Serhiy Zakharov: “Donetsk has let go of me, yet it keeps haunting me”
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
You moved to Kyiv right after you were released from captivity. Have you found your place here over these years?
– I can’t say that I immediately found myself in the heart of the crowd in Kyiv, and that was hardly my goal anyway. My artwork today is mainly concentrated in the small house space, a tiny gallery owned by the talented artist Dmytro Kolomoitsev, also originally from Donetsk. When he returned from the war two years ago, we decided to organize an association of several artists calling it UkrMacroVsesvit or UkrMacroUniverse. We have six or seven permanent members but we are open to new people for our projects. You know how these things happen: you sit and talk with your friends, give it a thought and wonder why not make a gallery since there are artists among you. The space is just one room, but we are all free in our desires, ideas and implementations here. We have no schedules or obligations, everything happens spontaneously. Once we have a critical mass of works and an idea, we do an exhibition.
Why have you chosen the format of kvartyrnyk or house exhibition?
– Everybody knows that the format of house exhibitions or house concerts was popular in the soviet time with its censorship and the image of secrecy. Today, it’s less about ideological reasons – you can now say whatever you want in art and beyond, nobody really feels any bans. Still, big galleries stick to a certain caste system, although I have had different experiences exhibiting my work over this time. A house format is not just a challenge, a manifestation or a protest. It is also a new experience where you are an artist and a curator at the same time. I don’t think of it as some sort of closed space or selectivity. It is indeed physically impossible to have a large crowd in a house, but are all big galleries that crowded all the time? What we display is art for a certain group of people. We even advertise it among those interested. I appreciate this very format and experience. I don’t think of it as just a starting point for something of a greater scale because what we have now is interesting.
– We’ve had a lot of exhibitions and performances. They are all different and powerful, just without any unnecessary smug. Something like a “personal exhibition of one of Ukraine’s least unknown artists”. We’ve recently hosted an interesting event titled Something Is Coming (“Щось буде”). The exhibition in the apartment did not have a clear theme, but it was never designed to have a single goal. We went outside during the exhibition and did street shows. For example, we found two window spaces closed with bricks next to other normal windows with glass. These were perfect spaces for some paintings. People started coming by and asking what it was and why we did it. We explained that we have brought paintings to their yard since they were not going to art shows. Another performance took place near a strange soviet-time building with a brick figure of a sitting person at the entrance. We made the head of a mammoth for it. It was somewhere there that academic Vikentiy Khvoika had discovered a pile of big mammoth bones and the Upper Paleolithic Cyril settlement from nearly 20 thousand years ago in Podil, a district in downtown Kyiv, in 1893. We used this to show something interesting to the locals who may have been unaware of the mammoths. By the way, the performance involved our guests, Virliana Tkach, the New York curator of a show about playwright Les Kurbas at the Art Arsenal, and film director Andrew Tkach.
Did you do paintings for his documentary?
– Yes. His film Hunger for Truth was screened in many countries, including Ukraine. It’s a story about a Canadian journalist who came to the Soviet Union and witnessed the Holodomor. What’s important is that it also shows modern history that links what happened in the Holodomor period to Russia’s ongoing aggression. I painted illustrations for the story of the captive Serhiy Hlondar. It’s not just the general theme of captivity that I can relate to — I portray the real locations and events which I know from my own experience. For example, the streets and buildings of Donetsk. Those facts are important too.
Do you feel permanent connection with the city you left?
– It happens so that virtually all of my colleagues in our art group are linked to Donetsk in one way or another. Most moved to Kyiv a long time ago. I am the only one who had to do it because of the war, it was forced and tragic for me. Still, I don’t see this as selection by origin. I don’t think this somehow affects our art or shapes something like a “Donetsk style”. In fact, I really appreciate collective intelligence, the atmosphere, the opportunity to do something together. I would definitely not identify art by territory. It’s just nice to remember the people we all used to know when we share stories from our past. Everyone knows where these things happened because they are all familiar places for them.
Has Donetsk let go of you?
– It has. But it keeps haunting me. I have mentioned the film with my illustrations from Donetsk. I have also published a comic book titled The Hole («Діра») about my captivity in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” where I have references to this city. A recent project funded by the Germans presented nine documentary graphic stories about this war. In that project I drew the stories of people in captivity, the soldiers, the volunteers and the residents of the territory in war. Now, I am contemplating another graphic novel, a fiction story by my friend who is a writer, about a fiction creature finding itself in Donetsk in 2014. I don’t think the city can let go of me irreversibly. But it’s no longer painful, I no longer have an obsessive desire to return, I no longer suffer.
Your harshly satirical installations with figures of Motorola [Arseniy Pavlov, a Russian militant and war criminal in the Donbas and a number of other wars – Ed.] and the likes of him in the streets of Donetsk are known around the world. Are you still involved in social projects?
– Back then in 2014 we created an installation called The House of Cards at Izolyatsia [an art space that has since moved to Kyiv – Ed.]. It was comprised of large cards with the images of “DNR” and “LNR” leaders; we went to all European capitals with it. As the next major project, I ran for the office of the Mariupol mayor in 2015. I wanted to show people that the city could be very different, evolve differently. That this different evolution wasn’t a catastrophe as people from the big business were saying. Mariupol has a port, a unique sea and a resort. Metallurgy killed all this, and that’s the catastrophe. But people don’t see any other options. Clearly, someone from Rinat Akhmetov won the election. I didn’t expect mind-blowing results as many candidates were running and some got no votes at all. But some people did vote for me!
The mere process was important in that case: we organized happenings and performances every day, developed an interesting election platform and gathered artists. We cleaned the territory around the synagogue, created a unique exhibition space to give the locals a chance to come and see their local talents. I had Dmytro Potekhin, a Kyiv blogger who had also been in captivity after going to Donetsk to see what was going on there, was helping me. He was held at Izolyatsia, by the way. Do I think that an artist can be a mayor? It’s perfectly realistic. The world has seen many such cases. To be perfectly honest, however, I did not run to win. I just wanted to show people that an alternative choice exists even if nobody shows it to them. I’m sure that it’s impossible and inappropriate to have an artist, a musician or an actor as the president, especially now. Because this is about the country’s strategy, not just about some managerial function.