Maria Kulikovska & Her Radical Vaginas

The Ukranian artist returns to London for a surprisingly radical performance piece and a solo exhibition with Art Represent

Maria Kulikovska arrived in London with a suitcase full of plaster casts of vaginas. She also brought along ceramic dinner plates with watercolour nudes and a selection of pink bandanas emblazoned with the #FlowersofDemocracy – all essential items in the preparation of her solo exhibition in London with Art Represent. The project included a retrospective gallery exhibition featuring Maria’s work on the Body and a performance piece on the streets of London. The latter, entitled “Flowers of Democracy”, is a continuation of Kulikovska’s public action in Ukraine, where she placed plaster casts of vaginas around Kiev and the border between the Ukraine and the occupied territory. Her action addressed the plight of women in the ongoing regional conflict.

Extending this performance to London, Maria Kulikovska moves to tackle a new range of issues, sparking debate about gender, feminism and the private body set against the wider public and political context. On May 1st the artist and volunteers walked between the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, Westminister Abbey, the Parliament and the City, leaving plaster casts of vaginas along the way. In targeting locations that connect so intimately to gender discrimination, be it structural, religious, financial or artistic, Maria aimed to open a dialog about the failure to accord women equal status or representation in British society and beyond.

Maria Kulikovska and her Radical Vaginas
“How can we understand society and the world if we do not understand ourselves, if we are scared to reflect on our bodies?”

Highlighting the vagina as an emblem of womanhood, Maria’s performance questions normative gender roles and forces an intimate, unashamed engagement with the physical organ itself. Often censored, condemned, controlled and rarely represented at close range, the vagina remains taboo, vulgar and obscene, both in the art world and in the mainstream media. For an organ so integral to giving life and to a particular experience of womanhood, the notion that Maria’s vaginas – made by hand in her “pussy factory” – still manage to incite controversy in a city like London, a place she calls “surprisingly conservative”, is evidence of how much work still lies ahead in the fight for gender equality and acceptance. With the emergence of activism movements like Pussy Riot, FEMEN and Guerrilla Girls, Maria’s public art actions could hardly be timelier.

Maria Kulikovska’s reputation as a young, radical artist to watch precedes her on the London scene. In the autumn of 2015 as part of the UK/Raine: Emerging Artists from the UK and Ukraine exhibit, Maria marched stoically into the Saatchi gallery. Wielding a hammer, she was completely nude aside from a pink wig, dark sunglasses and trainers. Maria set out to decimate three soap replicas of her own nude body using the weapon in a powerful and painful performance piece. Beyond mere sensationalism, Maria’s performance represented an interrogation of the female experience set within the broader political context of the Ukrainian conflict – where her own soap replicas had been vandalized by rebel forces, who used them for target practice.

Maria Kulikovska and her Radical Vaginas
“The beauty with art is that it is some way to find new ideas, to find solutions without violence. You can imitate violence but you don’t inflict violence. For example, I was violent to my sculpture, what I have done with my hands, but I didn’t destroy the real body. I didn’t destroy any real life.”

While a select few attended to the nuances entangled in her performance, the vast majority sought to fixate upon her decision to appear in the nude. Rather than interrogating the fragility, vulnerability and pain literally embodied by her naked form, many commentators instead talked about her breasts. Disturbed by the experience, Maria became physically sick following the exhibition.

And yet this is nothing new for the young artist. Her selection of the Body as a lens through which to reflect and interpret society has led to intense scrutiny and condemnation. From arrests, interrogations, and threats against her life in the Ukraine – all the way to the hateful and vulgar commentary she receives online. Maria is equal parts surprised and steadfast in the face of these reactions to her artistic practice. “It is about basic stuff actually, it is nothing complicated… It is just to try and understand, to try and occupy your own space and be the owner of your own body. It is to be able to have this border and to say ‘no’ to any other borders produced by regimes or systems,” said Kulikovska.

Maria’s use of the Body as a concept and a vehicle in its expression of anguish mimics the painful situation of her own family, still residing in the occupied Ukrainian territory, and that of everyday Ukranian citizens. Travelling between her childhood home of Kerch, Kiev and her new life working in Sweden, Maria has a unique positionality – seeing the politico-economic crisis both first hand and from afar. While the rich get richer through corruption, the poor are growing increasingly desperate. Struggling through her own depression, Maria Kulikovska has turned to embrace more radical ideas:

“I think I will continue to perform – more radically, and start again with my architecture practice. And maybe it can bring some absolutely new ideas. Because when you do performance you break all these rules and borders, and you cross, you just destroy on many levels, and when you are an architect you build [with this in mind]. Maybe inside me I will find some solution, in the end.”

Maria Kulikovska and her Radical Vaginas
“I don’t believe that this exhibition will change all society, but it can infect new hearts and it can start to grow slowly – or maybe very fast. I hope that I can open something in someone’s heart or brain.”

These reflections come at a time when Maria Kulikovska is ready to step back and examine her existing artistic oeuvre in sculpture and performance. Her first solo exhibition in the UK at Art Represent is something of a retrospective where Maria will present a series of sculptures, ceramics and sketches in addition to giving a new performance that acts to bookend her previous one at the Saatchi Gallery. During the exhibition, entitled “9th of May” (Victory Day in eastern Europe, a holiday marking the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, which is contentious given the current authoritarian dictatorship over Crimea and the corruption scandal in Ukraine) Kulikovska’s sculptures – from Homo Bulla and 254 to Flowers of Democracy – previously destroyed by acts of war will seek rebirth and renewed contextualization as emblems of hope and action. With an unstoppable force like artist Maria Kulikovska at the helm, surely anything is possible.

9th of May ran from the 9th of May to the 1st of June, 2016 at Art Represent’s gallery space in London. All photos were provided courtesy of Art Represent.