What it's really like to be an artist in Kiev right now

When people are dying there's no space for metaphysics in art

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Sasha Kurmaz

Whether you're interested in what's happening in the outside world or not, it's been hard to avoid the images of wrecked Kiev. Before becoming the greatest source of media disaster porn, the Ukraine Capital had been (and still is) a great city – warm summers, great raves, beautiful people, a thriving fashion scene and a bunch of very talented artists (CC: Vova Vorotniov and Gorsad). Just like Kiev's young people were ready to abandon DJ decks and art books for their shifts at the barricades, young Ukrainian artists successfully merge strong visual elements of their work with social and political critics. Sasha Kurmaz is one of them.

Born and raised in Kiev, 27-year-old Kurmaz has been exploring its streets for years as a graffiti artist, before finding more efficient ways to penetrate the urban surface. His aim is to give the city back to people. In his art project Intervention Kurmaz cheekily interferes with the city: corrupting, modifying and repurposing walls, benches, street signs and adverts. While free from sabotaging the system, Kurmaz takes photos: minimal nudes often juxtaposed with grand Soviet monuments, post-Soviet streets, dirty party shots and minimal still-lifes. It's up to the viewer to decide, what's packed in three zines Kurmaz produced so far – intimate and bizarre sexual diary of youth or personal chronic of civil society rise in Eastern Europe.

We caught up with Kurmaz to talk graffiti, self-publishing and the choices artists have to make in today's Kiev.

 

How did you start doing art and photography?

Sasha Kurmaz: I started through graffiti. I was too young to think about anything else, I wanted to change the world and I believed that graffiti was more than just words written on the wall. Camera, just like a thick black marker, was my best friend and something I always had in my pocket. I used to use compact auto focus cameras, very fast and handy, allowing me to capture everything I was into, from fresh tag on a metro train to passionate sex.

What influenced you in Ukrainian visual culture?

Sasha Kurmaz: Street culture and graffiti influenced me the most. But when it comes to photography, the key moment was meeting Boris Mikhailov, it completely reset my approach to photography.

Tell us a bit about the books and zines you publish?

Sasha Kurmaz: I prefer books to exhibitions really, as any exhibition has its limits in terms of time and space, while books allow you to imprint the project in the real world, here and now. Zines are a complete artistic statement, a unique artifact, a perfect way to tell the story. Mostly my zines were all initiated by publishers who approached me willing to showcase my work. I've published three so far, Nude Sensitivity with Atem Books, Ми чекаємо на Євро with Artitude and Concrete & Sex with Pogo Books.

Tell us about your Intervention project

Sasha Kurmaz: I explore the contemporary city – I'm really interested in practical urbanism, so Intervention includes unsanctioned acts in public space. First of all, cities are meant to be a space for life but in the realms of capitalism they've been perverted into a space for suppression: advertising; office centres; malls and so on. All these factors aggressively suppress people's will, turning them into a soulless consumer, blind bio-machines chasing the latest seasonal offers. It all makes me critically rethink the urban space. I also use the city as a playground and exhibition space, as opposed to institutionalised museums, galleries and art centres.

How does it feel for an artist to live and work in Kiev after everything that's happened?

Sasha Kurmaz: The revolution which happened (and is actually still happening) was a great shock for society. It's difficult to make any conclusions about the political outcome, the situation is still unpredictable and people are still dying over clashes in the Donetsk region. Before, this winter war was just an abstract concept for me but after I'd witnessed dozens of people murdered by the government death has become tangible and realistically horrible to me. If you're an artist it's hard to stay aside and silent, ignoring what's happening. When people are dying there is no space for metaphysics in art.

So what should an artist do in such a situation?

Sasha Kurmaz: There is a choice: either keep a critical distance from the protest so that you can reflect on it, or join the activists and protest against the repressive state machine. In Kiev everybody had a chance to take up the role of their choice.

What are your plans for future projects?

Sasha Kurmaz: I'm planning to make a book about what happened in Ukraine. During the revolution I got a lot of important material and would love to publish that.

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