I was still bleeding and gazing up at the sky when my brothers in combat wound bandages onto my limbs. Ever since then, I would always be able to recognise the nauseating smell of my own blood from that of thousands of others. I have dug hundreds of trenches, falling face down over and over again, spitting the dirt out and wiping it from my lips. Now I understand the meaning of sayings such as ‘defend your land with the price of your own blood’, which up until several years ago had seemed to me, as well as to any rational person, just a piece of bush league propaganda.
All the time at the front, I had relentlessly pondered whether I would be able to explain at least something of it to those who’d never been there. Would I find new words, in contrast to boring and trivial phrases, to convey my feelings rather than retell events? Pass on my own experience, not give a statistical report? Express my thoughts, not reproduce slogans?
The Russian-Ukrainian war has a rather promising peculiarity in this respect. Regaining the dignity and identity of yesterday’s slaves is as important as the return of Ukraine’s occupied territories in this most up-to-date anticolonial war. Our frontline runs along our brain gyri. In fact, all creators of contemporary Ukrainian culture are fighting on this ideological front now. Many of them are on the physical battlefield too, which is also a Ukrainian phenomenon. When the war began in 2014, our army was badly disorganised; a mass volunteer movement, hundreds of forward-thinking Ukrainians took up arms to defend the state. These were not professional soldiers but writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, DJs, festival managers, actors and singers, conscious of their historical role. Even more have enlisted in the army and territorial defence forces since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, as the mere existence of Ukrainians was in jeopardy. Perhaps Ukraine is now a country with the largest concentration of creative people who have direct experience of war. What can they tell their fellow citizens or the world abroad? Can they even tell them the slightest thing?
I feel touched and encouraged that Oy u Luzi Chervona Kalyna (Oh a Red Viburnum in the Meadow), the song first sang in its modern treatment a hundred years ago by Sich Riflemen in the First World War, has now become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. That’s how history makes an orbit: the Sich Riflemen were the first legal Ukrainian military unit in the twentieth century, consisting of many creative and educated volunteers. A century later Chervona Kalyna is performed by Andrii Khlyvniuk featuring Pink Floyd, covered by remixers, sang by warriors in trenches and kids in bomb shelters. Will we still be able to create something this powerful to unite people in another century’s time?
War is a concentrated form of life with the highest stakes and extremely shattered emotional amplitude. War is what fills you with impressions and prompts you to create. War is what devastates you and convinces you of any oeuvre’s futility.
Together with the accompanying fatigue, sleeplessness and stress from the permanent expectation of danger, war puts you in a very specific accumulative state of detachment. This is akin to a lucid dream that allows you to see yourself as the mere protagonist of a big and baffling game, and it is not that difficult to grasp its eternal character while fighting nearby Scythian, Sarmatian or Cuman warriors’ and princes’ burial mounds. Your mind, on the other hand, acquires the ability to snatch details from the general information flow – for instance, a bumblebee humming between sounds of exploding projectiles or a pear tree blooming not so very far from the place of an artillery attack.
War presents a variety of contrasts: flowerbeds with roses next to burnt houses; birds sitting on corroded tank turrets; kids riding bicycles along columns of military equipment; or your brothers in combat killed on a beautiful sunny day.
Nowhere but at war is the connection with nature felt so completely. Nowhere but at war is beauty sensed so deeply. Perhaps that’s either because every sunset may end up being the last magnificent event you would ever get to witness or the only beautiful thing you would have seen in a week. Or maybe the reason is that the war has, at long last, pulled you out of a daily-deadline routine.
Normally, you spend ninety percent of your time at war digging trenches or peering at distant scenery – hills, ravines, dells, gullies, ponds, rivers, woods, shrubs, solitary trees and even clouds above: everything, in short, people used to live among for generations, transforming the beauty of those landscapes into the future Ukrainian culture’s aesthetics.
War has got its own beauty of life and devastation. It’s evident in the bright glare of falling phosphorus, Grads launching, missiles from fighter aircraft and pillars of smoke after explosions. This is the beauty of blasts and destruction.
There is, in addition, the borderline experience of fear and bravery, gentleness and brutality, slaughter, pain, injuries and visions in quick sleep, a coma or under anaesthesia. And there is also the strangeness of a peaceful life after being at the frontline.
How can Ukrainian artists, pulled out of their normal lives, reflect on all this?
I’m lucky not to be an artist. I don’t have to pass through kilowatts of emotions and worry about whether I exist for any reason. I’m doubly lucky to have worked at Dzyga Art Center, been part of Contemporary Art Week, Lviv Performance Days and Ukrainian Cross-Section Project teams, and associated with the most talented artists of my country.
While still at the frontline, I occasionally entertained myself by pondering how my friends and acquaintances would perceive the things that had impressed me the most. For instance, if I could take pictures like Yurko Dyachyshyn, I would have photographed abandoned cats and dogs who cautiously approached humans to find at least some refuge from ubiquitous explosions and loneliness. If I had Kostya Smolyaninov’s sense of composition, I could have shot the variety of checkpoint constructions (on the assumption, of course, that I wouldn’t have been detained as a mole). The exhausted faces of the wounded, their eyes gleaming after coming round from anaesthesia, their crumpled white bedsheets, droppers and blood-stained bandages could have made the stuff of Genyk Ravskyi’s pictures. My friend in combat Taras Kametskyi (call sign ‘Museum’) saved books from the library in a razed and deserted village to distribute them among extant houses and surviving soldiers, each to everyone’s taste. This action only lacked a form for every reader to make it an interesting project for the Open Group.
Sometimes, on the contrary, flashbacks from old performances or art objects can penetrate military lifestyle. I recall Volodya Topiy’s performance on mothballed dreams of homeliness while opening canned fruit from under the wreckage of someone’s cellar, and the rustling of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers’ miniature portraits at Vlodko Kaufman’s exhibition, caused by the wind generated from a quadcopter, while lifting a drone.
Whenever I think of ways to convey the experience of war, it’s always examples of contemporary visual art that flare up in my mind. It apparently provides the least space for falsehood and propaganda.
Onсe, we decided to listen to FM radio in our off-road truck while changing positions. That day we heard so many monotonous patriotic songs, presumably to boost army morale, that I couldn’t help thinking about the overarching avalanche of conjuncture we’ll face after the victory. An infinite number of self-extolling memoirs, awkward texts by people who’d have had personal experience of war and the false writings of those who’d have never been at the frontline will be published. Countless movies with unnatural dialogue and a biased view of protagonists will glorify Ukrainians’ heroic struggle. I’m afraid that this wave will wash away the truth of another experience, negate the facts that the main struggle is always carried against disappointment, daily routine is harder to bear than any battle, bad command and corrupt officials in the rear repeatedly prove to be our worst enemies, and resilience over absurdity is even more powerful than muscles and weapons, let alone thousands of smaller truths that are usually lost once peace is reinstalled for future generations to embrace from scratch at their own wars. I have no idea whether it’s a natural process. Our generation’s mission, after all, is to become the humus for young Ukrainians who will grow up with a heroic epic about great warriors. Yet I would prefer to find some way to simply share our stories, not make history with our deaths.
A few years before Russia’s attack against Crimea and Donbas, Dzyga organised the Fort.Missia festival on the fortifications left over from the defensive battles of the First World War. Amidst old ruins, artists created installations, land art, musicians played experimental tracks, writers read their texts and theatre troupes presented new plays. The festival was about healing wounds with the power of art. While fighting this war, I think more and more about the art that will be needed to heal today’s wounds sometime in the future.
Since I fought in battles for Pisky and the Butivka coal mine in 2014, I often think that one of the razed Donbas towns shouldn’t be restored. Donbas is a portal to understanding this war: it’s an abnormal region full of monstrous plants from the old Soviet Empire of fear, those devastated later by the new Russian Empire of lies, and depopulated settlements, once created for peace and labour propaganda but brutally decayed in the long run. Borders between the worlds of freedom and lawlessness ran just a few metres, a few fatal accidents, a few lives away from there. Trees and grass still tighten the scars of human thirst for extermination.
This terrain of the newest war could have made the best space for installations by artists from around the globe. It would have been the most appropriate place to reflect on life and death, atrocity and compassion, force and defenselessness – the notions our civilization has come across once again, in the age of massive weapons and post-truth.
An entire deserted city full of objects issuing from combatants’ visions and artists’ reflections: perhaps my military visions – those of trenches, dug out to resemble nerve and circulatory systems, with people as units of data or blood cells inside; of a huge reinforcement nest on a shelled caponier of a coal mine to capture the war-generated primeval dread of immense and irresistible forces; of a red anatomical heart, sticking out beyond the boundaries of a destroyed house walls as if it were a rib cage, which would have also found a place somewhere out there.
I managed to implement one such concept in 2015, after I returned from the war for the first time. It was a multimedia installation Wounds: a string of videos showing sap leaking out from trees recently pierced by missile fragments. I told my friend the artist Sergiy Petlyuk about my idea, and he helped to find an appropriate form for it.
Perhaps it is an answer to all those questions like: How can I explain my experience to others?; What if artists don’t speak of anything after the war?; How on earth should we break through the jumble of conjuncture?; How can those who haven’t any experience of war understand the memories of those who have no artistic flair? We just need to converse, have a lot of deep conversations.
Perhaps sincere communication, with its groundwork and implications, is the strongest power of art. I still hope that, despite all we’ve had to endure, it will eventually happen.
hospitals in Riga and Lviv
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED of Cultural Strategy Institute, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna.
The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City Council, ZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.