the footage, I was intrigued by one of the vandals who paused to document the damage on his cell phone. “That’s how they do it these days,” Klymko shrugged. “It all goes straight to social media.” (Sad.)

The attack aside, VCRC plans to continue its programming, including an upcoming group show on feminism timed for International Women’s Day. “Are the artists worried at all about a repeat?” I wondered. “Of course, everyone is a little nervous, but we have hired security now,” Klymko replied. Koziyenko added: “Besides, if you’re going to handle topics like these, you have to be prepared.”

I thought about her words later at the official FGAP opening, while watching the Lviv-based collective Open Group’s Diorama, 2017. The freshly commissioned film nods to the Soviet tradition of creating dioramas to mark famous historical wars. In this case, however, a corporate think tank has been tasked with planning a diorama that could capture a perfect peace. The brainstorming session mainly comprises shots of a conference table, as participants lapse into Don Draper reveries about dappled sunlight and waterfalls and forests filled with birdsong. “But birds don’t just sing for no reason,” one brainstormer objects. Another points out that a bird’s song makes it easier for its predators to find it. Worth the risk?

Left: FGAP nominee Dineo Seshee Bopape. Right: FGAP nominees Carla Chaim and EJ Hill.

Left: FGAP nominee Open Group's Anton Varga, Stanislav Turina, Pavlo Kovach, and Yuriy Biley. Right: FGAP nominee Rebecca Moss.

Left: FGAP curator Anna Smolak with FGAP nominee Andy Holden. Right: FGAP nominee Christian Falsnaes.

Left: FGAP nominees Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Vivian Caccuri. Right: FGAP nominee Iván Argote.