"Sometimes they love it, sometimes they hate it" - Interview with Bjorn Geldhof, the PinchukArtCentre

By Anna Savitskaya - Wednesday, May 27, 2015
"Sometimes they love it, sometimes they hate it" - Interview with Bjorn Geldhof, the PinchukArtCentre

The PinchukArtCentre located in Kiev, Ukraine plays a defining role in the Ukrainian art scene at the present moment. Active since 2006, and with a total area of exhibition space measuring around 3000 sq. meters, the art center offers a wide range of activities, including exhibitions, educational programs, research projects, and public discussions. On a national level the institution set up the PinchukArtCentre Prize for young Ukrainian artists (up to 35 years old). Currently receiving over a thousand visitors a day, the PinchukArtCentre focuses on local talents, whilst also showing works by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists like Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. New production, presentation, and collection, all highlighting national identity – this is the art center’s mission. Here is what Bjorn Geldhof tells Artdependence Magazine about the art situation in Ukraine and the PinchukArtCentre’s role in the development of Ukrainian contemporary art.

"Sometimes they love it, sometimes they hate it" - Interview with Bjorn Geldhof, the PinchukArtCentre

The PinchukArtCentre located in Kiev, Ukraine plays a defining role in the Ukrainian art scene at the present moment. Active since 2006, and with a  total area of exhibition space measuring around 3000 sq. meters, the art center offers a wide range of activities, including exhibitions, educational programs, research projects, and public discussions. On a national level the institution set up the PinchukArtCentre Prize for young Ukrainian artists (up to 35 years old). Currently receiving over a thousand visitors a day, the PinchukArtCentre focuses on local talents, whilst also showing works by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists like Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. New production, presentation, and collection, all highlighting national identity – this is the art center’s mission. Here is what Bjorn Geldhof tells Artdependence Magazine about the art situation in Ukraine and the PinchukArtCentre’s role in the development of Ukrainian contemporary art.

Artdependence Magazine: How does the overall present situation in Ukraine affect the country’s art scene? 

Bjorn Geldhof: I would like to split my answer into several parts. Firstly, how it affects the artists: the thing is that the younger generation, which started its practice around 2004 – the year of the Orange Revolution and the first wave of protests that resulted in a change of government and concluded completely without violence – started it from a point of political activism. So, throughout the last 10 years, this way of thinking has remained essential within their practice. This means that what has happened now, I mean the crisis in Ukraine, has been for a big part not only supported by them, but also initiated by this generation of artists. As a result, this big dramatic event had a huge impact on their work. It gave their work a boost in the right direction. It renewed the urgency with which they have been working for the last ten years. I think that the problems were very different in 2004 than they are today. The generation I was talking about, these people are now between 25 and 35 and this is a leading generation of artists in Ukraine. And their practice started from the political engagement they had in 2004. 

Secondly, how it effects institutions: it became much more difficult. On one hand you have a deep economic crisis, so this has an immediate effect on the possibilities for developing projects. And of course a lot of institutions are facing cutbacks; they don’t have the possibility to further develop themselves. The Ukrainian art scene did not have so many institutions to begin with, so that makes the crisis even deeper, but the artists continue their practice and I think that this is the most important. The artists travel now more, their work is viewed widely, internationally. So, from the artist production side the crisis has not made it easier but it has given it more urgency and, in a way, a boost to become stronger.

Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre

AD: How does the crisis affect the PinchukArtCentre?

BG: We kept the museum open throughout the Maidan. We closed for something like two weeks because there was a real security risk, but for the rest of the time we kept it open. We tried to change our program to respond to the situation, to provide a space to be able to talk and to have discourse, because when everything happened, especially in February last year, the ability to be part of the discussion became very important. And through the exhibition that I made at that time, “Fear and Hope”, we engaged our audience to come to the center again to talk about the situation through film programs and discussion forums we organized. So, we have taken a very proactive role in allowing this discourse to happen, which was very important. And today, I mean, first of all, the crisis is no longer about the Maidan – it is really a much more existential crisis that’s going on in Ukraine, and in its relation with its biggest neighbor.

So, the PinchukArtCentre is facing other challenges. First of all, economic challenges – because of the situation we also have to make cutbacks; secondly, we have to think – what is our role now, in this new Ukraine? What do we have to do in the new Ukraine? For this year, we have decided to put a really strong focus on the artistic scene nationally. So, what we are doing is showing what Ukraine stands for today. And, we are also investing in a historical show focusing on the early years of Ukraine, a little bit before the Perestroika onwards until 2004 – something that has never really been done before. There have been some attempts, but we want to make a historical exhibition to go back to what has been happening, because a lot of the themes then relate to the problems of today. At the same time we are continuing our investment in the emerging generation with the PinchukArtCentre Prize, which is focused on national Ukrainian artists up to 35 years of age. So, our program is very much focused on Ukraine and trying to support the local scene as much as possible, because this is what needs to happen now.

Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre. Photographed by Sergey Illin

AD: It seems that Ukrainian artists are not very well known worldwide. Do you agree? Can you explain why?

BG: You have to make a distinction between the generation from 2004 and onwards, and the older generation. I think the older generation is less known. Strangely enough, some of them are in very important collections. For example Roytburd, Savadov – they are in the collection of MOMA. They have been extremely active in the 90s, their works were incredibly strong and challenging till 2000s. And this is also the focus of the exhibition that we are going to have here in the summer. So we want to reactivate the attention towards what happened then, because somehow this attention got lost. Between the years 2002 and 2005 not so many things were happening in this country, and when the attention disappeared, it didn’t give any input to the Ukrainian artists at that time. But if we talk about the generation of artist from 2004 onwards, then we have a whole different story. These artists are represented by international galleries; they are travelling all the time. They are often showing abroad – so I think the emerging generation is becoming very well known. When I started here in 2009 they were not. They were in the first years of developing their practices. Between 2009 and now, as the PinchukArtCentre, we have invested in them a lot by presenting them outside the country, offering them the possibility to travel, by bringing curating institutions to Ukraine; and I think it has paid off. Artists like Nikita Kadan and Zhanna Kadyrova are being regularly shown internationally. Nikita Kadan just had a beautiful exhibition in London, which has been picked up by the international media and which received very positive reviews. So I think they are breaking out of the country. And we have to be honest, the crisis in Ukraine has intensified the attention to the Ukrainian art scene and, of course, this has supported this generation to travel and to be shown abroad. 

Main Prize winner Nástio Mosquito, Special prize winners Zhanna Kadyrova and Mykyta Kadan, Main Prize winner Carlos Motta and Special prize winner Aslan Gaisumov. Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre, 2014. Photographed by Sergey Illin

AD: The PinchukArtCentre organizes some interesting exhibitions with big names. Currently on view till April 4 of this year is the Group exhibition of the Patron artists of Future Generation Art Prize: Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky and Takashi Murakami. How are these ‘Masters of contemporary art’ perceived by the local audience? 

BG: At the start of the art centre one of the main ideas was to show things that were never shown in Ukraine, and to bring international artists with challenging practices to Ukraine. It is extremely important to open up the art scene, to open up the way people think about contemporary art, and to develop the local talent. We have 1800 visitors every day. This number gives you an idea of the impact that our institution has on the community. And it is not sufficient to just remain in this position – it is equally important to develop an educational program. It is in the core of our young institution’s practice to invest in discussions, guided tours, and into a continuous conversation with our audience. As a result, our audiences are educating themselves. They are extremely curious. When I came in, in 2009, I was astonished. People didn’t know so much about contemporary art, but they were asking a lot of questions. They were really interested in having a conversation about the works that we were showing, and why we were showing them. And the audience has also become more mature, more eager to deal with conceptual art and understand it. In some way, and perhaps this is a very utopian way of thinking, but I do believe that at least in a very small part it changed the way they are thinking, it has opened their minds to different possibilities. How it is received? Differently. Sometimes they love it, sometimes they hate it. Sometimes they understand it, sometimes they don’t. But they always come back. Once a beautiful phrase was said:  “If you come here, you see yourself; the PinchukArtCentre speaks to you, as an audience”. For example, we had a work of Wilfredo Prieto here, Cuban artist, who made a puddle of water here, which was holy water on the floor. In the West it was immediately understood, in Ukraine something like this was extremely challenging. Now this is immediately appreciated, now they are ready for a much more complex understanding of what contemporary art can be. 

Future Generation Art Prize Nominees, Victor Pinchuk, Damien Hirst, Eckhard Schneider, Bjorn Geldhof. Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre, 2014.  Photographed by Sergey Illin.

AD: Do you have partner museums, or partnerships with art centers abroad, whom you work with on a constant basis?

BG: For our program of changing exhibitions we do not have any partners, we stage our exhibitions independently. This was very important for us because we wanted to develop our own identity as an institution. Our identity is based on the exhibitions that are staged by our center and specifically for our center, which always include new productions. So we took it as a starting point creating our own projects. And sometimes these projects are very much appreciated and taken over by other museums. We were always independent in the way we develop our programs. But with the Future Generation Art Prize we do have around 60 institutions with whom we work together - to promote the Prize, to make partner platforms for the Prize. It’s a very rich network of institutions that we’re working together with for this.  

AD: Next year you will be celebrating your first great anniversary - 10 years since the opening of the PinchukArtCentre. Are you planning anything special for this date? And how would you evaluate your contribution until now?

BG: I don’t think that Ukraine at this stage is ready for a party. The situation is very, very hard. It’s hard on the people, it’s hard on the institutions, as well as on companies. I think that first of all everybody is just trying to survive! The currency rate devalued to a third of its original value, at one point it even descended to a quarter. A lot of companies are reducing their teams, people are trying to survive. And it has been difficult already since 2013. Things might change but at the moment what we are really looking toward how to support the local context, how we can get out of this crisis. 

We have worked very hard on the professionalization of the art scene. We introduced more support for the production of contemporary art by Ukrainian artists, we hold exhibitions by Ukrainian artists almost every month, showing exclusively new productions. We support this production. Plus the introduction of curatorial discourse, which was really lacking. We have invested in the development of the curators, we have trained a young generation of curators, who work independently as curators now – that was our special project. The art scene has become much richer not only because of us, but because people became aware of what is possible, they understand much more now. Education, production and presentation – this is our contribution to the Ukrainian art scene.  

 “Hope!”, Pavilion of Ukraine at the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. Björn Geldhof, Deputy Artistic Director of the PinchukArtCentre, curator of the project. Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre, 2015. Photographed by Sergey Illin.

Victor Pinchuk, businessman and philanthropist, and Elena Pinchuk, founder of the ANTIAIDS Foundation. Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre, 2015. Photographed by Sergey Illin.

Image above: Björn Geldhof, Deputy Artistic Director of the PinchukArtCentre. Photographs provided by and © the PinchukArtCentre. Photographed by Sergey Illin.

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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