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SOSka: Towards a New Iconography of Post-Soviet Ukraine

 

The Kharkiv-based SOSka group was established in 2005, in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, by Mykola Ridnyi, Ganna Kriventsova and Serhiy Popov. Kharkiv, once the capital of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic, and of radical artistic traditions dating back to the avant-garde period, today lacks the infrastructure and resources to support an independent artistic scene. Nonetheless, a post-Soviet wave of socially engaged artists emphasize their development grew out of the 2004 revolution, adopting strategies of self-organization and organizing alternative social spheres in the city. Kharkiv is also associated with the legacy of the pioneering Soviet-era photographer, Boris Mikhailov, whose photographic oeuvre was dedicated to representing the human misery and social devastation after the dissolution of the USSR. Mikhailov remains an important reference and mentor for the post-Soviet generation.

The activities of SOSKa began with appropriating a modest house in the city, and transforming it into a exhibition-laboratory-think tank, which existed between 2005-2010. This space was meant to house educational projects, discussions, talks, workshops as well as function as an exhibition venue. The founders states that the "SOSka lab is a community built on the principles of self-organization and friendship" and more, that it constituted itself as an alternative to the "forced communication, imposed upon the artist by the contemporary neoliberal system."(1) Taking their consciously self-induced marginality as an advantage, they produced political art projects that dealt with issues of center-periphery, global v.s. local, and persisting social inequalities. Their artistic strategies appropriate the media spectacle to subversive ends. Pendulating between artistic and activist gestures, SOSka uses photography and video to demonstrate the closely knit connection between the dynamics and problems of the contemporary art world and the social and political context. By dealing with related themes dialectically, for example widespread poverty and the feral commercialization of art, glossy art exhibitions and gritty street protests, they reveal the contradictions within the neoliberal ideology in their country. Their practices are also based on Situationist methodologies, using contemporary photographic props to create unique situations, happenings, that reveal hidden values embedded into everyday reality.

In one of the first actions of the group, "They [are] trapped on [the] streets" (2006), the artists are seen in public spaces in Kharkiv and the capital Kiev, wearing photographic masks of important Ukrainian politicians - among them Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. On the even of the 2006 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the artists played these political figures as beggars, asking for donations from passers-by. In one photograph, the three are seen side by side on the subway, with Tymoshenko, cup in hand, asking for money to buy "a little piece of bread."

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SOSka Group, Trapped on the streets, film-still, 2006

In another photograph in the center of Kiev, the same character is seen right outside a Tymoshenko electoral tent, decorated with hearts and photographs of he real political figure, kneeling with a yellow bag extended for donations. SOSka's photograph detourns the confident, straightforward image of Tymoshenko, subordinating it to the gazes of the passers by, idly crossing the square, eating street-food. In another photograph the Yushchenko character is sitting holding his knees right outside a subway station, with his hat and a blue raffia bag next to him. A Soviet-era monument(2) and streams of people passing him by without a glance complete the composition. In this photograph, the leader is similarly reduced to a person of the lower classes, in a subordinate position. The series function both as a metaphor for the electoral spectacle in the media and at the same time as a subversion, bringing into contact powerful leaders with their electorat in unceremonial circumstances. There are no official cameras, no cheering crowds, no flowers, no babies to kiss. The photographs also hint at the invisible masses of homeless people, the polar opposite of this elite, which haunts capitalist Ukraine. 

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SOSka Group, Trapped on the streets, photograph, 2006

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SOSka Group, Trapped on the streets, photograph, 2006

From the political world, SOSka next turned to the artistic one, showing it in a gritty, poetic and farcical light. "Barter," SOSka's 2007 short film and related photographic series, narrates Mykola Rindnyi's attempts to trade copies of famous artworks by superstar artists with local villagers in exchange for products: potatoes, eggs, tomatoes and even a chicken. This alternative economic system was widespread after the major devaluation of money in the 1990s. The setting for the trade is Prokhody, a small village in Ukraine. Copies of paintings by Neo Rauch, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Komar and Melamid, and Chuck Close together with photographs by Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra are the center of the discussions around these exchanges. Ridnyi, who is also a curator, appears to place them haphazardly, without regard to when where they made or aesthetic dialogues between the works, in a modest courtyard that is also inhabited by domestic animals, that occasionally threaten to run over the display.

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SOSka group, Barter, photograph, 2007

It is a village salon, a far cry from the white cubes where the audience is used to seeing such art. The title of the work, meaning trading services and goods without using money, acquires a humorous, critical undertone in this context. While globally, the contemporary art prices of certain blue-chip artists are soaring on the deregulated art market, despite the financial crises, there have been no "trickle down" effects for the many. In the video, the locals are by and large unimpressed by the copies of iconic works: a Sherman is exchanged for a chicken, a Rauch for a bucket of potatoes, while replicas of Close and Lichtenstein go for three dozen eggs. Villagers choose certain works because they remind them of their relatives, or because they would sit nicely in the living room. Some, like a copy of Warhol's iconic "Campbell Soup Cans" are totally disregarded as uninteresting or unattractive, strange. One elderly man remarks he would never pay money to purchase the originals. Canonical art which makes the art market has but decorative value here, where trading goods such as vegetables and animals are perhaps more valued and necessary. The copies are released to function in an environment where there is no recognizable art market to produce big art stars and determine the value of their art. It also reveals that and the art history responsible for upholding the myth universal values is a class construct which dissolves when taken out of the white cubes, urban spaces and flow of capital. Instead of a well-rehearsed story of the center dominating or influencing the margins, the video takes the perspective of the latter, contradicting the narrative with irreverance. 

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SOSka group, Barter, photograph, 2007

In their installation "Distance,"(2011) SOSka recreated in the State Museum of Contemporary Art of the Russian Academy of Arts, their aforementioned Kharkiv gallery. The reconstruction is filled with props, and old watch, a kitchen sink with a modest cup shelf above it and a bucket beneath, an electric stove, old carpets, a mirror with a kitchy wooden frame, a derelict bathtub and pieces of cardboard against the walls. The walls are cracked and even appear to be moldy. It is art into a shabby life and the shabbiness impregnates the room like a theater stage sets the tone for the performance. 

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SOSka group, Distance, installation view, 2011

Within this replica within a museum SOSka showed four large-scale photographs. In these Ridnyi and Popov are captured celebrating in the company of renowned artists, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky and Takashi Murakami. The tension between the celebratory, albeit grotesque photographs and the installation itself is jarring and unconfortable. 

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SOSka group, Distance, photograph, 2011

The artists remarked about the photographs:

"The contact that the pictures capture is a fiction of friendship; at the same time, it speaks of the impossibility of communication between different segments of contemporary art and contemporary society at large. In this project SOSka raises a series of questions: about the artist's need to choose a model of activity in the cultural sphere, about the role of communities and the relative nature of authority within the functional system of contemporary art."(3)

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SOSka group, Distance, photograph, 2011

The "periphery" SOSka artists are on the same level as the most commercially successful, older generation contemporary artists, yet their poses in these photographs are strained and even ridiculous, suggesting the artificiality of their relationships. The simple gesture of being in physical "contact" or proximity to the celebrated artists underlines the socio-economic differences and inequalities between center and periphery. The unlikely pairings reveal the artificiality of the artistic community itself, a gendered system with closely guarded hierarchies that mirror those found in society at large.

SOSka use provocation as a method, in conjunction with social photography as a tool to analyze, to reflect on the realities revealed by the situations they provoke. The photographs and films are not simply documentary, but carefully stages to enhance the provocative effect of the actions and highlight tensions that arise by bringing together different class, gender elements, values, institutions, and defamiliarizing them for the viewer. While equally invested in revealing opression, poverty and everyday reality in a harsh, un-beautified light as their predecessors, SOSka also use a subversive dark humor in their works, which instantly draws the viwer in the conversation, without giving him/her any easy relief. The tension between structures of power and simple people, between globalisation and the local is brought to the fore, upending the viewers expectations of a neatly folded narrative.

 

(1) Mykola Ridnyi, "SOSka group and Reactionary diagnostics method," Dreamers Exhibition Catalogue, Pinchuk Art Center, 2008, pg. 8

(2) This monument since been demolished, making way for the UEFA EURO 2012 championship which was hosted by Poland and Urkaine. The fate of the monument is the subject of a video work by Ridnyi, entitled "Monument"(2011): https://sites.google.com/site/mykolaridnyi/works/monument-platforms

(3)  SOSka group, Distance, 2011: http://www.soskagroup.com/home/distance

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: http://rci-rutgers.academia.edu/CorinaApostol Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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