If you've been on the New York City subway this summer, you've probably seen those odd ads touting a gallery exhibition of "unique footage, artifacts, and video" that will tell "the whole reality about the countries involved in civil war." "Syria, Ukraine…Who's next?" the posters ask, forebodingly. I went to Chelsea earlier this week to find out.
In truth, I was less interested in who would be, uh, "next" than in how a show of photojournalism, with no apparent sponsors, put on by an organization no one has never heard of, managed such a large advertising budget. The show, titled Material Evidence. Syria. Ukraine, displays a collection of enormous photographic prints and physical objects from the two titular countries' recent civil conflicts. Organized by a vaguely mysterious group called Material Evidence and set inside a cavernous Chelsea warehouse space, it presents itself as an unbiased look into two seemingly unrelated civil war zones.
But its contents, and the confusing story of its creation, point to something different.
On a visit this week, I asked Lana Andreeva, the exhibition's assistant curator, about its funding and organizers. She told me that the group of photojournalists who created the show did some crowdfunding, and had a few other donors, and when I asked if she could name any of those donors, she told me a funny story: At a previous iteration of the show, in Berlin, a "silent guy" visited, told the organizers he liked what he saw, then left. Later, he came back with a bag of cash and dropped it for them with no explanation.
They were able to afford so many subway ads—30 buses and roughly 250 subway platform posters, according to a statement from the curator—because they were given a discount by someone at CBS Outdoor, she added. (A CBS spokesperson told me the company does not divulge information regarding rates, and that there is no blanket discount for nonprofits.)
I ended up at the West 21st Street gallery after noticing the ads and reading an alarming post on the pro-Ukrainian independence blog Euromadian Press. A little speculatively, the post alleges that the ostensibly independent exhibition of war journalism is actually pro-Russian propaganda, backed by ultraconservative Russian financiers—a group that, tantalizingly, might even include Svetlana Zakharova, a world-famous Russian ballerina who happens to serve on her country's parliament.
Maybe the subway ads feel so off because of their promise to show "the whole reality" of the two nations. A sign just inside the door of the gallery space— which formerly housed the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center—doubles down on this promise of objectivity, assuring visitors that the show will not "take sides" or "support a specific political goal."
The first obvious sign that the items on display might not be exactly objective comes from the placards below a few of the photos: "provided by the Syrian Ministry of Defense." Some captions lump Syrian opposition fighters in with radical Islamists, and others equate Ukraine protesters with "extreme-right winged" militants. We learn that Kiev is now "filled with garbage" after the Euromaidan demonstrations, and of the "brutal" attacks by protesters on police officers. No mention is made of Bashar al-Assad's massacring of his own people, but there is a larger-than-life portrait of a smiling, ridiculously handsome Syrian soldier in a backwards baseball cap, next to another photo of a soldier kissing a baby.
Curiously, none of the photos are labeled with the names of their photographers, which Andreeva told me was a safety issue. Some of them are still working overseas, she said, and with the recent beheadings of journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, she said, you can never be too careful.
Who is behind Material Evidence? Did a few photographers and curators really luck into a bag of anonymous cash? Matt Babiak, the Euromaidan Press writer, points to a Russia Today report on an earlier iteration of the show in Berlin, which mentions that it was organized by a Russian newspaper called Zhurnalistskaya Pravda. That paper, whose name translates to "Journalistic Truth," is edited by Vladislav Shurigin, who also writes for a notorious Russian nationalist publication called Zavtra.
In 1994, under the stewardship of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian government nearly shut Zavtra down for igniting "social, religious, [and] ethnic intolerance." Now, after the remaking of Russia in Zavtra's reactionary image, one of its former columnists presides over the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
That possible involvement of powerful elements from Russia's far-right press, guesses Babiak, might have enabled Material Evidence to come to the U.S., occupy a huge space in the heart of Manhattan's gallery district, advertise itself so heavily, and offer $95,000 worth of grants—under a program conspicuously named "Journalistic Truth," just like the newspaper—to aspiring journalists.
If there's a connection there, Material Evidence's organizers are denying it: Andreeva and Benjamin Hiller, a German photojournalist who curated the show, assured me that it was put together by a loose collection of photographers, not some shadowy conglomerate, and that the name of the grant is a coincidence—despite what the RT report says, Zhurnalistskaya Pravda helped out with a Russian iteration of the exhibit but didn't actually organize it, and whoever named the grant was somehow unaware that the newspaper shared the same title. Hiller acknowledged that some of the captions and verbiage in the exhibition needed correcting, and said he was brought on to "professionalize" the project after it came to Germany.
If the show has a connection to Svetlana Zakharova, the ballerina, it's tenuous and strange. Whoever created the exhibition's homepage, material-evidence.com, registered it under the name "Svetlana Zaharova"—an alternate English spelling of Zakharova's last name—and the address associated with the site is in St. Petersburg. (A message to an email address provided on the registration went unreturned, and calls to a Russian phone number also listed were met with an automated voice message stating, in Russian, that the account associated with the number had been closed.)
As the Euromaidan Press post points out, several spammy Russian-language websites have been registered with the same information, many of which relate somehow to Syria or the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On bvostok.com, amidst several headlines about Syria and Ukraine, there is a political cartoon of a man (Obama?) wearing a stars-and-stripes-emblazoned turban and charming a snake out of a jar labeled "terrorism"; minoborony.com labels the U.S. "#1 Terrorist" for its military involvement in Syria.
It seems unlikely the sites actually have anything to do with Zakharova, but given the shady nature of everything else, I asked Andreeva, who laughed it off, saying that the site had been built by a freelancer in Russia. The team was aware of the famous name on the registration, she said, and was trying to find out "who the hell Svetlana is." Hiller said in a statement that organization would "keep open the option to take legal actions against the web designer."
The involvement of nebulous Russian interests wouldn't be unprecedented. In July, Radio Free Europe and ANIMAL New York reported on an exhibition, held in Prague, of photos from Ukraine that were seemingly printed out from the internet, framed, and hung on the wall. In Russian state-owned media, the venue for the show was hailed as "one of the most famous art galleries" in the city. Its actual location: the drab, fluorescent-lit hallway of an office building occupied by the Czech communist party.
For such an inflammatory show in such a high-profile location, Material Evidence. Syria. Ukraine hasn't attracted much press, protest, or criticism. Last week, however, according to a Hyperallergic report, three vandals entered the gallery shortly after it opened in the morning, defaced a photograph of an anti-Russian flier, spray painted the word "LIE" under an image of so-called Ukranian "extreme right-winged militants," and pepper sprayed Hiller, the curator. Andreeva told me she had seen the assailants enter, but was in her office when the violence took place. She heard Hiller screaming and ran out, she said, but the vandals managed to escape. They called the police, but an investigation was not conducted because the property damage was insignificant and Hiller did not have any visible injuries.
The Hyperallergic article reported, and Andreeva corroborated, that the attackers left "neo-Nazi pamphlets" at the gallery. One flier in a photo provide by Hiller displays a Wolfangel—a symbol used by the Nazis as well as the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian volunteer militia group that does have right-wing leanings—and the other is a commemoration of the "Heavenly Hundred," the name given to a group of Euromaidan protesters who died during demonstrations in Kiev.
During my visit, the defaced photo remained visibly damaged. The "LIE" graffiti was cleaned up, but could still be seen under a thin layer of white paint. The exhibition closes tomorrow.