Meet The Ukrainian Artists Who Are Striving To Produce Their Kinetic Sculptures Amid An Ongoing War

Despite extraordinary circumstances, Ukrainian studio Smith & Winken continues to create artistic masterpieces to bring hope to a country in ruins.
by Aaron De Silva
Ukrainian artists

Photo: The Hour Glass

Over the past 15 months, the explosion of AI image-generating tools such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney has led to huge controversies. The central arguments revolve around whether AI-generated art is real art and whether it will eventually replace human artists and creators.

Art — in its myriad forms, from literature and music to film and animation — has long been the preserve of the human mind. It’s the ultimate form of self-expression, the epitome of human civilisation, if you will. Once our hunter-gatherer ancestors had solved their basal needs of food, water, warmth, and shelter, they developed cave art.

But for Ukrainian artist Valery Kuznetsov, AI is not the enemy. “I don’t believe that AI will replace humans or that it will kill off humanity,” he says through a translator. “The (biggest threats) to humanity are humans. You can see an example of our neighbours destroying us — our country.”

Ukrainian artists

Artists Otto Winken and Valery Kuznetsov are based in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. (Photo: The Hour Glass)

Kuznetsov and his partner, Otto Winken, founded their studio, Smith & Winken, in 2020 in Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city. Dnipro was hit during the Russian invasion in March 2022, and its international airport was destroyed within days of the initial attack. Able-bodied men are not permitted to leave the country because they can be called upon at any time to enlist in the military.

Yet Kuznetsov is in Singapore for ArtSG, under the auspices of The Hour Glass and MB&F’s M.A.D Gallery, which represents the studio. He is here through a twist of fate: Two years ago, he suffered a stroke, rendering him ineligible for enlistment. It was no mean feat to get to Singapore. The journey by train to Poland and Lithuania, where he then boarded a series of flights from Vilnius, took two days.

Ukrainian artists

Flipper consists of 20 hand-painted rice paper fins that beat slowly like a creature at rest. (Photo: The Hour Glass)

In times of crisis, art can be a powerful medium to convey messages and emotions to a global audience. For Smith & Winken, that message is one of resilience and an indomitable spirit. “When we were creating these objects (during the war), we wanted to tell people that we are powerful and can think and feel freely. We have our inner freedom, but we have to fight for the freedom of humanity, and we bring peace with it,” says Kuznetsov.

A steampunk menagerie

Ukrainian artists

Six of Smith & Winken’s sculptures were showcased at ArtSG in January 2024. (Photo: The Hour Glass)

The studio is currently exhibiting its Endless Movement collection, a series of 20 limited-edition kinetic sculptures. Six were showcased at ArtSG (which ran from January 19 to 21), while a seventh was displayed at MB&F LAB by The Hour Glass in Raffles Shopping Arcade.

A fusion of art, design, and technology, the sculptures bear a steampunk aesthetic and resemble biomechanical creatures. Viewers will find likenesses to fish, insects and birds. These “creatures” have whirring, mechanical “hearts”, glowing nixie tube “innards”, metallic and wooden “limbs”, and “fins” or “wings” made of paper. Fins flap and wings beat rhythmically.

The mechanical design and construction of the creatures should come as no surprise, given that Dnipro is known for its metallurgical industries and aerospace sector, dating from the Soviet era. “The city is really industrial. And we live in this environment. It’s everywhere,” explains Kuznetsov. “Even as children, our teachers would talk about it, and many people work in manufacturing. We have a famous aerospace manufacturer. I had a friend there, but he passed away.”

Hover (left) somewhat resembles an insect when its paper “wings” fold and unfold; Skipper (right) recalls an aquatic creature when its fan-shaped “fin” pulsates. (Photo: The Hour Glass)

Trained in design, architecture, and engineering, the artists produce their concept images and blueprints by hand (not software), performing complex mathematical calculations in their minds. Prototypes are made using wood and paper.

The components of the actual sculptures are partially handmade and partially machined. Each part is custom-designed for that specific sculpture, and finding the precise measurements for those parts can be a months-long process.

As with watchmaking, precision is necessary to ensure the sculptures function correctly and perform a carefully choreographed, poetic dance. Sometimes, the artists turn to professional workshops in Dnipro to manufacture components requiring specific machining. The end goal of their artwork? “To leave a legacy for the next generation”.

Carpe diem

As for his hopes for the future, Kuznetsov says that he would like to see the studio’s creations appear in films, showcased in the world’s best museums, or even — going beyond the confines of the earth — displayed on the moon or Mars in future human colonies.

Ukrainian artists

A close-up of Flipper’s delicate fins shows the contrast between fragility (paper) and strength (metal). (Photo: The Hour Glass)

But for the immediate future, he hopes to stay alive. “Because if you’re alive, you can create. Maybe there will not be a tomorrow. We try to do as much as we can quickly under these circumstances. We are still building our future; we live as if there is no war.

“Technically, the war is still ongoing, but we are victorious. Inside our hearts and minds, we are not occupied. We are free. We think freely, feel freely, and live freely, so we have already won. Freedom is the most important thing. Without it, I don’t want to live.”

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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