Portrait of Lika Volk performing Liquid work, 2016 at the Torrance Shipman Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
Ukrainian artist Lika Volk reclaims displaced objects and stories in her imaginative performances and fashion works. She is best known for her “moving canvases,” abandoned paintings that she breathes new life into by turning them into wearables. Volk’s interest in fashion stems from the idea that clothes are a medium through which we can express ourselves and communicate with a wide audience. “Fashion is about unease,” she said in a recent interview, “and it’s so close to art because I believe artists need to explore the feeling of unease.”
Volk’s interest in awkwardness stems from her own experiences of displacement as a Ukrainian growing up in the Soviet Union. This fractured upbringing, during which she felt different from her homeland, shapes the social practice of the artist today. Working through performance, painting, wearable art, video and curation, Volk examines how people belong to communities and cultural groups. His solid and socially engaged practice critically explores Ukrainian history and the hints of imperialism left by the Soviet Union. This work has made her a key collaborator in the workshops of New York-based institutions like the Brooklyn Railroad and the New Arts Dealers Alliance (NADA), following the February 24 Russian invasion. However, less attention has been devoted to her compelling and socially engaged artistic practice in New York and Ukraine.
Installation plan by Lika Volk, “New Economic Policy”, 2015 at the Queens Museum. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
Volk (née Volkova) was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1978 to artist parents; his youth was divided between there and Moscow. “I kind of grew up in an artistic community,” Volk said, describing her childhood as weird but artistic. Part of this strangeness was due to the way she learned Ukrainian history in schools supported by the Soviet Union, where Ukrainian language and culture were suppressed as popular history.
“My grandfather spoke a hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian at home,” Volk said, pointing out how deep Ukraine’s repression was during his childhood. His parents’ artistic, nomadic lifestyle led Volk to avoid a formal art education; she was drawn to alternative practices. “Growing up, I rejected an idea of fine art because it didn’t communicate to a [audience],” she says.
Volk moved to New York in 1998 and started making art, recycling discarded artwork into clothing. “There are about 100,000 artists in New York and a lot of them are painters,” she said. “There is a huge surplus of paintings; some of them are not liked, not good or have errors. The clothes are intentionally excessive in their construction and deliberately exaggerate the proportions of the body, as seen in the felt piece resembling an open tin can that Volk wore for a performance titled Liquid work in 2016.
Portrait of a model wearing WITHOUT (2005-2010). Courtesy of Lika Volk.
Initially, Volk used these garments in daily performances on the streets of New York through which the general public became his audience. “Sometimes people would curse me, but it was a reaction,” she said. This eventually led her to create a sustainable fashion line called SANS (2005-2011), before returning to her wearable art and performance practice in 2012.
Volk’s “moving canvases” were an integral part of the “New Economic Policy” series (2014-2020), produced in collaboration with New York-based artist Caroline Woolard. The series features conceptual, futuristic performances where Volk’s clothing – his own take on 20th century overalls associated with factory work – is activated by performers who play the roles of workers clamoring for deskilled or abandoned work. The title refers to the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the Soviet Union, which was in effect from 1921 to 1928 before being abolished by Joseph Stalin.
“New Economic Policy” has been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design (2014) and the Queens Museum (2015), among other institutions. Volk also incorporated his own paints as material for these garments. for her Liquid work performance at the Torrance Shipman Gallery in 2016, Volk created an immersive installation made up of clothing, installations and poems. The article satirized business model plans and used language to argue for “hard play” rather than “hard work” in an imagined future economy.
Left: Installation plan of Lika Volk, “New Economic Policy”, 2015 at the Queens Museum, NY. Right: Portrait of artist Caroline Woolard wearing ‘New Economic Policy’, 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Courtesy of the artist.
Over the past few years, Volk has brought his imaginary alternate realities back to Ukraine. During a 2018 residency in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, Volk did performance work that involved participating in local TV and radio programs and saying that the city -even was now a museum of contemporary art. The act responded to the lack of contemporary art galleries and museums in Uzhhorod. With the performance, Volk sought to inspire artists to think more broadly about the city’s population as an audience, and proposed that the lack of contemporary art spaces means less competition between artists, as is meeting in cultural capitals like New York.
“I almost felt good there,” Volk said of his time in Uzhhorod. “Finally, I haven’t seen any gallery owners, any museums of contemporary art. But at the same time, artists want [to present their work] and that creates a lag. With the performance, she wanted to see how artists would feel when they were freed from the traditional infrastructure of the contemporary art world. “I didn’t want to manipulate the situation,” she added. “Some people would think this was institutional criticism and it had nothing to do with it. So I thought, okay, this will be institutional mystique.
Portrait of viewers watching David Young Kim and Amelia Saul, The desert in the lagoon, 2020 at Pizza Piennale, 2021 at The Always Fresh, NY. Courtesy of Lika Volk.
In New York, Volk has dedicated time to making space for “misaligned objects and people” through her mobile gallery space, The Always Fresh. The Always Fresh originally operated out of a former pizzeria on the Lower East Side from 2021 to 2022. Volk discontinued this project after the war and is currently focusing on public engagements where she can share her knowledge of Russia’s imperial history by Ukraine.
In this social advocacy work, Volk encourages Russian artists to examine and create works about their country’s role in the colonization of Eastern Europe – specifically accomplished through serfdom (slavery) – rather than counting on Ukrainian artists to do this work alone. Of his practice, Volk said, “It comes from being born in different parts of the world and seeing different kinds of art societies, trying to put together different exhibits that communicate the current times.”
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s editor.