I woke at 5:45 a.m. to a new message asking if we could meet on video in thirty or sixty minutes. The message was timestamped 4:53. I got up quickly and messaged back that I could be ready in ten minutes. Artem apologized for forgetting the time difference. I was in New Orleans; he was in the Ukrainian countryside after fleeing the city of Mykolaiv with his family. We had been communicating through Instagram Messenger and I asked if we could meet on video just to say hello, to put a face to the messages, though I knew his face pretty well by then.
Artem Hulmilevskiy began his series of nude self-portraits collectively titled Giant during the COVID-19 lockdown. I asked him which was the first photograph in the series. He sent the image, a large, unclothed man pictured from the waist up standing in a corner, unsuccessfully hiding behind scant plants.
I remember when I took my first picture, which I liked very much, I prepared the publication and 6 hours I could not dare to press the “publish” button [on Instagram]. I had a lot of thoughts that I would be judged or misunderstood. But when I did it I found that the world is fine with it, I realized that we are us and we just make up our own perceptions of other people.
Artem Humilevskiy had dabbled in poetry and music but did not discover contemporary art until 2019 when he enrolled in Sergey Melnitchenko’s School of Conceptual Art and Photography in Mykolaiv. Artem calls Sergey Melnitchenko his teacher and friend. I discovered the Giant photographs on Twitter when I was looking at art NFTs in February of this year. Artem had not taken an art photograph until 2019, but within two years he would have his work included in exhibitions and collected by MOKSOP, a museum of contemporary Ukrainian photography. He had only begun using Twitter and minting his photographs as NFTs about a month earlier, about a month before the war.
The Giant photographs are two-parts photography, one-part performance. Or, maybe they are two-parts performance and one-part photography. When I asked Artem if he liked the work of Cindy Sherman, he said, “Yes of course I love Cindy Sherman.” Many descriptions of Cindy Sherman’s career-long project describe her photographs as self-portraits, though she has characterized them differently. In an interview with The New York Times, Sherman said, “When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits.” An average-sized, brown-haired, middle-aged American woman, I look more like Cindy Sherman than Artem Humilevskiy. But I relate to the solitude in his photographs, to the push and pull of emotional excess and reserve. Within a single frame there is humor and melancholy, regret and acceptance.
Part photography, part performance and part, the artist says, “research.” When I asked him to explain he said,
I generally try to discern a phenomenon, a general phenomenon that cannot be detected by direct observation. I think a lot and try to grasp the truth, which people often hide behind some trivialities and excuses. The process of self-acceptance is a complex one that cannot be completed in one day. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces (thoughts and decisions).
I responded, “By ‘cannot be detected by general observation” do you mean it must be felt? Experienced in the emotions rather than the senses?
“That’s right,” he responded.
Just after 6 a.m. I sent Artem the Zoom link and when the camera came on, I saw that he was sitting in his car. Artem is currently living in a house with fourteen people though at least now they have running water and plumbing, which wasn’t the case a week before. When I said it must be difficult to be using his car as office, Artem told me it’s actually very pretty where he was parked I asked to see his view of the winter fields and cloudy sky. To me it looked cold but peaceful. When I told him I was sorry for all that he and his family and his country were going through. He told me “Ukrainians are used to dealing with difficulty.”
The Giant photographs were taken before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, they feel even more vivid and timely. They are both personal and universal, local and global. Artem said, “My projects [are] ironic, free, and light. Now it is difficult to do such creativity.” But he is doing it. He just launched a new project, a series of NFTs titled Postage Stamps, which is raising money to help local volunteer organizations.
I asked Artem how he sees himself differently since he began taking self-portraits and practicing art in general.
In general my world changed after I opened the door to contemporary art, even turned upside down. I began to look at many things differently, my tolerance went to a completely different level of awareness. I was even a little shocked at how versatile the world really is. And my project helped me to look at myself in a new way. Before I pretended that I was happy with everything, but after the way of my project, I was really happy with everything. I accepted myself.
After we got off the video call, I sent a message asking what was next for him in life and art. Artem replied with some photographs, a series called Secrets, and some photographs of his recent family dinners, which he described as “The Beautiful Nearby.”
He added, “My parents stayed in my town. Right after the war we will also return to our home.”
*All images Artem Humilevskiy from the photographic series Giant