War 11. Portraits
Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Calgary
May 15 to June 27, 2015
By Jeffrey Spalding
Taras Polataiko, "Vasyl," 2014, photographic print, 64” x 43”.
War 11. Portraits by Ukrainian-Canadian artist Taras Polataiko is a powerful installation that has been shown internationally. A professor at the University of Lethbridge, Polataiko travelled last year to Kyiv amidst the raging Ukrainian-Russian conflict. There, he visited the surgical department of the Central Military Clinical Hospital, the agency that treats seriously wounded soldiers. He selected 11 patients and crafted portraits comprised of two components. Polataiko had Pavlo Terekhov create photographic portraits; all are the same size, over-scale, black-and-white and unframed. The stories of the soldier’s relationships and experiences with the war were recorded in audio interviews by Polataiko. The result is an installation that pairs each photograph with its respective Ukrainian-language interview via headsets.
The exhibition opened the National Art Museum of Ukraine’s charity fundraising initiative to help wounded soldiers. It was subsequently displayed at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Odessa; Art Toronto; the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York; the Chernivtsi Museum of Art in Ukraine; and the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa. At Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Calgary, printed English-language translations of the interviews will be available. (All are online at Visions of Ukraine, a volunteer news project at maidantranslations.com.)
What do these portraits tell us about the individuals, the war, or the human condition? In large part, the artist has left us to judge for ourselves. The photos depict the subjects, most of them frightfully young men, from the chest up. Importantly, none reveal any visible physical wounds, and even more curious, the interviews hardly, if ever, touch on the nature, severity, circumstances or causes of the injuries.
One needs to remark on this since, unquestionably, other patients suffered various disfiguring and traumatic afflictions. Polataiko’s work keeps us focused on strength, reclamation and recovery.
So how does this stack up as a true journalistic document of a factual situation? Perhaps this doesn’t matter to Polataiko. The Ukrainian exhibiting institutions have, understandably, lavished praise on the work. Clearly, they view it as a commendable spiritual boost, a patriotic rallying cry. How this blatant partisan pitch will play out in the context of a Calgary commercial gallery remains to be seen.
Polataiko came to Canada in 1989. He received a Master’s degree in fine arts in 1993 from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and has participated in artist residencies at the Banff Centre. His successful career has landed him solo exhibitions across Europe and throughout Canada.
His controversial projects demand that audiences take stands on contentious current issues. Often they blur the line between documentary reportage and aesthetic fictions.