Nikita Nadan / The Siren’s Song in WhiteHot magazine

By JAN VAN WOENSEL May 22, 2024 

Archeological excavations that were launched in the mid-19th century in the region of Pantikapaion made the ancient Greek colony recognized as a site of great historical treasures. Today, Pantikapaion is known as Kerch. It is the most eastern city on the Crimean Peninsula – the Ukrainian province that was illegally annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. Since then, museums in the occupied territory that preserved cultural heritage have been systematically plundered and destroyed.

Often working on the intersection of identity, history and activism, the artist Nikita Kadan (°1982, Kyiv, UA) recalled a book from his parents’ library, titled Antique ArtWorks of World Art in the Museums of Ukraine (1977). The comprehensive trilingual catalogue lists an array of primitive treasures and includes the chapter Greek Cities on the Northern Coast of the Black Sea that frequently mentions Kerch in the context of its wider region. Kadan’s reunion with the book inspired him to call attention to Russia’s war crimes of looting art and cultural property and ravaging museums and sites of historic significance. Antique Art can be read quite literally as an inventory of stolen art. The book’s register of items details the location, mostly museums in southern Ukraine, where they have been taken from.

In part, Kadan designed The Siren’s Song based on the ancient Greek mythological creature. The archetypal image of the Siren, a hybrid between a woman and a bird adorned with feathers and scaly feet, is often found in sculptures and frescos as well as on funerary monuments, book covers and pendants that were discovered by archeologists in the regions of Kyiv and Kherson, among others. Over the years, Sirens received multiple interpretations ranging from now-disremembered folklore approaches in which they were believed to be a sign of world harmony and a foreteller of future bliss, to the somehow popular version that warns of the dangerous temptations embodied by women. She has been written about as a treacherous creature who lures sailors to shipwreck. The account of the 16th century Flemish philosopher and Catholic priest Cornelius a Lapide describes her as follows: “With her voice she enchants and with her beauty she deprives of reason – voice and sight alike deal destruction and death”. Dubbed the Muse of the Lower World it is commonly agreed that she sings. The end of the Siren’s song is death.

In his solo exhibition organized by Galerie Transit, Nikita Kadan juxtaposes the Siren with ancient Greek treasures that depict her image, examples of which were looted by the Russians in the occupied territory, and with air raid alarms; the sirens that tirelessly wail throughout Ukraine since the onset of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. The exhibition The Siren’s Song displays paintings based on images of stolen or destroyed works of art (from the book Antique Art), including portraits of the mythological creature, and one that depicts the modern ruin of a destroyed building in Borodyanka.

As a matter of fact, the theme of the siren is not a novelty in the work of Kadan. During a 2023 residency at the commemorative war museum In Flanders Fields, the artist created a monumental ship-like artwork comprised of a translucent installation and a sound piece. The work titled Tryvoha (The Sirens and the Mast)went on display in churches in the Belgian cities of Ypres and Mechelen. The audio component in Tryvoha, a Ukrainian word for anxiety, and alarm, features a recording of mezzo-soprano Lena Bielkina and violinist Ihor Zavhorodnyi who vocally and instrumentally mimic the eerie, ambient sound of the air raid alarm. The opera singer’s dynamic voice combined with the weeping vibrations of the violin is intimidating. Here, the siren’s acoustic warning of an impending airstrike and the foreboding call of the mythological death-spirit of the Siren are symbolically superimposed. The mast in Tryvoha is empty.

It is striking how Kadan persistently and effectively transports (and thus purposefully dislocates) physical and immaterial elements from the events of the ongoing war in Ukraine to exhibition venues in Europe as a way of confrontation. Through the well-studied example of Russia’s kleptomaniac tendencies that he introduces in The Siren’s Song, the artist essentially stresses the wider scope of the emergency. This emergency can be described best in plain language: Russia’s invasion aims to erase Ukrainian cultural identity. Russia seeks not merely to capture Ukrainian territory but to achieve the gradual destruction of Ukraine’s cultural life. Their “assault on Ukrainian cultural identity can be seen in everything from the widespread looting of national treasures to the targeted destruction of historic sites including museums, theaters, libraries and monuments. These attacks are evidence of an intentional long-term campaign to eradicate Ukraine’s distinct culture and heritage” writes Martha Holder for the Atlantic Council. Artists resist by embracing their culture, history and language against the influences of Russification. In this context, reverence should be given to the acts of resistance carried out by the award-winning novelist and poet Victoria Amelina. Following the invasion of Ukraine, she embarked on a mission to preserve the works of artists and writers who were killed or exiled during Russia’s war; a project against the loss of cultural memory. The day before Volodymyr Vakulenko was murdered – the poet who compiled a journal recording Russian atrocities – he buried his book under a cherry tree in his garden. It was discovered by Amelina and published posthumously. In the foreword she writes: “I’m inside a new Executed Renaissance. As in the 1930s, Ukrainian artists are killed, their manuscripts disappear and their memory is erased”. In 2023, Victoria Amelina died from injuries sustained during a Russian rocket attack on the city of Kramatorsk, on 1 July, the birthday of Volodymyr Vakulenko. If they succumb to the Siren’s song, the artists we support today will be memorialized tomorrow.

Nikita Kadan’s proficient work methodology that bridges elements of myth, history and actuality, introduces us to conceptual loopholes that facilitate the formulation of intertextual narratives that are simultaneously valid and cross-referential. For example: In essence, the leading motifs that the artist combines in his Transit Gallery exhibition as well as in Tryvoha, the Siren and the siren, meet each other in the common space of imminent danger. This is their logical relation. We understand that the former refers to a creature that sings, seduces men into death and belongs to the domain of mythology, and the latter to a civil defense system that warns residents for airstrikes in real life. However, as it appears in the exhibition, their consolidation stimulates the motifs’ relational integration. In that process they grow into an interconnected system of a kind of allegorical post-theory: The air-raid alarm metaphorically sings the Siren’s song. This approach simultaneously augments and destabilizes the logical relation of the Siren and the siren inside their common space of imminent danger.

Kadan intentionally uses destabilization as a mechanism. He has the exceptional talent of subverting commonly accepted truths while keeping their origin and discourse focused within their own theater of discussion, causing existential ruptures. Applied to The Siren’s Song, figuratively speaking through the loophole of such a breach, we could reverse the generally understood circumstances of the war and weaponize Nikita Kadan’s resurrection of the Siren, by proclaiming: Each interruption of life in Ukraine that is announced by the wailing sound of the sirens foreshadows the inevitable downfall of the Russian Federation. The Siren’s song is not delivered to the people of Ukraine.

By means of provocation, the passage above attempts to illustrate also how the general public’s assumed circumstance of stagnation of cultural life in Ukraine is misinformed. Artists like Nikita Kadan and his contemporaries are writing a unique art history in real time. Their movement transforms the vulnerability of life in a war-enduring country and its disturbing byproducts, into a force of resistance; an energy that is part of their reality. In Ukraine, leading art and cultural institutions persevere. They nurture cross-cultural dialogue via microprojects that challenge the convenience of polarization. They utilize their institutional influence to address social and cultural change in a time in which Ukrainian culture is threatened to such a degree that if Russia could have its way, it would be erased. The public should pay attention to the work of regional art centers; those that despite missiles raining down on them develop projects that are evidence of resilience no matter how small-scale and literally underground they may be. People should notice the independent art collectives that contribute to recovery, rebuilding and humanitarian aid, and – most importantly – the Ukrainian artists who are temporarily unable to create anything. The sirens wail also for us. WM

Siren III, 2024.

Exhibition view, Galerie Transit, Belgium


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