“We are in between tragedy and optimism. This is the Ukrainian state of mind right now. You feel like you are in the middle of the cyclone and whatever happens here affects the whole world.”
2019 interview with Krolikowski Art, the artists and organisers of the Metamodern Arts Festival in Kyiv.
This conversation with the Kyiv-based artist duo Alexandra and Alexander Krolikowski is Pt.2 of a series of conversations with some of the metamodern artists behind the organising of the Metamodern Arts Festival. Read Pt.1 here.
Alexandra and Alexander first started their journey in 2007 after running away together from Alexandra’s parental home. Coining themselves the ‘Bonnie and Clyde of the art world,’ their work looks at the psychological and political aspects of human relationships through visual art, installations, new media and performance.
Tarn: How did the Metamodern Art Festival come about, and what does it mean for you to have it in Kyiv?
Alexandra: Alexander and I met the other organisers at the Emerge Gathering in November and decided to organise this art festival together. The Emerge Gathering was designed to bring people together to meet and cocreate, and with the festival we have a similar aim — to give people the experience through participatory art which will stimulate connection and imagination. It’s exciting for us, and also a challenge. Our team is mostly international so we are building bridges across the world to Kyiv. It’s going to be a social and cultural experiment, probably the most experimental Metamodern project I’ve been involved with so far.
When I was in my early 20s I felt like art was dying, because the only art that really had an influence on human life anymore was advertising.
Alexander: People are always asking us ‘what makes art Metamodern?’ and my opinion is that Metamodern art subscribes to this idea of a ‘meta-narrative’ whilst using the tactics and tools of Postmodernism. Metamodern art aims to experiment and incite discussion about returning to a ‘meta-narrative’, so I’m sure that the festival will be really important for that. Through art we can understand the current human situation and people’s hopes towards the future.
Tarn: When did you first come across the concept of Metamodernism?
Alexander: When I was in my early 20s I felt like art was dying because the only art that really had an influence on human life anymore was advertising. I felt like the Postmodern paradigm was leading us to a dead end, so I stopped my practise for some years until I met Alexandra. Our mutual disappointment in the Postmodern paradigm and the hope that something new is starting was our first point of connection. We first read about Metamodernism in 2011 and it felt like a mirror which explained what we had been doing for some years.
Alexandra: Metamodernism gave us a framework to describe what we were doing. Maybe because our practice was a bit naive, not that ironic or cynical.
Alexander: In our work there is some oscillation between Postmodern irony but the main theme is the connection to a grand narrative, a return to a meta-narrative.
Tarn: What do you mean when you talk about a ‘meta-narrative’?
Alexandra: In our work, through different art mediums art we are questioning a lot about contemporary values and seeking for the truth, bringing up subjects of mythology, of something bigger than the narrow limit of personal ego.
Alexander: Meta-narrative is when you concerned not only about yourself and your own life, but about mankind’s story.
Alexandra: When you want to go beyond you have to believe. Postmodernism denies that you have to believe in something, claiming that everything is relevant and truth is always out there. It’s like that The Chemical Brothers song which says “I need you to believe in something”. We’ve found that we cannot live or do what we want to do without faith in a better future. Even throughout the crisis we are still trying to believe in an optimistic vision of the future.
Tarn: So it sounds like there a connection between Metamodernism and spirituality?
In previous eras people were connected to a meta-narrative, they didn’t separate their own story from the story of the universe.
Alexandra: In some ways yes, definitely. But the spiritual aspect is about self awareness and constructing your own belief system, not being engaged in mainstream or marginal cults or religions. It’s a spirituality produced from your own experience.
Alexander: In my opinion spirituality is about connection to our higher selves. Postmodernism is about individualism, but in previous eras people were connected to a meta-narrative, they didn’t separate their own story from the story of the universe. The idea is to return to this meta-narrative and give spirituality more sincerity. More personal significance.
Alexandra: I have a strange relationship to religion because I grew up in a Baptist Protestant family, which is very rare in Ukraine where historically Orthodox Christianity is more popular. My grandparents taught me how to pray, it was really a very puritan and strict education, we visited church twice a week and were banned from watching TV or reading books like Harry Potter. Of course this all influenced me, and the subject of God is still important to me, but I prefer to apply my critical thinking and construct the myth or grand narrative by myself. I consider God’s figure as female figure, as Mother Goddess.
Alexander: Humans have always been spiritual but in Postmodernism spirituality is only personal. When I am with Alexandra’s grandparents I oscillate between Postmodern irony, with some critical perception of their beliefs, but at the same time I have deep empathy and understanding in their need to believe in something bigger.
The UFO phenomenon tells us something about contemporary mythology.
Tarn: What are some of the themes that appear in your work?
Alexandra: To continue on the topic of faith and the need to believe in something ‘beyond’, we are interested in the psychological phenomena of UFOs. I’m a psychologist by education and have studied a lot of Jung, who did research into UFO sightings and why people see UFOs. We lived in the Crimea for some years and in this area there are lots of UFO sightings.
Alexander: People see UFOs really often, actually. It’s an important mythology in two specific regions of Ukraine. It’s the technological version of angels and demons. If many people see this thing in the sky then maybe it is not simply a hallucination, but part of a deeper level of the human subconscious. The UFO phenomenon tells us something about contemporary mythology.
Tarn: It makes me think of that image that says “I want to believe” with a picture of a UFO.
Alexandra: Exactly. We collected archives from the 90s when people documented videos of UFOs. Half of them are fake, but some of them are real in that people were actually seeing something strange happening.
Alexander: We don’t know what they are, maybe they are military experiments.
Alexandra: Also we collected letters that people wrote to the newspapers. It’s pretty interesting to see how people think and act when they want to believe in something beyond themselves.
Alexander: It’s not a new thing. People used to see fairies. In the history of Christianity people have claimed to see angels and demons. Now they see UFOs and Aliens. Maybe they were all seeing the same phenomenon, but their perception is different because the technological and cultural paradigm is different. Our idea was to look beyond our technological and cultural paradigm and see something beyond, something deep in the human subconscious. This is what Jung tried to do. This is also related to the Metamodern spiritual paradigm, to be critical but also sincere in the faith to see something beyond.
Tarn: If this happens a lot in these two regions it must be related to the socio-political context too.
Alexandra: Of course. It was used later in propaganda during the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. In the Crimea UFOs are an important mythology and the Russians used this in propaganda to manipulate people during the annexation.
Alexander: I think it’s a reflection of this belief that a superpower from the sky is going to come and save me, coming to change everything. People in those regions have been infantilised.
Ukraine is currently living in two paradigms, it has some Postmodernist distance from the tragedy of previous generations, but at the same time we hope and believe in a bright future.
Alexandra: I wouldn’t agree that it’s infantilism, but as Jung proposed people often see such strange phenomenons in very turbulent times. In the 90s, especially in Ukraine, it was very tough. You wouldn’t believe what kind of hell we survived. It was a horrible decade, and mostly people saw UFOs or things like fairies and angels in times when they got desperately disappointed in the power and protection of government, church or any higher power, so they felt detached and abandoned.
Alexander: I say infantilism because before people felt that the Party cared about them, so once that totalitarian power was gone they didn’t know how to manage their own lives. That’s the mindset that people were stuck in when they saw UFOs.
Alexandra: I could agree with that.
Tarn: So with that context in mind, why is Metamodernism a good framework for Ukraine, is Kyiv embracing Metamodernism?
Alexandra: Things have really changed here since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. During the Soviet Union people relied on the Party for everything, to be self-sufficient was not programmed into people.
Alexander: Ukraine is currently living in two paradigms, it has some Postmodernist distance from the tragedy of previous generations, but at the same time we hope and believe in a bright future. We are in between tragedy and optimism. This is the Ukrainian state of mind right now. You feel like you are in the middle of the cyclone and whatever happens here affects the whole world.
Alexandra: Since the revolution in 2014 normal people have become politically active and don’t rely on the government like they did before. Instead of waiting for the Government to come and fix things they are doing what they need for themselves, cooperating and collaborating without any command. They have realised that they have the power to create their own country. Before, it was kind of detached because everything was in the power of oligarchs and criminals. Now the situation is changing and although people realise that it won’t happen overnight they think that maybe we can achieve a better social and economic situation if we work for it. People are starting to feel like they are part of this grand narrative, part of history.
Tarn: And within the art community, is Metamodernism embraced? Is it something you feel is being picked up enthusiastically in Kyiv?
Alexander: To understand this you have to understand more about the Ukrainian context… Ukraine was one of the biggest powers in the USSR, we had lots of technology — space technology, digital technology — culturally, though, Ukrainians always felt second level to Russians. Even when I was a kid I felt like Russia was where everything happened. It’s a colonial story. Today in Kyiv I would say even the new generation still have this feeling of being on the outside, they look to Moscow and now also New York and other Western cities. They don’t have much faith in themselves.
Alexandra: Basically there’s this conflict between trusting yourself and trusting the authority. We wait for someone higher up to confirm that it’s OK to believe in something. It’s getting better, but there’s still this indecisive feeling.
Tarn: Could you say that Metamodernism is an opportunity for Ukrainians to shape their own distinctive contemporary culture?
Alexander: Yes I would say that Kyiv is pretty open to something new, something experimental.
Alexandra: Kyiv is Metamodern in that it is in this interesting space between West and East, past and future, but rather than being stuck in the middle it is oscillating between them. There are people here that are waking up from a really deep and powerful sleep and are full of energy. They are full of ideas about how to change the world. Their mindset is fresh. They are no longer asleep.