“I live in Ukraine, and Ukraine has been in trouble since 2014” – An Interview with Sasha Kurmaz
Interview with Sasha Kurmaz by Natasha Klimenko
On April 13th, 2022, I spoke to Sasha Kurmaz, an artist from Kyiv who now lives in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. When we started the interview, he told me to keep one thing in mind: “If the air raid siren goes off, I’ll have to close everything and go”.
Kurmaz was recently in the group exhibition “What Matters” at Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where he showed two works, “The Temple of the Transfiguration” (2022) and “State of Emergency” (2018). At the closing event of the exhibition, his sound piece “Alarming Symphony” (2021) was played. It’s a four-minute and 12-second compilation of seven different sirens, a composition that now rings too familiar. He agreed that the piece has an eerie, forward-looking quality. Kurmaz’s other recent works deal with political and social topics. Many are activist interventions in public space. We talked about predictions, making art during war, and what it’s like to live next to Russia. The air-raid siren in Ivano-Frankivsk didn’t sound during our call, but emergency echoed through the conversation.
How are you?
Right now, fine. I’m in Ivano-Frankivsk and it’s safe for the moment. From time to time there is an air-raid alarm. But, compared to the eastern side of Ukraine, it’s ok. Russians bombed the local airport here. Ivano-Frankivsk is not far from Lviv, and they also bombed Lviv twice [at the time of the interview, more bombings have happened since]. There is nothing to destroy here actually, but Russians are attacking random cities and residential areas.
You’re there doing a residency?
It’s called a residency, but it’s something that happened spontaneously. Some artists moved to Ivano-Frankivsk, and Lesia Khomenko, also an artist from Kyiv, connected us with a local organization, Asortymentna Kimnata. It’s an NGO that works on art, and sometimes educational, projects. They decided to create this initiative, and they called it a residency. The idea was to provide a space to artists who temporarily moved here. In the beginning, there were six or seven people. More arrived and the residency expanded. Now there are 10 or 12, and there are two different locations, a workshop in Ivano-Frankivsk and a house in a village nearby. Every week, the two groups have a Zoom call, we discuss what we’re working on, what we’re thinking, things like this.
Are you working on a project?
I have a space to work, but my mind needs to feel safe to produce. Now, I’m always stressed because each day, there is something new – it’s hard to have a stable mood. I try to do artistic work, but it’s more like therapy – I’m doing something with my hands, collages, mixing images and texts. It shifts my concentration from the news to something else. It helps, but not always. Maybe in the future this will develop into a project. There are other artists with me. For some, it’s possible to make work.
Before the invasion, your projects were already related to the idea of war.
I made a few works directly connected to the situation right now. It’s strange, I feel like Nostradamus, who tried to see what will happen in the future. You create something in your mind, but then, in a year, it becomes real.
That’s exactly what I mean. We all live in the alarming symphony now. Every day, in different parts of Ukraine, in different cities, everyone hears it. Last spring, almost exactly a year ago, Russia started to move their military to the border of Ukraine. A year ago, this was already a conversation topic: What are they doing? What do they want to do? Will this be a real war, or is this a show of power to put political pressure on the Ukrainian government? Nobody knew. It was also still the pandemic, and the sounds of sirens, from police cars or ambulances, were constant. I wanted to combine these in a symphony. I’m not a musician, but I found Oleksiy Petrov. He’s an architect and works with audio. He helped me make the piece. I used seven sirens, and the number is meaningful. The last section of the New Testament – the Book of Revelation – is also called the Apocalypse of St. John. It’s about how the apocalypse comes to our planet. There are seven angels with seven trumpets. Each trumpet signals a specific type of catastrophe.
Revelation here is also a prediction.
When I made the work, it was a time when many people had the feeling that something was wrong with our planet, with our societies, with everything. Many artists felt that too. After the pandemic, there is the war. Maybe there will be another disaster after.
The climate crisis is happening.
It looks like the planet is collapsing and everything is going wrong.
You already thought about the war, but did the idea of it change for you after February?
Before the war covered all of Ukraine, I had an idea of what it meant to live in a country at war, but after February 24th, it became different. They are bombing Ukraine from all sides. It’s chaotic. I don’t know how to explain this feeling. I can’t find the right words for it – there are no words, I’m sorry.
In the video work “The End” (2021–21), you pieced together scenes of disaster from science-fiction films, and in a series of silk-screen prints, “Living with the Fear of Being Harmed by Other Humans” (2021), you showed mutilated body parts. But your earlier work was connected to violence too. You have another video, “State of Emergency” (2018), that combined found and personal footage of the war in eastern Ukraine, and a public-space intervention project, “Unknown Incidents” (2018), that mirrored traces of fights or accidents. What do you want the viewer to take away from these pieces?
After 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in eastern Ukraine, everything changed for many people here. Violence became one of my main topics because it was always in the media. It was a weird time. Every day news came up that Russians are still fighting, or they just occupied a new territory. After 2014, violence became more visible, more real, for me. The works are a way for me to show people that something is wrong. If you look at a map of Ukraine, you see the eastern part, and it’s not far from Poland, or the rest of Europe. But there, it’s another life. You can be in Warsaw and feel ok. But it’s completely different when you live in a country that’s close to another country that constantly wants to do something horrible to you. It’s terrible to live beside Russia. If you ask people in Finland, in Latvia or Lithuania, or in any other ex-Soviet country, I think they feel the same.
But violence is just one of the themes I deal with, and I don’t show violence for the sake of it. Rather, it’s to give the audience another perspective of the world. I think it’s often clear where an artist comes from when you look at their work. They try to reflect what they see, or experience, the extremes in their lives. I live in Ukraine, and Ukraine has been in trouble since 2014.
You make a lot of work in public spaces, and I’m wondering how you interact with Ukrainian public space specifically. In the Soviet period, there was often a strong separation between private and public spaces. Do your works connect to this tension at all?
Although I was born in the Soviet Union, I grew up in the post-Soviet era, and the formation of my personality took place then too. I can only talk about my experience at that time. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, public space began to be actively commercialized and captured by various private organizations and businesses. Capitalism spontaneously began to explore new territory. It happened in a chaotic way. The authorities had no control over it. This led to cities and public spaces filling up with advertising, shopping centers, etc. The city administration did not pay attention to this for many years. I used various activist interventions in public space to draw attention to this issue. In general, my artistic practice is very contextual – I always try to work in a way that my projects have a connection with the place in which they are created or presented.
Beyond the theme of violence, your works can be playful, humorous interventions, or act as political activism—like “Bridge” (2019), which creates a stairway over the anti-Roma wall in Košice, Slovakia, or “The Pain of Others” (2017), which draws attention to the suffering of refugees. Where does this motivation from?
I started my artistic practice with graffiti, so my first art experiences were in subculture movements. I was also part of the underground scene in Kyiv, it was kind of anarcho-punk. When I was a teenager, I used public space to leave signs with graffiti, and later, I was connected to these anarchistic groups, and we held demonstrations – that’s why I also like to collaborate with activists or make work that is not just “art” but has a political meaning and statement. Sometimes it’s a humorous intervention. Before 2014, I was more ironic, there was more fun in my work. Now it’s complicated to work with humor. It’s like you’re on an airplane and this airplane is falling and you don’t know if you’ll survive or not. Of course, you can joke about it – but I think you think about how to survive, how to keep your family and friends alive – these topics become more important.
We talked about revelation and apocalypse. How do you feel about the future? Do you have hope?
This morning, for example, I felt that Ukraine will win, there’s no question, no doubt, that it should happen. By the evening I felt completely different: this is a catastrophe, there is no way out for us, Russia will destroy everything. It’s always like this – up, down, up, down – my mood changes a few times a day, every day. Maybe people who live outside of Ukraine, or who moved to another country, can answer this. Maybe they can see something that we cannot because we are inside of this zone. But I have no answer.
Sasha Kurmaz graduated from the Design Department at the National Academy of Culture and Arts Management in Kyiv. In his artistic practice, he uses photography, video, and public interventions, through which he studies social interrelationships that address themes both poetic and political. In most of his works, he plays a game of de-powering power structures, explores the changing relationship between human beings and the modern world, and examines the tension between the citizen and the state.
Natasha Klimenko is an editor, researcher, and writer. She’s completing an MA in Global History at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She looks at artistic practices, memory, identity formation, and conceptual transfers in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and Europe in the 20th century. She is also an editorial student assistant at Forum Transregionale Studien.
Further contributions in the #artandculture thread of #DossierUkraine:
Philipp Hindahl, “I’m Staying in Ukraine to Understand What is Happening” – Interview with Artist Alevtina Kakhidze, 17 March 2022
Miglė Bareikytė, “The Problem is Not in the Illusions, but in the Aims of the Apparatus of Power”: Interview with Gintautas Mažeikis, 13 April 2022
Inga Lāce, Before the Invasion: Conversation with Vasyl Cherepanyn, 22 April 2022
Citation: Natasha Klimenko, “I live in Ukraine, and Ukraine has been in trouble since 2014” – An Interview with Sasha Kurmaz, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.05.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/37326