In Residence /

An End in Itself

In the aftermath of organizing an unrealized exhibition at artist-run institution Odium Fati in San Francisco, K.r.m. Mooney offers a set of relations between participating figures. These six installments, contributed to Flash Art’s “In Residence” column, are a means for the artist to pursue the significance of each context-specific practice and the potential actions, kinships, and alignments between these figures.

Naming a place one has a stake in, where one lives and works, is not inconsequential when the lines we follow function as forms of alignment or as a way of being in line with others. This also implies our corporeal alignments, behaviors, and orientations. To think in spatial terms, the spaces I move through — their responsiveness toward difference, economics, climate, and physical arrangement — create a set of affordances: a tendency or possibility for a one set of actions or forms of engagement over others. Working outside of a center, there is a turn to artist-run spaces and a potential to see through a different set of values when it comes to producing and exhibiting art. A dustpan, a kitchen, a stove, a bed: these are all things I’ve inherited from past exhibitions. There is a kind of transparency relative to the maintenance of space and the body that I’ve learned as a condition of where I work and live.

Pied-à-terre inhabited a garage beneath artist McIntyre Parker’s apartment. This quiet space provided a ground for exhibitions in San Francisco from 2011 to 2015. Positioned by Parker as an off-space and occasional publisher, it was a single-work exhibition format where, during open hours, one might encounter a breach of its inherently domestic infrastructure as a consequence of Parker and other tenants living above. One entered via a driveway with a slightly lower-than-ground-level slope. A concrete platform provided the main spatial delineation, with no wall to make clear the space of the exhibition and its perennial edges used for tenant storage. This was an intention, an open line between domesticity and exhibition; a building as movement of sedimentation and stabilization, but also a site of opening space and living.

Taking place at the same 2nd Avenue address, artist-run institution Odium Fati inherited multiple forms of significance historically and in the present. As a result of Parker’s relocation, the transference of space from Pied-a-terre to Odium Fati occurred out of necessity — an act of collective recuperation but also friendship. Felt aspects of Pied-à-terre were passed on; beyond exhibitions occurring in the same physical location, they continued to arrive out of an economy of means. For example, I spoke at length with Benjamin Ashlock and Diego Villalobos about the timing of the exhibition I planned to organize. We speculated its arrival in the program around the spring of 2018, though all agreed: only as the fullness of daily life permitted.

Most artist-run institutions are less staid organizations — sites of mutual entanglement operating from a coming-togetherness and coarticulation that is always implicated in a practice of self-questioning: What kind of institution are we? What kinds of values do we institutionalize? What forms of practice do we reward, and what kinds of rewards do we aspire to? Through which figures and citations do we build our dwellings? As worlds are built out of citational habits, the potential to gather works for this exhibition was a way of picking up figures as a mode of revision, a means of thinking with my own practice. A further attunement and attention to what gets gathered up, used, and shared; an attentiveness to which seeds should be saved for future re-seeding, future re-worlding. Odium Fati offered a space of physical and locally situated reflexivity by way of Pied-à-terre’s embodied history, allowing the works to enter the significance of this site. A possibility to lay out another path through which site and artworks are encountered and mutually constituted in a back-and-forth exchange, the goal of which may change as forms and their values enfold.

K.r.m. Mooney is an artist living and working in Oakland, California.

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In Residence /

The Bottle, The Net, The Shell, The Clay Pot

In the aftermath of organizing an unrealized exhibition at artist-run institution Odium Fati in San Francisco, K.r.m. Mooney offers a set of relations between participating figures. These six installments, contributed to Flash Art’s “In Residence” column, are a means for the artist to pursue the significance of each context-specific practice and the potential actions, kinships, and alignments between these figures.

Dear L,

I hope this message finds you well.

I’m working on my first exhibition with Altman Siegel that will open January of 2019 and have an inquiry for you.

The practice of June Schwarcz has held my thoughts in a significant and sustained way since arriving at her work in your house. I’ve spent the last year scheduling informational interviews with June’s colleagues and other collaborators in June’s life who have had personal relationships with her. These meetings have provided a great wealth of knowledge. This has also been in the context of the Jewelry/Metal Arts department at CCA, and since reaching out it has become clear that the ethical and emotional stakes require a lot of care to traverse.

This is to say, I intended to include her work in an exhibition I was organizing earlier this year at an artist-run space called Odium Fati, but unfortunately the space had to end its current operation due to increasing rents. Moving forward in my thinking, I am trying to understand how I can address the protocol and the context of my exhibition at Altman Siegel while having June’s work present within the exhibition.

For me, this gesture is a form of participation, as art and its historiographies thrive on singularity — an increasingly unavailable mode to live and think with while embodying difference. The exhibition I am working on prefers to focus on relations themselves and the dynamics between figures. In addition, through our corporeal interfacing and participation, we inherit material and political conditions of a shared and public life, which is always entangled with an inner world. I think June’s forms may act as a potential carrier of this inner world in ways I locate in her attention to the body, to garments, the serial impulse of her practice, and the use of enameling and electroplating, a technique and process that is particularly “lively” in its requirements to sustain and care.

I was wondering if you knew and were in good standing with June’s daughter, who I heard runs her estate?

Is there a way you could put me in touch?

I am working with the support of Altman Siegel so they would also be facilitators in this potential exchange.

Be in touch with any questions or concerns. I appreciate your time.

All My Best,

Mooney

The practice of ornamentation is one that is carefully and intimately embodied. Ornamentation, the tools and facilities found within this field, are collaborators — coproducers in finding new bodily capacities. I have long been a student in addressing jewelry as operating within a social domain, but the way I’ve moved through my practice is to examine these extensions, the complex interaction of objects as spatial, material, technological, biological: severely entangled entities.

June Schwarcz arrived at her practice during a time in modern art when fineness was abjured. The late Sausalito-based enamelist worked with small, intimate objects such as bowls, chiefly presented as container or shell. A few surrounding works include panels and inlaid tops for wooden boxes, partly because her kiln would not hold anything larger than twelve inches. Treating the metal in two different modes, enameling and electroplating, June used nitric or ferric acid depending on the effect she wanted to achieve. She would pound and shape copper on a pair of wooden stumps in her basement or use metal foil as an electroplating base. She deferred the common impulse in craft to overwork; she was sensitive to her processes’ active participation as producers of form. It took a minimum of five firings to complete a piece, utilizing enamel’s behavior of translucency and opacity “as color caught below a surface where it remains forever untouched, except by light. While one can penetrate the surface visually as much as its transparencies permit, it is also reflective, and gives back to the viewer the circumstances in which they behold it.” Troubling the attributes of and relations between objects and their spatial determinations, ideas of active and still, interior and exterior, June’s works recount these bifurcations. They are manipulated to produce meaning that surfaces in the vessels entirety. She understood light as an operative deployed alongside other coproducing systems: glass particles, heat, electricity, and their resulting behaviors. While her works have been overlooked in the context of art, her practice can be unraveled through materialist considerations: vessel as informant of our physical world, of the conditions for which it was produced, and from one’s own mode of living: one’s inner world as a dimension of knowing.

K.r.m. Mooney is an artist living and working in Oakland, California.

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In Residence /

Orison II

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the sixth and final installment.

I’ve been trying to teach myself to pray this past year, apparently shaken out of some spiritual hibernation by the tanks and explosions of last years’ war parade down Khreshchatyk Boulevard during my first visit. Now, every sunset, every body of water, every kind gesture is a catharsis in which I drop to my knees, rip open my chest in reverence, pull out my teeth and, with tears streaming down my face, mouth the words: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It’s ridiculous but refreshing.

Friends have tried to ask me to define what exactly I mean by praying, and usually I say something like, “You know, nature, energy… that stuff,” because I really don’t have any better way to describe it, and I worry that if I put it into words I might break the spell and it’ll disappear.

This spring I’m walking with a friend through the Neapoli neighborhood in Athens, right where it slopes up to Mount Lycabettus, a hill formed when Athena dropped a piece of limestone after receiving bad news from a white raven (which she then turned black). I hear the sounds of vespers beginning from one of the ubiquitous orthodox churches that appear every few hundred meters. I suggest we enter, but my friend tells me she won’t, that she hates the Byzantines because for her they represent the end of the Goddess in Western culture. She does yoga every morning and lights a candle to Saint Expedite and a cast of deities she’s collected through books, study, and travel, and has developed a version of mythology on her own terms that forms an aesthetic center for her morning ritual and comforts her in times of crisis.

I, however, want to go into the church and demand they explain how they’re communicating with their god so I can better understand how to communicate with mine. I do finally step in one day, but I find myself feeling underwhelmed and a bit stifled. Guess I’m happier with my sunsets and the magic of pollen in the air than dark halls with bearded men in black robes. The sound of their prayer, though, is undeniable: a purity of belief that, regardless of my own feelings about big-brand religions, is impossible to disregard.

While buying milk at a convenience store in Tehran I notice, behind the till, the shop owner on the floor crouching in prayer, his body directed toward mecca. His co-worker walks over him to ring me up and then walks back over him to continue taking inventory, the ceremony never interrupted. That a prayer can take a form so simultaneously committed and casual, so integrated but performative, is a phenomenon to me.

***

So here I am: me, the sky, and this tiny drunk Ukrainian creature whose body treats mine with such kind firmness that every cynicism I try and invoke to pull myself out of this moment is immediately vaporized when I feel the pulse of his breath escaping. I convince myself that I am comfortable in this moment, even if the awkward position he’s pulled me into is killing my lower back. But I’ll stay here, my body curved in reverence and ritual.

I’m listening to his heart and it sounds healthy and Jiminy Cricket is whispering in my ear that I need to be careful about this guy, that I have a bad habit of investing considerable energy into too-short moments with friendly guys in foreign places. But I believe in these moments (whatever they are)! This moment of quiet ecstasy perfumed by the smell of his breath, an entire bottle of white wine and countless whiskey sours. Is this what the Sufis sing about? All the elements are here for a Rumi verse. I’m writing love letters in the sky with my eyes, dotting each ‘i’ in “i love you” with a new star. An infinite number of love letters directed nowhere and everywhere. Momentarily balancing complete selfishness with altruism.

I guess this is praying.

I follow the steps:
I tear my body apart to share and absorb with what’s around me at the same time.
I pull out my teeth to demand change.
I make a vow to try and never celebrate cruelty.
And I mouth the words: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Walking home, he picks me a marigold and I absentmindedly place it in my pocket and forget about it. When I find it a week later back in Berlin, dried up and shriveled, I place it on my window sill alongside a bottle of gold schnapps made by German monks, a white plaster bust of Nefertiti, a brass Omega sign I got from a fisherman in Piraeus, and a peach-colored sea shell I picked up on the beach of Kamakura. My collection of relics.

It’s my last night and he’s asleep next to me. I’m leaving in a few hours, so that’s where this ends. We’ll send each other hearts and flower icons, type “miss you” and gently tap a piece of glass to confirm our existence to one another with less and less frequency for seven days until we’re strangers again and he becomes another myth that I’ll spend a few sleepless nights like this trying to understand.

But for now my body is open.
My lips are almost raw from earlier that night. He’s folded himself into me again and is holding on so tightly I feel like I’ll rupture and burst into dust.

Moments like this happen so rarely that I’m convinced it’s a manipulation from god so that we’ll forgive ourselves for everything else.

At 6 am on the eleventh floor in a hotel room painted pink,
out the window sunlight is lipping a gold-topped church and a radio tower with its first breath
and I am stroking your eyebrows and the loose hairs come off on my thumb
and for each one I make the same wish: that time will bend to my will and stretch this moment out for millennia and we will turn to marble.

You press your chin into my neck and I am completely undone.

 

(“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”)

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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In Residence /

Orison I

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the fifth installment.

“Hey, why does everyone say спасибо instead of Дякую?” I ask him after the waitress brings us two steaming bowls of borscht and a plate of raw spring onion and salo (cured slices of pure pig fat). These words mean “Thank you” in Russian and Ukrainian respectively.

I have no idea what part of the city we’re in anymore. A driver brought us here and I’ve given up on trying to find my bearings in Kyiv. It’s been a week of marathon drinking and fashion events, and I’ve been shuttled around from place to place in a van with darkened windows so I’m feeling pretty discombobulated. I know we were just at a palace. And I don’t remember crossing the river. So I guess we’re still on the south bank? If that’s even what they call it.

This is the longest we’ve been together alone and sober, and the first time we’ve attempted an extended conversation without the aid of one of his ubiquitous model-friends functioning as our unwitting translator. It’s been previously explained to me that he had a traumatic experience with a particularly volatile English teacher in his childhood, which stunted his learning. I believe it; I watch the suffering on his face as he tries to string together the right words to form a sentence. I also realize that this is the first time I’ve directly asked him about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

“Many Russians in Kyiv. In Ukraine.” He finally spits out.
“Me — I am, mmmm…” he struggles again.
“You’re Russian?”
“…mmmm part.” He’s looking me in the eye intensely like he’s trying to pass on information telepathically. I think he’d like to elaborate but we’ve reached the extent of our common language skills.

Sadly, we don’t have ESP.

A little defeated, he retreats back into his phone to catch up with the constant flow of incoming text messages. He’s a popular guy and tries his best to take care of everyone. I fill the silence by speaking enthusiastically about nothing in particular and laughing at my own jokes, a special skill I’ve developed by living alone for six years.

It’s been almost a year since I left him in a taxi on a corner in Paris, and we’ve had very little communication since. A couple of messages here and there, a few interactions on social media. I have no idea what’s happened to him during this time, and as far as I know he hasn’t kept tabs on me. And yet we seem to have picked up pretty much exactly where we left off. Time folds and two chapters from either end of a book suddenly come one right after another. We’re still very much strangers, and in many ways I’m projecting all my desires onto him in a way that is probably unfair and unrealistic, but we’re familiar and comfortable in each other’s company, even when silent. Being around him calms me down.

A few days earlier he’s invited me to his friend’s wedding, or rather the after-party, in the empty hall of a new museum constructed to reflect the architectural vernacular of prewar Europe, only with cheaper materials: hollow granite, plastic marble, drywall interiors. It’s become a popular style in recent years and I can’t help but draw some line between the emergence of a Disneyworld neoclassicism in our capital cities and the rise of a weird retro-futurism in international politics.

He wants to make out and he’s relentless.

He demands an intimacy from me in a way I’ve never experienced from another guy before. He doesn’t seem to have a filter through which to express his affection. He adores dogs, and I’ve observed the way he interacts with them; it’s not entirely dissimilar to the way he handles me, simultaneously trying to calm and conquer. To soothe his way into my space until I’m comfortable enough for a mutual embrace. To have me on my back as though it were my choice. He bulldozes my expectations of how men are supposed to touch one another — a difficult thing to write when I reflect on how I’ve been treated in the past, and, more worryingly, how I may have treated others.

***

Do you remember the last time I held you before we lost our love? I’m not sure I can. I remember one night when I couldn’t sleep and was tossing and turning until you gently grabbed my arm and folded my body into yours with a tenderness that surprised me so much that I passed out almost instantly. I remember when you punched my rib and told me you hoped my flight later that day would crash, and I remember discovering the bruise while showering at the hotel that night. I Remember when I finally hit you back at a crowded bar and people applauded me and declared me the winner, not because good had triumphed but because cruelty is far more entertaining and it confirmed their expectations of how men should communicate: assured mutual destruction.

And I remember the last time we tried to have sex, and instead of making new love the old simply melted off of our bodies and onto the dirty sheets around us like oil absorbing into a paper towel. Congealing and staining and finally being crumpled up and tossed away.

But the details of our stories fade with time.

Oh, time.

***

He’s literally ripping apart my face with his stubble. At one point I have to hold his arms behind his back just to keep up a conversation with the other guests at the party.

Eventually he wrestles free and turns and says, “Hey, Hey! I love you. I love you.” And starts to kiss me again.

His eyes are almost closed and he’s so wasted he can barely hold himself up straight. I’m not sure he’s really aware of what he’s saying, so I smile noncommittally and say, “Yeah, I love you too,” and let him destroy my face again while I process the sentence over and over in my mind. The last boy to tell me he loved me would leave me with a bruised body and a broken spirit within the course of a year, so, drunk talk or no, it’s a complicated thing to hear. At one point he goes to find a cigarette and I quickly Google Ukrainian translations for love. There are two apparently. Любов (platonic) and Кохання (romantic). When he returns I consider asking him to say it in Ukrainian so I can get a better grasp of what he meant, but I decide that would be a dick move and, anyways, I wouldn’t know how to respond to either.

He finally relinquishes my mouth for a moment while he takes a short nap on the steps outside the main hall. When I make a move to go to the bar he grabs my arm tightly and wheezes, “No, stay!” and pulls my head down to rest on his chest. I can hear his heavy heartbeat while Ukrainian techno plays in the background and the Dnieper River expands out below us under a cloudless sky freckled with white stars. With my temple on his chest and my eyes toward the moon I attempt a prayer.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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Hills / Tokyo, Athens, Tehran

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the fourth installment.

I started taking long walks about a year ago. By long I mean four to five hours, maybe fifteen to twenty kilometers. Initially it was a way to lose weight. For the first time in my life I’d found steady, lucrative employment with a start-up in Berlin and was able to pay off the massive health insurance debt I’d accrued after three years of trying to provide for myself as a touring musician. The job consisted of sitting in bed and filing through a never-ending stream of user-uploaded vacation photos and rating them on a four-point scale to assess their sales potential as stock photography. I would do this three to five hours — or roughly four to six thousand images — a day, completely stationary except for my fingers as they frantically selected digits, the BBC World Service or Aljazeera running perpetually in the background.

I managed to pay off the debt in two months but decided to build a small financial nest egg for myself. I knew the company was designing an AI that would ultimately replace me, and who knew when I’d find work again. So I continued to maintain the heavy workload while enjoying my newfound middle-classness by feeding back into the start-up economy and ordering Foodora or Deliveroo everyday, only getting out of bed to open the door for the delivery man or to relieve myself.

I’m a slender human being: small skeleton, narrow shoulders, 158 centimeters short, a skull shaved smooth to mask premature balding, but a young face despite my age. Fat doesn’t redistribute around my body evenly — I only gain mass around my stomach and face. Coming out of the shower — after nine months on the job and probably two thousand euros’ worth of Korean delivery in my system — I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondered why one of the Roswell aliens was staring back at me. I’m not particularly vain (who, me?), but I’m single and men are horrible, so I knew something would need to change if I ever hoped to one day split the rent.

I despise the gym. Maybe it’s because my father was a volleyball coach. Maybe I can’t stand that it represents a false spiritual center for gay men (Smash the idols I say! Burn the heretics!). Or maybe I just inherited some lazy genes from a distant ancestor who managed to pass on his DNA despite Darwinism’s best efforts. Whatever the reason, it’s always been difficult to for me to find a physical outlet that I consider both ethically sound and spiritually invigorating. And practical. I used to swim as a kid, but public pools in Berlin are too expensive. I bought kettle bells and a pull-up bar, but my apartment is too small do any kind of real workout. I used to dance every night, but I’ve spent too many evenings getting fucked up in dark clubs and now my body and soul groan every time I venture out to those dimly lit concrete playgrounds.

I went on my first ever self-financed vacation to Tokyo last year. I thought I’d do it up proper, so I saved enough to have three thousand euros at my disposal. I wouldn’t have to worry about asking prices or feeling depressed when something felt outside my budget. Turns out three thousand is a lot, but not actually. Like a king fresh from his coronation, I waltzed into the Comme des Garçons flagship and confidently picked out an entire ensemble that looked smart and natural, like a second velvety skin, and asked them to ring it up. I’m not really a shopper so I don’t know what I expected the total to be, but when it came to eight thousand euros I started to cry. Tears of frustration for the nasty capitalist machine I have yet to harness, tears of self-pity because I cared so much, and tears of embarrassment because I was crying at the Comme des Garçons shop in Tokyo.

The luxury industry is mostly for looking, I suppose.

And so I left the store empty-handed and teetering on the edge of a total nervous breakdown in a city that won’t shut up. And I just started to walk.

And walk.

And walk.

And then I tripped.

Then I swore.

Then I walked some more until, after maybe an hour, I was pulled out of my own private hell by the breeze of a motorcycle rushing past me at close proximity. I’d somehow wandered onto one of the city’s elevated highways, where I’m pretty sure pedestrians are not supposed to be. But that didn’t matter because all of a sudden I was walking along the tops of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and I could see the city unfolding before me for the very first time. I was beholden to this elevation because it gave me the perspective to both literally and transcendently rise above everything. All of a sudden, a walk of class shame had transformed into a manifestation of my wanderlust; I forgot all about those silly pieces of fabric so brilliantly haberdashed (A lie! I’ll never forget how handsome they made me.) But this was a luxury I could afford, and I couldn’t find anything objectionable about it.

After I walked back to my sublet in Meguro, I checked my iPhone fitness app. It said I’d burned roughly eight hundred calories. Eight hundred calories from a pleasant walk! After a bath I meditated over my belly, pregnant with neglect, finger-lifted my puffy face in the mirror for a half hour, and Googled questionable health resources about the benefits of walking. It all checked out, and so from that day on I decided my “health thing” would be walking. Because in 2018 it’s apparently important that we identify with a unique fitness routine as much as we identify with an iffy political ideology. You’re a rock-climbing alt-right cis-het crypto-thug? I’m a post-Marxist romance-queer asexual urban walker. Always should be someone you really love. Pop goes the weasel.

I’ve been living in Athens for about a year now, and the walks have become the closest thing I have to a daily ritual. Deadlines and weather permitting, I usually leave my house around 1500h and walk until I reach some elevated plateau, one of the many hills or the surrounding mountains if I feel adventurous, and watch the sunset while getting overwhelmed and weepy. Then I make my way home. It never gets old and I’ve dropped over ten kilograms.

Here in Tehran it’s a necessity; my flat in Niavaran is four and a half kilometers from the nearest metro station. I’m living about three hundred meters from the Tochal Mountains, and I have been walking them every morning to burn off some of the extra energy my newfound sobriety has bestowed upon me. You can see the cityscape coming and going behind clouds and smog if you look south, and to the north nothing but endless mountain range and streams of melted snow trickling down natural and man-made drainage channels. I have to carry rocks with me, for protection. The rocks on the Tochal are deep green. I don’t know why. Yesterday I came across a pack of wild dogs resting under a small barren tree, the puppies feeding from their mother’s emaciated tits. We are all caught off guard and have a quiet standoff twenty yards from each other. I clutch one of the larger green stones and hope I won’t have to use it while worrying about its effectiveness if I do. After what seems like an eternity the mother leads her pups away from me and beyond the horizon of the mountain’s edge as a couple of the pups turn and eye me inquisitively (or maybe hungrily). When I’m confident they are far enough away I make my retreat down the path toward my condo, telling myself the same thing I do every morning when I wake up: “You’ve skipped death once more.”

I’m convinced in some way that recording these minutiae and disseminating them is my best chance at immortality outside of biological means. Melodies are preferable, but I haven’t been able to write a song in almost a year and I don’t know why. Failure can be murder, and poverty constipation for the mind. Stagnancy is a kind of death. Walking is great for the cardiovascular system, and forward motion can mimic the sense of being productive and maybe defibrillate my soul back into action. Like you, I want to live forever, but I’ll need to define my own vocabulary for it.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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Wheat, Sky, and Twelve Stars / Kyiv

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the third installment.

“You look emotional.”
“What?” I snap out of it.
She repeats, “I said: You look emotional.”

I’ve been staring at a star-shaped spire atop an imposing Stalinist skyscraper directly across from me on the other side of Khreshchatyk, the main Soviet-era boulevard that runs through the center of Kyiv. I’m sitting on the patio of a champagne bar on the exclusive top floor of the city’s main luxury shopping center. I’m the entertainment this afternoon for the birthday party of a shop owner/Instagram celebrity who is inexplicably a fan of my music. I’m back in Kyiv to perform as part of a local designer’s festival of young fashion talent, but he doesn’t have the budget to pay me and so has shopped me out to his rich friends as a way of subsidizing my trip. I’m getting paid a thousand euro (cash) for today’s gig and another thousand (cash) next week when I’ll perform during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in an enormous palace near the river. I lost my job doing content management for a stock photography start-up last month when I was replaced by an algorithm I’d been training for the past eighteen months. The laws haven’t caught up with the so-called “gig economy” and I’m ineligible for unemployment, so this money is a welcome lifeline. My audience this afternoon will be mostly children aged three to six, blissfully shuffling along to my songs about facials and Ayn Rand, while an Amazonian woman wearing stilettos and a sleek black sleeveless dress with platinum-blond Ellen Degeneres hair, freshly inked with pitch-black tattoos covering the entirety of both her arms and neck, as if she’d walked directly out of a William Gibson novel, stares angrily at everything and everyone. Champagne flows while the adult guests pose for a nightlife photographer and I help myself to caviar and smoked fish topped with gold flakes while that communist star stands there stoically in the background, quietly judging us all.

It’s not a completely passive ideological relic though; it’s been repainted from its soviet red to the colors of wheat and sky, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Ukraine has become something of an obsession for me since I was first brought here a year ago for the same festival. I was initially invited in 2014 as well, but before I was scheduled to arrive I received word that the situation with Russia had escalated to a point where my safety could no longer be assured.

“Oh, how interesting!” I thought to myself at the time; I’d had shows canceled in the past for a lot of different reasons (money, technical problems, personal vendettas), but war was a new one.

When I was invited again two years later, I hadn’t really been following the situation, knew nothing of the background of the conflict, and was unaware that I’d be playing in festivities related to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. So I wasn’t prepared for the three days of relentless bravado I encountered when I arrived: celebrations of war, of fashion, of flags, of marigolds, of tanks, of dumplings, of history, of identity, of language, of bodies, of revolution, of religion, of music, and, most unexpectedly, of romance. Everything was articulated with such euphoria and vibrancy — with an aesthetic precision so refined it was as if every time I turned my head I was editing a piece of epic cinema in real time. Three days so brilliant and ridiculous and frightening and fragile that I was kick-started into what has now become a seventeen-month-long escape from my adopted home of Germany to reclaim something I forgot I was searching for when I planted myself there twelve years ago. Something I’d ultimately find on a hillside in Athens six months later.

But Kyiv wasn’t a real place, was it? Surely my memory was coloring in blind spots with images from films I studied in university or histories I’d read about online to fulfill some deeply rooted desire to experience something supreme. Even the boy I met there seemed like a creation of my deep subconscious: a mirror image of myself distorted by digital filters and liquefied to exaggerate his features, tongue processed through algorithmic translation technologies, his talents tactile as thread instead of intangible vibrations in the air. 

But he was real. I met him again a month later in Paris, a city so self-conscious of its own mythology that it has the uncanny ability to demystify even the most magical of ideas (ever been to Paris Fashion Week?). And if he was real, then I had to deduce that Kyiv was a real place as well. Real places are populated by real people, and real people aren’t symbols, war isn’t theater, and my appraisal of Ukraine as merely an idea was becoming inexcusable to my (likely flawed) inner sense of morality.

And so to the internet I went and spent a year trying to learn as much as I could in an attempt to make sense of the collection of signifiers I saw collide on pavement and cobblestone that weekend. I combed through innumerable news articles, think pieces, wikis, and documentaries trying to piece together a general narrative of Ukraine’s modern history. It isn’t easy, and in my case, dependent on English-language resources, it seemed virtually impossible. Go ahead, try and Google a topic in which both Russia and the West have divergent interests: it’ll make even the biggest cynic believe in fake news and alternative facts. I’d never experienced search results so flooded with such obvious trolling from both sides. Wading through this sludge of unverified news sources, conspiracy theory blogs, “expert” editorials, and official government literature left me more confused than actually watching hundreds of tanks parade down Khreshchatyk that day in August last year; because at least I knew that had actually happened. I was there. I saw it and photographed it. I felt the canons fire.

After months of immersing myself in websites that made me as uncomfortable as the times when I’d wound up in the dark corners of the uncurated internet of the mid-1990s (rotten.com, Mr. Hands, and that first time I asked Jeeves, “What was the holocaust?”), I decided to give up and hope that the few certain facts I’d been able to accrue were giving me a semi-balanced idea of what was happening. I was still a bit disturbed by my willingness to assign the city to a place of fantasy in my memory, but it’d been a year, and the ghost image of Kyiv was finally fading from my retinas.

And then I got a DM in my Instagram asking me to return.

I was hoping that coming back would set my mind straight. That I’d return to find a city that is completely normal, familiar, comprehendible, even if just in part. But on the contrary: this time there’s even more poetics swirling around the air like pollen. Thousands of EU flags have proliferated throughout the city and have mated with the Ukrainian flag into a Frankenstein of wheat, sky, and twelve stars. Everything from backpacks to dumplings have been dyed blue and yellow. Teenagers dress in hoodies with their passports printed over their hearts, and an enormous billboard covering an entire building at Maidan Square defiantly proclaims “FREEDOM IS OUR RELIGION,” the words superimposed over an image of crumbling chain. A young boy has a swastika tattooed on his bicep, while an oligarch’s daughter has brought her defanged pet raccoon to a runway presentation north of the Dnieper River. My hotel room is entirely pink, and I wake up one morning to find the bed sheets covered in blood from a wound “the boy” suffered the night before, after falling into a ditch while trying to force open a bottle of warm Prosecco with his shoe. My trip is extended twice. By the end of my seven days in Kyiv my beard is patchy, my skin is green, my eyes are red, and my heart is in knots.

The veil is lifted once though, ever so briefly, when we take a trip out to an enormous second-hand market in a working-class neighborhood in the north. Large storage facilities and tents, filled with piles of jetsam from Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark as far as the eye can see. This is familiar, painfully normal in fact. Western Europe distributes this very same garbage to Greece, Poland, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, or wherever. Nothing spectacular here. Same old shit. Even the glint of revolution and the radiance of those twelve stars can’t reflect light onto something so terminally gray. I purchase a promotional hat from an obscure Swiss bank. I have a matching one in Athens that I bought from a similar market.

Ultimately, the Kyiv I experienced probably doesn’t exist. I might be able to trust my memory, but I don’t trust my heart with facts. It has the capacity to flower them in lilacs and baby’s breath until they become so saturated with petals that it’s difficult to see what the point was to begin with.

Context is impossible when you’re a tourist.

At a juice bar in Tehran, months later, I’ll pour out my feelings about Kyiv to an engineering professor I’ll have met on the subway.  After my spiel he’ll pat me on the back and, laughing, say, “Yes, conflict is very exciting, isn’t it?”

A week or so following that a group of boys at a large skate park on Tabiat Bridge will practice their English on me. One will eye my Ukraine hoodie with the handsome trident coat of arms.
“Which skate company is that? It looks so cool.”

“I said: You look emotional.”
My host’s assistant, who’s accompanied me to this birthday, is waving her hand in front on my face on the shopping center rooftop patio.
“Oh, ha, no. I’m just tired I guess.” And I return my gaze to that star.

It’s bullshit though. I’m completely emotional and I haven’t felt more awake in a long time. And I love it.

And as I sit there hating myself for loving it, that blue-and-yellow commie star looks on.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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