Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist known worldwide for his visual effects at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, descended 1,040 meters into a Donetsk mine this spring. His ‘coverage’ is presented in an art project displayed in the workshops of a one-time Donetsk plant, producing insulation materials, now known as the Isolation. Art Initiative Platform from 27 August through 13 November.
Liubov Mykhailova, the founder of this center, invited Cai Guo-Qiang to create a project in Donetsk, based on the unique features of the industrial valley of waste tips. Along with 18 local artists and a group of volunteers, Mr. Guo-Qiang visited Artemsil salt mine in Soledar and Oktiabrsky Rudnyk (October ore mine) in Donetsk, to create gunpowder portraits of 27 miners using his signature explosion technique. He framed them in a similar manner to that used by workers to frame the portraits of Communist leaders for soviet propaganda rallies and titled the series “Monuments on Shoulders”. The installation is located in the plant’s one-time workshop with the floor sprinkled with in ground minerals, salt on the right and anthracite on the left. Visitors have to walk on the fruit of the workers’ labor to see all the portraits. They can use boot covers that are available at the entrance to avoid dirtying their shoes.
Some people could find such angle of looking at the Donetsk-born site (a currently popular concept, when an object of art is created to fit a specific place) offensive. Others have objected to these workshops, where “people could be earning salaries”, be used for the presentation of some kind of “art”. However, Liubov Mykhailova says there is no turning back as the white’n’blue owners of the region have privatized the railway depot that used to service all 26 local companies, thus making their further operation impossible. The percentage of expenses for inviting the popular Chinese artist, compared to the costs required for the re-building of the railway is the same as building a state and doing something good for one’s own home,” she explains.
The introduction of modern art performed by Mr. Guo-Qiang to Donetsk can truly be seen as a blessing for Donbas. The Chinese-born and currently New York-based artist does not have the same kind of aggression as that with which the PinchukArtCenter, broke onto the Kyiv scene, to say the least. The show, located in the partially burned down workshop No. 2 comprises an exhibition of old railcars placed in a line, each individually decorated, swaying slowly with the help of small engines, to the quiet sound of a bandura player, as if the cradles containing our past are travelling through an imaginary mine tunnel. On the curtain of each railcar, a video of Soviet films from the relevant era is shown, ranging from the enthusiastic destruction of church domes in the 1920s, right up to the Chornobyl newsreel from 1986.
The employees and numerous volunteers working on the project firmly believe that it is the Isolation’s site specific projects, not football matches at the luxurious Donetsk stadium or the newly-opened Pushkin restaurant at the business center owned by Borys Kolesnikov, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, where waiters greet their customers with the words “Would you like a drink?”, that will open the door for the people of Donetsk to the world community, It is as if they are saying that they have to see who they are for themselves, and only then will the world notice them. Still, there is a certain artfulness in the fact that Guo-Qiang created the site specific resorting to time specific. If he had combined them, we would not have felt any delight and nostalgia, but fear and repugnance – the emotions people experience when, for example, staying out of the way of a young drunk guy (during the celebration of Donetsk Day in combination with Miner’s Day), shouting “I’m so angry that I could beat up anyone I want… and I will be right!”
One wants to believe that Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder will meet its original intent, to manifest those properties that were used in medieval China, i.e. banish evil spirits out of the region. After all, when a person is shaped by site specific to too great an extent, he/she is unable to do anything, nor can he/she reach for the sublime.