Exhibitions that feature both local and international art have become increasingly common as centers of contemporary art open in places previously considered peripheral, providing opportunities to see works by artists from different parts of the world side by side. “Reflection,” curated by Peter Doroshenko, president of the PinchukArtCentre (and until recently director of the Baltic in Gateshead, England), and Aleksandr Solovyov, curator of the Pinchuk, presented a selection of works by art stars such as Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami, alongside pieces by Serhiy Bratkov, Illya Chichkan, Arsen Savadov, Oleg Tistol, and Vasyl Tsagolov, all artists from Ukraine, as well as the Russian group Blue Noses, who collaborated with Chichkan. Commenting on his installation Blind Light, 2007, a large glass room filled with dense white mist that viewers were invited to enter, Antony Gormley described his approach to art (and that of other foreign artists invited to Kiev) thus: “Our awareness of existence is indistinguishable from the context.” Still, although Blind Light had to be adapted to the space, it is not a site-specific work, and, according to the artist, should be viewed and experienced abstractly, as a sort of 3-D Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko.

One could expect that the Ukrainian artists in “Reflection” would contest Gormley’s existentialism by providing a politically transgressive view of the world, but they did not do so, despite their attachment to narrative, typical of artists from this region. Bratkov’s large photograph Untitled, 2006, showing a group of sunbathers during winter in the Pietropavlovskaya Fortress in Saint Petersburg, recalls Boris Mikhailov’s satirical works, and perhaps even Ilya Repin’s dramatic realism, but the artist uses the human figure more as sexualized staffage than as a carrier of overt social or political messages. Similarly, Savadov’s mural-size oil on canvas Heart, 2006, perhaps alludes to “bad” socialist realist painting and suggests a weird fête galante, with naked or seminaked women and men posing in dramatic manner, half saints, half fashion models; but, even with its fragmented narrative in which the figures neither interact with each other nor fit into the mountainous setting “invaded” by flying vinyl records, it is Neoclassical in its appeal. The same stylized approach to subject matter characterizes Tistol’s four paintings from the series “Southern Coast of Crimea,” 2007–, with their close-ups of palm trees painted impressionistically—works that were among the highlights of this exhibition.

Evasive narrative was also present in Tsagolov’s multimedia installation Swan Lake, 2007, which featured sculptures of four ballet dancers wearing tutus and belts of explosives “performing” against a video projection focused on a serene landscape with a lake, provocatively linking terrorism to a classical Russian ballet. The piece might allude to the Chechen seizure of a Moscow theater audience during the performance of a musical in 2002. Chichkan & Blue Noses’ interactive Mind Game, 2007, consists of two pieces: a small basketball backboard with a hoop attached to a painted portrait of Albert Einstein, and half of a Ping-Pong table with a portrait of Sigmund Freud at the back. Viewers were invited to engage in a game with themselves, an activity that, according to the catalogue essay, evokes both Marcel Duchamp and José Ortega y Gasset’s writings about the unconstrained, free nature of play. The piece failed to provide compelling visual stimuli but instead asserted a quality of Gogolesque absurdism, typical of the works by local artists in this show. For them, the fragmentation of space and meaning is used not principally as a formal device but rather as a strategy to provoke the viewer to laugh freely while reading between the lines. Comparing the achievements of famous artists working in the West with those of established Ukrainian artists, the exhibition showed that the latter are superior in their skillful use of humor and sarcasm, attainments hard to find in the reified works of Gursky, Hirst, or Koons.