It was the feast of Triytsya, Orthodox Trinity Sunday, when Luba Michailova received word that separatists would soon occupy the Donetsk art centre she had founded. Michailova was in Kiev and her first response was: "Any difficulties in life you get, it's for your good and for testing you."
The following morning, several staff were at work when 15 men in balaclavas appeared, firing Kalashnikovs into the air.
“When it happened I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would be so painful,” says Michailova.
Donetsk is now in the hands of the same group of masked separatists who brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. But before May, the city had hosted TEDx talks, literary festivals and exhibitions by artists from abroad. Nearly all of these were linked to Michailova’s art centre, Izolyatsia.
The centre was in a disused Soviet factory; Michailova’s father once ran an insulation factory there. (The word Izolyatsia means both “insulation” and “isolation”.)
Since its occupation by the Donetsk People’s Republic on June 9th, the artists have stayed away, mostly in Kiev.
Izolyatsia’s staff were told they could return to collect their property the next day. The next morning, they were at first denied entry. After they were permitted to enter the building, they found it was filled with empty vodka bottles. All their tools, machines, and computer equipment were gone, as was the safe holding small change from the cafe, and steel doors, which had been sold for scrap.
“The people who took over Izolyatsia didn’t even realise what was in it,” she says.
The separatists seem to have little appetite for contemporary art. Leonid Baranov, head of the Donetsk People's Republic special committee, who is now installed in the art centre's premises, 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.
“These people hate everything Slavic, everything Russian,” he says. “They trained here everyone they could.
“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 in the garbage bin.
“Everything that looked kind of like art here we’ve allowed to carry out. Normal paintings, landscapes and everything else. 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 in Kiev, the official residence of the president of Ukraine.
Michailova says this was to “draw attention to refugees, not just people, but cultural institution refugees”. One artist who joined her was Mariia (Masha) Kulikovskaya, a 26-year-old sculptor born in Crimea.
St Petersburg protest
Michailova had a VIP invite to Manifesta 10, a European contemporary art biennial, which was taking place in June in the Hermitage museum of art and culture in St Petersburg.
Kulikovskaya went there in her place and
staged a “die in” on the steps, as a form of temporary exhibit on the steps of the General Staff building. Kulikovskaya was draped in a Ukrainian flag she had sewn an hour before so as not to tip off border police. Izolyatsia paid for her transport and expenses, and promised to put up her bail if she were arrested.
Kulikovskaya had been scheduled to undertake a summer residency at Izolyatsia before it was occupied. She had gifted the centre two sets of sculptures based on her own body, 20 in total. Three, Homo bulla, are made from soap and were left outside "slowly to die and dissolve and disappear".
According to Mongol, the current commander of the separatists occupying Izolyatsia, they have been using her sculptures for target practice.
I ask her how it feels to have her simulacrum shot at. “Yeah,” she says, “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 says. She would like to recast them in more lasting materials as a tribute to the people who were shot.
Since then, Kulikovskaya has been to the eastern city of Kharkiv with her wife, where she says displaced people have not been welcomed by the local government, although local people have donated clothes, food and living space.
Izolyatsia found her a substitute residency in Montreal with a contemporary art centre called Arsenal, but she has been unable to get a visa from the Canadian government. “It’s extremely difficult for Ukrainians now to get visas,” says Michailova.
Since being forced to flee from their centre, the collective members have largely been living in Kiev. Their first exhibition there was Five Minutes Till by a Donetsk collective called Zhuzhalka, a local term for coal slag or 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 a clock on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that highlights how close we are to destroying our civilisation with dangerous technologies such as nuclear weapons. The exhibition depicts a city called Rust whose inhabitants are shown 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 Baranov’s republic. It is the sort of art Izolyatsia intends to continue to produce about and for Donetsk, even if for the moment it will do so in Kiev.