On a future without a Past

This text was published in the catalogue "Projects of ruins"  in conjunction with the exhibition of Nikita Kadan (June-October 2019, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien)

What if the past never actually happened? Can the future take place?

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward, anticipating what will come. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.
Søren Kierkegaard from Repetition


Repetition is an indestructible garment that fits closely and tenderly, neither binds nor sags. These are the words of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in one of his most important works, anticipating his later description of repetition as a singular key event. For Kierkegaard, repetition becomes recollection directed forward into the future, an active mechanism which reconstructs history.

Repetition interrupts the linear historical narrative, relocating an event in the realm of the mythological. Thus, the repeated event is able to exist simultaneously in two planes, both in reality and in the sphere of the transcendental, where there are neither victors nor vanquished but instead a single ritual that is trying to become the definitive, final, ideal repetition.

Over the last few years, the politics of memory in Ukraine have been characterized by destruction—of historical documents, of testaments to time, of memorials and monuments—as well as by attempts not so much to re-evaluate but rather to rewrite history. Reflection, not on these politics themselves but rather on the collective experience of living through this time, has become a field which a number of Ukrainian artists seek to examine, and, for Nikita Kadan, it has evolved into a key theme of his recent works.

In April 2015, Ukraine passed a series of laws on decommunization, created to legitimize a process that had begun back in 2013–14, and which the media had nicknamed “Leninopad“— falling Lenins.

Ever since the early 1990s, any remaining monuments to Lenin and the heroes of the 1917 revolution—symbols of what seemed an irrevocably bygone era—had, over the long years of Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, become practically invisible. With rare exceptions, they stayed outside the scope of political scrutiny right up until a Sunday evening on December 8, 2013, when during a mass protest meeting on the Maidan (Independence Square) in the center of the capital, Kyiv, the first such statue of Lenin was violently pulled down.

In retrospect, this day could now be said to be one of the turning points of the 2013/14 Maidan protests and subsequent revolution. With a record attendance, it was the third and to date the biggest protest gathering in the center of Kyiv. Many estimates put the number of protestors at over a million. Participants demanded punishment for those in authority who had ordered students to be beaten up during a peaceful sit-down protest on November 30. They called for snap presidential and parliamentary elections. These should all have been landmark moments in the revolution, but from these ambitious goals and intentions, from the collective desires and demands of this day, almost nothing has remained except a single act. And this act casts a shadow over both the past and the future.

For on that cold evening, the protestors began to shift from the voicing of demands to the planning of immediate action such as storming the presidential administration. And in that moment, not far from the epicenter of the protest, unidentified masked men suddenly pulled down and began to smash to pieces the nearby monument to Lenin. Almost immediately, rumors of the act of destruction flew through the protest, and an enormous crowd dashed to the street on which the monument had been standing. Thus, the collective demolition of the monument changed the entire course of the protest; it became its completion, it adopted the role of its result. The radical right-wing Svoboda party claimed responsibility for the act. And on that day, the death of a monument supplanted the “death” of the corrupt administration of the president.

For the first time in the history of the Maidan movement, an unplanned and symbolic act obscured the goals and program of the protest, as though trying to occupy its meaning and idea. The destruction of the rare red granite monument was followed by the sale of its fragments and the theft of a large piece of the broken figure. Thus began a spontaneous process, lasting to this day right across Ukraine, involving the destruction of monuments to the Communist period. Some removals, both impromptu and government sanctioned, were carried out with ritual ceremony. Meanwhile, in other places people fought to keep the monuments standing, as if the political future of Ukraine might depend on their (non)existence.

One only becomes weary of what is new. One never grows weary of the old, and when one has that, one is happy.
Søren Kierkegaard from Repetition

This break from the past, achieved via the destruction of Soviet era monuments, repeated the events of the early 1990s, when after the declaration of independence in Ukraine, a large number of Soviet monuments were demolished. In the nineties, the demolition of monuments and the renaming of squares were accompanied by a wave of revelatory literature, by the publication of new history books, and by discussions, all of which seemed to be marking a clear end to the existence of the Soviet Union both as a form of government and as a political idea.

Yet today’s destruction of monuments is happening as if for the first time, as though it has no antecedents. It occurs like a repeated gesture, which has forgotten all about its twin, its predecessor. Blows raining against stone ring out in a historical emptiness or rather in an artificially created historical vacuum, where history is playing out once again, as though all previous attempts to demolish monuments or break historical connections to the Soviet Union had not just been unsuccessful but were not even worthy of mention.

Looking from the present, is it possible to see the outline of this epoch, which is still being laid siege to? It’s as if the Soviet era continues stubbornly to break through its own ruins, renewing itself and demanding new acts of demolition. Repetition denounces the cyclical nature of the future and lends the present an aura of the mythological. If the past really didn’t take place, then any event demands to be repeated, just like any trauma or pain, a freshening, so that we feel confident that the whole thing really has just taken place.

Nikita Kadan’s Project of Ruins is bound together by the logic of the accumulation of ruins. Each reflects on the other, repeats the other, as they speak about their own muteness, about lost meanngs that are impossible to reconstruct. But they also speak about repeated collective and individual acts of resistance, which seem momentarily forgotten, as in the work Tiger’s Leap (2018)—or something that has transformed into authoritarian dogma only to be subsequently forgotten, as in Kadan’s replicated plinths of Ivan Kavaleridze or the projects of Vasyl Yermylov.

A ruin left after the demolition of a monument often takes the form of an empty plinth. Its emptiness is full of meaning: as if generous, it invites a new ideological construct to take the place of what preceded it. The slate is wiped clean. On the other hand, the bare plinth elegantly points to the contemporariness of the past, to its resilience and its potential threat in the present, to the fact that the dead is possibly still alive. And that which we considered “past” or dead and buried is very probably in actual fact our present: we’re living it today.

A visible, palpable ruin appears in a place where a denial of history is happening, where a collective project of dissociation from the past is born. For some reason, this disrupted link becomes the best and clearest evidence not only of the strength of the past but of its claims on the present.

A freshly perpetrated ruin exudes danger, as if the past, no matter how it seems to its demolishers, was still ready to rise from the kingdom of the dead. The result is that only one political desire emerges, to continue to make ruins, to continue the rewriting, redefinition, and renaming.

And thus, the demolition of monuments to Lenin which began in 2013—and the later passing of decommunization laws—has turned into the demolition and destruction of a whole range of different artifacts of Soviet culture existing in Ukrainian public space, culminating in the mass renaming of streets and cities.

The exhibition Project of Ruins has come to life during a time when ruins are becoming more and more widespread. History is a battlefield, but at the same time it’s a mythological and sacral realm of the story, a place of the emergence and disappearance of ritual.


Three reconstructed plinths of Ivan Kavaleridze

For a long time, I searched for a photograph of the shooting, carried out with a blank-firing pistol, of Ivan Kavaleridze’s gigantic monument to Artyom, the revolutionary and party activist whose real name was Fyodor Sergeyev. The shooting may have taken place either in 2014, after the liberation of Sviatohirsk in Eastern Ukraine from Russian separatist battalions, or in 2015. Possibly this symbolic fight with a monumental sculpture—like a repetition—happened more than once.

Admittedly, rumors of the shooting, which allegedly happened in the evening, are confirmed only verbally by some of the city’s residents. Yet the rumors vary so much that it’s even possible that this incident, one of the many informal, decommunizing rituals practiced across Ukraine in 2014–16, took place in actual fact in some other city, and that its target was not Artyom but a completely different monument.

If such a shooting did actually take place, it was either a symbolic gesture of hatred or a childish act of categorical rejection—hatred, however, not so much of the past and of history as of the present and a possible future. Russian aggression, military intervention, hybrid war, and resistance to it all made the Soviet project visible again. But this time it took on a new shape and gave rise to recollection not of its own history but of an alien past, the history of colonization.

Deprived of a bygone cult or ideological meaning, not provoking any new reflection and therefore absolutely mute, Kavaleridze’s monumental statue of Artyom in Sviatohirsk—just like all Soviet monuments—had for long years since the independence of Ukraine been no more than a ruin from a previous epoch, a harmless piece of evidence of the past.

Yet it was an important landmark. Artyom the monument was a colossal architectural structure that was considered worth seeing to better get to know the locality. A massive object, an attraction, whose value lay in its enormous size (the first thing referred to in any tourist guides), in its exotic cubo-futurist style (“the biggest cubist statue in Europe”) and its materials (“the biggest concrete statue in Europe”). Like many others, for long years this statue existed as a fetish of the city in which it stood, like an illustration of the lessons of history through which we have lived, of that which we’ve left behind.

The process of decommunization, which emerged spontaneously like a successful political maneuver, should today be regarded not so much as a process of collective and destructive recollection of the existence of different Soviet projects of the future but rather as a complex medical process involving their repeated euthanasia, suggesting an admittedly very brief but equally palpable artificial reanimation.

In order that spontaneous decommunization with storylines such as the shooting of a monument using a blank-firing pistol can become reality, it’s necessary to imagine that a repudiated past is no longer a sterile, immobile ruin. It’s gone underground and, unnoticed, is laying a road for itself into the future.

Originally, the monument to Artyom was built on the site of a small chapel. This chapel had been the last functioning place of worship in the Sviatohirsk Lavra—a monastery complex, once the biggest in the region. Up until 1927, the year in which the monument was unveiled, the Lavra monastery had already become partly a ruin and partly an old form filled with new contents. Over a period of years following the revolution, its inhabitants were dispersed, and its buildings were repurposed as a workers’ sanatorium. A cinema was opened in one of the Lavra’s cathedrals. In another was a library. Part of the cathedrals had been demolished. The “Holy Mountains” on which the monastery complex had been located were renamed “Red.”

The monumental sculpture of Artyom rose to a new height, giving a fresh perspective over the city hills on the line of the high ground (the revolutionary rose even higher than the crosses and bell towers of the churches), and the foundation of the monument was built from chunks of the ruined cathedrals.

The cubo-futurist form makes it possible to see in the human figure not just a heroic meaning, in the sense of yet another incarnation of Lenin’s 1918 Plan on Monumental Propaganda, but something anti-personal, a political program of reforms and changes that is striving toward abstraction. Monumental sculpture confirms a distinct new plan of existence against the background of the ruins of the past, but its multiple plastic deformations and geometrical simplifications, corners, and straight lines seem to point to a distancing of this modernity from reality, from the realistic, to a dissonance and the polyvariety of the present day.

In his programmatic 1916 text From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, Kazimir Malevich wrote,“Cubism and futurism created a picture from fragments and truncations of objects through dissonance and movement. ... As regards painterly surfaces in cubism, they weren’t so much homemade, rather they served their painted form for dissonance. ... The intuitive feeling found a new beauty in things—the energy of dissonances obtained from the collision of two opposing

Another thirty-meter-high monument to Artyom, this time in the city of Bakhmut, was built from reinforced concrete and opened in 1924 but then destroyed during the German occupation in 1943. This version of Artyom is notable for its constructivist plinth, designed simultaneously as a stage on which dozens of people could stand. The constructivist pyramidical upward-leading form of the plinth can be understood in the context of Soviet avant-garde architect Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower, his Monument to the Third International, where the absurdity of the construction and its visual resemblance to the towers of Babel blends with monumental fanfare. In the grip of dissonant forms, the idea of power, the dominating heroic and hierarchical modes become ambiguous, like the future, to which the gestures and movements of the two Artyoms are directed.

In the 1950s, the demolition of Artyom in Bakhmut was undertaken once again; the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev considered it necessary to blow up the constructivist plinth, which had remained since the Nazi removal of the statue, this time due to aesthetic nonconformity with the demands of art, fostered by the Stalin era. In exactly the same way, riding the wave of the fight against formalism and cubism, the authorities destroyed a monument in the city of Romny to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. A similar monument in the city of Poltava has remained intact.

The biography of Ivan Kavaleridze’s sculptures bears the marks of many forms of censorship. Their continued existence today seems accidental, because their monumental form and even their early Soviet romanticism seem fragile and unstable in view of the ideological unpredictability of these shapes, their persistent falling out of the frames of solidified ideology of the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s. These forms could not be successfully and enduringly included in a single official ritual connected to the assimilation and translation of ideological notions of historical victory of the present over the past. Neither in the Soviet nor the post-Soviet period.

Within Kavaleridze’s lifetime, the lonely figure of the revolutionary and visionary, fastened on the future, found itself inhabiting the role of a ruin, just like the bust of the poet growing out of multi-cornered surfaces, looking into himself.

Nikita Kadan’s juxtaposition of Ivan Kavaleridze’s three plinths is a conversation about what survives. If the statue is demolished but the plinth remains, this means that a certain residue of the past is nevertheless permitted to linger on or even to become rooted in contemporary times, albeit in a different guise when the original no longer exists. The plinth carries in itself a contradictory paradoxical meaning, which speaks simultaneously about the destruction of the past, of reprisals against it, its abnegation, and its preservation, and about the possibility of putting it to some new purpose.

At the same time, Kadan’s work elicits the vulnerability and flickering untimeliness of the three sculptures whose plinths it reproduces. And today all these figures are equal, insofar as their revolutionary content is no longer relevant: Taras Shevchenko, a key name in a dogmatic Ukrainian literary canon that has inherited his Soviet form; Artyom, a criminal destined to be forgotten—the only reason the sculpture bearing his name still stands is that it has become an attraction, and because to demolish it would be extremely complex in technical terms.

The Sviatohirsk monastery is no longer a library, a rest house, and a cinema. It opened again in 1992, grew at a ferocious pace, accumulating additional buildings, and in 2003 regained the status of lavra. In 2014, it took in one thousand refugees from the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine.

After protracted discussions on the potential dismantling of Ivan Kavaleridze’s monument to Artyom on the chalk hill beside the Lavra, it was eventually decided to restore it. Restoration works began in 2018 and are still ongoing today.


Victory (White Shelf)

Nikita Kadan’s sculpture Victory (White Shelf), reconstructs the model of the sculptural composition monument to the Three Russian Revolutions: 1825, 1905 and 1917 by Vasyl Yermylov. Created by the Kharkiv-born artist, designer, and sculptor in 1924–25, the composition was never realized as a full-sized sculptural group. For Vasyl Yermylov, several surfaces united together become an embodiment of history, its code. Each surface in his exceptionally concise construction comes across as a sign of a particular historical event.

The red hammer with yellow handle is the only one that is recognizable, referring to the symbol of the proletariat and the emblem of the USSR, which at the time of the sculpture’s creation had existed for just six years.

According to progressive historical theory, the new comes to supplant the old only through a qualitative leap, which leaves the frame of the past and forever separates the new from the bygone. In Yermylov’s sculpture, definitive historical events appear to us as three amalgamated uniform signs, significant above allbecause they are selected and placed in a row which knows neither beginning nor end nor any sequential process.

Nikita Kadan reproduces this sculptural group in a single color— white. Three revolutions become a “Victory”; to align historical events in a certain significant order seems pointless. Kadan moves the absurd nature of the “rational” formation of revolutions in a composition of concise forms into a chaos of meaning, in which any of the events appears in the shape of a single “Victory.” 

Furthermore, the revolutions transform into a shelf, a pedestal for a rounded, obviously deformed object, which seems strange, abruptly disturbing the harmony of the conjoined surfaces.

This object is a fragment from a ruined house in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk. As an element of contemporary history, it is not ready to become part of any order. It is unclear, dark, agglutinated, irrationally condensed into a heap, retrieved from somebody’s personal space which has been lost forever.

A trophy of war, the sign of a catastrophe, an oratorical object, set down on a surface that was once revolutionary and then became a victory. It’s the only thing which cannot suffer further transformation, because it doesn’t symbolize anything; rather it is just itself, a piece of evidence, not amenable to any rationalization. It is not even ready to be made absurd.

Thrown up on the shore of reality after a historical storm, often accidentally retaining the outline of a sculpture, of a monument that has accidentally undergone multiple waves of censorship and changes of power, the object of art appears in front of us like a coded promise of a different future, like a “legacy of the avant-garde”—the sphere of a destroyed and violently interrupted tradition. Avant-garde ideas of a change of historical formations were built on the concept of resetting the past, as if the present and the future are possible only if the past is completely destroyed.

Nikita Kadan’s exhibition Project of Ruins lays out a series of works that at different times and in different ways have been historically “overcome” or “vanquished” without gaining access to the future; a set of objects, of signs of somebody’s life overtaken by war, which continue to disappear.