Q&A with Maria Kulikovska
Q: Hi Maria, and congratulations on your nomination for the Saatchi Gallery’s UK/Raine competition for emerging British and Ukrainian artists! Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the shortlisted works you submitted?
A: I received a letter informing me that my projects ‘Homo Bulla’ and ‘Soma’ were chosen for exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery’s UK/Raine contest from over 10,000 entrants. ‘Homo Bulla’, 3 sculptures of my body made from the same soap used for weapons testing in Sweden, were destroyed by terrorists last summer. The place of their exhibit became a place of cruelty, murder, torture, imprisonment, ugliness and war… it is with great pain that I reconstruct these sculptures, but it’s also an opportunity to let more people know what happened there.
‘Soma’ comprises 27 three-meter salt columns, created by my own hands and those of my mother, and with the help of several men. For ‘Soma’ (a body without any gender indications) we worked around the clock for one month. Columns were destroyed by nature, my hands and by sledge hammer. Destroyed they became wonderful material for removing ice from the icy streets during Maidan, and the remaining salt brisk became part of the barricades in the name of saving love and revolution…
Q: You obviously caused quite a stir at the opening when you took a hammer to one of your beautiful sculptures. What was it that inspired your performance?
A: In summer 2012, I installed 3 soap sculptures in the gardens of the Izolyatsia art center in Donetsk, and they had been there for 2 years before the capture of eastern Ukraine. They were already old, weathered and destroyed by nature, which is the meaning of this soap and gypsum project: the fragility and beauty of the human body and its natural decay and death.
On the 9th of June, terrorists with the Russian military occupied and captured the Izolyatsia art center, and after a few days they completely destroyed my full-body sculptures by shooting them. When they shot them, they announced that their action was their own performance, (broadcast on the news channel Dozhd) in an attempt to show everyone their power and what will happen to anyone who doesn’t agree with them. The occupiers also used sculptures from my ‘Army of Clones’ and ‘Homo Bulla’ projects as targets for shooting practice and destroyed most of the art works by other artists at Izolyatsia, just to underline their opinion about contemporary art and progressive ideas. In their words: degenerative art.
After several months, I found myself described in one Russian platform as a degenerative artist, and on a black list of cultural people in Russia. Actually, this shows that they’re really scared of art, different opinions and the power of new, fresh and open ideas. So now on this territory, where there was an art center, is a military prison for people and activists, who spoke against the war.
I also died when they killed my art, as a lot of my friends lost their houses and possessions, whilst others lost their lives and family members. This is not only a pain of my homeland, but you see the same crimes committed in so many countries today. I smashed a beautiful sculpture, an object, a clone of the female body, my own body, as a form of protest. At the same time, my performance mirrored war… it recreated what happened when the occupying forces first destroyed my soap sculptures. The title of my performance is “Happy Birthday!”. I’m the only one that has the right to destroy my body, my art. I needed to take this action to feel reborn.
Q: How do you go about producing your sculptures, particularly those made with soap?
A: I stand still for hours while my assistant and co-producer puts layers of plaster on me and builds the print of my body in segments. Normally it takes at least three days to complete this first step. It’s a very painful process, as the gypsum is mixed with cold water and thrown on my naked body. Minutes later, the mixture starts to harden and reaches a temperature of 60 - 70 degrees celsius. This process is repeated 15 to 20 times to achieve a full body cast. I normally get very sick from this process - the back legs in particular are extremely difficult and my assistant knows that he needs to hold me up as I always faint when the legs are done. The heavy cast and the temperature changes make the heart work very heavily and you feel like you’re close to a heart attack.
When the cast is finished you rebuild and start to melt soap for the mold. This is the fun and easy stage, mostly waiting for soap to melt. When the cast is filled you need to wait around 12 hours for the soap to harden and you are ready to open. Opening is also very heavy work and it takes up to 2 hours for 2 people to open carefully. Once it’s open you see yourself in full dimensions for the first time in your life, a perfect copy, even with the Goosebumps created by the cold plaster clearly visible. The first time I saw myself in soap I felt I was going crazy due to the emotional impact it had on me. Everyone should live through an experience like this, it’s one of the most powerful emotional journeys you can have.
Q: The other nominees produced some really fantastic works for the competition, and I was wondering which of the artists really stood out to you. Any favourites?
A: Winner Sergei Petlyuk has always produced some of my favorite works of any Ukrainian artist. Furthermore I truly like the paintings from Dominic Beattie and the installations of Felicity Hammond. I must say the whole exhibition was of such great quality, I think anyone could have won it. I guess the jury had a hard time choosing both the shortlist and the winners.
Q: I’ve read on your website about your recent ‘Flowers for Democracy’ project. Could you outline the project for us?
A: First of all, our manifesto asserts that ‘we dream of love respect and honest equality. A world where democracy is built upon wisdom, professionalism and empathy. We want peace in our homes, in the cities that we share, and in the world we so fortunately have been given.’ The manifesto also rejects the way in which men have been allowed for so long to create an unequal society without discussion. ‘Macho culture comes from fear of sensibility, hiding behind the power of muscles’.
During the last 2 years the situation in my country, as in many other countries in conflict, has become more and more patriarchal. The position of women, especially in war areas, is so difficult. Ideas that the place of women is just in the kitchen, to take care of their men and give birth, are becoming more widespread. At the same time, our women are very active in the “backstage” of war – all volunteer movements in Ukraine are held up on the shoulders of women. Our economy has still not fallen because our women really take care of the army, whilst at the same time, they work to provide money for their families and take care of their children without any social help from the state. Women are more and more becoming 2nd class citizens in our society. Invisible and transparent, they do the work and create the glue that holds society together. Their work is not recognized. It’s beautiful, powerful and strong, they are the flowers of democracy.
In DNR (the area of Donetsk under control of terrorists), women are not allowed be outside after 21.00, they are not allowed to drink alcohol or smoke in public spaces. The terrorists have so many rules and laws about who women are, how they must behave and what kind of object for men they should be.
So the hope for us rests in the idea of art actions, the likes of which other female artist friends and I have made in conflict areas in Ukraine. Hopefully it will soon start to spread around the world and will start to bring new, different, progressive, humanist ideas, bring the knowledge to women across the world that they are the flowers of society and of democracy. For photos of some our actions in Ukraine, see our Instagram: #flowersofdemocracy.
Q: Finally, I know you rejected an invitation to participate in the Manifesta 10 Biennale in St. Petersburg. Could you share with our readers why you made the decision not to participate in such a high profile event?
A: Together with a number of other artists and curators that decided to boycott Manifesta 10, we wrote an open letter declaring our position. The following text is my personal position and contribution to the open letter:
“For me, as an artist, it would be so nice to participate in such a big and important biennale of contemporary art, Manifesta 10, and I was very flattered by the invitation to participate. But as an artist and a citizen of Crimea, Ukraine, I cannot take money from the hand that brought trouble to my family, forcing them to flee from our home. I cannot feel so down, I cannot give rights to them or allow Russian politics to "buy" me when, near my house, there are Russian armored personnel carriers and tanks, at a time when Russian troops enter the homes of my friends, checking passports and - if they are Ukrainian - tear and destroy them. I'm not ready right now, to open my own soul, overflowing with pain, despair, fear ... I am not ready to open the soul to the people who do not want to hear the requests and pleas to stop all this nonsense...
I do not know what else I can do except hope that our boycott, our silence, which can sometimes be amongst the loudest cries of the world, can stop this war and only then proceed to the "production" of art ".
When the biennale was about to open I had the feeling that our letter was not enough and that we were being ignored…it was as if we didn’t exist. As art is my strongest weapon, I felt that I had to create something. I gathered some friends and we went to St. Petersburg. On the opening day at the Hermitage I staged a political art action called “254”, which is the number I was given in Ukraine as a refugee from Crimea. A number of asylum in my own country. So on 1st July 2014, I lay on the marble stairs of the Hermitage. I lay there for 25 minutes under the Ukrainian flag. The flag was pulled from my body by security and I was held until police arrived. The police said I was crazy and tried to provoke me into violence so they could do what they wanted. They looked at my passport and saw that I was from Crimea and said to me, ‘You are from Crimea. Your Ukrainian passport is worth nothing, you are from Russia and we can do what we want with you. We will take you to the mental hospital and you will disappear’.
A couple of months before, I had started another project called Body and Borders in which I got married to a Swedish artist, Jaquelin Shabo. Still my wife by the way. This project got me a temporary residence permit in Sweden. This permit saved me, because when the police saw it they got nervous. Instead of taking me away, they called the organizers of Manifesta, who told the police to let me go, probably to prevent a scandal of bigger proportions. I was very scared at the time, and ironically, that is what being a refugee is: being scared of what that number means. In my case, “254”.
I really hoped that if all of us - if all artists - would forget about their ambitions, their careers and become one strong organism, we could have stopped this fucking annexation and there would be no war in Donetsk. If everyone had boycotted and not come to St. Petersburg, and had refused to participate in this biennale of political art, we would have made the biggest and strongest piece of political art that could have really changed history…
Maria, your story is truly inspiring. Thanks for chatting with us at Art Represent, keep up the good work, and we all look forward to working with you further in the future!