From Ukraine to Liverpool: In Conversation

Posted on 18 May 2016 by Liverpool Biennial

Left to right: Mitya Churikov, Ilya Zabolotnyi (Arts Manager, British Council Ukraine), Jennifer Watts (Liverpool Biennial Exhibitions intern), Oleksandr Burlaka, Alevtyna Kakhidze, Kateryna Berlova

Left to right: Mitya Churikov, Ilya Zabolotnyi (Arts Manager, British Council Ukraine), Jennifer Watts (Liverpool Biennial Exhibitions intern), Oleksandr Burlaka, Alevtyna Kakhidze, Kateryna Berlova

Unsettling ice cream vans, eclectic architecture and living your politics – The Royal Standard’s Emma Curd spoke to the four Ukraine based artists that recently underwent an eight-week artist residency programme at the artist-led studio, organised by Liverpool Biennial and the British Council in Ukraine.

Emma Curd: What have you enjoyed most about being in Liverpool?

Kateryna Berlova: The city itself is very interesting. It’s clear that it once had such great power. Now things have changed and there are so many abandoned places. But it’s also beautiful and so eclectic. I’m not a fan of cities where everything is one style.

Oleksandr Burlaka: We’ve travelled around quite a bit as well. I really liked Birkenhead, Parkgate and Port Sunlight where there was a very strange waterfront with lots people eating ice cream, despite it being only 8°C! 

Alevtyna Kakhidze: Yes, and the ice cream was sold from a moving car, which we were amazed by. The car also comes by our house in Everton each day, always playing the same music and driven by the same guy. It’s become something very comforting, almost providing us with a sense of home and order – humans need that. It feels like he’ll carry on coming for the next twenty years.

KB: The guy also comes quite late in the evening when everything is quiet, which is quite unexpected. You wonder who would buy ice cream at this time? It’s almost like something from a David Lynch movie!

Mitya Churikov: We also we really enjoyed a visit to Glasgow International.

EC: How does working as an artist in Liverpool compare to your home cities?

AK: That’s hard to answer. Being an artist in any other city will always feel very different.

KB: Yes, plus we’ve not actually spent much time in the studio yet. When you first arrive somewhere, you need time to research and reflect. It would be strange otherwise. We’ve spent much more time out in the city. 

EC: Has it been more like a period of research then? Rather than a making residency?

AK: Very much so. The special thing about a residency is the time it allows. You’re cut off from neighbours, family and everyday commitments, and suddenly have a lot of time to research, reflect and explore. That’s the luxury of the residency, no matter where you are. One of the pleasures of this programme in particular, however, has been its openness. There were no set criteria for how we spent our time here.

OB: Yes, though I’ve not created any objects, a lot of my ideas and thinking have become much clearer. For example, when I go back home I need to finish an essay I’ve been writing about churches in Kyiv. Kyiv is undergoing a really massive wave of church developments at the moment, often taking place illegally and in an almost commercial way. They put up a chapel and it expands endlessly with numerous extensions. Here in Liverpool I’ve noticed a lot of empty churches, some of which are even in the process of being developed into dwelling. It’s a completely different scenario, and very interesting to observe.

EC: Do you think this reflects a kind of a loss of faith, like the church has become redundant maybe?

OB: Yes, but the church isn’t only about faith of course. Here its administration may be less aggressive or society is quite peaceful. But when people are in fear or crisis they need something to help get them through.

Photo by Oleksandr Burlaka, Instagram

EC: What other differences have struck you?

KB: TV. It’s something we’ve watched a lot of here. The difference between Ukrainian and British content is actually really interesting.

EC: What are the differences?

OB: Speculation, greed and money. Ukrainian TV shows are very rude and cruel in terms of how they portray people’s emotions and family affairs, often showing the darkest, most horrible sides of human nature, or very intimate things. Here, many of the shows are about how to make money or invest.

KB: They seem designed to encourage people to think about how they could help themselves to become rich, rather than asking the government to support them. We’ve also noticed a lot of programmes about how people with disabilities can be ‘extraordinary’ or reducing homophobia, for example. There are a lot of differences between advertising as well. It says something about mainstream culture.

Personally, I’m very interested in the history of Liverpool. Before arriving I read a lot about how the city went through a period of economic decline but was then regenerated through culture. I’m interested in this because I’m from an area that was economically depressed even before the war, and wonder whether something similar could help?

Actually, no one has asked us about the war, which we find strange because in Germany or Poland people instantly react as soon as you simply mention you’re from Ukraine. Maybe it’s your politeness?

AK: There has even been a few times when we’ve been talking to older people and they’ve not even heard of Ukraine! We went to a really nice café in Glasgow and got talking to the people there. When they asked where we were from, one woman replied ‘Oh, I’ve been to Prague you know’. It’s funny, some people really seem to think of Eastern Europe as being just like one country.

Photo by Mitya Churikov, Instagram

EC: It’s interesting about the war. I wonder if people don’t ask out of politeness, or if it’s actually about not wanting to sound stupid or ill informed?

KB: That’s true actually. I recently stayed in a hostel in Germany that was owned by a guy from Syria and I didn’t ask him any questions about it. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because I thought maybe he doesn’t want to be asked about it all the time? Perhaps people are the same here. They don’t want to ask the same questions.

AK: It’s still interesting how different it is in Poland or Germany though. Saying that, people are very welcoming in Liverpool; there’s a great sense of community here. 

Alevtyna shows Emma drawings from her sketch book made during her Liverpool residency

Alevtyna Kakhidze’s sketch book

EC: Tells us about these stones you have in your studio.

OB: We like to pretend that they are an important part of the heritage of the area. We have this story that they were part of a Grecian building which was demolished, and got washed out to sea before eventually arriving on Crosby beach, eroded into these round, smooth shapes by the waves.

EC: They do seem quite exotic. Like something you’d find in a French villa rather than Liverpool.

OB: But they’re really only about 15 years old of course. 

Stones gathered by the artists in their studio at The Royal Standard

EC: Jack Welsh, one of our studio members, is actually working with this type of stone. He’s found quite a lot of it. I wonder if they’re from the same place? How has being based at TRS impacted on your stay here?

KB: It’s great to know that there are studios of this type in Liverpool. I understand it’s some kind of common property or if you have discounted rent?

OB: We’re interested to discover more about how it works because we don’t have anything of this sort in Kyiv.

EC: Well, it initially started in 2006 in a pub in Toxteth called The Royal Standard. There are 35 artists based here at the moment, each with a studio which they pay a monthly rent for. Everyone’s practice is quite different. We have writers, musicians, graphic designers. All sorts. When someone wants to join, we initially get them in for an interview to find out about their practice. It’s a kind of quality control. We want to make sure they’ll be using the studio to make work, rather than as storage space or something, and that they don’t just do art as a hobby, but are actually practicing artists living and working in the city. The important thing is to remain a community and for the studio space to be affordable. Due to gentrification, spaces in Liverpool are becoming increasingly expensive. 

Mitya Churikov, A History of Liverpool, 2016. Photo taken by the artist at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, Instagram

We have six directors. One is an advisory, three are artistic directors, and two are financial. We’re all only two days a week. It’s an unpaid position and we each have other jobs to help support us.

MC: I’d like to know whether this theme of gentrification is reflected in the art scene here? Like in Berlin. We’ve also been to the Slavery Museum and know that Liverpool was largely involved in the slave trade. Do local artists engage with this theme of slavery or is it such a distant past? How political are artists here?

EC: I think consumerism is a more common theme. Quite a lot of artists at The Royal Standard are involved in the Paying Artists campaign. I think a lot of artists in Liverpool are politically engaged but don’t often tend to make work about it. It’s more to do with the way they live their lives. Even calling yourself an artist and making art is a political statement at the moment.

OB: But The Royal Standard is also political in itself. It’s trying to create a space for you and other artists to exist.

EC: That’s true. Another studio member, Emily Speed, recently posted a quote online which was: “artists interact with lower class people and higher class people. This makes them dangerous.” Artists’ non-conformity poses a threat. It’s not necessarily picket-line activism, but just how you live your everyday life which can be very important.

OB: Of course, it’s a more practical kind of activism in away. You’re trying to change cultural constructs. It’s the same in Ukraine – we’re really trying to bring about change. 

Check out the images and videos that the artists have captured during their stay on Instagram at @truealevtina, @wild_dogs_land or @mitya_churikov, or watch a short video profile on each here.

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