It was Orthodox Trinity Sunday when Luba Michailova received word that separatists would soon occupy the premises of the Donetsk art centre she founded. She was in Kiev at the time, and recalls now that her first response was religious: 'Any difficulties in life you get, it's for your good, and for testing you.' The following morning, at 8 o'clock, several staff were at work cleaning when 15 men in balaclavas appeared, firing Kalashnikovs into the air. Michailova tells me, 'So when it happened, I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would be so painful.'
Donetsk now is in the hands of the masked separatists who brought down MH17. But before May, Donetsk boasted TEDxDonetsk talks, literary festivals, residencies, and exhibitions by artists from abroad. Nearly all of this was linked to Michailova’s art centre, Izolyatsia.
The centre was housed in a disused Soviet factory; Michailova’s father once ran an insulation factory there. (The name ‘Izolyatsia’ means both ‘insulation’ and ‘isolation’.) Since its occupation by the Donetsk People’s Republic on June 9, the artists are now in exile, mostly in Kiev.
Izolyatsia’s staff were told they could return to collect their property the next day. The next morning, they were initially denied entry; then, they were permitted to enter a building that was filled with empty vodka bottles, and from which had been looted all tools, machines and computer equipment - even the safe holding small change from the café, and steel doors that had been cut and sold for scrap.
'It's the same people who shot the Boeing,' says Michailova. Likewise, 'the people who took over Izolyatsia didn't even realise what was in it.'
Certainly, the separatists' taste in art is not contemporary. Leonid Baranov, head of the People's Republic of Donetsk's special committee (or Cheka), is now installed in the art centre’s premises. He leafs through a 2004 art book by Boris Mikhailov, a celebrated photographer of the late Soviet period. 'Drug use and this kind of art will be punished here,' he says. 'This is pornography. That is why we could only oust these sick and foul people from the factory's territory.'
‘These people hate everything Slavic, everything Russian,’ Baranov says, adding that they ‘trained here everyone they could’. He continues: ‘Our young people should grow, get married, get children, and generally multiply exponentially the population of our republic. It's logical that we've taken measures to throw this so-called art to the garbage bin. Everything that looked kind of like art here we've allowed to carry out. Normal paintings, landscapes, and everything else. Here, for example, and the rest. Here. I don't understand it. I think in our republic we can live without these things.’
Three weeks after the centre’s seizure, Michailova and a group of Izolyatsia artists painted signs and went to stand outside the Mariyinsky Palace, the home of Ukraine’s president. Says Michailova, this was to ‘draw attention to refugees, not just people, but cultural institution refugees’.
One artist was Mariia Kulikovskaya, a 26-year-old sculptor born in Crimea. Michailova recalls, 'I said, "oh my gosh, tomorrow Manifesta 10 is opening"'—a European contemporary art biennial, which this year was held in St Petersburg—'"and I have a VIP invitation if anyone wants to come and do a protest there?" And Masha says, "yes, yes, I do."'
Visitors to the Hermitage in St Petersburg on July 1 may have glimpsed Kulikovskaya on exhibit outside the General Staff building, staging a 'die-in' on the steps, draped with a Ukrainian flag she had sewed an hour before so as not to tip off border police. The Izolyatsia foundation paid for her transport and expenses, and promised to put up her bail if she were to be arrested.
Kulikovskaya had been scheduled to undertake a summer residency at Izolyatsia before it was occupied; earlier, she had gifted the centre two sets of sculptures based on her own body, 20 in total. Three of them are made from soap and left outside, 'slowly to die, and dissolve, and disappear'. According to the commander of the separatist soldiers occupying Izolyatsia, the soldiers have been using her sculptures for target practice. 'Yeah', Kulikovskaya responds, when I ask how it feels to have your simulacra shot at, 'everywhere, my army, die by real war and real terrorists.'
She says she would like to return to Izolyatsia and find fragments of her statues. ‘I do not know now about this little army, silent but very courageous, abandoned and forgotten,’ she tells me. But she adds that she would like to recast them in more lasting materials, as a tribute ‘to those people who were shot after a workout on my army’.
Kulikovskaya has since then been with her wife in the eastern city of Kharkiv. There, she says, displaced people have not been welcomed by the local government, but local residents have donated clothes, food and living space. Izolyatsia located her a substitute residency in Montreal, with a contemporary art centre called Arsenal, but Kulikovskaya has been unable to obtain a visa from the Canadian government. ‘It’s extremely difficult for Ukrainians now to get visas,’ says Kulikovskaya.
Since being forced to flee their centre, the collective of artists are largely living on in Kiev. They have held monthly ‘miners’ lunches’ for refugees from the east (where mining has historically figured large). Their first exhibit in Kiev was Five Minutes Till, by a Donetsk collective called 'zhuzhalka' - a local term for coal slag, or simply for something banal. The works, highly conceptual evocations of Donetsk on the eve of the Maidan protests, had been sent to the capital for display shortly before the centre’s occupation. The ‘five minutes’ refer to the clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the exhibition depicts a city called ‘Rust’; its inhabitants are depicted in photographs submerged in jars of homemade alcohol, sleeping in alcoholic stupor and isolated from one another. The choice of fonts and the vintage of watches displayed on a refrigerator reference a Soviet past, and the chilling effects of nostalgia. It is critical, highly local, and none of it would feature in Commissioner Baranov’s republic.
This is the sort of art that Izolyatsia intends to continue producing about and for Donetsk, even if for the moment it will do so in Kiev. Michailova promises to send me art, decadent art - and asks if I will accompany her when they are eventually able to return to their premises in Donetsk, to see what of it remains. I tell her it's a date.
Pádraig Belton is a writer based in London.