Unveiling the Mezhihirya Code

Just a five minute walk from the site of the Maidan protests this winter, The National Museum of Art in Kiev has opened its doors for The Mezhihirya Code exhibition – showcasing the treasures taken from the abandoned residence of former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych.

The Nose talked to Kateryna Busol, a lawyer and PA to the Director-General at the National Museum, about her thoughts and reactions to the bizarre discoveries. Though Kateryna is an NAMU employee, this interview does not represent the museum’s official position.

Kateryna, you were involved in the Euromaidan protests – what was your role?

I participated in the protests along with many of my friends. My contribution was very modest in comparison with those people who were at the front. We always went to Viche [weekly mass assembly on Sundays that took place throughout winter] and to regular protests during the week. We helped cook in the House of Trade Unions before it was burnt by the riot police. When we weren’t needed to work in the kitchen, we brought ready meals to the guys at the front.

The protests were triggered by Yanukovych’s failure to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. What does it mean for young Ukrainians to have closer ties between Ukraine and the EU?

It is very important to all of us.

Joining the EU would help Ukraine in terms of self-identification. Ukraine is located at the crossroads of different cultures. Culturally and spiritually, Ukraine and Ukrainians are tied more closely to Europe. Therefore, closer ties between the EU and Ukraine are not just important; they are vital.

The Ukrainian youth can see how dynamic and closely interlinked modern Europe has become. How, morally and institutionally, it is easier to change things.

Now, onto the Mezhirhirya Code.

What happened on the first day of the exhibition? How many people attended and what was their reaction?

Surely you know the answer? Mezhihirya has turned out to be the most popular exhibition, drawing more visitors than a previous leader – ‘Normandy in Art’. 

The triumph of tastelessness: countless pictures, busts and paintings of the former President were discovered at his abandoned residence.
The triumph of tastelessness: countless pictures, busts and paintings of the former President were discovered at his abandoned residence.
Not quite up to Madame Tussaud standard...
Not quite up to Madame Tussaud standard…

What kind of emotions do people usually express on seeing the treasures in the exhibition?

More than three thousand people came to watch the exhibition during the first weekend. The audience has been very diverse, with all ages and strata represented. One lady even asked me by phone whether she might bring a dog.

All of this is quite sad.

Looking at and listening to the majority of visitors, I am sorry to say that they look at Mezhihirya as the chance to laugh at the former President and blame him for all his mischiefs. Few people see the exhibition as a chance for self-analysis and self-criticism and even fewer talk about their responsibility for this atrocious tastelessness.

What items impressed you most of all in terms of their artistic value or – even – absolute tastelessness?

It’s hard to say. For me the most important thing is the concept of the exhibition as a whole – this tragic, sick kitsch that mirrors our post-soviet strife for wealth and excess; it’s deep within all of us. 

I did, however, like one Cezanne-style painting by Konchalovsky. Ancient books are also interesting to look at. But my favourite exhibit is the ‘Singing Icon’. It has proved to be the hit of the Web. It consists of three parts with two side ones serving as doors, thus permitted the whole icon to be closed off from the public. But when the icon is opened, it sings prayers quite loudly!

This is one of the best points of the exhibition because this is the way the major part of contemporary art works: you are ironically presented with a kitsch object and then you are trying to figure out what the key idea is. If Mezhihirya manages to teach some visitors the way to approach an object and work with it, it will be a groundbreaking achievement. We still lack the understanding that art is always about mutual processes.

Yes - believe your eyes
Yes – believe your eyes
A Napoleonic style painting showing the faces of former allies of Yanukovych
A Napoleonic style painting showing the faces of former allies of Yanukovych
When Yanukovych's residence was stormed in February, many excessive objects were found - including this galleon ship.
When Yanukovych’s residence was stormed in February, many excessive objects were found – including this galleon ship.

How do you reconcile the combination of religious objects such as old bibles and icons with portraits of Yanukovych made from gold and jewellery?

Firstly, not all religious objects of Yanukovych have artistic value. Secondly, I do not think that the religiosity of a dictator has ever contradicted his nature – on the contrary, it reinforces and purifies it. That is why the Bibles next to the statues of our ex-President hardly surprised me.

Although much of the exhibition focuses on Yanukovych’s excesses, several items are of great cultural and historical value

In terms of results, what do you expect from this exhibition? 

As for my expectations, I have already touched upon this issue in previous answers. I believe people should not attend the exhibition solely for the reasons to blame one person for the way we live and to transfer responsibility for everything on our ex-President. Such an approach turns human beings into objects and I, personally, do not want to be one. What Maidan has proved and what the exhibition should make us think about is that we can make the most unbelievable changes, the only prerequisite for it being the absence of fear to take up responsibility. 

Do you think that such a lack of taste has contributed to the corrupt character of Yanukovych and his associates? Could this exhibition represent one of the elements that contributed to such a dire humanitarian situation in the country? 

I would like to answer with an idea of Mr. Roytburd, the curator of the exhibition: one should not underestimate aesthetics as the basis of ethics and economy.



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