Modern Art In Ukraine: The Evocative Power Of Emptiness

Dear Readers:

And once again…. a Ukrainian-themed post.  But this one is a bit different, because it is about modern art.  And the nihilism of the contemporary experience.

Visual artist Cynthia Gutierrez

So, I shall just tell this story quickly, in chronological order:

In January 1916 Russian Revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin published his seminal work, The Socialist Revolution and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination.  In which, contrary to certain other socialists who denied that the Ukraine was even a real nation separate from Russia, Lenin penned the following, in his usual acerbic style:

Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.

On 30 December 1922, under the leadership of Lenin and the victorious Bolsheviks, Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union.  As has been documented by numerous historians, the Bolsheviks endowed Ukraine with extra lands and resources, including the entire Novorossiya territories, this to make sure that the Ukrainian Republic thrived and became an industrial and agricultural powerhouse.

And Then Shit Happened

Jumping forward in time to 8 December 2013 when a ferociously anti-Communist Maidan mob in Kiev tore down a statue of Lenin.  This statue, like the many other Lenin statues, had been erected in Soviet times to honor the man who essentially had founded and curated the Ukrainian independent state.  The anti-Lenin action was not popular:  Even wiki admits that 69% of Kiev residents had a “negative” attitude about the removal of the statue  (13% had a positive attitude, while 15% remained indifferent).  Nonetheless, there was very little this 69% could do to avert the act of vandalism, since a very determined and very violent minority had taken control of the streets of the capital.

Ukrainian nationalists tear down the founder of the modern Ukrainian state.

After the leader of the world proletariat was torn down, leaving just an empty plinth, the new Ukrainian authorities decided to hold an international competition for a work of art deemed worthy to perch upon the now-vacant pedestal.

The winner of the competition was a prominent visual artist hailing from Guadalajara Mexico, her name is Cynthia Gutierrez.  Gutierrez was perhaps a very good choice, because her portfolio shows works that deal with loss, destruction, abandonment, dead birds, and broken pedestals.

Cynthia’s masterpiece: “Casting Shadows”

On 12 May 2016 Cynthia’s victory was announced, along with, apparently, a sketch of her masterpiece, which consists of the empty plinth itself, flanked by a wooden staircase.  The work is entitled “Casting Shadows”.  Gutierrez said that her goal was to imbue the observer with a sense of the dynamic of historical symbols:  From rise to fall, and then forgotten in the mists of time.  “I intend to make people question the existing schemes which surround us.”  She went on to say that she hopes that her work will inspire a discussion and reflections about the persistence of memory, and about systemic mistakes that are made; and about empiness; issues of identity; and negative space.

Full disclosure:  I don’t know much about modern art, but I know what I like.  And it isn’t this particular work.  Although I admit it does have that “negative space” aura about it.

Now This Is More My Style

Apparently some Kievans didn’t appreciate Cynthia’s work either.  Because last night some unknown person or persons decided to enhance the piece by placing a statue on top of the empty plinth.  A statue of Mary Mother Of God.  And then, within minutes, this statue itself tumbled to the ground, presenting a powerful artistic message to onlookers.  I think what this artist was trying to say is that nihilism is not a workable philosophy.  People have to believe in something.  If not Lenin, well then maybe another historical figure; or even a religious personage.  But the tumbling of this symbol, in its turn, forces the viewer to the realization, that nothing is permanent.  No symbol, no personage.  No Idol can withstand the forces of Time.  Not even the Mother of God.


Art lovers in Kiev appreciate the fallen monument to Mary Mother of God.

The idol of Mary lying on the street serves to fill at least a portion of the empty space left by the blank wooden stairs of Cynthia Gutierrez.  The piece employes a unique color scheme:  Mary’s cloak is bright blue, perhaps symbolizing the “positive space” of the sky itself, which blazes brightly over Kiev.  Mary is flanked on each side by two dwarves or wizards.  Each wizard is dressed in a yellow robe with a bright red pointy cap.  This symbolizes, I believe, that nihilism needs to be replaced by “wisdom”.   The combination of the yellow robes and Mary’s blue robe constitute the national flag of the Ukraine.  Whereas the red of the caps could be a subversive condoning of communism.  Equating “red” communism with wizardry.  Or perhaps the message is that communism and religion can co-exist in a post-modern society.  But only if both are humbled and tumbled to the ground.  Or perhaps not.

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7 Responses to Modern Art In Ukraine: The Evocative Power Of Emptiness

  1. marknesop says:

    I laughed, I cried…it became a part of me.


  2. Cortes says:

    Cynthia may have taken all of ten seconds to come up with that super duper concept. Roll over and die Praxiteles and Michelangelo – a real sculptor featured in the Moscow Times (my interweb research took less then 3 seconds) is in town and raking in the dosh. At least comedy is flourishing.

    The ever entertaining John Michael Greer posts his thoughts on art in the following:

    Wagner in 2065:


    • yalensis says:

      Yeah, Cynthia’s portfolio shows that she can actually make stuff. Like sculpt a bird from wire, stuff like that. Which is more than I can do. And by the way, that’s my definition of art: If I can do it, it ain’t art. And even I could have designed that staircase thing for the plinth. With some help from Photoshop or a Cadcam program.
      That one I think she just phoned it in for the prize money.
      And this being “modern art” where the artist is considered more important than the actual work — she would have to show the right political leanings, or at least mouth the right verbiage in her grant application, to have won the prize money. Which I am guessing came from some American NGO, ultimately out of the pockets of American taxpayers, probably.


      • yalensis says:

        And P.S. – thanks for the story. Me being a huge Wagner buff, I enjoyed reading it. I particularly like this passage:
        In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his, but you get directors who don’t get that and try to make a production original by pulling some visual stunt or other. I’ve seen Wagnerian operas where all the singers were in Old West outfits, or superhero costumes, or bulbous yellow things that made them look like a flock of rubber duckies—

        Yep, I’ve seen those types of productions myself! At the Met a couple of seasons ago they did a Parsifal where the Knights of the Grail wore 20th-century business suits.
        C’mon guys – this was interesting when Patrice Chéreau did it back in 1976 with the Ring Cycle. Not so much any more. Been there, done that. Dress your Knights in tunics, please.


  3. Lyttenburgh says:

    Well, what else you were expecting would happened to a clearly Roman Catholic statue of Mary in the Orthodox city of Kiev, when placed on the place vacated by Vladimir Lenin? As the people of yore said: “пусто мѣсто свято не бываетъ”. What Ukrainians (and to a lesser extend – the Poles with their near cult-like veneration o late Ian-Pawel II) are doing here is a heresy of phylotheism – placing both your church and nation above all others. But, as they say in Odessa, “God is not a frayer, He sees all”.

    As for this very… ahm… “post-modern” solution for a new monument, I facepalmed. Wooden stairs? Really? In Kiev? What are the chances that come the autumn/winter these stairs will miraculously “disappear”, because given the ever growing hikes in tariffs people the proud Mother of Russian Cities will soon have to heat their apartments with stoves running on cola (good luck buying from the accursed “separs”!) or the firewood.

    I’m not an expert, but I think there is a very good reason why the wood was never incorporated in the monuments throughout these parts of both Russian Empire and the USSR (and I’m including “Central Russia” here). Because of climate. Again, I’m not an expert, but how well could the wood weather rainy Spring and Autumn, followed by snowy Winter? Maybe there are some super-duper preservation techniques, which could allow the wood to last as long as stone and marble. But does the Ukraine let alone Kiev have enough money for that?

    Every time anyone tries to promote the so-called “modern art” I’m reminded of this scene from “О чём говорят мужчины”:


    • yalensis says:

      Like the guys say, “In art there is no objective criteria [of measurement of qualilty].”
      (Unlike athletic competitions, where you can measure who ran faster, jumped higher, etc.)

      And there is the whole problem!
      There used to be objective metrics, for example, use of color palette, amount of detail, use of perspective, mathematical complexity of arrangement, etc.
      Those are things that could be measured, if people chose to perform such objective measurements of a work. They could even come up with a ranking to determine which works were better than others. Based on the works themselves, and not who is the artist, and how famous is the artist. Which last point, again, is just an indication of the empty vanity and narcissism of modern bourgeois life.


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