The Pitfall of Vagueness: A Commentary on the Codex of the Mezhyhirya Exhibition

Kateryna Badianova

The Codex of Mezhyhirya was an exhibition held at the National Art Museum of Ukraine in 2014, from 26 April  to 24 August. It was mainly comprised of items retrieved from the Mezhyhirya estate, formerly owned by Viktor Yanukovych, ex-president of Ukraine.1

 

This exhibition had become the museums response to outside demands for the preservation of Ukranian cultural heritage. The very act of moving the exhibits from Yanukovychs estate to the museum was part of a public campaign focused on keeping the cultural artifacts and mementos accessible to public. Those items were in danger of physical destruction when fighting broke out in the Maidan. Subsequently, after the events of February 2014 (the killing of protesters, the Presidents self-removal from fulfilling his Constitutional obligations and his escape from Ukraine) the items had been left completely unguarded by the organizations responsible for their protection (namely state cultural agencies and the police). The newly created Ukrainian Committee of the Blue Shield,2 in cooperation with the Maidan Self-Defense Unit, temporarily assumed the function of guarding several state museums, libraries, and archives in Kyiv. These organizations set out to prevent looting3 and the destruction of historical mementos.

 

Perhaps, it was the Blue Shields call to preserve cultural valuables that facilitated moving the items, with the assistance of the Right Sector and Avtomaidan, from the abandoned residence of the President in Mezhyhirya, as well as from that of Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka, to the NAMU and placing them under the museums temporary custody as opposed to treating them like trophies and dividing them up as trophies between the “winners. Every item retrieved at those residences was to be labeled and described as per the museums procedures; subsequently a decision was made to display the items in the seven halls of the museum, which had been emptied earlier from the preceding exhibition due to security concerns after all, the museum was located at the epicenter of the Maidan events.

 

This text is an attempt to deconstruct Codex of Mezhyhirya on the basis of historical circumstances, the expositional form, and the curators characterization of the exhibition.

 

The museum received an unordered set of objects, which made it difficult to derive the origin of each individual item: whether it was an interior decoration or something from the collection of antiques, whether it came from Yanukovychs estate or Pshonkas. The chaotic circumstances did not allow for a full-fledged museum study to classify the retrieved objects: the improvised “collection included items that were a subject of interest to other museum collections  (old books, sacred works, weapons, paintings), as well as numerous “doubtful objects (household items, awards, gifts from various international delegations, subordinates, and entourage). The idea to organize the exhibition as a codex came from the museums curator, Alexandr Roitburd. Alisa Lozhkina became the co-curator of the exhibition; artists Oleksandr Burlak and Ivan Melnychuk worked on the exhibition design. The official curatorial text of the exhibition makes a statement that the inventory book-like exposition design was selected in order to “avoid professional evaluation and just to let these objects speak and testify for themselves.4

Making an object speak for itself manifests a belief that (the object) contains evident knowledge, and that the researcher or the curator is able to take a withdrawn, neutral position.

 

On one hand, such an expectation meets the institutional effect of a museum it becomes the ‘museumification of the item in question. Museum items are not only some material objects, taken out of their original context and transported into another reality they become classified, they are looked after, and they acquire different properties based on how the information they contain is defined.

 

On the other hand, the transfer of items from private residences to the museum indicates not only that these items were retrieved, but also that they were appropriated. By entering the museum they were, in a way, transferred into common property and usage. One can make a brief excursion into the history of nationalization during revolutionary processes and the role a museum would take in that process, in order to resolve the conflict of destroying cultural heritage versus preserving it. The founding of an art museum in the Louvre Palace in 1793 was associated with revolutionary ideals: the nationalization of property and the need to inventory artworks, and with it came the conflict rooted in the debate whether mementos of the previous era should be destroyed or preserved, regardless of how intolerable the symbols of royal reign were.5 With the assertion of Soviet power in Kyiv in 1919, the All-Ukrainian Committee for the Preservation of Antiquities and Art was founded, and NAMU (at that time called the Taras Shevchenko All-Ukrainian Museum of History) was tasked with creating a fund of collections that were saved and retrieved during the events of the civil war. However, the collections, mainly drawn from the estates of nobility or financial aristocracy, were severely lacking in the material that the museum was specifically interested in the objects of Ukrainian heritage.6

 

That debate is based on the core principles of a museums responsibility as a social institute and its basic functions: collection, preservation, studying, interpretation, and display. As such, the exhibition in question is justified by the urgency of preservation, but hardly correlates with other museums functions. In this situation the museum opted for collaboration with contemporary art, which adopts explorative methodology in its strategies of organizing the display material and thus not only puts together items regardless of origin, but is also able to actualize any object and provide it with a particular context or information. According to Jacques Rancière, such art is “capable of causing the redistribution of material and symbolic space, and that is what makes art relevant to politics.7

 

In the Codex of Mezhyhirya, the curators divided the exhibition material into several metaphorical chapters entitled as the Book of Time, the Book of Transparency, the Book of Glory, etc. The extended context of the word ‘codex connotes a structutal division of certain certain rules, habits, and beliefs. This definition allows one to argue that the structural division makes objects speak through the curators decision.

In those chapters the items are organized by thematic or formal likeness, rather in an ironic and playful manner. In general, the exposition of the Codex is constructed as a self-contained statement, making it the opposite of experimental didactic installations of early Soviet museums8 and also something dissimilar to the ironic “total installation of Ilya Kabakov. Ivan Melnychuk, exposition designer, has critically responded that this exhibition had its “installation like rows in a supermarket, or rather in a Soviet central department store with a haberdashery chamber, a shoe chamber, etc.9

 

Even in the context of interconnectivity between the Codexs elements, the exhibition is overshadowed by a logic of indifference and fusion of imagery, which makes it impossible to make any critical judgment. According to Christoph Menke, an aesthetic critique of a judgment, as opposed to practical judgment, “unfolds distinction, keeping the gap between judgment as an effect of aesthetic power and as a result of a rational procedure ... between a sudden feeling and a continuous unfolding of connections.10

 

Thus, the decision to organize and display items at an exhibition without making a statement on behalf of the curators seems like a condition of not taking the trouble speaking about the reality that “unfolded in an emergency situation. The events of the Maidan and the subsequent war, however, indicate quite the opposite: there is a historical situation, which made it possible to define the authors attitude and created the conditions for differentiation in the context of thought and everyday life.

 

The particular historical situation in which the exhibition was created raises questions about the informative nature of an exhibited object (either obtained at the process of “nationalization, or being the evidence of corruption, illegal land privatization, paternalistic political regime, etc.). The exhibition would rather captivate the viewer with its exaggerated redundancy, which reaffirms the culture of the the post-Soviet period, instantly recognizable and rooted in everyday life. This staggeringly aggressive eclecticism of the items and lifestyles behind them stops any development. Moreover, this formal redundancy of the exhibition, laden with affective traumatic experience, leaves no room for the necessary critical distance from the subject and does not mitigate the effect of direct presence in revolutionary events.

 

This outrageous tastelessness in many ways can be didactic. If the fourth president of our poor country had at least a little less ‘zhlobskyi redneck taste and maybe slightly more modest house and cabinet, then the gang that surrounded him (or so-called ‘elite) would probably start to fight for the first place in modesty and democracy, but not in Gypsy Baron style luxury. And then the level of corruption would go down and kleptocracy would fade. We should not neglect the importance of style on the ethic climate.11

 

This is a snippet from the curators text, in which the problem of item organization and its conflict with the information and the context conveyed by a particular item is downplayed to the arrogant ideological category of “taste, which serves as means for cultural and aesthetic delineation and is used to indicate the perceived quality of an item (after Pierre Bourdieu).

 

The exhibition was based on a formal idea that in different material and political manifestation could have been a starting point for critical judgment; yet in the framing of elitist statements it could only offer a possibility of a judgement based on “taste the visitors could like it or not. The exhibition was incapable of provoking the subject to break their own fascination with it and unfold the distinction in judgment. It is indeed possible that the curators had no intention neither of creating a critical dimension, nor of creating concern in visitors. However, the Codex of Mezhyhirya fell into a pitfall of vagueness and a lack of clarity in the authors attitude and haphazardness in working with the exhibitions subject. It was so captivated by overwhelming redundancy, that it lost the problematic and specific nature of a historical emergency.

 


Translated from Ukrainian by Oles Petyk

 

BIO

 

Kateryna Badianova is an art critic and independent researcher. In her research and work she focuses on the museology, art theory, and education. She is a member of the curatorial and activist union Hudrada (http://hudrada.tumblr.com/) and a co-founder of the Method Fund (www.methodfund.org). Since 2012, she has been curator of the Course of Art an independent educational program in Kyiv, where she lives and works.

*Cover photo: The Codex of Mezhyhiria exhibition, 26/04/2014 24/08/2014. Courtesy of National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU).

[1] Viktor Yanukovych (born 1950, Yenakieve, Donetsk oblast) served as the fourth President of Ukraine (20102014). As an aftermath to the Maidan Revolution in February 2014 he left the position and fled to the Russian Federation. The Verkhovna Rada bill No. 757-VII on 22 February 2014 “On Self-Removal of the President of Ukraine from his Constitutional Authority and Early Elections of the President of Ukraine declared that he withdrew from his duties.

[2] Ukrainian Committee of the Blue Shield (established on 22 February 2014) is a representative body for Ukrainian museums, NGOs, and public activists. The Ukrainian Committee is a branch of the Blue Shield, an international non-governmental organization that aims to protect cultural heritage threatened by military conflict and natural disasters, founded by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites).

[3] Antiquity dealers, who were eager to exploit the defenselessness of museums and abandoned residences of President Yanukovych or Prosecutor General Pshonka, were among those looters. One can find trophies and rarities of the Maidan Revolution at art auctions today.

[4] The curatorial text is available at NAMU website: http://namu.kiev.ua/en/exhibitions/active/view.html?eid=234

[5] Shiner L., The invention of art: a cultural history, Chicago and London, The University of the Chicago Press, 2001, p. 180189.

[6] Fedir Ernst (ed.), Ukrainian Draftsmanship from 17th to 20th century. An Exhibition Guide [Українське малярство XVIIXX сторіч. Провідник по виставці]. Kyiv,  1929, p. 11

[7] Rancière J., Malaise dans lesthétique. Quoted after Russian translation in Рансьер Ж. Разделяя чувственное // Неудовлетворенность эстетикой. Спб.: Издательство Европейского университета в Санкт-Петербурге, 2007,  p. 65.

[8] For example, the Artyom All-Ukrainian Social Museum was founded in Kharkiv in 1922 and was meant to set an example to all other museums. It was to be organized as a “universal museum, showing the development of the society from the viewpoint of the Marxist theory. The exhibition halls combined natural and cultural displays and were divided into departments: natural conditions, productive forces, production, healthcare, arts, religion and culture, and the “life of the bourgeoisie. There were also halls of engraving and porcelain, a philatelic collection, a library, and an observatory.

[9] From the conversation with Ivan Melnychuk.

[10] Menke C., Judgement of non-judgeable. Aporia of aesthetic criticism. A lecture at the scientific conference “Judgement day in Moscow, 2012. Quoted after Russian translation in Judgment Day, или проблема эстетического суждения. Материалы научной конференции. М.: ИПСИ, 2013, p. 75

[11] Quoted after the curatorial text at the NAMU website.