AES+F’s ‘Allegoria Sacra’ (2010-11)

“If we wait for the good times, we never start.” Nataliia Zabolotna, director of Kiev’s Mystetskyi Arsenal (or “Art Arsenal”), laughs and shakes a head of perfectly sculpted blonde curls. The Arsenal, an 18th-century weaponry store, will be one of the largest arts centres in Europe when it’s completed in 2014. But it’s already open for business: it hosted the city’s sixth annual art fair, Art Kyiv Contemporary, last year and from next week will welcome Ukraine’s first biennale of contemporary art, entitled Arsenale.

The biennale opens just before the Euro 2012 football championships hosted jointly with Poland in June, and its organisers hope it will have a positive effect on the way people see Ukraine.

“[Arsenale] offers a new vision of the country,” the English curator David Elliott, artistic director of the biennale, said earlier this year. “The international art community’s perception of Ukraine as some kind of a post-Soviet hinterland has changed.”

This sounds ambitious in light of recent developments. EU leaders, led by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, have threatened to boycott Euro 2012 in Ukraine in protest at the treatment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned in October: her supporters claim she was beaten in prison. The biennale’s theme is “The best of times, the worst of times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art”: the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities paint Kiev as a place of both uncertainty and optimism.

Contemporary art came to Ukraine in 1993, just two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the opening of the George Soros-funded Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Kiev. Over the years it introduced Ukrainians to artists such as Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, and fostered grassroots movements such as the Revolutionary Experimental Space group, which formed during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Soros gradually withdrew funding from the SCCA, and in 2008 it re-launched as the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art, an archive and platform for educational projects.

In recent years, it is not Soros’ name that has been associated with the country’s artistic life but that of Victor Pinchuk. The steel magnate and former politician, whose estimated fortune exceeds $3bn, is also an avid collector of contemporary art. In 2006, he opened the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev, the first private museum in the former Soviet Union. I arrived at the centre late last year to a 100-metre queue, comprised mainly of young people. Inside, its chic minimalist aesthetic and trendy rooftop bar frame work by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. (Anish Kapoor’s solo show there opens next week.)

Almagul Menlibaeva’s ‘Kurchatov 22' (2012)

But the curators are keen to show visitors what’s being made in Ukraine. On my visit, the first floor was devoted to work by the 20 artists shortlisted for the PinchukArtCentre Prize, open to Ukrainians under 35. Almost half the nominees, including the winner Nikita Kadan, will show work in the forthcoming biennale, illustrating the relative youth of the Ukrainian art scene. Kadan’s winning piece was the poignant “Pedestal: The Practice of Exclusion”, a blank white cenotaph with an accompanying list of Ukraine’s destroyed monuments – many by “ultra-right activists”. However, some have criticised Kadan, a left-wing activist, for accepting the oligarch’s prize in the current political climate.

Change was similarly visible at Art Kyiv Contemporary. Smaller than the more established art fairs (with 30 galleries last year to Art Basel’s 300), it was spread over the ground floor of the Mystetskyi Arsenal while restoration of the upper floors continues. If the Arsenal is a work in progress – grand but with rough edges; wires strung between elegant brick arches – the fair, too, had some way to go. Dominated by painting, much of the work was either bland or brash, such as Igor Gusiev’s “Club 27: Amy Winehouse” (2011), a portrait of the late pop star in a space suit.

Yet the fair is popular, with 55,000 visitors in 2011, up from 35,000 the previous year. It also felt less relentlessly commercial than its grander counterparts; and it is educative in spirit, with more than half the floor space given to non-selling Special Projects. Rather than passing wry comment on their commercial setting, one of the projects, Journey to the East, featuring work by artists from countries neighbouring Ukraine, explicitly turned its back on such commercialism, interested rather in “what forms connections between people as an alternative to the authority and power of economic capitalism”. I was struck by Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s “Small Fiat 126p. Monument to the 90s” (2011), a car packed with retro-looking toys, television sets and bric-a-brac – the goods driven into Ukraine by daring Poles after the collapse of communism. Intelligently installed in the imposing Arsenal building, Art Kyiv’s Special Projects were reason to hope for similar quality at the biennale.

Folkert de Jong’s ‘The Shooting ... At Watou’(2006)

In staging a biennale, Ukraine is not only staking its claim to a place on the international art scene, it is bringing foreign art to Ukrainians. Site-specific works by Yayoi Kusama, Jitish Kallat and the sculptor Phyllida Barlow have been commissioned.

All this is important for domestic visitors to the biennale. The young artists complain that Ukrainian art schools are slow to embrace new trends and media. “Artists who are working in the contemporary art field here get their education by their own,” art manager Kateryna Taylor tells me. “They Google, they travel, they self-motivate.” Taylor, who studied at Christie’s in London, and her partner Vladimir Kadygrob are nothing if not self-motivated: they will launch the Kyiv Sculpture Project in June, an effort to redress the dominance of painting in their country’s nascent contemporary art scene. Supported by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it will be first major showcase of international contemporary sculpture in Ukraine.

This supposedly EU-aspiring country (recently branded a “dictatorship” by Angela Merkel) is far from untroubled. Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich risks isolation in Europe; and the Ukrainian press is already predicting unfavourable comparisons with the country’s Euro 2012 co-host, Poland. Yet Ukrainian officials recognise the “soft power” that culture affords. Kiev’s biennale will cost an estimated €4m and funding comes equally from the public and private sectors. And with 300,000 visitors expected to the biennale over 10 weeks, what’s clear amid political uncertainty is that the Ukrainian people are hungry for culture.

Arsenale 2012, Mystetskyi Arsenal, May 24 to July 31,

Kyiv Sculpture Project, National Botanical Garden, June 2 to July 2,

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