The exhibition ‘Limits of Responsibility’ is the first solo show in the UK of Ukrainian artist and activist Nikita Kadan; it responds to last spring’s crisis in Ukraine and the occupation by protesters of Kiev’s Independent Square, also known as the Maiden. The show is a carefully considered formal exploration of a contemporary political crisis that brings forth questions about how far political activism can intervene in the art world. Plants and agriculture weave their way through the work, traversing each medium, reminding us of nature’s potential for renewal and the strength with which it overpowers manmade structures.
The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors of Waterside Contemporary in Hackney is how pristine and white the work is. This perspective is only amplified by the towering grey council houses that bookend the gallery space, and by the fact that the gallery door needs to be unlocked, making the entrance into the gallery almost like a portal to another universe. The white cube space of Waterside Contemporary is worlds away from its surroundings; this distance becomes even more relevant as I walk through the space, taking in the work’s political references.
In the centre of the gallery space is a large sculptural object, modelled after a propaganda display board recommended by soviet pamphlets as the ideal for showing agricultural achievement. Underneath the structure there is a square box containing soil and two beautifully planted bright green cabbages with herbs on either side, so green and succulent they look almost plastic. Towards the back of the room there is a slide projector showing photos of the Maiden in Kiev in the midst of its occupation. The images show large muddy green tents in amongst wild and abundant vegetable patches that undoubtedly provided sustenance to the protesters and activists. The decision to show these images on a slide projector as opposed to a digital projector, or even printing them, lends the work a historical and even somewhat romantic feel. The images do not look as if they depict a violent political conflict that happened last year; instead they look as if they came from a bygone era.
This nostalgic aesthetic continues with delicately painted watercolours that depict human bones and architectural structures intertwined with roots and vegetables, demonstrating the power of nature and its ability to transform matter. These drawings, beautifully executed with extreme precision, take you away from the specific context of Ukraine and broaden the scope of the discussion. On the opposite wall, however, the focus is brought back to Ukraine with photographs that depict crumbling ruined buildings, pock-marked with gunshots. The photographs are partially obscured by collaged drawings of botanical plants and vines. As I look at them, I can’t help but notice the reflections of the council estates in the glass, which create a strange overlay. Has the exhibition missed an opportunity to connect the struggle in Ukraine to the global effects of neo-liberal capitalism and its relationship to growing inequality in the UK?
It seems that the exhibition plays out a never-ending and consistently disputed question in the art world: can art and politics work together? Can art be used as a tool for awareness or aide a shift in consciousness? Kadan examines the crisis in Ukraine through his artwork, but how does it translate into a commercial gallery space? What happens when artwork that confronts political and ideological struggles is then commodified? These questions brought me back to the title of the exhibition: ‘Limits of Responsibility’. This could be understood as a reference to Kadan’s own limits of responsibility as an artist and as an activist, or to our own limits of responsibility as viewers of the exhibition. The aesthetic and formal decisions that Kadan has made in the work affect his complex subject matter. Each art work – whether sculptural installation, watercolour or photograph – is polished to an exacting degree. The focus is on form rather than subject matter; the pieces seem to refer to an unidentifiable time in the past instead of imparting knowledge to the viewer about the current situation in Ukraine.
In a recent interview with Björn Geldhof published by Pinchuk art centre, Kadan describes his artistic method as a secular version of ‘apothetic theology’, or negative theology, in that he is focused on negation, on defining what cannot be said. He says “I do not have a positive strategy at all. I am stable in negativity, in the way of reduction … where you can reduce and reduce until you can touch the reality”. It is perhaps in this sense that ‘Limits of Responsibility’ reduces the experience of the Maiden to its core, breaking it down to nature and its material realities. In the same interview Kadan explains his interest in the relations between materials, and the ways in which political narratives can manifest in materiality.
It is interesting that an exhibition rooted in such an urgent political situation has been able to shift the focus away from the crisis in Kiev and the Maiden, looking instead to the cycle of nature and the inevitability of death.