The text of the Lviv archivist, Bubo Shults (Lviv), about art life in the city of the 1980s.
The City, Wreckage of the Empire.
To understand what was Lviv of the late 1980s like, it takes to submerge into the history which formed its cultural field. In the ’20-’30s of the past century it used to be a Polish-Jewish city with the major Ukrainian minority. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918) Lviv became the part of the Polish Republic. The Polish, as the nation with longer tradition of the state building, managed to transform Lviv into the Polish city with considerable Jewish and Ukrainian communities.
In 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Soviet government came here and declared Lviv the Ukrainian city and it was annexed by the USSR. After the end of the war, the Polish were deported, the Jewish were eliminated in 1944.
In the late 1940s-1950s, Lviv became the city where the Ukrainian and Russian languages were prevailing since the numerous Russian and Russian-speaking citizens of the USSR moved here. For instance, the father of the well-known Lviv and Russian artist Kolia Filatov (one of the organisers in 1985 of the first Moscow informal squat of artists named “Kindergarten”) was professional musician. On his way back from the front line he liked Lviv. “So beautiful city and so empty”, he said and stayed here for the rest of his life. As a musician he taught classic music at the Conservatory while his son, Kolia, listened to jazz and rock’n’roll on the tape-recorder.
The tipping point of the cultural situation took place in the 1960s when in Lviv there were lots of foreign students. They were providers of timely information. In particular, with their assistance one could order a new record of the forbidden in the USSR singers or foreign magazines. Moreover, another thing to be considered is that Lviv is the border city so if you fix your antenna on the Romanian “Radio Svoboda”, you may not understand the language but could listen to the forbidden in the ’Sovok’ (slang word which stands for “the USSR” with negative meaning) music. For example, lots of people listened to the music programs of legendary BBC radio presenter, Sieva Novgorodtsev.
It could happen so that the brand new album of the Beatles could appear in Lviv in two weeks after its official release in Europe. There was illegal market of the western music and music stock.
The 1960s created the new generation of people with different, mostly non-soviet, principles of life. Kolia Filatov’s dad said to his son: “How can you listen to the music without any harmony, and which eliminates all the music canons?” Kolia calmly responded: “Dad, what are you talking about? You teach Tchaikovsky for 100 roubles per month whereas one record of mine costs as much”. At the illegal music stock one could sell this record for such price and cover one month living expences. Often, just because of the prohibited in the ’Sovok’ music lots of people changed their vision of life.
For many Russians in Lviv, the city was the symbol of the West. Here was the ancient architecture and special cultural environment in which the progressive changes occured, due to interactions of Russian, Polish and Ukrainian cultures.
The Polish had much more freedom in art during the socialism times. They were into abstract art experimenting a lot. The performance art was developed there and it was known in Lviv. Almost in every single studio of artist one could find Polish art magazines which kept you up-to-date about world tendencies. All together it formed the field of alternative.
It was hard to predict how Soviet mass culture influenced their citizens. For example, the famous in Lviv hippie-biker, Penzel, changed his life after watching an American movie about bikers which was on in Soviet cinemas.
Local curator, hooligan, creator of the famous art projects (the Defloration exhibition in the Lenin Museum, 1987), Heorhii Kosovan told that in the late 1980s he saw people who came to Lviv to have coffee, to stroll around, feel the freedom and headed back to Kyiv or Moscow.
Andrii Sahaidakovskyi (one of the representatives of the Lviv underground) learnt fine art from Roman Selskyi. In the interwar period, Roman and his wife Margit (Raikh) Selska belonged to the Lviv artistic group named Artes. It was the international group of artists who parctised contemporary art in ’30s. In Lviv, Selskyi was a mediator, so-called transit junctor between western art tradition and young local audience. The Selskyis were of fine repute among Lviv elite although the Soviet system wasn’t much fond of them.
So, young Sahaidakovskyi starts to study from Selskyi who promotes the idea that modern form of West-European fine art to him. Next, in a rare bookstore with books from the Soviet block, Sahaidakovskyi finds a volume in Polish about English artists in which he discovers Francis Becon and it changes his life.
In ’80s the information stream from the West gets considerably more powerful. For an autonomous subject (a person who can get rid of the values of the ruling system without threat to his/her own life) to appear some conditions were required. In the1960s, if you didn’t work you were likely to be put behind the bars. In the early 1980s, it wasn’t that drastic anymore. You could work at a boiler station or as a sanitation worker, get your minimum salary and ignore the system.
Andrii Sahaidakovskyi got the job at Aesthetic Bureau in Lviv Polytechnic Institute. Back then, he had already known that he wasn’t going to work as an architect even though he studied at the Architecture faculty. Soon, thanks to his excellent painted posters he was allowed into the art studio. This way Sahaidakovskyi gained his own autonomous space where he could do whatever he wished. But, actually, by the end of ’80s, the works of the artist weren’t demonstrated since they didn’t match the established art standards.
The story of Oleksandr Aksinin was a bit different. He had a bunch of mates who came and bought his works for little money. It was internal support when the artists bought from the artists.
Lviv alternative to the system in the 1980s wasn’t as tough as it was in Moscow or Petersburg. This city was some kind of the Soviet island of freedom. The practice of apartment exhibitions never became common for Lviv in contrast to the east and south of Ukraine or Moscow. It was rather formation of the alternative spaces where people with different preferences mixed — meetings in private apartments or studios, public place entries — cafes, parks, dance floors.
Hippies, for example, had their own garden square, they called it ’Respublika Sviatogo Sadu’ (’The Republic of the Saint Garden’). It was a monastery garden hidden with the walls. So the members of the voluntary public order squads and policemen didn’t see what was going on in there even though it was near the Сity Committee of the Communist Party. Hippies arranged concerts, got stoned and took drugs.
In the early 1980s, in the city form many places and networks where such people as Yurii Bashmet, the violinist, Yrii Vynnychuk, the writer, Kuzia from “Hadiukin Brothers”, Oleksandr Koroliov, the psychotherapist, Vasyl Bazhai, the artist and others could meet. It was cafes and, as a rule, the coffee was drunk outside, standing or sitting on the curb.
There was a Café Nectar where people came just to release daily tension. Aksinin, Sahaidakovskyi and many others also happened to appear there. You could talk, have a coffee and next go, for instance, to someone’s studio. They called it ’vodyty kozu’ and could wander for a week from a studio to an apartment, from the apartment to a café.
In these spaces the alternative ideas had been constructed. It wasn’t the political opposition. People just despised the Soviet having alternative zones where they could talk about Heidegger, Freud, Jung — about anything that wasn’t allowed by formal structures.
The Soviet and the Social Realistic.
They reacted ultemately at “the Soviet, the alternative artists didn’t care about social realism at all. The Soviet was taken as artificial. Here, in the place with western vibes — ancient cathedrals, architecture, — you are told about some nonsense social competition.
The underground or alternative were hybrids which fell out of the definite social model in which they didn’t believe but as a rule couldn’t enter another one. So they found themselves in an imaginary space, ’the dreamland’ (as hippies) or imaginary world of contemporary art. In Lviv lived such artists as Igor Kopystianskyi with his wife Svitlana. They neither come back to their native city, nor want to have anything in common with it.
The Kopystianskis have always dreamt to breakthrough to the space of the contemporary art world, somewhere in between MoMA and the Pompidou Centre. The only opportunity for them was to move to Moscow and fulfil themselves in the alternative environment there. They totally didn’t get on board with the Soviet system, instead they hang out with Kabakov and other conceptualists, never took part in compromise exhibitions — the alternative ones only. At the Moscow Sotheby’s auction in 1988, their work was bought by Elton John for a fortune that allowed the Kopystianskyis to break free from the ’Sovok’.
Now they live in New York and consider themselves as American artists. From sociological aspect they are typical Soviet hybrids whose development is based on denial of the Soviet values and joining some different group, mostly it’s the opposite to the ’Sovok’ side. Usually, a person perceives the tradition in which he or she was brought up and isn’t eager to weasel out of it at all possible costs, like the Kopystianskis do.
Another example of Lviv culture of the 1980s is the phenomenon of “Hadiukin Brothers”. Kuzia (the mover and leader of the band) came from a Russian family. He was Russian-speaking and attended home concerts at Russian-speaking Oleksandr Koroliov’s place. They discussed everything — from psychoanalysis to modern poetry. Also, Kuzia visited underground music stock, listened to music — from rock to reggae, played at the weddings in the Halych villages, where he learnt the language which was reconstructed in the lyrics of his songs. When in the 1980s “Hadiukin Brothers” appeared their phenomenon was explained by its ingenious creators but, in fact, they represent all the alternative city space.
Sahaidakovskyi is just like that. He is the product of alternative Lviv which isn’t an aggressive rebel but rather tranquil alternative city.
Naturally, the main impetus for the development of the contemporary art in the USSR came from Moscow. In 1986 perestroika started. In 1987 the famous Young Artists Exhibition was held in the House of Artist in Moscow. Arbat gets open and all the alternative poured into the streets. In 1987 Lviv hippies after visiting Moscow said that people have already begun to go outside there. In Tallin they saw mass strikes. Coming back to Lviv they thought that it’s time to do something here. The connection Baltics-Moscow-Lviv existed apart from Kyiv.
Back then, the western museums started presenting lots of high-quality art in Moscow and every few months it was necessary to fly there to look at German expressionism or something else. There was a tension in the air. Various alternative spaces consolidated and people started to leave the underground. The Cultural Fund was founded. In 1988, about ten different communities — from national to artistic — worked in Lviv.
In 1987, Lviv artists take photos (do not exist now) of installation with alive hens in a museum. In 1990, at the Defloration exhibition in the Lenin Museum there was a coffin filled with water where a fish swam and nearby music installation projects were located. When the Union tended to crash, our cultural life activated. People massively entered the public space. In 1989, the demonstration of 100 000 for legalization of Uniate church took place.
The Authorities Response.
In dissidence there was very certain goal — to demolish the system, but Lviv alternative didn’t have such aim. The local authorities didn’t understand properly what was going on and the pressure from their side reduced. The ’80s designed the ’90s. The tension of the late 1980s exploded into loads of the alternative projects in the 1990s. By the end of the ’90s, the activity started to wane. The public space of the city was taken over by the nationalists and church, as Boria Berger (publisher from Moscow, Lvovian) says — cops with gangsters.
(recorded in August, 2013, in Lviv)