Briukhovetska: Social insecurity and hopelessness were symbols of the post USSR region


[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ockout, the exhibition of critical art of Eastern Europe, was held from November 6 to 30 at the Visual Culture Research Center in Kiev. The exhibition raises the issue of labor in the post-Soviet and post-socialist space. Artists from Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and Hungary have been taking part in it. Journalist and economist Zakhar Popovych spoke with exhibition curator Oksana Briukhovetska.

Zakhar Popovych: Today, when the very existence of the Ukrainian state is threatened, calls for nationwide solidarity, social peace, not social conflict, can be heard everywhere. Why the title of the exhibition is Lockout, signifying the situation as a labor conflict, initiated by an employer who does not want to make any concessions to the workers? Maybe for you it’s a political slogan or a metaphor of modern Ukraine?

Oksana Briukhovetska: Our aim was to investigate changes in workplace that happened after the collapse of the USSR. This refers not only to contemporary Ukraine, but rather to the entire period of its independence. The situation in Ukraine has changed dramatically over the last year, and it has been a year since we have started working on this project. However, if you think about today’s Ukraine, it has not appeared from nowhere, many threads of the past decades led to the social explosion that occurred on the Maidan, as well as certain phenomena at the sphere of labour that we were able to explore. In the east of the country, where the war is waged now, for decades oligarchs and criminals sucked all the strength of it, actually transforming it into a zone of industrial feudalism. Social insecurity and hopelessness were symbols of the region in the world, demonstrated by Michael Glawogger in his Workingman’s death. The film consists of several novels, describing the terrible plight of people who work physically around the world, and the first story is about coal miners of illegal pits in Donbas.

If we look at the west of the country, the “fourth wave” of migration that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union reach, according to some researchers, 2,5-4,5 million people. This means that so many people were not able to find a job in his country, felt useless and idle at home. Therefore, the term “lockout” seems to be an appropriate metaphor to describe this trend in one word. I emphasize that we use the term not legally, but more broadly, thinking about the state as an employer that have denied decent labour conditions for many workers. And if you were able to communicate with people who were standing on the Maidan last year, you could have heard these claims and demands to the state regarding poor living and working conditions.

At the exhibition, there are no works devoted to the Maidan, although many are proud of the experience of the Maidan as an example of common self-organized non-alienated labor. Thus there were many workers at the Maidan, it was supported by independent labour unions. The Maidan is also a kind of rebellion against Yanukovych’s lockout.

[quote align=’right’]This is a destructive power of war – not only it physically destroys society but also morally corrupts it. Our main and ultimate goal should be peace. And despite the war, people still continue to live. However, the conditions in which they live, seems less available for discussions.[/quote]So, at the exhibition we do not have any works directly related to the Maidan experience. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that there are many documentations of the Maidan, while no mature artistic reflections. This is understandable, because the Maidan in its performative and visual form surpassed all possible interpretations that apriori will not look as powerful as the reality that is still fresh in our memories. But we have an art piece that causes direct associations with the Maidan, in fact, it is an example of one of the alternatives to the Maidan outcomes, which was not realized here, but there was a similar situation in Kazakhstan. It is Zhanaozen: The Unknown Tragedy, a documentary by Julia Mazurova. In 2011 in the town of Zhanaozen oil workers were on strike for several months against the terrible working conditions. This caused considerable losses of profits for oil companies, since oil from Kazakhstan is sold to many European countries.

What did the government do when it was called to talk with the protesters? There was a police crackdown and the activists were put in prison for up to seven years. This bloody tragedy is silenced by President Nazarbayev as well as not too popular in the world’s media, since Europe needs Kazakh oil, even if it make Europe close eyes on human rights abuses in the former Soviet country. Some scenes from this documentary, which we have got through contact with trade unions, are strikingly similar to moments of the tensions on the Maidan with just less people. Also a prelude to violence was putting festive yurts on the square, while we had a christmas tree, after the installation there was blood. Thus we can see that the strategy and tactics of dictatorships have similarities even in details, so we can draw some parallels between the countries of the former USSR.

Among the artworks one will not find anything that is related to the war in the east. Was it your conscious intention to completely disengage from the war?

[quote align=’left’]The works of artists here show the problems at workplace as systemic effects.[/quote]I have heard some doubts whether the exhibition theme of labour is up to date and appropriate to the current events in the country. However, I have a “justification”. War is such a painful topic that covers all other problems, so as if it becomes impolite to speak about them. This is also a destructive power of war – not only it physically destroys society but also morally corrupts it. Our main and ultimate goal should be peace. And despite the war, people still continue to live. However, the conditions in which they live, seems less available for discussions. We know that due to military actions many companies have been closed and people have lost their jobs, they are not paid salaries and pensions. This is the reality of life along with the reality of death. To talk about working conditions is in fact to talk about the conditions of social life. And our exhibition is an attempt to have a conversation about it.

The works of artists here show the problems at workplace as systemic effects. For example, the Russian part of the exhibition presents, among others, exploitation of slave labor migrants in Russia in works by Viktoria Lomasko and Haim Sokol. We see that the Russian aggression that we are experiencing today, is corresponding to its internal aggression, and perhaps these phenomena are of a single order. For me personally, it was important to have Russian participants as an evidence that the cultural sphere can generate solidarity, unlike the official power sphere that generates war and hatred. Also there is a Ukrainian piece devoted to Vladimir Putin, a video by Oleksiy Radynski that is titled Putin.

There are artworks on the exhibition that are dedicated to mining labour. In particular, there are “diamonds” made of Polish coal by miners themselves. What about the Ukrainian coal mining? You have invited neither miners nor leaders of independent trade unions to discuss painful social issues. This may be an attempt to avoid a situation when workers are dehumanized so to speak, turned from a subject to an object of art, a kind of a “curiosity” or a funny thing, particularly as happened at the Zhlobart exhibition (“zhlob” can be translated as a tramp or hick, so the exhibition aimed at presenting this social category in negative and funny way).

Yes, I want to say here that we have on display a wonderful collection of Polish works that have been offered by Stanislav Ruksza, my co-curator, from Kronika gallery in Bytom. One of them is Black Diamonds, a project known in Poland, and it is just an example of what you say, a cooperation of an artist and worker of the other sphere, in this case, a coal miner. Artist Lukasz Surowiec bought several tonnes of coal at a closed mine and invited several already retired miners to “produce art”. Black diamonds, samples of which you can touch at the exhibition, were later sold as souvenirs, thus giving the opportunity for unemployed to earn money. So it was a social and artistic project at the same time. A second example of such cooperation is the artwork of Hungarian artist Anna Fabricius, a recorded performance, to which Erika, a cable assembler, was invited to reproduce movements of her working process. This work is very sensual and corporeal, because the equipment that Erika uses is absent, and we see only a bare subject. The video also includes a worker’s monologue – a personal description of the conditions and process of her work.

These two works are really good examples, when art involves people from other social spheres, unlike the notorious project you have mentioned (Zhlobart) that took place in Ukraine, when the “others”, “aliens” were simply exhibits and shown in cages like animals the zoo. Some interaction is also present in staged videos, where workers participate, i.e., Parade by Haim Sokol (Russia) and Weavers by Anna Molska (Poland), as well as in Viktoria Lomasko pieces that are like sketches taken from life, from conversations with slaves in a Moscow grocery and with Nizhny Novgorod illegal prostitutes.

The exhibition has the artworks devoted to strikes, particularly at almost destroyed plant (the Taras Shevchenko plant). Are you trying by this artistic expression to join to the problem of labor protest?

Strike is a so-called antithesis to lockout. And while the legal definition of lockout may be applied in response to strikes, the opposite happens – workers go on protest over a lockout. Actually, the term “lockout” does not exist in Ukrainian legislation, unlike in other countries, so it is outlawed, thus the title is metaphorical. The works covering this topic at the exhibition are quite pessimistic. For example, the Polish artist Anna Molska has recorded a video based on a socio-political drama by Gerhart Hauptmann, describing the Silesian weavers uprising of 1844, only transferring the action into nowadays. The miners complain about exploitation at the mine, but their dialogues have no revolutionary fervor that the play has, but rather depression and frustration. My video collage of the three-year “eternal strike” at the Taras Shevchenko plant in Kharkiv also shows rather a kind of impasse into which people got than a fighting strategy. They consider blocking roads and transport as effective means to get noticed, and this leads to clashes with drivers. Therefore, the workers are staying there during winter and summer, deceived by the government and without the support of other residents of the city. Two artworks by Mykola Ridnyi also refer to the loss of dignity suffered by workers after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the empty and small factory board of honours. The Zhanaozen oil strike ends tragically. However, all these examples are just intended to make one think about the problem.

Many artworks at the exhibition are devoted to the over-exploitation of female labor. Semi-voluntary slavery of organized prostitution is on the other side from aestheticized nauseous idyll unity of the masters and their servants in one interior. In the same room there is a large artwork, Gender Pyramid by Anatolii Belov, painted specially for the exhibition. Also all the works have detailed explanations, placed near them on the walls. Have you aimed to achieve a particular educational effect by the exhibition?

Yes, I have such a goal, because I see it as one of the functions of art today. I am very impressed with the concept of “Documenta,” so I would call our project an artistic and documenting, since many works of art here are based on real facts. Studying them of course can have an educational effect. Moreover, in our society some topics are to be approached exactly like this. For example, Gender Pyramid: we have combined sociological research of “female” and “male” professions in the labor market with live sensual pictures by Anatolii Belov who, in fact, made this study visual. So you can read and look and get some information. Work of Valentina Petrova deals with gender stereotypes regarding work of a female artist. If you look at all the exhibition, you’ll see that my educational task is also a gender balance of the participants of the exhibition, so their number is nearly equal. In our field of art production, there are fewer number of women than men – this can be easily seen by examining lists of participants in group exhibitions for some time. I believe that it is the task of a curator to pay attention to this and change the situation, since as one can see even at our exhibition both women’s and men’s work can be equally strong.


Interview was published on

Read more about the exhibition here.

Watch pictures of the exhibition here.

Organizers: Krytyka Polityczna (Poland), Visual Culture Research Center (Kiev, Ukraine), Center for Contemporary Art Kronika (Bytom, Poland).

Exhibition is organised with financial support of:

Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland,
Stewart Mott Foundation,
Erste Stiftung


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Artist, curator at Visual Culture Research Center. Graduate of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, Kyiv. Curator of the exhibitions Childhood. Uncensored and Ukrainian Body at Visual Culture Research Center.