THE NAKED ROOM: “We are good at producing art, so this is our contribution during the war.”
First Timers | The Naked Room
Founded in 2018 by Maria Lanko, 36, and Lizaveta German, 34, “The Naked Room” soon became one of the hottest galleries in Kyiv – and then the war came. Since then, the young gallery has been traveling Europe and tirelessly promoting the visibility of Ukrainian artists – amongst others for the first time at viennacontemporary 2022. We talked to Lizaveta in her temporary home in Mödling just outside of Vienna, where she lives with her eight months old baby, husband, and dog and manages the gallery’s communications while her colleague Maria is currently traveling between Kyiv and Paris.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us! May we ask first, how come that you are living in Mödling?
I’m asking myself the same question every day (laughs). We moved from Ukraine in early April, my baby was just born, and my husband needed medical treatment and could not get surgery in Ukraine. Friends who went to Vienna before us managed to arrange housing for us and until today. It actually very nice to live here.
It must have been a more than exhausting and unbelievable year for you. Can you take us through your experiences?
It was crazy, on the one hand, there is war at home, my baby was just born and at the same time we curated the Ukrainian Pavilion in Venice. We found out about our win in August 2021 and thought very hard about what we could do to get a bit of attention amidst all these great pavilions. Then the war started…
Were you always sure to follow through with the Venice Biennale?
It was a huge challenge and the whole team showed enormous resilience. Organizing an art exhibition might not be the first thing on your mind when there is a war in your home, but on the other hand, you need to have an aim, you need to do something.
Many people volunteered in the army or so, but we are good at producing art, so this was our contribution. The thing was that suddenly, we had become the most publicly demanded pavilion. Our PR expert needed to hire more team and even this was not enough.
Only, the interest was rather about how these crazy art people made this journey during war and not so much about the extraordinary piece of Pavlo Makov – after all its not some random piece but he has worked on it for 27 years.
So it was a bittersweet success?
Well, after all, it is our job to talk to everyone who asks, so here we are, speaking about the war, the Ukrainian perspective, giving our art scene a voice. It was clear to us that we want to keep our gallery alive so in our opinion, the only possibility – also financially – was to do exhibitions outside of Ukraine. After Venice, we received many offers for hosting pop-ups in gallery spaces and things started to move quickly. Liste had always been our dream. And suddenly it was them contacting us and offering us to participate! Quickly we had a quite intense schedule until March 2023, the biggest up now being a residency in Paris for two months in the new gallery called L‘Atlas.
You just celebrated your fourth anniversary. What was it like to establish a gallery?
Before founding the gallery, Maria Lanko and I had already worked together for several years as a curatorial duo. We started small-scale and ended up curating major events like the Kyiv Biennale and museum exhibitions. At one point we decided that we need our own space to plan and not only jump from place to place. Kyiv back then was the place to be, the city was developing amazingly and lots of small businesses opened in the neighborhood, the vibe was there. With the huge support of our friend Marc, we decided to open our art space on his premises in the most trendy, vibrant neighborhood.
Was it a big risk?
We had no prior experience and people around us advised us not to do it. “Girls, it’s not for you”, they said. But we saw potential in people from our generation, who are not necessarily rich but have a decent income that they like to spend on young Ukrainian artists rather than big cars or flashy stuff. So we thought: Ok, if we make money, we can survive. If not, we will try something else. And it worked out! Soon, there was enough money to sustain the gallery, pay back our loans and invest a bit of money in production and publicity.
So in the end there was potential for a new gallery in Kyiv!
We soon became quite trendy – we had two types of audiences: the first one is the crowd that just came to events and like to hang out and follow us on Instagram. We tried not to be like the typical silent white cube gallery but tried to be very open and alive. The second crowd is the new collectors – 70 percent who bought with us were buying their first art piece ever.
What artists do you work with?
Mostly those, we had already worked with as curators: artists we find interesting and, in our eyes, deserve to be seen more widely. Many artists who exhibited with us over the last two years had their first solo show ever at our gallery. Not because they just graduated, many of them are in their thirties and well known amongst other artists, but maybe just had not had the right infrastructure to be seen. We are looking for art that represents the current Ukrainian spirit and is maybe a little bit undiscovered on the level of market and institutional representation.
You do not only feature undiscovered talents: Pavlo Makov is one of Ukraine’s most established artists.
He is also our personal friend, and we deeply value this friendship. He trusts us because we don’t only do management but also curatorial work: We are not scared of exhibiting works that other galleries don’t pick up for some reason. To us, Makov is also of “our generation” because even though he is much older, he is very young in his art, he is never reproducing himself, but has new styles every few years, so I see him as a very young and emerging artist.
What is your curatorial vision?
We have many photographers, very different kinds of painters, graphic art. We always look at the general appearance of the display, so we were very eager to include video works and installations. In Kyiv, we had a format called “Naked Statement” where we would do something completely non-commercial between exhibitions to refresh and keep it interesting, giving a try to new names and concepts.
How is the situation of your gallery space now?
In the beginning, it was closed for two months, and we moved our storage to Lviv to keep it safe and make logistics easier. In May, life in Kyiv took up again, so we opened, but with a different program: We are involved with an organization that collects and manages donations to artists, so we gave them our gallery space for a “Wartime Art Archive” – works centering around the war by artists who stayed in Ukraine. Our original program we show in a series of pop-ups in the locations we got invited.
How do you keep in touch with the artists?
Some of them never left and are staying in Ukraine. Many stopped doing art those first months and volunteered instead. One of them drove around the country to distribute humanitarian aid, another two artists are volunteering in a psychiatric clinic because, and half of the staff fled. Some artists have left Ukraine and we help them look for residencies. We keep in touch via messenger and try to support them wherever we can.
One of your many stops this year was at viennacontemporary. How was your experience there?
For us, it was very successful in every sense. We had this idea of the classical Viennese scene and a very sophisticated audience, so we thought of a big name with a big museum-like exhibition. The idea to present Pavlo Makov came up quickly. We chose some works that were actually in his studio in Charkiv and were moved from there. It was really well-visited, and we sold everything. For us, it was a great success and for Makov it was great to see that his work is demanded internationally.
How would you describe the Ukrainian art scene?
You have the more established collector scene and then there is the younger scene who has started to collect now for different reasons, may they be interested in digital art or buy something to donate to a museum. And those people are still interested in buying, even though Ukraine is going through a devastating economical phase. Now is not the time to amass material possessions, as tomorrow your house could be destroyed, and all your belongings shipped to Russia. But those collectors realize how important it is to invest in Ukrainian culture and identity, to preserve it, and be able to show it outside of the country.
At viennacontemporary, we met a Ukrainian collector who had never bought with us before, but he visited our booth five minutes before closing. We had only one work left so he said it was destiny and he had to take it. And the great thing is that the work is now actually back in Ukraine.
What is your plan for the future?
We want to re-open the gallery in Kyiv full scale again we really miss doing our program in our own four walls. At the same time, we have an idea of opening something outside of Ukraine, but financially and logistically it is a bit complicated. If there was a cooperation possibility with another gallery or so, this would be great. And we want to keep doing good fairs, including viennacontemporary, which we would be happy to attend again.