Should Kiev erase its Soviet past or learn to live with history

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Should Kiev erase its Soviet past or learn to live with history

Lvivska Square is a small green space in the centre of Kiev. On one side of it are some worn art nouveau apartments, from the Ukrainian capital’s turn-of-the-century incarnation as a Tsarist boomtown, and a branch of the Austrian supermarket Billa. The three sides that are more dominant are Soviet, and modernist. There’s an ambitious neo-Constructivist building of the 1970s, featuring a series of allegorical women holding buildings and art materials, decorated to the ground floor with multicoloured tiles. This is the House of Artists.

Facing that is an edifice that has been left unfinished since the early 1990s, whose brick, steel and concrete are caked in dirt and graffiti. This was to be the Kiev Theatre Institute, and includes an entrance to a built, but never opened, Metro station below. Opposite that is a high-rise office block on a convex plan — the House of Trade.

Below it is a three-storey block with large plate-glass windows and marble cladding, with walkways leading to the street. Inside, it’s what Americans would call a “ghost mall” — a ground floor features a Stolovaya and a handful of shops selling various kinds of tat, but the escalators are permanently switched off. They’re lined in the same burnished brown artificial material that you find in the Kiev Metro. If you choose to take the stairs, every level features pop-Mondrian abstract stained glass windows, a different colour scheme for each level. On levels two and three, you come to the main venue for the Kiev art biennial of 2015.

Now, Kiev has the sort of prestigious, wealthy, oligarch-funded venues where you would expect such an event to be held, and indeed which have held biennials here before — Arsenal, a large space in a neoclassical Tsarist barracks, or the Pinchuk Art Centre, a typical oligarch’s gallery that specialises in contemporary art. The reason why it’s taking place mainly in a disused, if architecturally intriguing Brezhnev-era shopping mall and 15 other motley venues is the fact that the event had no major source of state or private funding. So the organisers, the Visual Culture Research Centre, a left-leaning group formerly asssociated with (until expelled from) the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, improvised, with the actual curation provided by Austrians Georg Schöllhammer and Hedwig Saxenhuber. […]

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