Nikolay Karabinovych: The Artist as a Storyteller and a Set Designer - Kauno Bienalė

Nikolay Karabinovych: The Artist as a Storyteller and a Set Designer


Nikolay Karabinovych is a Ukrainian artist working in Amsterdam and Kyiv. His art practice is primarily focused on the complexities of Eastern Europe, tackling them in a variety of media, primarily video, music and sculpture. Karabinovych’s work has been displayed in many art institutions and galleries across Europe, including M HKA (Antwerp), Bozar (Brussels), W139 (Amsterdam), Zamek Ujazdowski (Warsaw), and the Pinchuk Art Centre (Kyiv). The following conversation delves into the philosophical background of the artist’s work, touching on both form and content, and expands on the thought process behind the installations done for the 14th Kaunas Biennial and the Survival Kit 14.

Nikolay Karabinovych “Invisible to us Isaac”, 2023. Photo by Martynas Plepys.

Would it be correct to say that the central topic in your work is history?

Generally, it is. It was one of my interests during my childhood, when I started to understand the complexity of where I was growing up. But first it might be helpful to define the term …

I was just about to ask, in what sense is history important to you? It is obviously a broad scientific discipline, but how do you position yourself in relation to it?

I have the general humanitarian and philosophical background, and the academic tools that help in research, but I think being an artist is a way to reach a wider perspective and show the complexity of reality. I switched to the visual arts because I felt the academic approach lacks something; it can’t fully explain the paradoxical and catastrophic events that happened in the past, whereas working with the imagination helps to make them more understandable in a way.

Regarding positioning, I see myself as a storyteller. For metaphorical purposes, we might recall the ancient tradition of nomadic bards, known as ashiks across the Ottoman Empire, and akin in Kazakh lands, singer-poets who were always travelling, collecting stories, and retelling them through a poetic lens. But generally, I think about my position a lot. Making collages is one of my daily practices, for example, and there’s a simple one I made that asks ‘Do I have the right to be here?’ This is a fundamental part of my practice, asking where I’m speaking from and always revisiting it.

Nikolay Karabinovych “Invisible to us Isaac”, 2023. Photo by Martynas Plepys.

Are there more approaches that, broadly speaking, artists could bring to the table when tackling history? What can they offer that scholars can’t?

Art is the work of the imagination, not of a strict methodology. Artists can construct utopian ideas without the limits that exist in a scientific approach, and create connections, sometimes paradoxical, between historical episodes, thus somehow including more stories and telling more specific histories, and exploring very different traces. Since my practice also focuses on language, I would say that by using artistic tools, it is also possible to deconstruct narratives rooted in language and play with them. All in all, whereas academia offers quite a simple structure (thesis, antithesis, argumentation, conclusion), art allows us to be more fluid.

An opportunity to break out of the box.

Yes! And although I was not always conscious of this, another essential thing is the connection with the audience: art allows us to communicate on a more interesting level, and without some of the problems that an academic approach holds. And there tends to be a bigger audience.

I suppose art is also more accessible, since there’s an aesthetic dimension, isn’t there?

That’s also incredibly important. It makes things catchier, so to speak.

MOTHERLAND, Nikolay Karabinovych, Schrecklicher Fehler (c) Stadtmuseum Berlin, Oliver Ziebe

From what I gathered, you have long been exploring related questions of national identity, collective memory, differences between the East and the West, and (de)colonisation in the context of Ukraine. Did something fundamentally change in your practice, or in your perception more generally, after February 2022?

Firstly, I’m trying to be a bit critical, or at least aware, of the problematic use of terms such as ‘decolonial’ and ‘colonial’. They have become very common and trendy, especially in contemporary art; yet we should be precise, because it’s such a sensitive topic. At the same time, it is worth revisiting decolonial approaches and postcolonial theories.

I did notice a very specific shift in my attitude. Before the Russian invasion, I was in line with the dominant trend of criticising Western society, its structures, the neoliberal order, and so on; but I didn’t pay attention to my own position. By following this tendency at international conferences and other events, we were silent on other serious issues, about, say, Eastern Europe. By criticising Western imperialism, Russian imperialism could be put out of sight. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary to still be critical towards the West, but after 24 February it’s apparent that there are many immensely crucial things we haven’t spoken about.

Thank you, it’s important to keep this topic alive … So far, we’ve talked about mainly theoretical things, but I wonder how it translates into your practice. You make artworks in a variety of media, but music and object-based installations seem to be the most common. What draws you to them?

There is a relatively simple answer to the question why music interests me. I consider it like an international language that can be understood quickly and without a lot of barriers or requirements. And I’d like to emphasise that it’s not necessarily an interest in sound, but rather music, an already-existing and produced thing. I strive to understand things that have an influence on society, so from time to time I tackle popular music or traditional music in my work. It’s fascinating to me why particular sequences of notes become popular and spread over the world.

And what about objects?

I identify with the traditional Surrealist approach of combining things and changing their purpose, and thus creating something new. You name it: fusing an umbrella and a sewing machine, and so on. Yet it is crucial to acknowledge that, like music, objects already have their own existence. That is why I like to work with ready-mades, they already mean something. In a new, non-existent object, I try to carefully place what is present in its surrounding context.

However, there is another nuance. I have, you could say, an unconventional way of categorising my practice. I call some works ‘underwater’, and others ‘above water’. I like this idea, because it gives a quick understanding that for some works you are required to dive deeper, whereas other works lie more on the surface, they are simple and playful. For me, objects are mostly above water, whereas moving images are underwater.

I noticed these categories when skimming your website. Thank you for explaining! Still on what connects music and objects in your practice, what role do artefacts have in telling histories, since they have previous existences?

This question fits well with another relevant interest of mine: ruins, things that have been modified by time or that have lost their previous meaning and changed their identity. I draw parallels with objects here, thinking of the attitude we should take towards them. Ruins and objects are silent, muted. Sometimes they are victims. I wouldn’t say I force them to speak or give them a voice in my art. I try to make a set-up to let objects be present, like a stage designer.

And like a phenomenologist, back to the things themselves …


So what are you going to show in Kaunas and Riga?

My installation in the Central Post Office building in Kaunas is in two parts: one is in the telephone booths, the other is on the second floor. I used the booths as a sort of ready-made, to which I added lighting, audio, and two paintings, portraits of two Georgian avantgarde artists, the brothers Ilia and Kirill Zdanevich. They had fascinating lives, and in my work I focus on their relatively irregular communication, due to the fact that Ilia moved to Paris, whereas Kirill stayed in Tbilisi. The other part of the installation is a snippet from the popular Georgian-Soviet comedy movie Mimino. There’s an episode where the main character goes to a post office in West Berlin to make a call back home to Telavi, but the administrator mishears the request and connects the call to Tel Aviv instead. By a strange coincidence, the man picking up the call at the other end is also Georgian, and when the mistake is discovered, they come together in a Georgian song. So, summing up, in my work I connect this imaginary, anecdotal event from the movie with the real story of the Zdanevich brothers.

In Riga, however, the starting point to my work stems from my interest in music, and it’s to do with the Melodiyalabel that brought out records in the Soviet Union and had a branch in Riga. The more popular records were produced at the headquarters in Moscow, of course, but others that were not meant for large audiences were left to the peripheries. That was the case with the ‘Traditional Music of Asia and Africa’ series. With the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, Soviet propaganda officials decided that it would be interesting to publish limited editions of music from non-aligned countries, such as Angola and Laos. Now, many decades later, when the medium has come back into popularity, these vinyl records can be incredibly valuable. I collect records, and sometimes it’s hard to find the ones I want; this is basically what my installation is about. Melodiya records will be displayed on the wall, along with my versions of covers for some that I couldn’t find. Additionally, there will be a Surrealist sculpture that touches on the practical fact that a collection of records can be very heavy.

Two quite different works, by the sound of it! Is there something that unites them, or did you want them to be different?

I wanted to make something site-specific. The telephone booths, a treasure in the Central Post Office in Kaunas, influenced my process of making the work for the biennial. The same goes for Riga. I was familiar with the story of Melodiya, and this was my chance to create something.

At the same time, I tried to poke fun at nostalgia for the Soviet Union. In the case of the Riga artwork, in theory, the idea of unity between the Soviet Union and Asian and African countries seemed like a good thing. In practice, the production of the records was an unimportant formality, and there was still a colonial aspect to how they were distributed. In the case of Kaunas, the brutality of censorship is revealed, a reality where you couldn’t freely call someone outside the Soviet Union. I believe Mimino demonstrates the Soviet reality, and challenges censorship with humour.

Nikolay Karabinovych “In a long blink of an eye”, ©LaureCottinStefanelli, Manuel Wetscher

Interview by Rūdis Bebrišs