A Ukrainian artist collective, which withdrew from a Paris art fair after learning about a Russian gallery, also attended

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Kyiv-based artists’ group Understructures has withdrawn from the Paris Internationale after discovering that a Russian gallery was also participating in the French art fair. The event, which focuses on emerging arts, had its VIP and press preview on Tuesday October 18th.

Understructures organizer Vitya Glushchenko told Artnet News that his collective only noticed last week that Moscow’s Iragui gallery was exhibiting at the fair. Glushchenko stressed that given the ongoing war in Ukraine, his group’s farewell to the fair was not a “gesture” but rather a necessity. “We don’t want to bully each other, but we want to be clear: cooperation with tax-paying companies based in Russia is not possible now,” he said.

Glushchenko said his group noticed the inclusion of the Moscow gallery as they prepared their entries for the Paris fair last week. Understructures planned to launch its release above (means “object that protects” in Ukrainian), sharing stories and pictures of people who lived through the war in Ukraine. Together with the art gallery LC Queisser based in Tbilisi, Georgia, 90 percent of the proceeds came from the sale above go to the Ukrainians affected by the invasion. The first iteration was launched on Liste Basel in June.

Understructures also featured work by Ukrainian artists Ksenia Bilyk, Eliza Mamardashvili and Georgiy Mamardashvili, and by Ateliernormalno, a Ukrainian art community whose members include artists with Down syndrome.

Commenting on Artnet News, Glushchenko added that Understructures had been asked by the organizers to attend the fair to “show support” to Ukraine at this difficult time, for which he was grateful. Several art fairs in Europe, including September’s Vienna Contemporary, have shown support by providing Ukrainian galleries and project spaces with free booths at their events. Glushchenko called it “very nice [invitation] from the organization [of Paris Internationale] and its director Silvia Ammon personally.”

For her part, Ammon expressed regret that Understructures had decided not to participate. “It’s sad,” she told Artnet News. “We hoped that the art would be above it all. And we see ourselves not only as a business platform, but also as a place for encounters and dialogue.” Ammon said the fair made the decision not to “unload our Russian gallery, which has been participating in the fair for years”.

Ekaterina Iragui, the owner of Iragui, said that when she found out about the Ukrainian group’s decision to withdraw from the fair, her “first reaction was just sadness that they are burning all bridges and that no dialogue is possible simply because we they are from Moscow.”

“I understand they are young people and I understand their trauma, but art as a platform should not be the place for war,” Iragui said, “I haven’t met them and they don’t know me.” The trader who attending the fair for the second time said she was never supported by the Russian state or was a supporter. She added that her husband, of Polish origin, worked in Ukraine’s grain industry and sheltered Ukrainian refugees, including women and children, at his home in Poland fleeing the ongoing war.

Iragui presents works by Rodion Kitaev, including Huysmans (2020). Courtesy of Iragui.

“Art can be a diplomatic bridge,” Iragui pointed out, adding that “there is a civil war going on in Russia now” between the generations that grew up under the USSR and are digitally illiterate and younger people who get their information online. and are able to avoid government propaganda about the war. She said people in her community support Ukraine wherever they can and often don’t make it public.

However, Glushchenko noted that the “support for Ukraine [movement] does not go well with giving a Russian taxpayer a platform during the war.”

On Monday, the Ukrainian capital was attacked by “kamikaze” drones, which exploded on impact, killing several civilians. In the last week in particular, Kyiv and many other cities across the country have come under intense attack as Russia ramped up its invasion attempt. Glushchenko himself was volunteering in Kyiv when Artnet News reached him.

The war in Ukraine has been ongoing since February 24, killing thousands of civilians and sparking a huge refugee crisis in Europe and the country. Much of Ukraine’s heritage and material culture is also threatened with looting or destruction by Russian troops.

At the Paris Internationale, Iragui presents works by two Moscow artists. Rodion Kitaev, who represents the Russian capital’s threatened LGBTQ+ community, presents embroidered and painted works that refer to the French Surrealists who went to war and the trauma of Stalinism. Olga Chernysheva’s plays, on the other hand, take a marginal look at Russian society “in the fulfillment of everyday tasks like commuting to work by train,” Iragui said. The retailer added that the choice of artists was an attempt to “speak about society and erase that black-and-white view of things.”

And although Understructures does not participate in the fair, their publication Oberih can still be ordered online (click here for more information, including how to get your own copy). So far, the publication has raised $20,000 for Ukrainian charities. “This is a very intense time when our cities are under attack,” Gluschenko said. “We represent Ukrainian artists and fellows who are suffering the consequences of the Russian invasion or are dealing with it directly.”

Devorah Lauter contributed coverage

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