The German invasion of Donetsk during World War II nearly destroyed the city. But after the Allied victory, it rumbled back to life, thanks in part to the many women who went to work in its new factories.
It was in their honor that the nonprofit arts organization Izolyatsia, located in a former insulation materials plant, commissioned Pascale Marthine Tayou’s installation “Make Up!” (2012). For the project, the Cameroonian artist crowned one of the site’s smokestacks with a giant lipstick tube in the spirit of Claus Oldenburg’s oversized objects.
That cosmetic symbol of Donetsk’s regeneration was blown up this month by Russian separatists who have, since last spring, been waging a war that’s once again reduced parts of the city to rubble. Video footage posted online June 24 shows the altered smokestack exploding June 2 amid cheers from camo-clad militants belonging to the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).
It’s the latest in a series of destructive acts by DPR targeting contemporary art and, more specifically, Izolyatsia. The art space earned the group’s ire by resisting the xenophobic nationalism that increased in Donetsk after the fall of the Soviet Union and promoting provocative international art — being an “agent for change,” as Izolyatsia founder Luba Michailova told Hyperallergic last year. In late 2013, when the Euromaiden protests began in Kiev, the organization also screened pro-European Union documentaries about the integration movement.
On June 9, DPR seized the exhibit space, explaining, “We had no choice to occupy it, because the art, which they spread, was not an art at all. On the territory of Donetsk Republic this kind of art will be punished.” The militants quickly set about doing that to the large scale objects and installations that gallery staff had not managed to evacuate before the takeover — including works by Daniel Buren, Cai Guo Qiang, and Leandro Erlich. They turned sculptures by Kulikovoskaya and Buren into target practice and removed others from the galleries so they could use the rooms as holding and interrogation spaces for prisoners. They also sold some of the works as scrap metal or used them in the construction of checkpoints in the city, according to Izolyatsia.
As the New York Times observed, some Ukrainian bloggers are now comparing DPR’s destruction of contemporary art to ISIS’s destruction of ancient cultural heritage sites. Activist Kateryna Kruk tweeted that “apparently [DPR] considers ISIS to be [a] good example.”
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