This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience

Eleanor Heartney interview with Maria Kulikovska (summer 2019)

— Do you think feminism has a different meaning in Ukraine and other former Soviet states than it does in the West? [I am thinking here about how women had more equality professionally in the Soviet system, though there was still a great deal of inequality in their personal lives] What does feminism mean to you?

— How does your art express your experiences as a woman? Your work is often quite provocative and you deal with issues related to LGBT. Is this unusual in Ukraine? What has been the response of the art establishment? Have you encountered resistance or censorship from the authorities?

— Do you see generational differences with respect to feminism, politics and activism between younger yourself and older women artists?

— Much of your work uses the female body. Can you talk about the political aspects of this focus on the body? What is your opinion on the relationship of art and politics? What is the role of art in turbulent times like these?

— Do you feel women are properly represented in the Ukrainian art world? Are they properly represented in the international art world? (text answer is below)
Eleanor Heartney
Art writer and Cultural critic
Artist as Political Body of the Public Space and the Society (answer)
I will begin with the fact, that I never lived in the USSR and can not speak from all the women of Ukraine. When I was born (1988) - Perestroika began, and by that time I began to become aware of the World around, turning from an unconscious newborn child into an adult. And when I started realize reality around me, nothing was left from the country where I was born, only frustration, pain and poverty. I was also born into the family of a displaced dissident (my grandmother), who had been left without a husband at about 50 years old - long before my birth. My grandmother, like my mother, like my dad, from birth taught me independence and understanding that I am an individual and special, but equal person, as well as other people on the earth living around. These humane ideas were introduced as much as possible into cartoons on TV and radio programs for children, and they were a kind of guideline, collective fantasy, wishful thinking, and at the same time a very effective way of manipulating by the younger generation to grow us as gentle, humane, naive, pacifist and easily controllable. So my generation grew in fantastic dreams and met, when we became adult, with ruins, total poverty, corruption, lies, continuous inequality and injustice.

I grew up in the steppe Crimea, where pure fresh water is the greatest treasure, especially in the summer, when the arid marine steppe, almost deserted climate burned and dried out the only channel through which fresh water was supplied from central Ukraine. And in the mid-90s, when all the remaining resources after the collapse of the USSR ended, and life was on the verge of survival. I remember the times when there was no food, no heating, no money, no work for adults, no light in a light bulb, nothing but the salty sea and the hope that it would all be over soon. The difficulty of surviving in severe climatic conditions on the basement of humanistic socialist views and the inability and ignorance of what market relations are, made us all, regardless of gender, equally vulnerable and fragile in the face of survival. However, during these strange turbulent times of collapse and devastation, all of us were watching TV. On all few channels only American, Hollywood movies in a pirated translation were shown. It was something completely new and different: a woman as an object, accessible sex, abuse, cruelty, everything can be bought, everything can be sold - all these new postulates of life for us (for naive simple post-Soviet people who believe into a brighter future for all, without exception) have become a new reference point.

The new unbridled ideology of capitalism's permissiveness "who is stronger [richer] - is right" has become fresh air for the most marginalized elements of the society, who have started ubiquitous banditry, as much as possible corrupted police and started killing, buying and selling people, acting like in horror Hollywood movies, but only in the reality. Of course, a huge number of young people, full of strength and confidence, started a new life and breathed a sigh of relief from liberation from, in fact, the right fascist dictatorship of the USSR. However, the same personalities who were at the top of power - representatives of the "party", former generals and top military, police and previously corrupt officials, namely those who had access to power, and therefore resources - gained all power, recourses and strength of new times. All that people finally got an "American Dream": living like in Hollywood films — a beautiful rich life, driving foreign cars with a large engine capacity, wearing a golden watches and having a "young beautiful stupid wife" or a wealthy imperious husband, to do nothing and be just beautiful. All the positive developments of albeit pseudo-socialism were destroyed and completely reset to zero.

Warped and adapted to a hungry and impoverished, tired society the idea of "who is richer is right" has overwhelmed our society to the maximum, putting not only the negative aspects of the former USSR society in jeopardy, but on the contrary giving total legitimacy and legal weightiness to all these defects. A huge part of the population was not able to reconstruct themself and understand the meaning of the new existence and find their place in a new unprincipled society, because of their moral values and beliefs, formed throughout life in the pseudo-socialist world. And those who never believed in anything humane, thanks to the ensuing complete chaos, lack of control and the absence of internal moral standards, soared to the top of the social and economic ladder, betraying all their former proletarian comrades.

And bigger looser of the new "divide and conquer" system became women, people with disabilities, old people and children.

Women in the USSR plowed no less than men, and sometimes did much more hard work, since a woman had no right not to work and just to be at home and look after the children. In the morning, the Soviet woman, getting up earlier than anyone else, prepared children for kindergarten / school, her husband - for work. And then she went to the factory / collective farm, etc., then she came home in the evening, cleaned, cooked, nursed the children, did them lessons - the whole family was served, but the man always remained the head of the family. So at the factory, or on the collective farm, everywhere on the top position was a men, who has sat on the best place for many long years, and around him has been serving and everything has always been done by cheerful, kind, sympathetic, strong and courageous, calm and gentle, hard-working and never complaining women. And when wild capitalist relations came, the women who worked all their lives and served their families and donated all their time, energy, talent, ideas to society - were left with nothing. Old, nervous, poor, tired, embittered, unrealized, with a lot of illnesses and poisoned by unequal life, they suddenly faced with the fact that they do not at all resemble those beautiful princesses from the TV screens and they don't even have a washing machine and a normal kitchen as it is in the Hollywood films. And many of them live in communal apartments, on a common 20 kV meters, where living her mother, sister, grandmother and growing children without a father. Her husband divorced with her a long time ago and went to drink, because he no longer knows who he is and who needs him at all , or threw her like an unnecessary old sneaker worn out from the burdens of being, because now a new "beautiful" life.

When I was just a child and went to kindergarten - I was the only child of all who had both parents. I was envied by all the children of the kindergarten, and then almost all the children at school that I had a father. Almost every Soviet family in the beginning, mid-90s divorced and split up. Everyone was looking for a better life.

Saving the family was worth a lot of effort to my mom. She and my father did not took the path of theft and deception and did not become oligarchs or "successful businessmen," and like millions of other families, they were overwhelmed by uncertainty, fear of the future, apathy and almost complete paralysis. But due to the fact that women were still very emancipated for almost 100 years of the existence of the Soviets, and all this time they were almost super machines - forever happy and not eligible for weakness and depression, my mother was the first to invent our micro business and in fact it led the financial side of our family, when my dad (like the fathers and stepfathers of many other children around) mentally could not cope with the circumstances and the rapid changes in orientation in society, he completely went into my upbringing, and then into a long-term depressed , from the realization of their uselessness and helplessness.

I grew up and turned into a self-sufficient person, remembering that no one would ever give me anything for nothing and that for everything in this life you had to fight and achieve everything yourself. I studied very diligently and hoped that I would become a worthy part of society, the global cultural community, as I believed that the mind, talent and innovation of thought could overcome all boundaries. However, I didn't take into account that in the Western world women are still not completely free and that Western society looks at us very often from above, like to poor white Slaves from the "East Europe" or to the cheapest very well-educated workaholics, and not as a worthy competitor and an equal person.

The complexity of life and the eternal struggle for the place under the sun in own country, which has survived 3 revolutions in 30 years of its independence and is in a 5-year war, tempers, if not completely kills. And for me, this shield and the way to survive, to preserve my dignity and moral principles builder during my childhood is feminism, because I see it as one of the forms of humanism that educates and reminds people around us that we are equal, equally fragile and so vulnerable, we equally valuable and unique and absolutely everything, everyone deserves a quality education, comfort and medicine, respect and recognition, as we are all responsible for the excessive use of resources and cannot steal them from each other and use life of each other.

In each of my work, whether in sculpture or in drawing or in performance or even in architecture, I refer to the body, the human vulnerable body, and always speak about myself. I do not find the courage to talk about other people's stories, since they do not belong to me. But I sincerely share everything that I have with my pains, fears and uncertainty about what will happen tomorrow… but I do not know if the world really needs what I do. I'm talking about how it hurts to suddenly become a stranger among your own and unnecessary among strangers, how strange and painful it is to not understand "who I am and where I come from" and not to have any where and to whom return. But there are many like me and they don't have any voice at all, they are not artists and they don't have the ability or strength in themselves to tell about all this, therefore my life, like my art, becomes a kind of open platform for the society. And how much this is perceived by the professional community - I don't know, I think it's worth asking them if they need what I do? Probably not very, because I am quite radical, distinctive and very independent, and too straightforward, and which of those in power might like this? Time will probably tell is. For me, it is most important that at least 1 person, namely the viewer, does not matter what skin color, nationality, gender and sexuality pauses, thinks and feels from my art. Feelings, sincerity and subtlety of the visual code in art are most important to me, not the conjuncture. I do not jump from topic to topic in search of profit, money or the love of critics, I was, am and will be who I am and strive to remain my own.

If we talk about censorship, today my works are not directly censored, rather Ignored by both the professional Ukrainian cultural community, consisting of the older generation of Artists and critics, and by those who distribute finances, grants and represent Ukrainian art. Since ignore is the best method to destroy someone, make him / her invisible and soundless. Another of the most common methods of "reprisal" of my art is blocking my posts and photos of my art in social networks. Very often, unknown people that cannot be tracked complain about my publications, Facebook or Instagram blocks me, and these unknown trolls complain about those who shared photos of my work. Not so long ago, the Instagram of one gallery was blocked for 2 days due to the fact that they wrote a positive text about my sculptures and feminism, but someone complained about them and their content deleted Instagram. There was one case when my friend from Stockholm got a message from Facebook that it constantly receives notifications from complains of someone constantly about my content and that I am immoral, and Facebook asked my friend confirm my immorality and express her opinion on me. I also periodically receive letters from men with various kinds of sexual harassment and commentary. There was a time when in the comments on my performances I could read dozens of angry messages...

It seems to me that the next generation is much more free and not so much confronted with the remnants of the patriarchy in such a egregious amount as we had. I am now 31 years old, and only now I can freely reflect and critically look at how it was before and what is happening now. And only at the age of 25 I began to fully understand that I am a free person and can say no. My generation began too late to grow up and understand what is happening around, because we were fooled for a long time and we were born during perestroika, and then revolutions took place throughout all stages of our growing up with all their consequences. It took me almost 6 years to become the owner of my life, when the younger generation already knew this right away, since they had never been to the USSR and had never been to the 90s. And I see that what I do in art has a fresh contemporary international and distinctive face, and most likely I just started my journey a little earlier than my time.

I hardly know the senior artists, since even to this day almost all the top and recognized artists in Ukraine are men, I'm not interested in the macho and pseudo-gods who have self-proclaimed themselves as best ever artists. I think this is also due to the fact that, let's say, the "servicing" sides of the art world are women. In Ukraine, almost all gallery owners, curators, museum directors, critics are women. Again, this is connected with the patriarchal heritage - the humanitarian and educational side of society remained on the shoulders of women, since in the USSR the humanitarian professions were as unpopular as possible, but an artist is almost immediately a genius, a creator, and "only a men can be a genius", since he is smarter [I strongly disagree in it]. No matter that now Ukrainian curators saying, that they are the most equal and believe in feminism in art [because it's so fashionable now], they are still inside the existing market, the rules in which do not change so quickly. I do not think that much has changed in the last 5 years after the revolution. The most commercially successful artists and dealers are still men and, of course, they are maximally represented at all possible exhibitions and events. How things are going globally around the world - I think, much more fun. Now it's fashionable to be a feminist, so all respected institutions begin to show much more art made by women.

If we return to what I am doing, we must clearly understand that I do not use the female body at all, this is absolutely the most important aspect and fundamental difference from the whole history of art. I use my own body from the start of production of an object or performance to the finished work. From the very beginning of my own journey, i refused to use the model, contractors and maintenance personnel in the preparation of my works. All the stages - from body shaping to the texts, documentations, preparatuin my own coffee, video editing, posts on Facebook and Instagram, etc. - and I do it by myself, of course, now resorting to the help of my husband and ally Oleg Vinnichenko. As my professor at Konstfack University said ones; "behind a greate women standing a greate men, Masha with Oleg - please continue to destroy the patruarchal history" and sometimes mom and dad when I am very lucky and they are nearby, and sometimes groups of loaders-installers. All the sculptures are casts from my body, but not from the body of some other person / woman, simply because only I can control and own my body, but no one else's. And also this whole process of removing the form from the body is very difficult unpleasant and can even be traumatic, plus I am not the daughter of wealthy parents, and do not do art for fun, and my art is all that I have, so financially From the very beginning of my profession, I simply could not afford to hire a model and pay other people for the work. At least the fact that I use my own body as a platform for experiments, with all the ensuing consequences, plus I speak through these experiments on uncomfortable topics of society, plus I use non-artistic materials, breaking and changing the course of art history, plus I'm a woman and I work with huge areas , space and architecture through performance in a public environment - as for me it's already quite political. And, of course, through myself, my life, position and art, I talk about acute marginal "invisible" problems of "others" and for me it is important

Earlier, a few years ago, I believed in Artists, as the great Duchamp bequeathed, but over the past few years I have completely revised both the concept of art and the artist's position in the world, looking a little from the side how often artists / curators behave, hiding behind fashionable humane postulates, but at the same time exalting himself even more on self-proclaimed pedestals, giving himself the right to spit on people from above. An artist is just another humanbeing. And a huge number of people in the world can be much deeper, thinner mentally, maybe even more talented, but less resourceful or aware of possible strategies for success, and therefore do not find the courage to claim to be great about this world. In the Ukrainian art world, among Artists, there is neither unity, nor solidarity, nor mutual assistance, because each "great" does not want to hear the other, and all this very much resembles a public market in which every merchant praises his goods and pours mud without conscience. neighboring. All their very subjective thoughts and ideas are presented as the only true and a priori truth, and this is tiring. Therefore, now I completely do not believe in the artist, the very personality of the artist as such is of little interest to me. I'm interested in the real honest story of a person and how he / she balances in today's very difficult turbulent time, as well as how this person is able to transform his secret Istria into a visual image, affecting the deepest feelings of the viewer, moving them to thoughts, and then action. Art has no boundaries, and it can be a powerful engine of society's changes, not dividing it into an elite and "fools," but uniting people around the idea of universal equality and solidarity, not trampling "others" into the mud, and giving the opportunity to be unique and special, but valuable, because "different".

When I was little and sang on the roof of my grandmother's house, and then set up a theater in front of flowers from her garden, I always-always said: "and now the honored artist of the world, Maria Kulikovska is performing" .
So, it almost happened, I became an artist of the world with my own self-constructed identity, without being tied to any specific borders and context, without one single home, in the eternal search for my place and talking about myself and the world...
Maria Kulikovska
Artist & Architect
Currently Based in Kyiv and Stockholm, UA/SWE