The following text was written for the exhibition (Un)named, combining works of and reflections on the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan. Kadan's work addresses the contested issues of the past, particularly those connected with the crime of the Nazis and Stalinism, ethnic cleansings and other acts of violence in the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibition runs from August 7 to November 26, 2017, at the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine.
Nikita Kadan, on the Lvov pogrom 1941
Though art and propaganda define two poles on a spectrum of cultural production, the relationship between them has always been fluid. Expressive acts of the individual conscience and the didactic acts of states, armies, corporations––to try to name the distinction succinctly––appropriate and borrow from each other constantly. It is not just that the propagandist needs the artist’s inventiveness, and that the artist cleaves toward the propagandist’s posture of authority (often to subvert it), but that art and propaganda share an aesthetic premise. In both, idea precedes form. In paintings and advertisements alike, the maker’s intention is the primary point in the creation of meaning.
Photography complicates this situation. With most photographs, most of the time, even when hitched to the projects of artists and propagandists, we understand photographs first to offer information about what they actually show. Only afterward––perhaps––do we understand them to present an idea, an agenda, a bias about that content. What distinguishes photographs from other kinds of images, in other words, is that a primary claim of meaning belongs to the world and not just to the maker’s intentions. Critics of photography have for decades worried about the dangers of this commonsense understanding of photography. They have especially worried about the ways that photography falsely naturalizes the social and political forces that make use of it, insisting on a corrective approach, and their own corrective authority. In practice, a critical orientation towards photography means infusing photographs with commentary, indeed fusing photographs to that commentary, essentially converting photographs to photo-text works.
Nikita Kadan’s pictures perform critical work in a different way. His pieces begin from a counter-recognition that criticism can just as well happen apart from writing and apart from the mode of corrective analysis. It can also take place within a practice of image-making, and a certain kind of iconophilia. Kadan’s preoccupation is historical violence––multiple vectors of historical violence crisscrossing contemporary Ukrainian consciousness, including Soviet and German violence against Ukrainians, and wartime Ukrainian nationalist violence against Poles and Jews. For Kadan, critical intervention occurs not by overwriting images with words, but by making new images from old ones. These new images build on qualities inherent in the source imagery. Specifically, Kadan’s method is abstraction, which is to say a cunning subtraction of information whose effect is to make us glimpse what we cannot see as an aspect of what we do see.
Kadan’s “national landscapes” are images of murk and gloom, not landscapes through which we are to move (as in conventional views and vistas) but landscapes in and over which we are to hover, uncertainly. Indeed, they are barely landscapes at all, recognizable as such mostly from the narrow white band marking the horizon line and the sky. If Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish peoples have their own proprietary landscapes, Kadan suggests, they are equally and indistinguishably inchoate, miasmic, deathlike. Likewise when Kadan paints the 1941 Lviv pogrom, the images are self-withdrawing, hushed, contemplative––in an especially clever way. Kadan works from photographs and films of German propagandists, and the camera-made origins of Kadan’s pictures remain palpable. The pogrom itself exerts a primary claim on the meaning of Kadan’s images, and the propagandistic purposes behind the original photographs remain detectible. But in Kadan’s critically-minded handling, the original images dilate in our awareness. They form part of a slow, room-by-room descent into unsentimental mourning, in which Kadan’s reworkings de-conclude whatever we mean by knowledge and merely factual understanding. It is not that Kadan wants to replace the original images’ intentionality with his own, but to reach into the interior psychic space of the originals (as it were), and from there to draw out his own visions, full of circumspection and foreboding.
The result is not merely to return our attention to aspects of historical violence that are contentious in contemporary Ukraine, namely Ukrainian ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volyn and Ukrainian participation in the Nazi genocide against the Jews. Rather his pictures point to how much violence actually went unphotographed, unfilmed and unrepresented in the first place. In this sense, his deep concern is to address the vulnerable condition of historical memory as such. Kadan’s pictures operate by implication––negatively, by removal, by means of what cannot be said––so that the visual specificity of particular photographs recedes but the moral specificity of photography itself remains. We are left to look into the loss with which historical memory of violence in Ukraine must contend.