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2 June, 2011  ▪  Les Belei

Touching the Nerve of Time

Oleksa Mann talks about advertising and art in Ukraine

In Ukraine, advertising swallows up talented people. Most often, it’s a one-sided process: when artists, designers and poets go into advertising, their artistic trace disappears, just as when someone goes into politics. One of the exceptions is Oleksa Zhyrov-Manzheliy (Mann). He has managed to work actively in advertising while preserving the artist’s edge. Lately, Mann has been focusing more on art. As part of a group called “Liberty or Death” founded by Ukrainian entertainer and actor Antin Mukharskiy, Mann and like-minded artists try to understand Ukrainian society today by provoking viewers into a dialogue.

Advertising grows up

In the mid-2000s, many of my peers went into advertising. The western expats who were running this business in Ukraine began to leave the business and return to their home countries or move on to other lands, freeing up places for our generation, with its new mindset. These people could make advertising more relevant and more in tune with the Ukrainian mentality than advertising based on Western approaches.

But now Ukrainian advertising is becoming completely primitive. Advertisers don’t want stimulating ads but prefer to speak to the masses in “the language they understand.” This is typical of crisis and post-crisis periods. Advertisers think that the simpler and more stupid, the better. Those who want high-quality, smart advertising are being relegated to the margins.

In some bottom-line moments, domestic advertisers remind me of the hero in Frédéric Beigbeder’s book, 99 Francs: the same background, but with fewer zeroes in their salaries and no fancy Basquiatson their walls. The system works like this: there’s the product and there’s the consumer and advertising constitutes the bridge between them. The way this bridge is built in the West and here is completely different. The snobbish French advertisers who hire ad agencies in 99 Francs are radically different from ours. Ukrainian advertisers generally don’t understand why they should pay for ideas. There is no awareness that this idea is what sells the product. Instead, they are often convinced that they can do a better job of developing a concept because they supposedly understand the consumer perfectly. Only their job description is slightly different. This comes from a lack of education and a desire to delve more deeply into the ideas that are being proposed. The result is that, all too often, they knock down interesting, constructive ideas completely out of the blue, surprising even their own company representatives. People that work in this field range from contemporary individuals with many worlds floating in their heads, to deadened, mechanized staffers and eyeless office lobsters…

Ukraineis more consumption-oriented than Western European countries. One minute we had nothing, the next we had everything. People quickly forgot about values and suddenly began to invest their minimal salaries in things. This gradually became a competition. Surely only here can someone who earns US $400 a month buy himself an $800 cell phone. What is this, a religion? Consumers buy themselves fetishes to raise themselves above their surroundings. A device becomes so sacred that, without it, you have no place in certain social circles. A Ukrainian man can have socks with holes in them and yet walk around with a smart phone with far more functions than he will ever use.

Nowadays, western consumers no longer trust traditional advertising. They’re tired of it and cannot absorb the titanic flow of information that is mostly uninteresting and monotonous. They tend to trust information that they get in a non-standard format, but preferably from someone they know and not an advertiser. This is why products or brands are now taken and integrated into a situation that is no longer seen as advertising. Most often some interesting, fantasized video is shot in which the product is not so obvious and is posted on a social network. The target audience then passes it along itself. Right now this kind of approach is far more effective than TV commercials or billboards. The best viral videos have millions of viewers.

Several generations of individuals have deliberately made art out of advertising. Sometimes you can come across a high-quality product full of feeling that is built around an unusual idea. At the last Cannes advertising festival, there were videos that were 3-5 minutes long, effectively produced as interesting miniature movies where both the quality and the directing were as good as any serious commercial film. This approach emerged back in the 1960s, but is only really developing today. Advertising has talented illustrators and designers who can turn advertising materials into works of art.

My own creativity I would describe as wild, infernal art. I respond to events then transform them and present images that capture life as it is. I want to bring out and give shape to modern heroes. It seems to me that I am a realistic artist, although my paintings look pretty surrealistic with unexpected twists. But this is a reflection on real life. In any case, deciding genres is the job of critics.

Contemporary Ukrainian art simply needs to be made.There are people who are trying to work in a global context, as they understand it. There are others who want to create their own context. Gradually, an artist establishes contact with western curators and gallery owners. Grants and prizes begin to come in. Whatever is worthy of attention will get through; what is not worth it, but somehow got through, will eventually be forgotten. Our problems are the same as those in Ukrainian society as a whole:  “slobbism,” nepotism, narrow-mindedness, self-absorption, superficiality. If a Frenchman sees something new, he will let hundreds of his acquaintances know about it. Snob or not, there will be some kind of reaction. The Ukrainian will say nothing at all, and, where possible, will do what he can so that it doesn’t get around. Being a snob is very different from being a slob.

A proper creative life requires people who create meaning and those who illuminate it. In Ukraine, these two groups rarely intersect. There is no competition. There are few who really search for what is interesting and see their mission in this. So the most unexpected things often take place where no one is paying attention. No one here establishes an artist’s name in order to sell it later on. Rather they do a project that is highly visible, spend the allocated funds, and show it off to their friends and friends of friends. My creative life takes place mostly online.

I belong to the Union of Free Artists called “Liberty or Death.” Our idea is to teach people about national anarchism, based on free creativity by free individuals in a free land. Our union’s main goal is an artistic diagnosis of contemporary society and its reflection in works, events and actions that force society and the viewer to enter a dialogue. “The Art of Dialogue” is the main area we work in now. We respond to life and create and study contemporary heroes and antiheroes. The artist is supposed to be a litmus paper of reality, defending personal and national individuality against the encroachments of globalism. Given that this union is made up of very different artists, each of us does this in their own way. All the artists—Ivan Semesiuk, Serhiy Koliada, Roman Minin, Vladyslav Shereshevskiy, Nina Murashkina, Ihor Pereklita and Serhiy Khokhol—are developing this mythology although each of us has their own context. Antin Mukharskiy is our curator.

All art that becomes history was a form of protest.What we now consider classic was once anti-establishment. Protests take on many forms: they can be against accepted artistic or social forms. They answer questions like: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What makes us singular and dissimilar? What is freedom, both artistic and social, and how do we defend it? Protest art has not fully taken shape in Ukraine yet. Low-grade, consumer-oriented, conformist “art” is, and has always been in the majority. You can even see conformism that has been done in the style of protest, that is, a paraphrase of European protest art from 30 or 40 years ago.

Bio Oleksa Mann

Painter, art director and illustrator. Born in 1978. Graduated from the Dnipropetrovsk Art College and the L’viv National Academy of Arts. Oleksa has been exhibiting his works in Ukraine and abroad since 1997. His works can be found in private collections in Ukraine, Austria, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, the US, and Canada. He lives and works in Kyiv.

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