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Date & Location

Linz Austria, at the Museum for Media Art "Francisco Carolinum", September - November


MKOV.studio solo exhibition. Curated by Nathalie Hoyos and Rainald Schumacher / Office for Art


Maria Kulikovska was born in Kerch, a city on the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, one of the former socialist republics of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), in 1988. Her childhood was shaped by the consequences of the communist bloc's structural collapse. While a few reaped enormous wealth, most succumbed to poverty and a sense of hopelessness.

Kulikovska studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv from 2007 to 2013, graduating with a master's in architecture. She also completed a further master's degree in fine arts at Konstfack, University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

The artist belongs to a generation that welcomes the country's move toward the West, toward an open democracy and the values of the European Union, away from rampant corruption and the control of the economy and politics by a handful of oligarchs. The Ukrainian government's decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union in late 2013 led to an uprising and the Revolution of Dignity. With the Euromaidan protests from November 2013 until February 2014, Kulikovska's life and work were invariably linked with the resulting political events. Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 rendered her a homeless refugee, registered as number 254. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the military of the self-proclaimed people's republic occupied an independent art center and destroyed her first major publicly exhibited sculptures from 2012—casts of her body made of perishable soap. In Russia, she was placed on a list of undesirable artists. She has worked together with her partner Oleh Vinnichenko since 2016.

With the start of Russia's open war against Ukraine, Kulikovska fled from Kyiv to western Ukraine. She has been an artist-in-residence at the OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH in Linz from March until September 2022. As part of this residency, she has had the opportunity to produce new ceramics and painted plates at the Academy of Ceramics of the Gmundener Keramik Manufaktur. Several of these most recent works will be presented at the exhibition.

The exhibition includes artworks from a period of more than ten years. The artist's own body is at the center of the work, concretely, rather than the woman's body as an abstract form. Her body is the battlefield on which and in which often-ambivalent emotions emerge and wrestle with one another. Personal experiences, disappointments, and confrontations carry out their inner struggles in this body. They wrangle over what will provide the stronger motivation: despair and fear, or confidence and courage. Whether hatred and vengeance or love and compassion are the stronger forces will be decided in this body. The dramas of fears, desires, and hopes take place in this body. Again, and again, she acts in and with her body in performative actions. She seeks reconciliation, but also forgiveness, and looks for a seemingly impossible harmony with life's beauty, per se, which in reality often shows up bloody, smeared, doomed to die, and in a miserable physical state.

The exhibition would like to mediate insight into an artistic life that is understood as an action, that consistently tries to reconcile moral and human catastrophe with respect for the wealth and mystery of life.

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The body perceives the world. It feels senses and experiences reality. It reacts with curiosity, surprise, amazement, joy, and pleasure, but also with attentiveness, caution, fear, panic, pain, or suffering. It also perceives itself as a body, experiences happiness, is confident and optimistic, or it suffers, struggles, despairs, and falls into depression. It is the terrain in which reality leaves impressions, traces, wounds, and scars, but can also unfold its tremendous power and creative energy. The body is the zone of deeply sensed and often contradictory emotions. These are the driving forces for the Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovska.

As one of her first works, she creates a double, or stunt woman, in 2010. While still a student, at just 22 years old, she casts a life-size plaster cast of her body in the basement of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv.

A color photograph from that time shows the young artist, who is studying architecture at the Academy, squatting naked and unprotected on the dusty floor of the basement. Her head is propped up on both hands. In the pose of a classical 'thinker', she looks from the side at the two parts of the sculpture. The casts of the lower body and the upper body without arms are made of whitish plaster and stand side by side, separated from each other. The nipples are colored slightly pink. The vulva is painted green and resembles an apple.

What could appear to be a stripped ancient statue of a goddess, or a stripped socialist heroine of labor, is a self-exploration and protest against the patriarchal structures and prejudice against women prevalent at the Academy. The curriculum and the lecturers are, for the most part, still enmeshed in late-socialist art theories and doctrines on the understanding and tasks of art. Skeptical of the Western art market and shocked by the turbo-capitalism of the early years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and after the declaration of independence in 1991, professors clung to the doctrinal systems of the past, whose highest goal for the most talented students were classes in monumental painting and sculpture. Women were usually not destined for these. They hardly played a role in the fields of art and architecture.

The sculpture, which is completely exposed to the gaze, shows the scandalous and contradictory: the naked female body. On the one hand, the artist formulates a classical ideal of fine arts in Europe, and at the same time, the plaster cast, next to the body eroticized and sexualized with nipples and vulva, is a matter-of-fact taking of an inventory. The sculpture, the naked woman, is simply present: this is me, Maria Kulikovska. This is my body. Is that all you accuse me of, of having this body? Is that supposed to prevent me from doing art or architecture?

Other photos show that the artist acted with her double. Dressed only in sunglasses and the white lace gloves of a bride, she holds her double torso in her arms, embraces it, and caresses this figure. The double is not only a mirror image, she is a real object that can be touched and felt. Interacting and acting with her body doubles become an essential element of the artist's work. Later, Maria Kulikovska will call this group of works performative sculptures.

'My Second Xena. Rebirth' from 2016 is the first replica of this early work. With legs spread slightly apart, the cast stands upright and self-assured. The depiction of a completely unclothed female body, reproducing everything that constitutes the artist's body down to the details of the labia, is unusual and provocative in its realism. Maria Kulikovska does not create a 'Venus de Milo'. She does not hide her nudity behind the concept of an idealized body or a goddess in ancient, Greco-Roman tradition. In a sober way, she shows what the casting of the body has left in the mold.

Crafted from dyed epoxy resin that slightly transparently allows the sculpture's constructive skeleton formed from iron chains to shine through, 'My Second Xena, Rebirth' is the first sculpture created with her future spouse Oleg Vinnichenko, and it marks the beginning of their future collaboration.

The cloned body becomes a proxy, an agent that will experience all the injuries and mortifications that the artist also suffers herself. In 2010, she produces 20 life-size casts of her body in plaster. 'Army of Clones' was shown in various public places, and in the spring of 2012, it was presented for the exhibition 'Gender' on the grounds of the Izolyatsia Art Center in Donetsk. In the industrial ruin in the east of Ukraine in a former factory for insulating materials, one of the most important cultural institutions for contemporary art had established itself. Later the artist added three more life-size casts of her body, 'Homo Bulla: Human as Soap Bubble'. They are cast from raw soap. The sculptures stood outdoors and were exposed to wind and weather, sun, rain, and snow, changing their appearance over time. What was designed to be a natural aging process came to an abrupt end on June 09, 2014.

The site was occupied and seized by the militias of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. As if in execution, the militias shot at the female bodies and destroyed all the sculptures of a 'degenerate artist', as they explained in an interview.

Among other works, the monumental installation 'Transform!' from 2012 by Pascale Marthine Tayou was blown up to pieces. The artist from Cameroon had mounted an oversized lipstick on one of the disused chimneys as a tribute to the many female workers who had been employed at the factory.

The female body in self-empowered and self-confident representation negates the patriarchy's claim to have absolute power over bodies. This reacts with hatred and brute force. It retrieves the body by force, even at the price of total destruction. The 'Army of Clones' experiences and suffers the fate of generations of women: pure aggression and annihilation.

At this point, Maria Kulikovska is already a refugee in her own country. She was born in Kerch, Crimea, in 1988. With Russia's annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2014, in violation of international law, she loses access to her homeland or is forced to take Russian citizenship. She is officially registered in Ukraine as a refugee with the number 254.

'254', which is also the title of an unauthorized performance she stages in St. Petersburg on July 1, 2014.

Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, which opened that day, was not under a lucky star. Russia's aggression towards Ukraine's sovereignty led to controversial discussions about boycotting the exhibition. The cheap argument that cultural exchange would maintain dialogue and enable mutual understanding gained the upper hand. There was no unanimous opinion among Ukrainian artists either, and only a few boycotted the exhibition. The fact that Russia's war of aggression had already begun in eastern Ukraine was largely ignored.

In 2007, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan reintroduced the motif of the dead body covered only by a light cloth into contemporary art with his work 'All'. The veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel in Naples by Giuseppe Sanmartino from 1753 was extended to all mortals by Maurizio Cattelan. 'All' depicts nine reclining bodies of light marble enveloped by cloths and is a striking reminder of the transience of life.

Maria Kulikovska uses this terrifying motif of the lifeless body for performance '254'. In a silent protest, the artist lays down unannounced, motionless on the stairs in the exhibition hall of the General Staff Building during the opening, covered by a large flag of Ukraine.

With her body, which has been registered as a refugee and has become homeless, declared by the Russian authorities to be the body of an outlawed and unwanted artist, whose clones have been shot together, she creates an image of personal and national powerlessness.

In 2022, Maria Kulikovska is staging this silent reminder once again. On the steps in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, she lies motionless for several hours a day, covered by the flag of Ukraine. She sets an example of physical and psychological exhaustion, which, as a performative action, demands great energy and concentration from the artist. She presents herself as a corpse and creates a moment of reflection that refers to the annihilation of an entire nation and the impending genocide of a people.

With vigilance and unsparing candor, she makes herself aware of her own, often conflicting feelings, fears and hopes, and at the same time, registers their social and political causes. The great theme of her work is the body in space, in the world, in the middle of a contradictory, threatening, and brutal reality.

She responds to her inner impulses and transforms her own emotions into the creative drive for many works. In doing so, the works also become remedies, a therapeutic setting in which she balances her inner turmoil. Those who suffer disappointments, mortifications, loss of home, threats to life, and, in the current present, war and flight, tend to fall into depressions that culminate in feeling guilty about themselves. Reversing the perpetrator-victim relation, the victim believes himself to be to blame. Nagging self-doubt arises, tormenting thoughts.

The artist attentively perceives that her body reacts with negative feelings, with self-doubt that destroys her confidence in herself. She registers that depressive moods lead to physical malaise, lack of drive, self-destruction, and to an endless, repetitive inner monologue full of accusations and self-recriminations.

What did she do to be expelled from her homeland? Why is she experiencing artistic ostracism, being antagonized for her performative same-sex marriage, which was consummated in Sweden and does not legally exist in Ukraine? Why does she have to endlessly fill out questionnaires about her status as a refugee in order to travel or plan an extended stay in Europe? Why is she suspected of being a whore who wants to prostitute herself in other European countries? What on earth has she done to experience all this suffering and disrespect? In addition to this, she notices how longing for justice or reparation can also turn into a desire for revenge and retribution. How she herself could be in danger of reacting emotionally with a similar frenzy and rage.

Her artistic creativity becomes her shield, her strong weapon, her medicine, and her spell against the spirits of decomposition and self-destruction. During departures and longer stays in Europe, the artist is repeatedly confronted by the immigration authorities. Forms have to be filled out, and questionnaires answered. Often the question arises why a refugee from Crimea, registered even in Ukraine, should return there, to where she cannot return anyway? How can an artist with no fixed income and a small child make a living? She reacts to the pointlessness, absurdity, and humiliation with spontaneous and colorful brush drawings. Splendid flowers are water-colored over the forms of the authorities. Physical desire itself, the blasting power of physical pleasure, and sex are the more appropriate responses. Pornographic sketches, tits, penis, and vaginas overlay the questionnaires and are the liberating outbursts from the bureaucratic prison of the immigration authorities.

In concrete actions, the artist repeats the traumatizing events that threaten her work and her existence. She changes from being a sufferer to an agent. Just as the militias desecrated and destroyed the clones of her own body, she aggressively acts against her own works and the clone of her own naked and defenseless body.

In 2013, she attempts to demolish one of her early architectural works 'Soma - Body without Gender' with a heavy hammer. For an exhibition at the Pinchuk Art Center in Kyiv, she boiled down large building blocks from brine and erected an ensemble of vertical pillars from them as a symbol of a society that is frozen in itself.

During the exhibition's run, the revolution on the Maidan develops from the first protests by students on November 21, 2013. On December 8, 2013, she expresses her doubts about the purely symbolic representation of the encrusted power structures and attacks the salt pillars, some of which are now very solidly caked together.

Replicas of the 'Homo Bulla' sculptures are presented at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2015. During the opening, the artist storms into the room naked and attempt to destroy one of the three sculptures with a hammer. She inflicts massive hits and wounds on the figure, and in the following year, she douses it with blood in another performative action at the '9th of May' exhibition in London.

On June 9, 2019, on the fifth anniversary of the destruction of her sculptures in Donetsk, she takes a firearm in her own hands and repeats the 'massacre' with the performance 'It's not Forgotten'. She shoots at five casts of her body, cast from ballistic soap, also used for studies to test the effect of bullets on bodies, leaving deep and terrible wounds.

In doing so, she succeeds in reversing the violence and aggression she has suffered. The violence she herself exerts towards her own artworks becomes an element of the process of creating the works, making the traces of violence visible.

Equivalent to these actions, the artist also uses rituals and actions of intense attention. Just as she embraced and caressed the body double in the basement of the Academy at the very beginning of her artistic path, she develops performative actions that do not refer to anything as symbolic actions but are very practical rituals of purification and atonement.

The title 'Lustration / Ablution' (removal of politically incriminated employees from the civil service / ritual washing) of this performance series, which is planned for 88 stagings, indicates the concrete ritual and mystical dimension.

In 2018, the first staging is performed at the Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv. The artist bathes with replicas of her body cast from soap. She rubs the bars of soap, hands, feet, arms, or the whole torso. She nestles against them, washes with them, becomes more vigorous, and scrubs them off intensely.

At the end of the exhibition in Linz, the artist staged no. 5 of this series of rituals. All guilt, all bad thoughts and feelings, all hostility and self-doubt, all wounds and scars, all hatred and every desire for revenge, but also the fears and self-destructive thoughts - all these demons are banished, atoned for, cleansed, and washed away. She reconciles with her body and with the space, the world around this body.

The balance of the body in the space of reality is restored - and will have to be restored - 83 more times in the years to come. Underlying this is the desire to free oneself from the pain, the political conflicts, the discrimination, the difficulties, and the chaos of this world, the longing for an inner reconciliation, and also the attempt to calm one's own anger and to cleanse the irritating thoughts of retaliation or revenge that trigger suffering, displacement, and war.

If this is not a claim to art. Maria Kulikovksa is convinced that art can do this. Her work goes far beyond the object of the artwork. It is about the positioning of the body to the world. Artistic work cannot bring the world, which has always been out of joint, back into balance with the bodies, but it can position the bodies in such a way that they want to have a confident, active, and creative influence on the world. Against all obvious and deeply felt odds, her art conveys the strength not to give up.

On the basis of this deep conviction, she also dares to depict the unthinkable, the absolute horror: the slaughter and murder, the meat grinder of war.

With the expansion of the war through the direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops on February 24, 2022, Maria Kulikovska, like thousands of other women, fled to the west of Ukraine with her daughter, who was only a few weeks old and was then able to come to Linz with a scholarship from the OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH. In this context, she was also able to participate in the Academy of Ceramics at the Gmunden Ceramics Manufactory.

The ceramic reliefs that are created there are shocking. The sight is unbearable - a carnage that presents hacked-up body parts, hands, breasts, feet, and heads festering and besmirched with blood. It is planned as the central element of a 'Table of Negotiation'. In the future, the representatives of the warring parties will certainly sit opposite each other at such a table. Maria Kulikovska is merciless, she cannot and will not forget and reminds already now of the hundreds of thousands of bodies, the maltreated, the tortured, the mutilated, the hacked and the murdered, children and women, old and young men on all sides of a war.

Since her birth in Crimea in 1988, her life and artistic path have been determined by the political events and consequences of the collapse of the USSR and Russia's claims to power. Initially, this path was marked by the powerful patriarchal structures and corrupt networks in Ukraine, whose independence was recognized by Russia on December 2, 1991. It was defined by disinhibited turbo-capitalism, oligarchs and ubiquitous bribery, and the growing influence of a conservative Orthodox church. It was shaped by the awakening of large segments of the population who wanted to break with these structures, attempt an open democracy and free themselves from the tutelage of the neo-imperialist Russian state and move closer to the West and develop the model of Western democracies in their country.

A few years before the Revolution of Dignity, which from November 21, 2013, to February 23, 2014, led to the flight and ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, who, under Russian pressure, suspended the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, Maria Kulikovska begins her artistic work. The political developments are the framework in which she acts and reacts as an artist.

In doing so, she seeks the almost impossible in her artistic work. She seeks healing, and she seeks the soothing of the invisible injuries and desecrations that her body, like many thousands, also experiences through the abuse of power, violence, and politics. She is not afraid to show the horror concretely, the visible external injuries. She knows that the body occupies a space, a place it needs to feel safe and protected, to be able to act with all freedom and with respect for others. She is looking out for such a place; perhaps her art can offer such places.

Nathalie Hoyos, Rainald Schumacher / Office for Art,

Berlin, Germany, 2022

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Kerch, the Crimean city where Maria Kulikovska was born, was established more than 2600 years ago as the crossroad for many cultures. This Greek city, known then as Pantikapaion, was the capital of the Bosporus Kingdom, which controlled trade lines between Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD [1]. In the Pantikapaion, a brilliant Ionian temple was built in the acropolis, dedicated to the Apollo Iatros (Apollo The Healer). Although the origins of Apollo's cult are uncertain, it is certain that Apollo was not originally a Greek but rather an Eastern god [2]. Even in Homer's Iliad, Apollo didn't protect the Greeks, fighting for the Trojans. Also, it's an interesting case that Apollo was attributed as a healer in Pantikapaion, as in metropolitan cities the god was known as the deity on a chariot, who draws the sun from the East to the West across the sky, and as the patron of the Muses. The god's dual nature is evident in the Greeks' conviction that he held sway over both human life and death.

Nowadays Kerch is a port and industrial city, where regular life is determined by the functioning of factories. Since the 1990s the industrial resources of the city have faced stagnation; the situation got worse after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 [3]. At the same time, the ruins of the temple of Apollo on the mountain Mithridate remain visible (alongside the Soviet Stella, erected after the end of the Second World War), as the mountain has kept its Greek name through thousands of years. The cultural identity of the South Crimea region has always been connected with ancient heritage and Hellenistic pride.

Maria Kulikovska enrolled at the National Art Academy in Kyiv in 2007, being a resident of Crimea. Even though the world evidenced the Russian occupation of Georgia's Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in 2008, the possibility that Crimea could be annexed by the Russian Federation seemed then unimaginable. For the students of the art academy in Kyiv, Crimea was a favorite summer playground, where they spent weeks of plain airs by the sea. The real situation on the peninsula, thus, was far from an idyllic picture. Crimea was never a tourist paradise, but a Soviet military base and was distinguished by shipbuilding. Crossing Ukrainian borders without any restrictions, the Russian businessmen and politicians were buying huge parts of the land in Crimea, joining the other Russian families, who took the territories after the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by Joseph Stalin in 1944. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was based in Sevastopol. The conflict was already there.

While studying in Kyiv, Maria started her pivotal art projects, researching her own body and its original desires. The 2010 year in Maria's practice happened to be a time when she posed foundational questions which led to the research of her identity, gender, and norms, imposed on her freedom to dispose of her own corporeality. The artist implemented this research work through sculpture. The very first mold that Maria took from her body, was cast in 2010 in the basement of the National Academy of Arts in Kyiv. It was titled My Second Xena I. The name of this artwork is related to the first name, which Maria received from her mother at the time of birth, – Xena. Since the production of the first cast, Maria has used a technique of molding, traditional for portrait sculpture of all times. But the performative way in which she applies this technique rejects any attempt at the idealization of the female body. An intention to produce a perfect image is an integral component of the classic sculpture. The male professors in the Academy demanded exactly the 'classic' way of seeing the body. But Maria's figures are free from the obligation to conform to anyone's ideas about female beauty. They are not a product of male fantasy, nor do they obey the architect's order to carry the load in the structure, or to fulfill any other mission as, for example, the Caryatids, regarded by traditional sculptors for harmonious examples of the female physique. But the Caryatides, according to Vitruvius, were the women, condemned to slavery. Their eternal punishment was to hold the roof of the acropolis after the region of Carya broke the deal with Athens [4].

Maria's research also partly derives from the motto "My body is a temple", which was a headline for cultural attempts of second-wave feminism (the 1960s-1970s) to resurrect the Goddess and celebrate female biology [5]. While producing Xena, Maria made multiple molds of her vulva. The artist arranged these tender sculptures into a monumental arch-shaped installation Pysanky at an exhibition "Dreams of the Future" at the Modern Art Research Institute. The visitors should have entered the hall through this symbolic door, the beginning of everything, as Ukrainian Pysanka symbolizes the resurrection and new birth. During the Soviet regime, statements with the agenda as of Niki De Saint Phalle's She — A Cathedral, 1966, or Judi Chicago's Dinner Party, 1974-78, were absolutely unthinkable, and even an idea to talk through the feminist discourse in any similar manner would be immediately punished. The 1990-s in Ukraine were the era of freedom, psychedelics, and sex, but also exclusively male party: most of the radical artworks were done by men. Therefore, Maria's Pysanky was the direct and effective form of presence, highly necessary at that time. This was one of the first statements, intended to interfold the huge gap of the absence of female subjectivity in Ukrainian art. The installation provoked a wave of mockery and lamentation in the media. This argument later led the artist to launch the project Flowers of Democracy, 2015, with the same imagery.

Following her plaster installation Army of Clones, presented at the Izolyatsia's Platform for Cultural Initiatives' exhibition Gender 2012 in Donetsk, Maria made there a project Homo Bulla. Together with the team of Izolyatsia, the artist produced three copies of herself cast from soap. The technique of soap boiling grasped Maria's attention, as the detergent, originally prepared from animal fat and alkali, is intimately related to the flesh and body from the process of manufacturing till the stage when the soap bricket vanishes on the skin. The title Homo Bulla was given by a curator Olena Chervonik, emphasizing the fragile state of the project and of the human condition. Maria installed the sculptures in several zones of the former factory and let the figures not only be open for any gaze, empowered by the potency of the naked body but be affected by the forces of nature — the rain, the wind, the sun. The right to own and postulate her femininity is only the first layer in the artistic process of unfolding the body through the sculpture, peeling the layers of gender norms and social boundaries. And this is only the first stage of the critical inquiry into patriarchal institutions.

The artist's impression from the first explicit contact with the Western structures of hierarchy and capital was marked by the installation Sweet / Swiss Life, made during Maria's summer residency in AKKU, Uster in 2012. The dream of the sweet European life is a comforting fairy-tale, in which equality and collaboration seem to be the basis of the beautiful world. To discover that welfare and peace come from colonial wealth, strict patriarchal rules, and isolation toward otherness mean losing a big deal of naivety at once. The artist critically extracted the very substance of the Swiss well-being for her final work, showing it as a combination of milk and sugar. The pile of 700 caramelized milk bricks looked as tempting as white chocolate through the glass of the transparent AKKU container gallery. But this structure was destined for monotonous decay, without producing any new life with its huge potential energy.

A reference to this work was a project Soma – Body without Gender, made by Maria in collaboration with her mother for the Pinchuk Art Prize 2013 in Kyiv. Coming back home from travels, the artist questioned the type of family relations that shaped her identity. The installation of the salt pillars, symbolizing the strict patriarchal hierarchy, was falling apart and breaking down, silently performing what Maria has positioned as a demand for horizontal restructuring of the society and elimination of any kind of vertical power relations. Inviting her mother to collaborate on this topic, Maria also touched on the Oedipal line in family structure, which is lived out by every child of 3-5 years, manifesting their impulses of bi-homo- or hetero-sexual desire towards the parents and thus shaping their identity [6]. Usually, dealing with this stage scares adults so much (as they have to consider the existence of the children's sexuality) that they choose to see children as creatures without gender. Or to react according to the notion of what for centuries has been considered to be ''normally boyish" or "normally girl-ish". But can we ever think of a figure of a child differently, without conscripting the existence of children to the constant reproduction of social norms? Jules Gill-Peterson, arguing for the identity of queer and trans children, suggests admitting that in contemporary society children – as a set of ideas – serve the purpose of making the future the same as the past [7]. And it will be fair enough to say that in traditional post-Soviet families the child, as a notion, was understood as someone, who will reproduce the scale of the world with the same ideas about the hierarchy, sex, family, race, the economy, etc. But do we ever question why a child, thrown into a hostile world that they didn't choose, is obliged to reproduce the dysfunctional rules? Why must a child, born biologically female, live their life the same as a woman in a totalitarian state did? This kind of relationship, interplayed on the territory of art by Maria and her mother, formed a landscape of continual breakdown.

While Maria was working on a private, intimate level, similar processes were unwrapped in Ukraine on a national scale. The contrast between the life of diverse and progressive Ukrainian society and the rigid imperial rules, imposed by the corrupted pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovich resulted in a Revolution of Dignity, bursting all around Ukraine from November 2013 to February 2014. Symbolically, the protest was started by the disobedient children. The first pickets were initiated by the students in Kyiv. The activists demanded to guarantee the European future for Ukraine. And this became the main call of hundreds of thousands of people, who stood up for the students, violently attacked by the Yanukovich police. Thus, the small pro-European demonstration turned into a powerful tornado for justice.

On the 8 of December 2013, Maria Kulikovska was filming the final performative part of Soma – Body without Gender. Operating with a heavy hammer, the artist demolished the remains of the salt pillars in the exhibition hall of the Pinchuk Art Centre. Her anger and emergency call for a different society sublimated in the destruction of the backbone of this hierarchical construction. By that time the salt became solid like a rock. On the same day, furious protesters gathered to overturn a granite monument of Vladimir Lenin on Taras Shevchenko Boulevard. This was the collective call to end the fake reminiscences of the Soviet Union, and to realize that the USSR was a tyranny that terrorized its own citizens. The monument was situated a few hundred meters from Pinchuk Art Centre. When Maria left the exhibition space, she was carrying the equipment from the performance. As the artist approached the crowd surrounding the monument, somebody asked her if she had a hammer to help with the demolition of Lenin's figure. Of course, she had. This, and the following coincidences that happen throughout Maria's practice are not occasional. The strings, stretched between ideas, people, and communities, between struggle and historical decisions, pierce her work and become visible in many significant points.

Searching for the experience and the knowledge that could amplify her will for change, Maria started to spend more time in Europe. In 2013, during the residency RutaRuna she met Syrian-Swedish artist Jaqueline Shabo, who became her partner in artistic research and social experiments. On the one hand, Maria, aiming through her practices towards the ideal social aesthetics and justice, was dazzled by the organizational solutions of the Swedish democracy: actual gender equality, LGBTQ+ people rights celebration, the freedom of speech and choice. On the other hand, this society turned out to be a closed system with a set of prejudices, leading to a special policy towards foreigners, in particular Ukrainian citizens. Before 2017 receiving a long-term visa to the Western countries (and here I mean all the connotations that usually prevent authors from using the term Western) for a young, single woman with Ukrainian citizenship was an endeavor that often ended with a denied access to the EU. The reason was never spoken officially but rumored by the embassies and consulates in Kyiv as a spectrum of undesirable actions that this woman might do — from sexual work to a marriage of convenience that will finally give her a right to become an EU citizen.

This split between encouraging the development of the diverse potential of the EU citizens and treating the Ukrainian women as subjects who are merely aiming to sell their bodies was shocking. Maria and Jaсqueline decided to challenge this system and mock all the gender stereotypes of the immigration services, playing by their own rules. In January 2014 Maria Kulikovska and Jacqueline Shabo announced their wedding in Malmö. The artist's same-sex marriage was performed as a long-term action Body and Borders. The wedding ceremony was held by Christina Meehan Lång, Ordained minister of the Church of Sweden, and former owner of Lång gallery, who was excited to take part in an ongoing project. This celebration of the women's bodies, emancipating from pressure and stereotypes through sisterhood and mutual care had to turn into a struggle with the obstacles so fierce that no artistic imagination could predict. If the marriage is a kind of final chapter in a stormy battle for love or a temporary haven where partners can concentrate on their relationships (in Maria's and Jacquelin's case — to work on the relations as an artistic project), this marriage was anything, but a haven. The legal partnership of Maria and Jacqueline was a step into a battlefield, where some of the most dreadful contemporary structures of power and control tried to lay claims over Maria's body and any opportunity of the happy-ever-after of this international union.

The difference between me
and the tree is that
you can shoot me and kill
but the tree
will live long
with the bullet in its heart
Taras Melnychuk (1939-1995), from the book of poems Prince of Dew, 1990

After the efforts to stop the resistance of the Ukrainian people's bloodshed, which took away the lives of 107 activists [8], Viktor Yanukovitch capitulated. On February 24, 2014, he resigned and was extracted from Ukraine by his patrons to the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. A few days earlier the Russian Federation started an armed operation to occupy Crimea – while Yanukovich was still president. The Russian troops, wearing no identification signs, blocked the main Crimean governmental institutions. The representatives of international organizations and journalists were swiftly deported from the peninsula or imprisoned. By 16 March 2014, the invasion resulted in a fake referendum, guarded by the military, that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. As the most cohesive group, who resisted Russian occupation, Crimean Tatars were targeted first. Russian military hunted and tortured the leaders of democratic organizations of Crimean Tatars. Following the annexation of Crimea, in April 2014 Russian soldiers invaded the territory of the Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The military leaders organized battalions of proxies, who forced the forming of the Russian exclaves on Ukrainian territory – the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Ukraine has been defending its integrity. The war has begun.

On 9th June 2014, the armed Russian proxies raided the territory of the Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives in Donetsk. They destroyed the archives of Izolyatsia, robbed the funds and the offices, and damaged the artworks from storage [9]. The leaders of the gang claimed that the former factory was a strategic object. Luba Mikhailova, the founder of Izolyatsia, is certain that the raid was not tactical, but ideological [10]. Everything connected with contemporary art and progressive values scare the occupants. The continuous destruction of Ukrainian museums and cultural objects by Russian missile attacks and numerous cases of marauding in 2022 proves how Mikhailova was right. One of the aggressor's priorities is to humiliate – not just damage – the spaces that produce values or preserve the memory. Izolyatsia was turned by Russian proxies into a torture room and illegal prison, that cannot be tracked by official organizations. Including the day this text is issued, there, the militias of the so-called Donetsk republic are capturing and torturing people, who resist the occupation. Entering Izolyatsia, the proxies shot away and violently destroyed Maria Kulikovska's figures: the Army of Clones and the Homo Bulla. The sculptures were declared 'degenerative' for portraying the real naked female body. Nothing, but pieces were left from the artworks.

Throughout human history, a massacre of the innocent is an omen of the dictatorship establishing itself. The radical power is manifested in bloodthirsty domination over everything that seems to be defenseless, fragile, or feminine. The biblical story of Herod, who ordered the slaughter of all the babies of Bethlehem, served European culture to describe the incredible cruelty of the war. Fra Angelico, Rubens, and Bruegel reflected on the darkest periods of the wars distancing themselves through this narrative. One of the canonical Christian sermons describes how mothers in Bethlehem are trying to protect the bodies of the children, who cannot stand up for themselves. As the soldiers attempt to get the babies with their swords, mothers offer such powerful resistance that the children are torn to pieces. When the little children have eventually all been killed, their mothers gather their limbs and kiss them in utter dismay, crying out loud [11].

Dmytro, a friend of Maria Kulikovska, had been captured by the pro-Russian armed men and was kept in the Izolyatsia basement in inhumane conditions for several months. He was forced to clean the yard from the blood and flesh of people, who were tortured there. One day he found a limb from Maria's destroyed soap sculpture. It was a small part of a foot, which he decided to keep secret. Dmytro was certain that it had been a sign of good luck. The following night his captors got drunk and blacked out. Dmytro managed to escape. This story was commemorated by the artist, as Maria has made a series of sculptures and performances where she moans over the casts of her limbs – hands, feet, breasts, being gathered after a slaughter.

In 2014 a 4-kilometer buffer zone was established between the occupied Crimea and Ukraine, with block posts on both sides. Those who wanted to visit their homeland had to cross the Russian border and pass the interrogation with the inspection. After the series of protest performances, Maria Kulikovska's name was added to the wanted blacklist by the Russian special services. Thus, Maria lost her home to Russian invaders for the first time. In Ukraine, her Crimean registration provoked many questions from the authorities. Ukrainians with a Crimean registration fall into a special category of Ukrainian citizens, but non-residents. Despite her active and articulated pro-Ukrainian position, Maria has faced accusations of betrayal and has often been denied her basic rights by the state system.

The beginning of the war, the annexation of Crimea, and the events in Izolyatsia deeply affected the artist. Maria started to look for ways to cope with the violence, that cannot be embraced, explained, or understood. Also, what to do when the friends choose to protect the homeland in a battle with a cruel and dangerous enemy? How to live after the first funeral of a friend? After meeting the tenth coffin, carrying your friend's body from a battlefield? This sorrow and rage turned into a long desperate scream, that Maria growled in the sand of the Azov Sea, lying on the ground. This action War and Pea€e, 2016, was held on the mined beach in Mariupol, where local people, separated from the actual war by only a 20-kilometer zone, were chilling as if nothing was wrong.

Working between Kyiv and Stockholm, and floating in a limbo of various state identities undefined by the governments, Maria started the production of the new sculptures for the project UK/RAINE, organized by Saatchi Gallery in London in 2015. She was searching for a contractor in Sweden, who could provide 300 kilograms of soap. One of the manufacturers asked about the purpose of such an order. Maria briefly described the human-sized sculptures. The manufacturer said that the prototypes are usually made to test the weapon, as the ballistic soap has almost the same density as the human body. Thus, the circle has closed. Maria made a replica of Homo Bulla — three sculptures of herself — from a ballistic soap. The group exhibition in Saatchi Gallery was aimed to reflect the revolution, war, and geopolitical situation in Ukraine. During the project's official presentation, a naked woman, wearing a rose wig and sunglasses, burst into an exhibition space. She started to smash one of the Homo Bulla figures with a hammer. The green sculpture was seriously damaged — the hammer blows left many scars and gouges. The woman ended up covering the sculpture's head with a black T-shirt with a print of the pussy. This was a Happy Birthday performance, held by Maria Kulikovska. Only the Saatchi Gallery director was warned by the artist. The visitors and participants were caught off-guard.

This action was a direct response to what happened at Izolyatsia. Maria's attempt to restore control over her body intervened with the intention to reflect the absurdness of ferocity, torture, and destruction. Government — read, the Russian Federation — may authorize torture, but it is the society that runs forward with the demand and supplies the required techniques. These are the people who perform violence, by the order or acting of their own will. Torture does not simply destroy the lives of victims and the torturers. It is most often covered by social amnesia coming from the fear that greatly enhances social corrosion [12]. The female body's service to dreamscapes of symbolic phallic privilege is made explicit, but the savagery of the actions cannot be described or totally healed by any medium. Tortured body, damaged or filled with an unbearable amount of pain, became since then a major line in Kulikovska's work. In different variations of the self-molds, made in recent years, the artist is trying to measure the limit of suffering that the body can physically endure, filling the sculptures with chains, firing cartridge shells from the Ukrainian frontier, and ammunition belts. Some of Maria's sculptures contain flowers — as an actual memento mori, emphasizing that every living creature will inevitably meet death. During the work on one of the sculptural projects in Kyiv in 2016, Maria met the engineer Uleg Vinnichenko. As the sympathy between them grew into love, the artist decided to end her Swedish marriage. Maria and Uleg are now working together as partners and spouses under the brand MKUV Studio.

It happened that pain is deeply explored and embraced by Ukrainian culture. The memory of overcoming long, exhausting suffering goes through numerous resistance narratives from the Cossack era to the Ukrainian dissidents to the Soviet regime. Staying clean from empires' ideology and sticking to the truth was possible, but through incredible physical pain, that had nothing to do with the sweet martyrdom of the saint's body. One of the first Cossack leaders, Bayda, was thrown from the Galata fortress to the hook on the wall by the Osman sultan. The hook passed through Bayda's ribs, he was wasting a lot of blood. Three days the Cossack was hanging on a hook, and — as the popular 16th-century ballad says — was mocking and cursing his guards, trying even to start a rebellion. The Turkish soldiers were humiliated by Bayda's swearing and shot him on the third day [13]. This folk story, based on historical events [14], is a classical example of resistance to empire through pain. Vasyl Stus, one of the brightest Ukrainian poets, died in his second GULAG incarceration during the hunger strike he declared to protest 'to the end' [15]. The same year, in 1985, Stus was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the jury was unaware of his death — the Soviet prison didn't intend to report on his passing. Thousands of people shared this kind of destiny, refusing to break or bend. This cultural code and the attitude to pain also explain much of the Ukrainian resistance to the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022.

Exploration of executing power over the female body and variations of strike or resistance, turning the situation vice versa, led Maria Kulikovska to the performance Let Me Say: It's Not Forgotten in 2019. Before making the performance, Maria took lessons in shooting from the Ukrainian sniper Alexander Suvorov. On the 9th of June, on the fifth anniversary of the seizure of Izolyatsia, Maria went on a safari on her own sculptures. She shot six figures from the ballistic soap, performing the deadly strikes. The bullets hit the hearts, throats, and heads of Maria's clones. The artist wanted to act as the invaders, who shot the sculptures — to see what they saw and to feel what they felt. Maria repeated the action for the movie Forgotten, directed by Daria Onyshenko. This time the artist went to the edge, acting as a pro-Russian proxy, dressed in a military uniform of the Lugansk Republic, and shooting the sculptures from the rifle. Maria was able to feel the power that the weapon gives people and finished the statement by finally gaining control over her body back. Alexander, Maria's instructor, was killed in the war after the full-scale Russian invasion.

Most of Maria's works are organized as a public self-reflection on identity and the body. But among them, the special place holds The Raft Crimea, a long-term multicomponent action, consisting of performances and expositions, that gather the collective experiences of the displaced people, the immigrants, and the refugees. The Raft CrimeA travels with the artist around the world as a water vessel that carries her and as a medium through which Maria locates herself in the events of Crimean and European newest history as an artist, a woman, a refugee, a fighter, and one of the many people with the same-shaped destiny. In August 2016 the Displaced Parliament of the Displaced launched its work on an inflatable life raft that was moored to the Dnipro quay in the center of Kyiv. Maria Kulikovska, as the representative of the Parliament of the Displaced, was living on the raft, using only the resources that the local community brought her. The Raft CrimeA immediately became the place for meetings. It was open for all the migrants, who needed a help or free place, and functioned as a space for discussions. At the end of August, the raft departed down the river, carrying those who wanted to cross the invisible water border with the European Union and move further West by the rivers. The raft was stopped by the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine in Vylkovo village in the South-West of Ukraine, therefore the travelers had to return to Kyiv. Maria gathered the artifacts, brought as signs of solidarity or support, the stories from the people, who visited the Parliament of the Displaced during the journey down the Dnipro, and the documents in which she explained their actions to the Border Guards Service. This collection, with the video documentation of the performance, became the material for the first exhibition, held at Visual Culture Research Centre in Kyiv and curated by Lesia Kulchinska. The gallery space was transformed into a non-existent seashore with sand and golden foil blankets, often used in refugee camps. The raft, as a safe space for care, and a platform for discussion and collaboration, has traveled during major exhibition events to water reservoirs in Odessa, Prague, Vienna, Liverpool, and Barcelona. During the inauguration of the illegally established 19-kilometer-long Crimean bridge that connects the Kerch and Taman peninsula, the Displaced Parliament of the Displaced on the Raft CrimeA opened its agency in Malmö, near the Oresund bridge. The protest action questioned the values that are brought by the bridges when the connection is established and the legitimacy of ignoring the borders — Ukraine and Europe didn't acknowledge Russian claims on Crimea, though the Kerch bridge functioned as a huge smuggling artery.

Maria spent most of her time in Ukraine from 2020 to 2022, launching their together with Uleg their own gallery. Garage 33 is an artist-run gallery shelter with a hybrid, independent, international, non-binary program. The institution started functioning online, and the carefully designed gallery space was about to open by the beginning of 2022. But the full-scale Russian invasion forced the artists to put this initiative on pause and leave Ukraine.

The winter of 2022 in Ukraine was filled with angst. Russian forces gathered on the Eastern borders, forming an impact army of a scale unseen before. On February 24, at 5 a.m. Ukrainian cities woke up from the missile attacks. A few days before the military experts tried to convince the world that Russia will never risk bombing peaceful cities. Yet, it did, and with incredible cynicism. The real scale of the destruction and the deaths brought to Ukraine since that day are to be calculated after the de-occupation of the destroyed Mariupol, of Lugansk and Donetsk. As I'm writing this text, the Ukrainian army is leading the successful counteroffensive in Kherson. Kyiv is in a blackout — the critical energy infrastructure is destroyed by continuous missile hits — and I'm using a lantern, placed on the temporary working table, as I don't live here anymore.

Like millions of Ukrainians, Maria Kulikovska was forced to leave the country in March 2022, fleeing to Austria with her 6-month-old daughter. There has been no safe place in Ukraine since 24 February as every home is a target. Thus, Maria lost her home to Russian invaders for the second time. With the support of the curators Rainald Schumacher, Nathalie Hoyos and Dr. Alfred Weidinger, the Director of Francisco Carolinum Museum in Linz, Maria continued her artistic practices, preparing for the big solo exhibition. During the residency in Gmunden, the artist started to work on a project The Table of Negotiations. The difference between the life of the resisting country, where everything has been immediately set on the war rails and the peaceful European cities were dramatic. Spring 2022 was marked by the debates, held by European intellectuals on how Ukraine should reconcile with Russia and fulfill the aggressor's requirements. The Absurdness of these claims became obvious after the genocide evidence was revealed in Irpin, Bucha, Borodyanka, Izium, and other cities.

The Table of Negotiations is a ceramic entity of limbs, torn bodies, and bruised flesh, symbolically stretching from the East to the last point, visible on the Western horizon. The table is covered by the body juices, ichor, blood, and flowers, made by the female refugees. Suffering fills the artwork over the limit, which makes the pain emit light, shining through the physical materials of the installation. And this is the same pain of resistance, that is connected by its very essence with the knowledge of final overcoming of the challenge — tortured, but unbend; of passing through the battlefield — as a warrior, not as a saint.

Maria Vtorushina


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2. Moschakis Konstantinos: "Healing Gods: The Cult of Apollo Iatros, Asclepius and Hygieia in the Black Sea Region", Dissertation thesis submitted to obtain the Master of Arts (MA) in Black Sea Cultural Studies Thessaloniki, 2013.
3. Sofia Lukashova, Ekateryna Reshchuk: "Back to the USSR. How Crimea has changed under Russian occupation", special research for Ukrainska Pravda, 2020.
4. Hugh Plommer: "Vitruvius and the Origin of Caryatids", The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 99 (1979), pp. 97-102.
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6. Sigmund Freud: "The ego and the id", 1923, S.E. London: Hogarth, p. 33.
7. Jules Gill-Peterson: "The miseducation of a French Femininst", e-flux journal, issue 117, 2020.
8. "Sky Hundred", Site-memorial to the activists, killed during the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014. https://nebesnasotnya.com/
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13. "Once upon a time in a market in Constantinople" — a UkrainiaUkrainian folk song, that originated in the 16th century.
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