Voloshyn Gallery – Kyiv, 16 May 2019 – 30 June 2019
The Voloshyn Gallery in Kyiv presents a solo exhibition by Vlada Ralko, an artist who is progressively building a rich and coherent oeuvre which clearly deserves attention.
Vlada Ralko is already a well-established artist. Born in 1969 in Kyiv, she graduated from the T.H. Shevchenko Art School in 1987, and from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in 1994. A member of the National Union of the Artists of Ukraine, she already has an international career with exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London, among other cities. It can be added that her husband, Volodimir Budnikov, is also a highly respected Ukrainian artist. They live and work in Kaniv, a city on the Dnieper, south of Kyiv.
The work currently presented in the gallery, Wedding, is part of a series entitled Festivities. It consists for the most part of three large canvases hung at a perpendicular angle, this angle actually dividing, or cutting through, one of the canvases, and thus exposing a manner of procession, as befits most ceremonies, public and private. It would seem that these images are derived from the observation of weddings in Kaniv.
The canvas on the left-hand side shows two black vehicles facing one another, separated by a large red patch which has the appearance of an inverted heart. Or perhaps of a patch of blood. A thick man standing to the left of the picture is positioned so that his eyes are above the upper edge of the canvas, projecting some feeling of power and distance. A bodyguard perhaps. Or some local magnate. From the car emerge two naked legs, with heels, while a young woman hovers in the middle of the picture.
In the next canvas, a man – the groom ? – emerges from the roof of a garlanded SUV, and appears to be either shouting, or at least to have some keen interest in what is front of him – physically or in his imagination – as his head is replicated a little further to the right, as if connected to the actual head. The angle of the canvas is between these two heads. A woman without any visible eyes shows some symptoms of either fear or surprise, while the profile of a second, black-haired woman seen slightly from the back, seems to appear her torso naked, or perhaps wearing a décolleté. Both women are larger than what perspective would demand.
The last canvas is again of a garlanded SUV, behind which stands a person, shouting perhaps from her mouth, perhaps from a wound in her belly which looks like a red-lipped open mouth, shooting bullets. Blood could be sprouting from her neck, and what appears like a male sex belies the other features. A young black man is blowing in a balloon; the car is preceded by a woman without either a torso or a face, walking on her heels, surmounted by the pencilled larger face of a black woman. A headless baby sits on the hood. Above the car, a man – perhaps the groom – seems to be shouting at another one. Chaos, movement, but all going in the same direction, all moving to the right.
The whole procession seems to be an enigma in want of resolve. It invites a reading which the picture cannot provide by itself, despite its being figurative in a sense.
The purpose of this article is not to decipher a work of art, as if it were a game. It is more to reflect around the image, which I have clumsily described as if the naming of its components were sufficient to uncover a mystery, as if they were a clue to something deeper which we would call meaning, that more or less hidden treasure of every text, which becomes accessible only once the distance between the word and what it points at can be bridged. And it never really can, beside trivial uses of language. It can only be circled around. There is the veritable tragedy of the speaking animal we are: language inexorably cuts us from truth, from essence; we fantasize about some reconciliation with the world obtained by treading the path of simplicity, by concentrating on the thing itself, on what our body tells us, perhaps. But these are mere deceptions.
An interesting recent project of Vlada Ralko and Volodymyr Budnikov is titled “Line of contact”; it sheds some light on the work we are discussing. Line of contact started as a reflexion on separation born from the experience of war in Ukraine: what is ours, what is not ? How do the two interact, mutate, contaminate each other on the “line of contact” ? This reflexion rapidly expanded beyond the question of war itself. War is of course as old as history, and perhaps because we had lost for some time in Europe the direct experience of war, we have also overlooked the questions that war has been asking to humans since the dawn of our history: about morals, about life, about fate, about “values”… War inevitably summons the great questions at the same time as the most trivial, about shelter, immediate survival, the use of objects.
The work of Vlada Ralko is indeed about language, about rituals, about the ritual that language can be. As she and Volodymyr Budnikov say, as the often sign texts together, “the line of fire is like a line in a drawing or writing where objects or words are only made visible by lines”. The true meaning of things is made apparent by actual experience, by the violence or the tension which the line renders apparent, by an experience of the thing. Therefrom, the artists question the nature of language which they feel betrays the truth of the world; they say: “how do we tell apart authentic and false connections between objects and words? What should be questioned, and what should be taken for granted?”. The experience of war, even though not lived but felt, induced the artists to address the vast question of the authenticity of language, of its perversion by overuse or misuse. “What do we do with the wound that marks the chasm between words and objects?”. As they observe, “the most iconic symbols of the revolution were effectively defused by commodification: the slogan “Glory to the heroes”…became passwords for restaurants; the barricades…degenerated into decorations in bourgeois night clubs or fridge magnets”.
The question of the rituality of language, which the artists perceive as a way to avoid what really matters, the squandering or trivialisation of language through repetition and overuse, is a critical matter not only in the specific context of the Ukrainian political experience but in human experience as a whole, faced as we are by a cataract of stereotypes, slogans, ready-made “thoughts”, “news”, trivial remarks of all kinds flooding every corner of the web, of our cities, of our minds. What remains of the logos ? “We lose the language that could shine light on our essence”. As the artists quite pointedly notice, the only thing “real” left out could be our body, meaning probably that the only authenticity lies in physical pain and pleasure. Even that is debatable, as we can now control the former and manufacture the latter, while the skin itself has turned into a chatroom via the dramatic rise of tattooing. One could certainly accept the very thoughtful conclusion expressed in the following rethorical question “Is the artistic language that tries to restore the essence of things ever not sacrilegious?”, provided that we interpret the word sacrilegious as “tearing the veil of appearances”, as it would otherwise be a contradiction. As Mircea Eliade wrote in his essential essay The sacred and the profane, “the religious man can only live in a sacred world because only such a world partakes in the being, really exists”. Strictly speaking, sacrilegious would mean opting for falsehood; and to a non-religious man, i.e. a man deprived of any metaphysical questioning, there is nothing sacred and therefore sacrilegious. We take it that the artists mean in fact the bringing down of what obscures, distorts, conceals the truth of things. By stating that “only the artistic language can shine light on things and prompt them into action”, Vlada Ralko and Volodymyr Budnikov are indeed providing a valid, perhaps the most valid, definition of what art is meant to be. This approach comes close to Heidegger’s notion of aletheia (thruth) as un-concealment.
“The work of art is at work in its aufstellung (its installation or setting up)”, wrote Heidegger in his famous 1935 conference on the origin of the work of art. This installation is a consecration or celebration because, taking the analogy of the temple, “to devote means “sanctify” in the sense that, through the offering that is the work of art, the inner sanctum opens up as a sanctum and the god is forced to enter in the open of its presence”. Loosely interpreted, the work of art forces the truth, that which was hidden from the mortals, to manifest itself in the open.
Humboldt proposed (in Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung, 1820) that “man is man only through its language”, without failing to add that “to invent the language, he already had to be man”. To break this circle, one needs to think language in itself, beyond any grammatical interpretation or any categorial foundation. No philosopher in the Antiquity has quite defined language itself as the truth of the being, although fragment B50 of Heraclitus reads “Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one”.
When Heidegger writes “Die Sprache spricht”, the language speaks, we immediately feel that – as felt by Vlada and Volodymyr Budnikov – much of the “language” that is now spoken does not effectively speak, and this makes it impossible to climb back from the logos to the aletheia, to bridge them. It is not in vain that St Matthew wrote (12,36): “ But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty (anergon in the Greek original, i.e. deprived of energy, which is not a cause of what it says) word they have spoken”. So that the chatter, the perverted language to which the artists refer, cannot effectively be qualified as pertaining to the logos. Empty words tend to mask, to drive out, the logos. Perhaps art can set itself the task of restoring some of the lost authenticity by summoning the “god” referred to by Heidegger.
To revert for a moment to Wedding, we need to acknowledge that it is first and foremost a procession and a celebration.
As Louis Marin noted in Une mise en signification de l’espace social, parades and processions share the structure of repetition which characterizes all or most ritual systems, and it is the function of their repetitive structure, registered through the narrativity of their various sequences, to manifest a hierarchical and articulated system of values. These events have a thorough performative power as they install, or re-install in the case of commemoration, an origin, a reference, a point of view, to which they give legitimacy.
As the great anthropologist Victor Turner wrote about ritual celebrations in The Ritual Process, structure and anti-structure, the parade or procession transform one or more actual social relationships into a temporary and symbolic “communitas”. Turner saw society as a dialectic process, and conceptualized culture as a struggle between structure and anti-structure, impulses of organization and of disaggregation.
In Wedding, we have the paradox of a structuring ritual which reaffirms in endless speeches pronounced on each such occasion the same eternal values – of love, trust, fidelity, commitment deprived of any time limit, etc – while these words tend to be forgotten or ignored in practice. What the ceremony produces is the “communitas” around the spouses, not the bound between the spouses. Words are thus distracted from their meaning, and become tools to another end.
The painting conveys that feeling. The spouses are nowhere clearly to be seen. Not all the cars in the procession are directed the same way. The sexual dimension suggested inter alia by the naked legs belie the loftiness of the amorous commitment. The small balloon suggests a joke rather then merriness, while the masculine components exude power: the gentleman popping out of the SUV’s roof looks rather like a tank commander, blurring the lines between wedding procession and military parade. The visible order is the mask of another – yet – invisible order, which probably contradicts the values of the visible one suggested by the usual procession.