Oleksandr Chertenko
Translated by: 
Thomas Rowley
September 2014

Trauma and Catastrophe: Matviy Vaisberg's "The Wall" (2014)

I find it difficult to write about Matviy Vaisberg's second Wall project from a distance. I first met Matviy – by chance, like all important meetings – during a protest drive to Yanukovych’s estate at Mezhyhiria just before New Year, on December 29, a little less than a month before the clashes on Hrushevsky Street – the starting point of The Wall. On January 28, Matviy set to work on a new series of paintings, struggling, as he'll tell you, with himself, with the raw material yet to be processed by memory, even with his own body, which reacted to this artistic response with the taste of teargas in his mouth. Just as Matviy started work on The Wall, his photographs from Maidan started to appear online, serving as points of reference for his paintings.

Only a few days later, struck by the power of Vaisberg's work and the accuracy with which they conveyed my own vision of events, I wrote the following (without any desire to flatter the artist) on Facebook: “And I walked next to him. But what did I see? I saw nothing.“ Even though we didn't cross paths that often as we kept watch at the barricades and, in many cases, we saw different events from different positions, later on it became difficult to separate my own memory of Maidan and the images it took from Matviy's paintings. (For example, I didn't catch the legendary trumpet player on Hrushevsky Street, pictured in one of the paintings.) This fusing of experiences stems from observing The Wall as it was created: every time I saw The Wall, it drove me to compare my own impressions and thoughts with the paintings. Whether of my own free will or against it, Matviy's views and interpretations became part of my own.

Matviy Vaisberg, "The Wall"

However, there are a few points where my experience of the protests of January and February (and the corresponding photographs taken by Matviy) departs from the story laid out in the cycle. Despite the short winter days, and the fact that the most important events of the EuroRevolution occurred at night, my memory and our photographs remain insistent: we spent a lot of time at the Maidan during the day. (Matviy even more than  I). This daytime Maidan, bathed in sunshine, is side-lined on purpose in The Wall. With the exception of two canvases (III.6 and III.7), in which exhausted people walk through light and darkness in a blue-grey mist, and the final picture (IV.7) – to be discussed separately, black, grey and red hues dominate the other paintings, alongside occasional white tones, cold and sterile. These are the colors of night, fire and smoke, snow, ash and concrete blocks. Everything that came to define the most dramatic moments of resistance or, at least, the most striking moments of the time, and which faded into the background as things calmed down (times of ceasefire, it seems, are not particularly significant for Vaisberg).

Everything that came to define the most dramatic, both memories and photographs, documents a wide range of artefacts from the revolution, and was  captured during even the fiercest clashes: posters and graffiti, the famous Christmas Tree, tents, eye-catching, often comic configurations of people, objects and texts. In contrast, The Wall filters out several definitive topoi from the infinite repertoire of figures and symbols. And these topoi are far from ironic: fires on “No Man's Land” between opposing forces, the deathly black color of the barricades (III.4), the colonnade of the Dynamo football stadium (II.2) and the large illuminations board nearby (III.3), the black and red banners (II.3, III.7), the neon MTS sign, which somehow remained intact during the battles of 18-20 February (IV.3), the sporadic torches and traffic lights. Memory and photographs archive Maidan as a site of intense human contact, populating it with the faces of friends, new and old, as well as the scores of people who came to play episodic roles in our personal stories. Instead, the protesters in The Wall are often presented with their backs turned to the viewer, dissolved in the dark masses of people who fascinate yet frighten us with their murky resolve in the face of danger.

Matviy Vaisberg, "The Wall," II.1

Photographs and memories tell us that we covered a lot of ground by foot, including the whole government quarter and, from the opposite side, Mykhailivsky  Square. The realities of The Wall are located solely within the confines of the “Hrushevsky Street – Khreshchatyk – Maidan Nezalezhnosti”  triangle, which is associated primarily with the final excesses of violence. Despite our perspective from afar (neither I, nor Matviy stood at the front), our individual and photographic memories preserved a few clear images of the blockade lines at Bankova Street, at Hrushevsky Street, on Instytutska Street... In The Wall, these images are reduced to a few visual hints – street lamps, glinting beneath the sky, rows of Berkut police helmets (III.4), hardly discernible in the gloom, or the projector hidden in the smoke (I.3, II.4). In a word, objects and phenomena that, as they become invisible or nearly invisible, only heightened the sensation of danger. This selection and distillation of facts, as well as the narrative sequence (which is easy to reconstruct via Matviy's Facebook timeline), testify to the conscious and determined (and, perhaps, not entirely selfless) processing of raw material.

Matviy Vaisberg, "The Wall," II.2

This contradicts the previously mentioned "diary quality" of the Wall, its “natural chronology” (concerning the events of January 19-22 or, as Andriy Mokrousov insists in the foreword to the exhibition catalog, December 11 to the end of February, which were painted between January 28 and March 8). As Vaisberg straightens out the real drama of the revolution, cutting away superfluous topoi and dramatis personae, removing all the non-tragic episodes and moments of comparatively peaceful everyday life, he thickens the colors, demarcates the violence on both sides of the barricades. In essence, Vaisberg localizes the shock of human contact with catastrophe, visually and in plot-terms, articulating the symptoms of cultural and historical trauma. For the sake of self-preservation, Vaisberg literally daubs the demons he needs to exorcize onto the wall. As part of the drive to overcome trauma, the cycle develops a double vision: the topical, even opportunistic material, saturated with universal meanings taken from the cultural archive (characteristic of Vaisberg's work), unfolds into mythical atemporality.

Matviy Vaisberg, "The Wall," III.4

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