On the front lines of Ukraine’s art world
A FEW DAYS before his battlefield death, the French poet and World War I soldier Charles Péguy wrote that “Homer is new this morning, and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.” Hidden within his immortal sentiment is a question I was confronted with over and over while attending the opening of two exhibitions, one nested inside the other, in an embattled Kyiv: How do representations of war in journalism and art compete as means to draw attention to conflict and the plight of citizens?
“Russian War Crimes” and “When Faith Moves Mountains” opened in mid-July at the PinchukArtCentre, a contemporary art institution in downtown Kyiv that had theretofore been closed following Russia’s irredentist invasion. “Russian War Crimes,” which had previously opened at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at NATO headquarters in Brussels before joining the larger exhibition in Kyiv, documents the ongoing atrocities of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Visitors are pinned between two large installations on opposing walls; one situates investigations of crimes against humanity on a mural-sized infographic map of Ukraine, while the other hosts fifty photographs illustrating some of those events. The display is jarring, though its imagery has long since become normalized by many news cycles.
In a 1917 letter to his wife from the Battle of Passchendaele in Flanders, British painter Paul Nash wrote that war “is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. . . and may it burn their lousy souls.” Speaking to the persistence of this conviction, Oleksiy Sai, Nikita Kadan, and several other artists in “When Faith Moves Mountains” kept telling me that their work is not for interpretation, that war demands art become “straight.” “It is not the time for Romanticism; we need something more focused,” echoed the Kyiv-based filmmaker Yarema Malashchuk as we discussed The Wander, 2022, a disturbing video work he made with his collaborator Roman Khimei in which they both pantomime, with their own bodies, the twisted corpses of dead Russian soldiers in the field. “Death is a part of life,” said Malashchuk, and as such, we are “not afraid to mock death.”
Their steel made me think: What is the purpose of all of this, not only Malashchuk and Khimei’s fatalist film, but the whole endeavor? Is it a means to record history, or perhaps a way to curry support, if not recruit others to the cause? Does it also demonize the enemy? Bart De Baere, director of M HKA, a museum in Antwerp, and cocurator of “When Faith Moves Mountains,” then whispered in my ear: “The work is also about the woman who told the Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so that flowers would grow from their corpses.”
Learning that these exhibitions are meant to travel to the United States, I broached the uneasy topic of using graphic images of violence in art—a strategy a growing number of artists have rebuked—to all of the exhibition curators. Following a healthy discussion on the vicissitudes of context and ideology with Ksenia Malykh, the cocurator of “Russian War Crimes,” we were stumped to find a one-size-fits-all” solution. Instead of answers, Malykh showed me two forms of urgent imagemaking in Ukraine today, both of which were on her phone. The first was a string of Telegram videos reporting Russian attacks in real time; the other clips of resistance fighters hiding their faces under emojis as a form of camouflage in their social media calls for support. As I looked up, a painting sourced on this same material by Lesia Khomenko glared at me from across the gallery.
Entitled to remove/to add, 2022, Khomenko’s painting was included as part of “When Faith Moves Mountains,” the other, more expansive yet topically intertwined exhibition. Eschewing investigative reportage, the larger show presented Ukrainian art made during the current invasion alongside works by several international artists on loan from the permanent collection of M HKA. Including extraordinary pieces by Francis Alÿs, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Jan Cox, Wilhelm Sasnal, Hiwa K, and Otobong Nkanda, the borrowed art centered around other historical conflicts including both World Wars, the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq, and other instances of systemic violence, be they gendered, racialized, or otherwise. According to Björn Geldhof, a cocurator of both exhibitions, the gesture of sending these irreplaceable—and uninsurable—artifacts to Kyiv was a means to “share the (cultural) risk” Ukraine faces as Russia attempts to recolonize a sovereign state, change its language, and deny its unique heritage. Reciprocally, all of the works included also speak to a long history of European violence, from which the entire continent could still learn a thing or two.
But why would the Flemish community, whose government approved and promoted the loan, put its own heritage on the line, even if the danger pales in comparison to the artists actually in country? Just as Ukraine is currently entrenched in a bloody war of attrition, Flanders was host to an extensive “no man’s land” during WWI, where the landscape is still scarred. While burying his friend on May 2, 1915, the Canadian poet and surgeon John McCrae noticed how bloodred poppies quickly grew around the graves of fallen soldiers; he later penned the poem “In Flanders Fields,” one of the most stirring poems of war and sacrifice ever written, and which in turn inspired the Remembrance Poppy, a commemorative pin still worn today.
While some risk is shouldered by bringing foreign artwork to the expanded front, I read this action more as a form of transhistorical commiseration expressed through sharing art as a necessary, if not vital, means of collective soul repair.
While the links between wars and analogies to other acts of hegemony share a deep emotional and spiritual connection, the most direct formal relation between both shows is found in 6400 frames, 2022, a harrowing eleven-and-a-half-minute video by Sai projected floor-to-ceiling in a darkened gallery all its own. The work intercuts residential and hospital bombings with scenes of civilian death—including mass executions—into a rapidly edited reel marching to the incessant beat of a metronomic clicking sound. Instead of lingering on singular acts of destruction, the rhythm of Sai’s lightning-quick edit holds together an unbroken string of terror so as to construct a totalizing sense of dread. To advance this feeling further, we hear, in several intercepted mobile phone calls played back in voiceover, from Russian soldiers bragging about ungodly deeds to their friends and family back home with depraved indifference. As I and several other guests waited to reenter the arts center after an air raid siren sent us to find cover elsewhere, I spoke to Sai about his film. Intently rolling a cigarette, the artist told me that he “hates this work.” He continued, “When the war is over, it doesn’t have to be shown. . . It’s not a work that I want to do. It is the work that I have to do.”
The morning before the official opening, I rode down a country lane framed by tall, ginger-brown pines. On the side of the road lay a column of burned-out Russian tanks, now red with rust, weeds growing within them. At the end of this surreal road sits a bullet-riddled church, on whose grounds lay several dozen stacks of pavers lying in wait for a project that never was. Held in limbo, the bricks ring the site of a mass grave, now exhumed and covered over, from which new plant life likewise springs. Taking solace under the shadow of a nearby tree, an elderly lady, perhaps in her eighties, approached to tell me how she “prayed for death” as the invaders held Bucha, her city, and the city we were now in, hostage. Alternating wildly between lament and laughter, the woman walked off, head in her hands, as my guide, the art center’s Lesia Melnychuk, turned to me in tears to say that she wants “to speak [her] own language, know [her] own history, and be a normal human being.” The two of us then spoke of Russia’s repeated attempts to erase the Ukrainian language and other related acts of iconoclasm and indoctrination. The UN has a word for when you try to kill culture: It’s called genocide.
Institutions, critics, and artists alike are often tasked with the goal of having to justify their work through the logic of “social impact.” And while this technocratic yardstick has its uses, it also abuses the true power of art: that even the smallest cultural action is a rebellion against oblivion. Art, as Marx once said about faith, is “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” And yet it is more than this as well. The faith invoked in the title of the main exhibition turns this writer back to Charles Péguy and his most enduring aphorism, that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” I take this to mean that the shared transcendent beliefs we express through art and narrative are also the soil from which solidarity can thrive—for better, and for worse.