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Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility at Waterside Contemporary

Hope is a powerful catalyst for change, fueling courage and idealism in equal parts. It projects a vision of a future that is better than the present. Once people are moved with hope, extraordinary things can happen. But what happens to hope when a people are continuously subjugated for over six centuries? If Kiev-based artist Nikita Kadan’s quietly intense installation at Waterside Contemporary is an answer, what remains is a stark and isolated arrangement in which the possibility of joy has been bled out generations ago—and this is a good thing. Limits of Responsibility is a blueprint for a future that is very aware of the limits to what is idealistically possible.

Nikita Kadan. Protection of Plants, 2014; collage; 39.5 x 54.5 cm (15.5 x 21.46 in). Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London. NFC.

Nikita Kadan. Protection of Plants, 2014; collage; 15 1/2 x 21 1/2 in. (39.5 x 54.5 cm). Courtesy the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

The show is divided into three bodies of work that thematically intersect. Pulling from centuries of peasant farming traditions, Kadan ties the show together with the vegetable, using it as a symbolic motif of healing. This is most evident in a series of framed collages, Protection of Plants (2014), that are the strongest pieces in the show. Each piece consists of a photograph of a building visibly damaged from a military assault, with illustrations of vegetables layered over the image. The photographic style has the feel of a snapshot; it’s very much about the present condition. The illustrations’ origins are not offered, but from their washed-out, ethereal style, it’s obvious that they all come from the same pre-digital book. The vegetables, carefully extracted from their constructed context, float evenly over the image and randomly obscure parts of the picture. There is no attempt to blend or make it appear that the two layers go together visually or conceptually. The idealized plant and brutalized present exist separately but together. It’s as though Kadan is constructing a situation in which each of the original context’s failures are exposed through the failure of the new construction—each plane gains strength from the honesty of their union.

Nikita Kadan. Limits of Responsibility, 2014 (detail); 36 colour slides; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

Nikita Kadan. Limits of Responsibility, 2014 (detail); 36 color slides; dimensions variable. Courtesy the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

The history of the Ukrainian people is one of agriculture and resistance. Farming meant that one could live and mostly continue with cultural traditions no matter which neighboring regime was in power. The Soviet eras were particularly brutal, first with Stalin’s artificial famine to punish the resistance against “farm-collectivization” and later with the catastrophe of Chernobyl. However devastating these developments, Kadan doesn’t entirely dismiss the ideology of Soviet propaganda. Instead he uses it to absurdist effect by conceptually layering the past and present in his trophy piece Limits of Responsibility (2014). In the gallery’s back corner, a slide projector shows images taken by Kadan from last year’s student revolt and encampment in Kiev’s city square. The thirty-six images revolve around the student-appropriated dirt patches in the town square that had been turned into city-garden monuments. To farm is to resist. To match this image of revolt, Kadan re-created a sculpture from instructions found in a Soviet pamphlet on presenting agricultural achievements. It is an exact replica of the line drawing from the midcentury brochure. What is absent is any reference to the propaganda that would have hung on the panels. This leaves the stark white panels to dominate not only the accompanying planter, complete with growing vegetables, but also the entire show itself. The framework originally made to communicate ideas becomes the monument that embodies a failed ideal and offers a new foundation for an exit plan to the future.

Nikita Kadan. Untitled, 2014; watercolor on paper; 39.5 x 56.5 cm (15.55 x 22.24 in). Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

Nikita Kadan. Untitled, 2014; watercolor on paper; 15 1/2 x 22 1/4 in. (39.5 x 56.5 cm). Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

The third body of work consists of a series of untitled watercolors that depict relics—bones and neoclassical Soviet buildings—merged with plant matter. They are understated in their delicate line quality, and a muted color scheme compounds their incongruous subject matter. Each drawing comes off as a cooperative protest with the past, present, and future participating. It’s a fantasy rooted in a place where all constructs of hope have been controlled for too long; a retreat to idealism can no longer be about the future. The watercolors are funny in both senses of the word, and it’s not an inviting fantasy. They achieve exactly what they set out to do: They are austere in both palette and prospect.

Nikita Kadan. Limits of Responsibility, 2014; installation view, Waterside Contemporary, London. Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

Nikita Kadan. Limits of Responsibility, 2014; installation view, Waterside Contemporary, London. Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

Limits of Responsibility pulls from the region’s harsh difficulties of the present and offers a model of the future from what is possible—that which has already occurred. This may seem a bleak outcome to the Western European and New World psyches of extravagant possibilities, but here lies a powerfully beautiful message in tangible outcomes. By selecting what works from the past while accepting the present, Kadan limits the ever-illusive grand notions generated by hope and presents a model of a sustainable future that could actually be achievable.

Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility is on view at Waterside Contemporary, London, through April 4, 2015.

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