In May 2014, following a political crisis in Ukraine started by the Revolution on Maidan, Donetsk region in East Ukraine declared independence and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) was established. Political power in the region has been taken over by separatists.
During the Euromaidan in Kiev artistic expression flourished. In the Eastern part of the country, reactions to the ongoing political events were rather ambivalent and not that intense. Any form of art undermining new political leadership has been putting artists at a great risk. However, soon after autonomy was declared first subversive forms of street art appeared in the centre of Donetsk. The author is Sergey Zakharov, a Donetsk based painter and the founder of an art collective called Murzilka (named after a Soviet children’s illustrated magazine).
Zakharov’s art ironically depicted leaders and commanders of the DNR as clowns or skeletons, both trying to ridicule them and reveal the danger connected with their rule. Separatists are easily recognisable on the artworks. Igor Girkin (Strelkov) is shown with a gun put to his head, a caption beneath it says “JUST DO IT”. The work appeared on the Komsomolets cinema in Donetsk as a reaction to the crash of the Malaysian Boeing on the 17th July 2014 on the territory of Ukraine. Hereby Zakharov makes a direct political statement by showing separatists as the ones responsible for the catastrophe.
Another work of Zakharov refers directly to the marriage of a DNR commander nicknamed Motorola, an event that was highly celebrated in Donetsk. Motorola is depicted as a faun (in mythology a god of fertility), exaggeratedly short in comparison to the bride next to him. This caricatural shortness combined with military badges and guns as very masculine artifacts create an utmost ridiculous picture. The same effect has been achieved by depicting Sharikov, a figure of a dog with transplanted human brain from the Mikhail Bulhakov’s novel “Heart of a Dog” and a satire on the New Soviet Man, in a DNR uniform.
Such extremely political art needs an appropriate way of expression and distribution. Graffiti, an art form subversive in its very ideology, is thus of great interest to guerilla artists. The main aim of graffiti is to make an impact on the society and open up new ways of perception. The art object itself is of less importance. To cite Guy Debord, the founder of Situationist International: “(…) the art of the future will be the creation of situations, or nothing.”1 Zakharov’s art intervenes in the local landscape, his art is about creating situations, not objects. Through situations normal citizens start to participate in art as well, what constitutes the main target of politically engaged art.
Zakharov chose the form of cut outs, painted cartoon blocks that could be safely prepared indoors, before being placed in the public space. The whole production process has been documented on Murzilka’s website – the modes of production, similarly as artist’s identity were from the beginning transparent.
Mobility of cut outs is one of the most important factors here, since it minimises the risk of being caught. On the other hand, they are also easily removable and that is why the artworks were also extremely temporary. The cut out showing Strelkov, prominently displayed in a central part of the city remained there only for a few hours, after it was taken down by DNR commanders.
The temporality and artistic nomadism of cut outs demanded documenting and spreading. Only that way could the political massage put forward by Murzilka be realized in the local as well as global context. After Zakharov had been hanging the works on walls, fences and trees all around Donetsk, his photographer would take pictures of them, which were spread through Internet, especially in the social media.
Reproduction and repetition are the key strategies of guerilla art, as it is constantly in danger of being displaced or destroyed. Graffiti artists developed not only cut outs, but also stickers, stamps, stencils or posters to quickly reproduce their works and get the right massage across in the society. Although this kind of art that is not only temporary, but also strictly bound to the place of its creation, it could be made accessible all over the world via Internet. This combination of underground, subversive culture with the global medium has a special kind of
power. Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who developed a highly recognisable symbol “Obey”, talks about the power of street art in the documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop”:
“The more stickers that are out there, the more important it seems, the more people wanna know what it is, the more they ask each other. And it gains real power from perceived power.”
Not only formal characteristics, but also ideas and symbols are being reproduced, to get recognition, go viral and affect the viewer. The need to quickly draw attention of passersby demands lapidarity of form, so that a particular symbol can trigger direct interpretation. Reproduced symbols combined with specific features repeated in every work also function in a way as an artist’s signature, in a state when authorship can not immediately be recognised. Through the established symbolics artists can also refer to each other’s works, making a vivid space for discourse in the public.
Zakharov’s work is a perfect example of the power of reproduction to convey concrete political ideas. His art was first referred to by fellow Russian artists in a project called “Freedom to Murzilkas”. The happening took place in Saint Petersburg, shortly after Zakharov was kidnapped for his subversive actions. The authors of the work operated with the same semiotics as Zakharov; the skeleton figure which was installed in a park in Saint Petersburg looks almost identically as one of his cut outs. The skeleton marked with a DNR flag, representing a separatist, is pointing with a gun at a kneeling personified pencil. The caption next to the installation said “Freedom to Murzilkas”.
The action clearly aimed at releasing Zakharov from prison, but also a broader massage was intended here, namely that of freedom of speech in general. A pencil became a globally recognised symbol for the freedom of visual artists after the killing of Parisian cartoonists and editors of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The slogan of solidarity with the victims of the Parisian massacre Je suis Charlie was also reproduced in a number of ways by Ukrainian artists and citizens. On the Maidan in Kiev there can still be found graffiti pieces Je suis Volnovakha, created as a tribute to the people killed in a bus explosion in East Ukraine. A Lviv’s street artist Sociopath created several graffitis relating to the current political situations in Ukraine. On this picture we can find a sentence Je suis un homme (‘I am a human’) written over one of them.
Zakharov himself also consciously refers to other artists and global symbolics. One such example is the campaign slogan of the shoe brand Nike he uses in the previously mentioned work: “Just do It”. What makes major impact on the viewers is firstly, the surprising effect of placing a well-known logo in a way new context. And secondly, identification and inclusion of the global viewer into the discourse, through which a sense of reference to the situation can be made globally.
It is thus for sure not a coincidence that Zakharov underlines his inspirations from Banksy and is often being called by the media “The Banksy of Donetsk”. It is Banksy, who is the most popular politically engaged graffiti artist in the world, calling himself “an art terrorist”.2 By relating to Banksy’s work, Zakharov ligitimises his work. Theoretically though, the graffiti star Banksy and the underground Ukrainian artist Sergey Zakharov can possibly reach a similar number of viewers due to the power of the Internet.
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