KIEV — The shutting down of an exhibition in Kiev last month became something of a performance art piece in its own right. The show, “Ukrainian Body,” which opened Feb. 7 at the Visual Culture Research Center at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, aimed to explore corporality in contemporary Ukrainian society. Alongside pieces like Oksana Briukhovetska’s picture book of the elderly and destitute in Kiev and a trident shield (the symbol of Ukraine) hand-carved by Vova Vorotniov were Sasha Kurmaz’s photographs of nude women, a few drawings of naked men by Anatoliy Byelov and a video installation by Mykola Ridnyi that looped contrasting images — one of a vagina and one of the Ukrainian Parliament — and asked viewers which image was more irritating.
Three days after the exhibition opened, the academy’s president, Serhiy Kvit, visited it. As Vasyl Cherepanyn, the director of the center tells it, a few hours later Mr. Kvit came back to the exhibition, keys in hand, and began shutting down video monitors and turning off the lights. “I asked him what he was doing,” said Mr. Cherepanym, who teaches in the university’s cultural studies department. “He told me ‘This is not an exhibition,”’ and used an expletive to describe it.
Mr. Kvit later told the media, “The exhibition is not closed, it is just locked.”
The president did not reply to e-mail requests for an explanation of his actions, though the academy provided a link to a page — in Ukrainian — of comments made by Mr. Kvit on the case.
After that, the academy only opened the show to the public when journalists requested entry. The closure prompted major debates over censorship not only among those involved in contemporary arts in Kiev, but also in the mainstream media.
Sympathizers across Ukraine showed solidarity with performances of their own, including one man in Donetsk who stripped naked in the freezing cold and carved the symbolic trident shield into his stomach with a razor. “Ukrainian Body” never reopened and the university closed the exhibition space altogether this month for what it said were “renovations.” According to Mr. Cherepanyn, the space will now be used to house the university’s archive.
A petition to protest those actions — signed by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, artists including Artur Zmijewski and Sara Goodman, and academics including Eric Fassin and John-Paul Himka — and calling for the “restoration of academic and artistic freedom” has been circulating across the country.
Despite widespread disappointment at the censorship, however, many see the outraged reaction of the general public as a sign of positive growth in the arts world here.
“I absolutely believe that the closing of this exhibition is the most important thing that has happened in Ukrainian contemporary art in quite some years,” said Kateryna Botanova, the director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art , or C.C.A., in Kiev. “It shows that contemporary art is not always beautiful and glamorous. Art can be subversive and a place for discussion.”
Such an outcry would have been unlikely here even a decade ago, but “the Ukraine cultural sphere is developing very fast,” said Ms. Botanova, who is also an art critic. “It is fantastic, it’s like a volcano.”
New institutions, commercial and noncommercial, have helped drive the contemporary art scene forward. One of these, the state-financed Mystetskyi Arsenal (commonly known as Art Arsenal), will play host in May to Arsenale 2012, Kiev’s first contemporary art biennale, to be organized by David Elliott, the British curator and museum director.
Meanwhile, the privately financed Pinchuk Art Center , owned by the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, has brought big names to Kiev (there are simultaneous solo shows of Gary Hume and Jeff Wall) and has gallery space dedicated to contemporary Ukrainian artists. A handful of art journals, like the online art site Korydor (run by the Foundation C.C.A.) and the magazine Art Ukraine, have sprung up, and a crop of politically engaged young artists and curators are making noise in Ukraine and abroad.
“We do not have an international brand yet but I think it is a question of time,” said Pavlo Gudimov, a former member of the popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy and the owner of the Ya Gallery in Kiev. “We have so many interesting artists and so many interesting situations.”
Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kiev’s art scene has lacked global attention, in part because of its proximity to Moscow.
“In Moscow, the gallery scene and the art market appeared earlier than in Kiev and our best artists were presented internationally through Moscow galleries,” said Oleksandr Soloviov, the chief curator and deputy director of Mystetskyi Arsenal. “Even today, when I visit fairs in places like Dubai or Basel, I see our artists are still being shown by Russian galleries.”
There are high hopes, however, that things will change soon. With exhibition space in a 60,000-square-meter, about 645,000-square-foot, former weapons depot, the Mystetskyi Arsenal is looking to become a major contemporary art facility. Although the museum will not fully open until 2014 — and many critics wonder what will actually be housed in the museum because, they say, it lacks a cohesive strategy for collecting — there have already been several successful and well-attended exhibitions held in the grand main hall. There are also hopes that this summer’s Arsenale could help position Kiev as an important capital for contemporary art.
The Pinchuk Art Center, which opened in 2006, has become a major space for contemporary art in the city. Lines have snaked around the corner for exhibitions of works by Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood. While detractors complain that the shows are mostly focused on international artists and that many visitors come not because they are interested in or understand art but because it’s trendy, the center’s general director, Eckhard Schneider disagrees. “The most important thing is to share the works,” he said. The art center also awards a national and international art prize.
Last year the winner of the national prize was Nikita Kadan, a young conceptual artist who was also featured in the “Ukrainian Body” exhibition. “Socially engaged and critical art became quite strong in the second half of the last decade,” Mr. Kadan said.
And despite the controversy over censorship, many are positive about the direction of the contemporary art scene. “There are many things happening at the moment,” said the conceptual artist Alevtina Kakhidze. “Of course we can criticize some of these things but what is important is we are creating a platform where new artists and a new Ukrainian art scene can be productive and active.”
“Girl with the Rose” by Mykola Kolomiec, 2010. Courtesy Ya Gallery, Kiev