Mr. Oleksandr Shchelushchenko, the owner of Kyiv-based Contemporary Art Gallery TSEKH, is the interlocutor who deserves a special attention. Not only because his gallery, established 10 years ago, has up until now been the most innovative in Ukraine. Shchelushchenko has been maintaining very goods relationships with Lithuania for a number of years. This year, it is the sixth time when he participates in the Contemporary Art Fair ArtVilnius’15 which is taking place on 25–28 June, and is one of the members of the council of the at fair.
Oleksandr Shchelushchenko told in the interview about difficulties Ukrainian galleries have to overcome during this complicated period for the country and sheared his optimistic views about the future of TSEKH, also mentioning about his plans to open a unit of the gallery in Vilnius.
To start with, please tell your story about how you’ve come to be a part of the world of art. I know that you are a professional TV and film producer.
I earned my first degree as a TV and film producer in Kyiv, in 2001. Then, in Moscow, I studied screenwriting at te Russian State Cinema Institute, planning to earn a degree as a comedy screenwriter, but the death of my course tutor, Valentyn Iezhov (“White Sun of the Desert”, a classic Ostern film of the Soviet Union), and the Orange revolution forced me to stay in Ukraine in 2004. Afterwards, TSEKH was initiated in 2005.
I was not a pioneer in the art world. In fact, I have been communicating with artists and art critics since my adolescence, our dormitories were close in Kyiv. Furthermore, my older cousin is and expert of antiques’ market.
The TV and cinema world is busy with “star-making”. Was your experience as that of a producer of any help in creating the name of your gallery’s artists and making them known outside Ukraine?
Of course it was. I’m an agent for TSEKH Gallery artists, helping them to create and exhibit their artworks, promoting them for financial and other institutional audiences – that is all very close to producer’s activity. However, a gallerist is focused mainly on an individual viewer, and popularity is not always about the quality and originality of an artwork. Redundant and quick PR success can be harmful for an artist.
When you opened TSEKH in 2005, it was the first gallery in Ukraine that has set ambitious targets to promote its artists on international level, i.e. in international exhibitions and art fairs. In addition, one of your strategic goals has been to introduce new, unknown contemporary artists and to make them “art stars”. Please tell me more about the principles you use for your activities.
When I opened TSEKH, I used as a basis the log-standing principles of work and experience of Western galleries. This idea was implemented by famous Western galleries many years ago. A gallerist can be interesting for the world only in case of inventing and establishing new artists’ names, better – new trends… Then, he/she is becoming fixed by the global art discourse, his/her activity has positive feedback, and finally he/she has demand on it. Otherwise, you have all chances to become a kind of a thrift shop, which is between an artist, collector, and art curator. However, sooner or later you will be forgotten.
Through 10 years of owning TSEKH, I guess, you can shortly narrate how the situation with art galleries changed in Kyiv and in the whole of Ukraine. Are they establishing a new art market model? Promoting their artists abroad?
Unfortunately, no, and I am very sad that we do not have a professional gallerists’ association in Ukraine. Majority of them can not make their livings on selling artworks; they are either doing other businesses, or extend their galleries’ production to cafés or bars. Thus, such a huge diapason of activities is not for a sophisticated viewer or a collector to get concentrated on a particular artist, his/her career development. It normally takes two or three weeks in Ukraine to make a new exhibition project. As a result, galleries produce up to thirty exhibition projects per year, and their content is lessening in quality. Artists can not find their stable and comfortable places; they must migrate or work in satellite businesses. Certainly, such trends are negative. On the other hand, I realise that it is very hard to make an emphasis on the only one; gallerists and artists do not trust each other, although they must be the best partners. From time to time, I’ve been an art curator within our residential artists’ projects, but their own statements and gestures are the most significant thing.
In Lithuania, we had to teach art clients and artists the simple rules of art market. Buyers were often trying to circumvent the gallery altogether by going directly to the artist’s studio to bargain for a better price. We are hoping that very soon our artists will finally understand that if you don’t have a gallery – you are not ‘represented’. Was the same situation in Ukraine (Kyiv) and maybe you are still suffering from these problems?
I experienced this problem in the beginning of my career. During two years I was cozen by artists and other “people of fine art”, and I was furious about the Ukrainian art stage. The gallery only took my money, energy, and time. And suddenly I was forced to deny the older model of gallery’ business, when artists and gallerists were partners in one exhibition project. In that case they were not successful; they became split for a long time. I am now working with artists who absolutely trust me, so that is why you can not find even one artwork in their studios that was signed without my approval. And the most important, you can see their artworks only at TSEKH. Also you can find artworks of those, who undoubtedly prove their art quality and originality.
It is hard to speak about Ukrainian art nowadays without mentioning the political context. As you already mentioned me before, TSEKH is very affected by the political situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian contemporary art market is almost completely shrunk because of a fact that many rich Ukrainians left the country. So how is your gallery surviving these times?
The situation is very complicated. I do not want to hide a fact that, besides rich people, artists also want to leave the country. Currently TSEKH is able to minimize such moods of its own residential artists. For now we have five of them and the sixth one is VALYA, US artist of Ukrainian origin. By the way, her expo “SHE” is currently available in the gallery. It is an installation from the “Victory red” industrial felt, discussing Ukrainian roots, ancient symbols, and females’ roles in ancient times and today. This project is a non-commercial gift from the artist, which is exposing now just in right time. Because when you do not have art buyers, you must make gifts… We are continuing our partnership with Western and Southern galleries and collectors. I feel that we lost our thirty percent in the Russian Federation, but there are too many interesting places in the world, it is so hard to stop us! Perhaps, sometime I will realize my old dream, and will open a TSEKH’s branch in Vilnius. I even began to study the Lithuanian language.
Do local artists reflect the political situation through their art works? Do they often use this theme? Can you give me some examples?
I do not know direct reflections, but you can find indirect ones in “Appolonide” by Mykola Bilous, also in “Pier” by Ievgen Petrov. I am literally AGAINST interpreting fine art as a caricature or direct reaction… To my opinion, Maidan itself was the biggest art object, where I really experienced catharsis, like in classical Greek theatre, singing Ukrainian hymn! For me, it is not interesting to parasite on that.
Under the TSEKH wings you sheltered six artists. How did you choose them?
Everything is clear – if a talented person is honest, he/she is our artist! Seriously speaking, I am interested in new decisions in terms of forms, colors, and subjects. You see, art collectors who have bought one artist more than three times are very interested in his/her career development; there is a resemblance of life experience and cultural taste. Regarding artists’ selection, this is an open process, which is going through the whole life and can not be stopped. I do not want to expand the list, because sometimes we do not have enough time even for six artists.
You have been participating in ArtVilnius for 6 years, from the very beginning of the Fair, 2009. Your artist Mykola Bilous was awarded as the best foreign artist in 2013. I guess, you can tell how the art market changed in these years and whether art collectors are now looking differently at your gallery’s artists? I know that most of them have a really good name among foreign art collectors.
To my mind, ArtVilnius is not only a fair for sales, but also for purchases of Lithuanian and other foreign artists by my collectors, and finally it is a discovery of new art names. Only younger generation of Lithuanian collectors pay attention at TSEKH. However, for now we do not consider crucial changes regarding artworks’ prices or artist’ status.
In general, Lithuanians are very friendly and hospitable for Ukrainians. Four days of ArtVilnius is such a short period of time to discuss with everyone and make perfect presentation… I am sure that after the interview is issued, the situation will change completely! Furthermore, I am sure that sooner or later Vilnius will become a center of contemporary culture.
In the Art Fair ArtVilnius, you have many times presented the watercolors of artist Ievgen Petrov. And we are very happy to see his watercolors again in ArtVilnius’15. Can you shortly present this artist, how did you discover him? What is the phenomenon of his watercolors that impress everyone?
Thank you, your question contains a hidden compliment! His artworks are always striking me. His main weapon is post-modern subject, realized by a masterly-managed watercolor technique, inaccessible for the best old and contemporary masters. In his artworks, he usually takes compositions from old traditions or cinema; especially he likes complicated poly-figurative panoramas and sequences. In fact, humor and unpredictable situations are changed by melancholy and utopianism of human intentions. The absolutely ideal performance of the artworks gives importance and originality to this author. Moreover, even other artists are frequently buying Ievgen Petrov’s artworks.
In 2011, you decided to come back to your TV production roots and directed a documentary about your artist Mykola Bilous “Kolunia“. Production of the film continued for 2 years. Why did you decide to create this documentary? And how did you discover Mykola Bilous?
It was interesting experience, female collectors from five different countries and cultures were the documentary’s protagonists. It was very important to capture Mykola Bilous’ initial female inventors and his own figure that time. He is a teacher and an experimenter at the same time. His visual invention is a crucial step in the theory of colors: complimentary color inversion has not been used before. Sometimes, it is so hard to know this and stay calm. So the documentary was the smallest thing I could do for the artist of such a level. I am not in a hurry to share it publicly, rather preferring to demonstrate it in art fairs and cinema festivals. This is the documentary for art lovers, narrow audience…
The last question. Your future plans, exhibitions?
First of all, to save the artists and the gallery. Presumably, I will visit some more art fairs this year. In September, together with Meno Niša gallery, we are holding Mykola Bilous’ exhibition “Just color” at the Vilnius Academy of Arts Exhibition Hall Titanikas in Vilnius. Also, we will be celebrating the gallery’s tenth anniversary with the project “SPORT: let the strongest win!”
And also, to get closer to Lithuania, to Vilnius city, where I always feel myself like an adolescent.