Curator: Bohdan Polishchuk
Graduate of The National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture (Kyiv).
Co-founder of the Scenography Gallery and the international festival Lviv Quadriennale of Scenography.
Curator and participant of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Tbilisi Biennial of Scenography 2020.
For more than ten years he has been working with different Ukrainian state theatres and independent art initiatives and projects.
As a production designer:
2011 – «Forest Song» by Lesya Ukrainka, director A. Prykhodko (Lviv Academic Theatre named after Les Kurbas);
2014 – «Rhinos» by E. Ionesco, director A. Prykhodko (Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theatre, Kyiv);
2015 – «Grateful Erodi» by H. Skovoroda, director V. Kuchynskyi (Lviv Academic Theatre named after Les Kurbas);
2020 – «Buna» by V. Makoviy, director I. Bilyts (National Theatre named after M. Zankovetska, Lviv);
2021 – «Bronislava Nizhynska performance: dance-reconstruction», choreography by Svitlana Oleksiuk, composer Yana Shlyabanska, «Ruban Productions», premiere at Les Kurbas’ Centre (Kyiv).
As director and production designer:
2019 – «Little Fox Who Succeeded» by H. Lystvak (The First Theatre, Lviv);
2019 – «Android. The Number on Your Back» by H. Lystvak (Maly Drama Theatre, Kyiv); 2021 – «Stray Lights in Her Eyes» by Alex Wood (Maly Drama Theatre, Kyiv);
2022 – performance «Hiroshima Girl is Afraid of Thunder» based on the play «Living with Father» by Inoue Hisashi, composer Yana Shlyabanska (NGO Scenography Gallery, The Les’ Kurbas State Centre for Theatre Arts, Kyiv).
As director of the performances:
2019 – «Wake up in Chubai’s dreams», poetry by H. Chubai, composer V. Sirenko, artistic formation «The Captured Passion» (presented within the «Book Arsenal» international festival);
2020 – «The Great Jazz Journey» (National Operetta of Ukraine, Kyiv);
2021 – «Vertep. Neo-Baroque Mystery», the musical and theatrical performance by Ignea Corda Art Formation. The performance was presented in the Great Lavra Bell Tower and The International Convention Centre «Ukrainian House»;
2022 – Gra[n]d Opera «The Art of War», libretto by M. Layuk, composer S. Vilka, Nova Opera and Sed Contra Ensemble (presented in the Lviv Organ Hall).
An artist under the pressure of war. The female face of Ukrainian scenography.
Is a scenographer needed during the war? War – a barrier or motivation for an artist?
What does an Urkain artist who wants to create a performance face?
What is appropriate on stage when children are being killed and cities are being destroyed in your country?
Why is the face of Ukrainian scenography today a woman’s face?
My own experience and observations.
Ukrainian National Pavilion
TEMPORARILY DISPLACED ART
The war that is going on in our country leaves not only an imprint, but also directs the development of our society, culture, and art.
Ukrainian theatre shares the fate of millions of Ukrainians who are forced to become temporarily displaced persons.
The news about the destruction of Ukrainian theatres has spread all over the world. The destroyed theatre in Mariupol (by that time it has long been serving as a bomb shelter for women with children) became one of the tragic symbols of this war.
But even after that, unfortunately, the terror of the Russian troops did not stop. Most recently, in September 2022, Russian rockets hit the courtyard of the theatre in Mykolaiv.
The collectives of some theatres in the East and South of the country were forced to evacuate and become displaced persons in order to avoid repression, occupation, or death. Theatres in other cities, such as Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, continue working under shelling and prepare performances under the sounds of air alarms.
THE FEMALE FACE OF UKRAINIAN SCENEGRAPHY
This year, the Ukrainian Pavilion presents the work of 11 female scenographers. This is not a “flirtation” with current trends or political correctness. Today, the majority of men cannot leave the country, regardless of their profession, because of martial law and mobilization. Therefore, it is women who are today an active force and the face of Ukrainian culture, art, and in particular scenography.
A large number of Ukrainian female artists temporarily left abroad with their children to protect their lives. However, they actively continue to work in the theatres, implement new art projects and organize events.
THEATRE COSTUME – WHAT TO PUT IN THE THEATRE’S SURVIVAL KIT?
Today is not the time for bulky structures and expensive projects in Ukrainian theatre. There are several reasons for this.
The first is practical. After all, no Ukrainian theatre has any guarantees that the next Russian missile will not land on its stage or decorations storage. It is quite possible that you will have to organize forced tours very quickly. In this case mobility is the most important thing!
The second reason is ethical. At a time when the whole country is volunteering and a lot of people are collecting money to save the wounded, help soldiers or the families of the dead, it is not appropriate to arrange expensive performances.
Millions of Ukrainians have had the experience of packing their suitcases before leaving home. All of them have had a difficult question on their mind: “Will there be a place to return to? Or, maybe, all you have left is what you have in your hands and what you are wearing now?”
A theatrical costume is an artistic artifact that can remain and preserve the image of a performance. It is something that can be worn and taken away in one’s own suitcase. The Gallery of Scenography began to pay attention to theatrical costumes several years ago. Thus, in 2021, in partnership with the Museum of Theatre, Music and Film Arts of Ukraine, we published the book Ukrainian Theatre Costume of the 20th–21st Centuries. Sketches. It demonstrates the originality and persistence of the Ukrainian theatrical costume tradition for a hundred years.
IDENTITY – WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
For every Ukrainian, the war that is going on in our territory today – is the war for freedom and independence. It is the right to perceive ourselves as a self-sufficient nation and culture. It is the process of defending our identity. Defending our own identity and at the same time searching for – it is the main issue of Ukrainian society today, as well as of Ukrainian theatre and scenography.
EXHIBITION OF THE UKRAINIAN PAVILION
The exhibition focuses specifically on theatrical costumes. It consists of two main components. The first one is built from art objects, which were created by six female scenographers specially for the Tbilisi Biennale during the two-month residency.
The unifying line for it is the experience of the war in Ukraine, embodied in the form of a theatrical costume. Six female scenographers of different generations, from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, have implemented their own vision without strict restrictions.
The second component can be considered as the presentation of five more female scenographers. At the same time there are five interesting and iconic performances realized in the previous two years in Ukraine. They are represented by photos, in which the theatrical costume occupies an equally important place.
Our goal was to select projects of various formats and scales, and to present scenography styles and languages that are relevant for Ukraine. There are ones which dominate both the stages of powerful state theatres as well as the space of independent theatre projects.
I am glad to participate in the symposium, to talk with you about Ukrainian art. It is very important for me to have this opportunity.
So, I am a scenographer and director Bohdan Polishchuk, and I am also the curator of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Tbilisi Biennale this year.
Therefore, first I will say a few words about our exposition.
This year, Ukraine is represEnted by 11 women scenographers. This is not a desire to be in trends. This is the reality for Ukraine today. Today Ukrainian scenography has a female face. First of all, it is connected with the war.
Martial law and mobilization have been declared in Ukraine, so most men live one day at a time.
Most of men want to stay in Ukraine even in this difficult time.
Today, women have more chances to keep their profession.
It is also difficult for men to go abroad even for special events. There is a very complicated procedure for getting an individual permit from the Ministry of Culture.
For example, I stayed in Ukraine and our pavilion in Tbilisi is represented by the female delegation. These are our Amazons. Amazons of the cultural front.
Many Ukrainian women scenographers temporarily went abroad.
Women with small children. My wife, a set designer, had been living in Germany with our children for several months.
At the same time, many of our women actively work even after temporarily and forcibly going abroad. They make exhibitions, performances and work in local theaters.
I am proud of our women, our scenographers, directors, actresses…
Now about the exhibition:
6 scenographers: Ludmila Nagorna, Maria Pogrebnyak, Yuliya Zaulichna, Olga Novikova, Lyubov Dushyna, Tetyana Chukhriy were at the residence in Georgia for two months before the opening of the bienniale.
During these two months, they have made their art objects, theatrical costumes, which are now exhibits of the Ukrainian pavilion. These costumes are their worryings and rethinking of what is currently happening in Ukraine.
They also created the design of the exposition.
Another 5 scenographers are presented with photos of their productions.
5 scenographers – 5 performances. These are important performances that took place in Ukraine in the previous 2 years.
Large-scale stagings of opera, or innovative for Ukraine performance formats, in which theatrical costume has a great importance.
Olesya Holovach presents the opera “Embroidered. The King of Ukraine” («Вишиваний. Король України») is a production that probably has the largest budget in previous years. This is a truly star team with composer Ala Zagaykevych and writer Serhiy Zhadan, who wrote the libretto.
Anna Ipatiyeva presents the opera staged at the Lviv Opera House – “Mykyta’s Fox” («Лис Микита»). A large-scale Ukrainian opera based on the fairy tale of the outstanding Ukrainian writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ivan Franko. This is one of the powerful, expensive theater projects of the state sector.
Kateryna Markush presents a modern performance, the opera of a new format “Chernobyldorf” («Чорнобильдорф».). This is an independent project. The project made a lot of noise and was discussed a lot. There are a lot of provocative parts in it: the Chernobyl topic, modern complex music, completely naked performers, modern texts by the famous Ukrainian poet Izdryk.
Maria Krutogolova presents eco-performance, the premiere took place at a waste processing plant. Interesting location. “The Mermaid XXI” (. «Русалка ХХІ») is based on Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, it is a story about an ecology disaster.
Olena Polishchuk presents the performance “Vertep. A neo-baroque mystery” («Вертеп. Необарокова містерія».). This is also an independent theater project. Musical performance based on musical scores and texts of the 18th century. This is the well-known story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ and the crimes of King Herod. This project was also presented in the interesting location – the Great Bell Tower of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. This is ancient Ukrainian baroque architecture.
As a curator, I tried to invite as many different artists as possible to participate. From different regions of our country, different ages and different styles. To present state theaters and independent projects. More classic and maximally provocative.
And these are really popular and well-known artists in Ukraine.
I hope this exhibition will help to get an idea of the condition of Ukrainian scenography today.
Now I want to say a few words about how the war affects and puts pressure on the work of scenographers in Ukraine.
I want to talk about my own experience, I think many scenographers or directors in Ukraine have a similar situation.
During these six months, I realized only two performances.
The first thing that the war puts pressure on is morale. There is a constant question in my head: What should I do? What is the right thing to do? Should I take up arms and go to the front or should I create performances? Art is also a weapon, isn’t it?
In peacetime, we often say: “The theater is not just entertainment. The theater is the formation of meanings, it is a powerful force.” And when the war begins, the question arises: “Is it true? If theaters don’t work during the war, maybe it’s just entertainment and nothing more?”
My friends from the art formation Nova Opera invited me, as a director, to make a musical performance “The Art of War” with them. We made it for several weeks and presented it in Lviv at the House of Organ Music. A lot of people came that time. People were crying, came up and thanked the musicians and performers.
That day I decided, I made my final choice. It was a feeling that people really need art in this difficult time.
We still have a message in the information space: Real men are now at the front.
Of course, this is 100% true. Soldiers are our pride, defense and heroes. And that’s right. But I think there is an equally important front – the cultural front.
Because our enemy, the Russian Federation, gives millions of dollars, a lot of energy for propaganda and the use of culture and art as its weapon. Therefore, in my opinion, Ukraine should invest more efforts now in its culture and art.
Until recently, I worked as an artist in a municipal theater in Kyiv.
After February 24, when rockets flew from russia to Ukraine, much has changed in the Ukrainian theater.
The state has cut funding for cultural institutions (theaters, museums, art centers…) and funding for theater salaries was cut for 60 %. Funding for new performances was also stopped.
All the money were directed to the army.
After two months of no work in the theater, I have started work on the performans “Hiroshima Girl is Afraid of Thunder” basic on the play “Life with Father” by the Japanese playwright Hisashi Inoue.
But the theater was not ready to make a new project. Later, I began to look for opportunities to do my project by myself.
The fact is that the play “Life with Father” is about a girl who survived after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during the Second World War. And now this topic is very relevant. Russia’s nuclear threats are what make this play painful. And it is very important to do it on stage right now, not after the victory, but right now.
This performance is not very dark, but also not a comedy. And this is important. What should be done in the theater during the war? Comedies to cheer up people who are having a hard time. Or a tragedy not to laugh when thousands of people die every day.
Today, every scenographer, director or performer in Ukraine is faced with a choice: where to do their project? The State Theater has a production, a place but it has no money. An independent project is more mobile, can adapt, but does not have a place, production, mony and most importantly, state protection.
I tried to combine these options. I assembled a creative team (composer, performers, managers) and asked for support from the National Theater Arts Center named after Les Kurbas, with a proposal to implement the project. We also had the support of the Gallery of Scenography (I am a co-founder of this organization).
We got a place for rehearsals and shows in the Center named after Les Kurbas, in Kyiv. But we needed to find money.
Money… This is also a difficult….
Most of the foundations and grant programs have stopped financing similar projects, because they do not believe that it is possible to realized a theater project in Ukraine, which is at the war. The Ukrainian Cultural Fund, the main grant fund of Ukraine, is now out of money.
The search for money was long. At the very beginning, the project was supported by friends and people who simply believed in it. But later the Ukrainian Cultural Fund opened a scholarship program, which I actually received… Of course, it could not cover all real needs. The scholarship do not take into account the creation of a theater project very well.
But we did it.
Interesting topic. The readiness and ability of Ukrainians quickly and qualitatively do projects, is something that is poorly understood in Europe.
During the war, we do not know whether we will be alive tomorrow. But we are ready to do today. We are ready to do our best. And we know how to do it quickly. Because this is our reality.
Today, plans for a year or two in the theater are fantasy. Because the war does not give any guarantees. Long and complicated bureaucratic procedures, long terms of agreement – all this is inappropriate for Ukrainian artists today. The war teaches to choose the main thing. It is important for people in other countries to understand that the fact that we are at the war does not mean that we are not capable of creating plays, exhibitions, films or other artistic projects, it means that we need faster communication and greater flexibility from our partners.
The whole country is a country of volunteers, people give money for medicine, body armor, food to those who are at the front or who have lost their homes. Is it moral to spend a lot of money on a show? Today, the theater in Ukraine is returning to the concept of “poor theater” not only because of lack of money, but because of moral principles.
This is a difficult period for a scenographer. After all, this is a limitation in creativity. This is a deprivation of his arsenal of possibilities.
Everyone who makes an art project in Ukraine today will face another problem. The mass media completely focus their attention on the war and politics. Today any art project will not be able to get good publicity.
When there is a war in your country, such dramatic and incredible events take place in real life that it is impossible to compete with them on stage. What is exactly needed in Ukraine? This is the main question for the Ukrainian theater.
I have the following answer for myself: we need to find and formulate our own identity. We need to articulate who we are, why we are Ukrainians and not russians, why they came to kill us, why we are not one nation and never were.
Fortunately, this is already happening. Very slowly but it happens.
I am very grateful to the organizers of the Tbilisi Biennale, for the fact that there are no russian representatives here this year.
This is a very painful issue for us. Many people still say that art is outside of politics. But the war is not just politics. The war is thousands of killed people. This is the targeted destruction of monuments of our culture and art, these are bombs and rockets directed at our museums, theaters, libraries, churches, hospitals and schools. This is not politics. This is an attempt by one culture to finally occupy and destroy another culture.
Many Ukrainian scenographers previously worked with russian directors and theaters. Many Ukrainian scenographers in the past focused on russian trends. Unfortunately.
The regime of the Soviet Union and later the russian Federation did everything possible to make Ukrainian culture look provincial. But it is not so.
Today, many set designers says that the war ends within the walls of the theater. But this is not possible. Because rockets destroy the walls of theaters as well as all other walls.
Today, a scenographer in Ukraine is a person without a job. Of course not all. I am generalizing. But the scenographer is thinking about who needs his skills, who will invite him to work. When people’s houses are destroyed by bombs and children are killed, there is very little work for a set designer.
Those scenographers who work in state theaters receive a small salary. If you freelancer you will face another problem.
It is very difficult to assemble a team. Because many of your colleagues have gone to other cities or abroad. Many people whom you would like to invite to work have joined the army, or are actively involved in volunteering.
But at the same time, all creative people want realization. And that’s why you will almost always get agreement. Artists, actors, designers, directors – everyone wants to do something in their profession.
So my team and me as the director and stage designer of the performance «Hiroshima Girl is Afraid of Thunder» actually worked as volunteers. The grant gave money only for materials for costumes and scenography.
But everyone understands that it cannot be that long. It is necessary to get money from somewhere to live and feed the children.
Today in Ukraine there are many high-quality and powerful artists and ready-made theatrical author’s projects, performances, performances of state theaters, independent projects. And today, many more Ukrainian artists appear in the European space.
In my opinion, now is the time to do more partnership projects, collaborations, to invite Ukrainian set designers, directors, and performers to create productions outside of Ukraine. Because today Ukrainians have a terrible but unique experience of the war.
Ukrainian artists are always happy to cooperate and work, but they always want to remain Ukrainian. We have very strong roots and desire to develop our own country.
Today is a very difficult time for Ukrainian scenographers but its time of historical scale. Today, the understanding of the scenographer’s profession and the theater itself is being rebooted in Ukraine. I want to conclude with this.
Thank you all for your attention!