What the Dickens?

Sherman Sam at the first Kiev International Biennale

Left: Sergei Bratkov helps Stas Volyazlovsky install his work. Right: Kiev Biennial curator David Elliott. (All photos: Sherman Sam)

“THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES,” was David Elliott’s title for the first Kiev International Biennale and, boilerplate aside, it was an apt summation on the eve of the exhibition’s opening. The rumor going around the night before was that it would be a soft launch. There was talk of the exhibition not being ready, technical problems (read: no water or power), unhappy dealers, and even artists pulling out. However, given the level of security and the number of beefy guards with Secret Service–style earphones, high-profile speeches (the Ukrainian prime minister was present), and slinky dresses and stilettos crowding the Arsenale, it appeared to be anything but soft.

At the door, after finally proving my identity as press, I was grabbed by the Korean and American collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, who declined to be photographed or quoted, but who took me directly to their work in the show. Their punchy and hilarious video created for the biennial, My DMZ, depicts a tour of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea by a Rastafarian guide that deteriorates into a discussion about her personal issues. (They assured me that it is inspired by a true event.)

The notion of division and special zones, as well as tours gone awry, seems tailor-made for Elliott’s exhibition. Like most biennials today, this one plays local artists against those who are internationally renowned; but where Elliott’s version veers off from the normal course is in its consideration of his own, personal geographical journey, taking in Asia, Turkey, central Europe, and Britain. The work of familiar biennial faces, like those of Jake & Dinos Chapman (Nazi skeletons replete with smiley-face armbands), Louise Bourgeois (cells), and Ai Weiwei (giant animal zodiac heads), are installed alongside the less-known, hallucinogenic installation and performance of Oleg Kulik and the abstract monuments of Phyllida Barlow. Boris Mikhailov, a well-known Ukrainian-born artist, is accompanied by younger stars such as Natasha Shulte, Sergiy Radkevich, and Vova Vorotniov.

Left: Artist Lara Baladi. Right: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff.

It’s a shame that logistical issues plagued the biennial. Having been there for two weeks, Daniel Faust described his experience as one of “waiting and waiting.” (At least it paid off: A row of his photos looked great on one long wall.) Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery, expressed incredulity at the ramshackle state of Yael Bartana’s video installation. It was merely a dark forlorn room, like a number of others. “But she’s won prizes and was at Venice last year! This can’t be.” The Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi was still hanging her complex work-on-paper with the help of an assistant. With a big smile and hearty laugh, she declared it to be “the end of the art world as we know it,” adding that this may be a new way of having an exhibition opening, where the public gets to peek behind the curtain.

Here it appeared that an easygoing nature and a sense of pragmatism made for a winning formula. (It also helps too if your gallery can afford to bring in their own technicians.) Richard Deacon, on discovering that the walls were not strong enough to hold his amoebic ceramic sculptures, elected to hang them near ankle height, an improvisation that renewed the experience of his objects. He then proceeded to muck in and help others hang their art. Wiser to local ways, the Ukrainian artist Sergey Bratkov helped his friend Stas Volyazlovsky bring in his work and nail it to the wall during the press view, a simple problem easily solved.

Left: Artist Phyllida Barlow. Right: Artist Suzy Treister and artist Richard Grayson.

Referring to the thirty-six-hour final install with minimal electricity and no light, Elliott noted that “even if you’re in Tate Modern or the Louvre these things tend to cramp your style.” Problems were reportedly created by the delay in government funds to match those of the private sponsors. It would appear that the ambitious renovation of this former eighteenth-century arsenal might have slowed down the installation as well. Artist Suzy Treister described the achievement as impressive given that “there were no floors in some parts of the Arsenale a week ago,” also noting the army of plants and trees that arrived during the week to create a garden for the reception. Richard Grayson, another biennial artist, thought that the exhibition would probably be “a work in progress till it closed.” If he’d known before what was to come, he said, he might not have signed on. But thinking further, he noted that, having spent two weeks primarily becoming a comrade-in-arms with various technical crews getting his video up and running, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I hitched a ride to the afterparty with Barlow and her husband, artist and poet Fabian Peake. Our taxi arrived at the aptly named Museum Club, a suitably oligarch-ish disco and lounge, complete with a model on a revolving pedestal at the entrance and a sliver of a raised dance floor sticking out from the bar. The evening was made when Elliott appeared and happily danced the night away, temporarily, at least, leaving the delays behind.