What can be said in the face of war? In view of the historical tragedy, which has been happening on Ukrainian soil (not only) since the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, the Ukrainian cultural scene has been looking for forms of reflection, communication, and mutual support. The reality of war produces changed material realities: scorched earth, deformed bodies, biomorphic fragments, and scarred topographies. Collective war trauma derives from individual experiences, of stories of flight and loss – and out of existential necessity they require documentary preservation, archiving, and securing of cultural heritage. At the same time, objects and artifacts that up until now might barely have registered with people now accrue transcendent meaning – as pendants, talismans, or ‘oberih’ (Ukrainian for “an item that protects”).
The following text by author and journalist Elisabeth Bauer offers a reading of Ukrainian realities from the perspective of “little forms” she has encountered – in the actual and transmedial space between Kyiv and Berlin – since June. It is a close reading of artistic reflections and productions, symbolic interventions and re-definitions, and makes no claim to completeness; instead, it asks discrete questions about the confrontation of trauma and loss in times of war. It brings publications, artifacts, and exhibition objects into focus to offer image-textual perspectives of the Ukrainian culture scene.
There is a word in Ukrainian that describes the act of protecting – and that transfers it to an object beyond which needs protecting: an ‘oberih’ is “an item that protects,” regardless of whether it consists of animate or inanimate matter, an imaginary image (imago) or a place (topos). It’s also the title of the compact, plastic-clad book oberih, “a project which documents people’s experience of the ongoing war in Ukraine through their relationship with things they choose as their amulets.”
This resonates with the transference of libido from a lost object to one that replaces it – a symbol, sign, or artifact – in Freud’s theory of mourning. Julia Kristeva, speaking about literary writing as part of the labor of mourning, writes: “Literary creation is one of those adventures of body and sign that testifies to affect: of sadness as a sign of the separation and the beginning of the dimension of the symbol.” [own translation, editor’s note]
— (bulletproof vest)
“We asked our friends to tell us about their oberihs and got answers in different media forms,” Daria Anosova, one of the editors of the publication, tells me at the book launch in Berlin at the end of June, as part of 48 Stunden Neukölln in the empty, carpeted betting office called Fortuna Wetten.
In the beginning of oberih was a glittering vest lavishly embroidered by hand: “Mykolay embroidered his clothes using anything he could find at hand,” writes the artist Katya Libkind on 25 March 2022 at 16:28 (p. 11). “Now it is my bulletproof vest. I don’t take it off.”
In March, Katya and Stanislav Turina, her partner and colleague in Kyiv’s atelienormalno, started caring for people evacuated from a boarding school in Kyiv oblast’. Mykolay, one of the oldest inhabitants, gave Katya this vest and explained to her “the meaning of almost every bead” – pearls, embroidery, tiny icons. The other ‘oberihs’ presented in the book are so variegated as to include stones, children’s drawings, obscure graffiti inscriptions on the walls of the Saint Sophia cathedral, and diving goggles; things that happened to be in the emergency backpack or in the pockets of the pants one was wearing.
“Not only they are oberihs, which protect you, but they are also witnesses…They carry memories, whilst physically—you carry them,” notes Eliza Mamardashvili, contemplating the meaning of ‘oberihs’, on 11 April at 16:54 (p. 135). Next to these thoughts: the image of an icon of Holy Elizabeth. “My mother gave it to me before I left for Kharkiv to apply to university.” Elizah presents multiple ‘oberihs’, including a page from W.G. Sebald’s Naturgeschichte der Zerstörung (p. 142 f.).
Initiated by the architecture collective understructure and supported by the LC-Queisser-Galerie und Liste Art Fair Basel, the little book collects stories and images of symbolically meaningful objects that belong to 47 people who, in March and April, are already spread across the globe due to the Russian invasion – in the form of short texts, online posts, and audio messages. The sale of the book itself is also meant to serve a protective function: 90 percent of the revenue are donated to Ukrainian relief organizations and volunteer initiatives.
This talisman in book-form, barely as big as my hand, goes into my luggage when I travel to Kyiv at the beginning of August. “May this book also become your oberih,” I read on the blurb. Each dust jacket was adorned by hand with one of the 30 ‘oberih’ motifs: mine shows an anchor-shaped medieval inscription and the tirage number 726/1000.
The green abstraction of a double cross, which is not unlike an anchor, I also find on the desk of my Kyiv refuge: the filmmaker Yarema Malashchuk has traveled to the Düsseldorfer Volksgarten with his art and theater collective to build a house and, thereby, to participate symbolically and performatively in the collective reconstruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure. He’s left me the keys to his dusky old apartment filled with dark wooden furniture (which is German, he says).
This is how I come across the slender publication last supper before the war. zine from Ukraine: the green pattern on its title page is the iconic tape pattern that prevents windows from bursting when something explodes nearby. These days many, though by far not all, windows of the city are marked with tape and this functional cross, which protects from shrapnel and can save lives.
Borys Filonenko, an editor at the art book publisher ist, co-curator of the Ukrainian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, and the author of the zine, uses the term “anchor” in his foreword in relation to the “last supper” in his circle of friends, which serves as a warm recollective image for the little publication.
In the zine, the curator/author collected and commented on a free selection of works, which have been posted online since last February – as if compiling an archive. All works – be they text or image – reflect the experience of the war in different ways. “This zine could be a reconstruction of that warm evening,” he writes in an email. Instead, Borys archives the works of his friends, with whom he’s mainly been in remote contact since February. They include Katya Libkind’s “bulletproof vest,” a “survival tablecloth” by the artist Katya Buchatska, and excerpts from an article by the art historian Asia Bazdyrieva, in which she sketches Ukraine as a colonized territory. The zine, made from thick, slightly coarse paper becomes a haptic surface and virtual reanimation of a mythologized immediacy that has been brutally interrupted by the war.
When asked what characterizes current work by Ukrainian artists and people involved in the culture scene, Borys responds: “These are works that document wartime life, record crimes, call for support and punishment, and try to capture personal and social changes in world perception and behavior during the war. But every russian missile or bullet that kills people and destroys places soaked with memory provokes a significant reflection on the scale of the loss. If before the full-scale war we were not confident enough to talk a lot about what exactly is being lost in Ukraine, now there are quite powerful attempts to catch up with the narrative about ourselves.”
— (island book)
What can be said in the face of war? This question, which hovers as a metatext also above this text, is taken up by another perceptive publication, which falls into the category of compact, magical objects. The book in question, which is even smaller than the above-mentioned oberih, stands in the tradition of the Renaissance genre of “island books” – islands “from which to view the world anew.” This takes up Agamben’s notion of critique: a critical work worthy of the name, the philosopher writes alluding to Kant, is like an island in the middle of an untamed ocean – “one that included its own negation; it was, therefore, one whose essential content consisted in precisely what it did not contain.” (Agamben: Stanzas, XV) The mission of the publisher ISOLARII, “to provide orientation in a deteriorating world,” also reflects the critical potential of negation.
For this reason the publishers are also intent on preserving the incomprehensibility of the reality of war, which the contemporary artists Yevgenia Belorusets, Lesia Khomenko, and Nikita Kadan, who are present in the volume through text and image, have to face: they have been staying in Ukraine for the most part of the war, and, as the preface reads, “in the face of war they still preserve its unintelligibility.”
Leading the works of the canonized artists Tetyana Yablonska (“Youth”, 1969) and Maria Prymachenko (“Fantastic Wolf and Boxer”, 1977), little presentations of works by Khomenko and Kadan as well as Yevgenia Belorusets’s War Diary (February 24 – April 5), which constitutes the core of the book, is an 17th-century icon: “The Intercession of the Blessed Virgin” (p. 12). According to Orthodox faith, Holy Mary, shown in a wide coat (pokrova), protects “entire cities and people,” which is commemorated with the Pokrova holiday, although by now its name has changed. In 2015, after the first Russian invasion, the day was renamed “Defender of Ukraine Day” by the Ukrainian parliament.
The artistic strategies for responding to the Russian invasion and continued aggression, which are as diverse as the realities of the war themselves, are unified by the desire to reflect the painful reality in spite of the immediacy and tragic nature of the events – to understand what is inexplicable, to comment and to communicate what cannot be put into words. Belorusets approaches details at the level of lived reality: “These perceptions humanize and crystallize a war that is unimaginable, without attempting to rationalize its senselessness.” Yet, the attempt to fix a disintegrating reality seems to be doomed from the start: “It’s almost impossible to hold on to anything; most things remain in silence,” says the author/photographer during a public talk at the International Literature Festival Berlin. To write in such times means to willingly face the ineluctability of failure.
– (invasion: museum)
The iconic pyramids of sandbags, which serve as prophylactically anonymized monuments – and which in the spring became the favorite motif of the international press – characterize the image of Kyiv at the end of summer. Even if the sand is trickling and wild growths are forming on the white tips, now the masked shadows of the past warn monumentally – in tandem with the sporadically howling sirens – of the possibility of a missile attack. Their symbolic meaning has gone up into smoke: as a phantom it’s present.
One hygienically and hermetically sealed example (of those pyramids) sits on Tershchenkivs’ka Street, which also is home to the Khanenko Museum. Its collection of “Western and Oriental art” has been – with the same prophylactic thought in mind – moved to an external location: the former stately home with its heavy velvet curtains, glass vitrines, and wooden plinths has literally been evacuated of its meaning.
In the beginning of August, the rooms, which usually feature the Asian art collection, saw the arrival of “Invasion: Toy Soldiers” by Kharkiv artist Oleh Kalashnik: an army of Soviet toy soldiers. A brief history of the exhibition illustrates the force with which history erupted into the present with the launch of the Russian invasion: On 22 February, the exhibition opened under the title “Enfant terrible” in Kharkiv’s YermilovCentre, at the time without a concrete relation to current events. After the onset of the Russian aggression, the exhibition spaces in the underground levels of the museum became bomb shelters: people looking for protection shared the spaces for days with toy soldiers that seemed to have come alive – and been replaced by real ones. The exhibition text reads: “The YermilovCentre turned into a shelter, and Kalashnik’s toy soldiers – from art objects into talismans.”
When the miniature lead figures marched into the Khanenko Museum in the beginning of August, the notion of “invasion” in the new exhibition title began to signify in different ways: it made reference to the Russian invasion but also implied a “friendly invasion” of Kyiv by Kharkiv art as well as an eruption into the reality of the museum:
The ongoing war is thematized on a textual level by a conversation, running parallel to the exhibition, between author/musician Serhiy Zhadan and literary critic/curator Yevgeniy Stasinevich. Zhadan describes the exhibition as a “project about the inevitability of the future,” even though, paradoxically, it is riddled with signs of the past: “It has become clear that our future is fatally dependent on the contexts of our past, that our experience, in view of traumatization, doesn’t make us as strong as it makes us vulnerable.”
Aby Warburg’s phantom model of history, according to which time is expressed in “the compulsive return and spectral ‘afterlife’ of forms,” illustrates this hybrid admixture of past, present, and future: time is expressed “in layers, hybrid blocks, rhizomes, specific complexities, often unexpected reorientations and persistently missed goals.” [own translation, editor’s note]
The superimposition of (colonial) history and the war’s reality can be witnessed in the exhibition space: the symbolically awakened tin soldiers – they seem to exemplify the afterlife Aby Warburg talks about – are located in glass vitrines, in which translucent photographic traces give the physically absent objects of the museum a phantom-like presence. Stasinevich talks about a “meaningful absence – they are there” (my emphasis).
Can – or is it even allowed that – war directly impact art? This moment, which Zhadan and Stasinevich discuss in relation to the lead soldiers, is complemented by objects in other Kyiv museum contexts. A linen dress that seems at once rural and clinically-futurist, tautly strung up between Perspex, draws my gaze in the exhibition “When Faith Moves Mountains,” which opened at the PinchuckArtCentre in July. In the object description, the Kyiv artist Vlada Ralko writes: “things that served us weekdays and weekends, signs that used to shape our environments are now put inside glass cases and turned into museum exhibits.”
“The proverbial dirty linen that must not be washed in public is suddenly elevated to a talisman of an era. (…) The past absorbs the present fending me off with my own things, which in turn become strangely significant in their idleness. An anonymous territory of collective memory slowly but surely consumes every day life, and this process is so hopelessly continuous that escaping from it to an alive life is only possible through some insane somersault.”
Stasinevich offers similar thoughts, which evoke the theoretic concept of post-memory: when the past deeply enters the present, when the war becomes a part of life, why shouldn’t it also become part of art? This by no means turns objects into something “sublime,” “wonderful,” or “beautiful.”
A more radical approach to reality, that is, the materiality of the war, which they find themselves confronted with since February, is pursued by the interdisciplinary collective commercialpublicart as well as multimedia-artist Nikita Kadan: splinters, rubble, and fragments, defaced and deformed objects, which the Russian obsession with destruction has left behind in the suburbs of Kyiv, become objects of sociopolitical and artistic reflection.
“Our artwork ‘dehumanisation subject’ consists of biomorphic residues of destroyed homes in Kyiv outskirts and is inspired by volunteering @district.foundation,” reads a post that documents the initial exhibition of the project “dehumanisation”. The hybridized “remnants” are recognized, fixed, and virtually archived as evidence of unforgivable crimes, as elements of abused living spaces.
“We don’t let ourselves be destroyed – we dehumanise ourselves. We are like plants,” says Borys Medvedev, an architect and co-founder of the collective. I meet him in his favorite place to work, a café in Podil’. Next to his open laptop is a cap with the word “Volonter” printed across it. Borys works on a presentation about the future, which also includes the project “dehumanisation”. About the at first surprising connection of traumatic destruction and the future, he says: “This is the material that we have to work with now, that has been given to us as color to shape the future.” The ambivalent term of “black earth” — colored by the colonial gaze that describes the “fertile” Ukrainian soil – has long harbored a tragic nuance.
At the end of July, Nikita Kadan, too, presents objects found among the rubble of de-occupied Hostomel’ and elevates them to the status of artifacts – or stars. The installation “Stars of the Province”, created for the Bruno Schulz Festival in Ivano-Frankivsk, is accompanied by the text “Spring” by the literary innovator. Molten and deformed, the colorful lumps of glass are separated from the horrible, blood-soaked places in which they were found and lined up in the gallery on a lighted table – where they, carefully, are being transcended and aestheticized.
Studio visit: the image of the bulletproof vest, which pops up in the publications mentioned above, does not lead me to Katya Libkind but to Stanislav Turina, with whom Katya founded the atelienormalno a few years ago. It’s an arts studio where the two create large- and small-format images, texts, and art objects in collaboration with their “kolegy” (colleagues).
Stanislav calls the space, which is scattered with colors, canvases, books, and diverse materials, a “ship.” Truly, it’s an “airship,” given the studio’s location on the 18th floor of a convoluted housing estate built in the 2000s in the precinct of Syrets. One of its walls hugs the corner and features large, round windows that offer a breathtaking view of the eclectic skyline of Kyiv’s south. “We wanted to create an inclusive space, where everyone feels comfortable and at home,” says Stanislav about the place, which has been a safe space not only for a small circle of artists with and without disabilities since the beginning of the war.
They’re currently at work on “zines of a working day,” which include drawings, photographs, poems, and different papers. On this afternoon, Iryna Holoborod‘ko sits upright and focused at her desk – her “working day” is coming to an end. She folds the cover page, slips the other pages inside.
On the balcony – the view gives out on the de-occupied places of Bucha, Irpin’, and Hostomel’, as well as Babyn Yar with its damaged TV tower, whose scaffold shows the black traces of missile impact – Stanislav remembers the weeks when Russian troops were approaching Kyiv. With friends they moved from the house at the city’s edge into its center, accompanied by the thundering of missiles. In March they started caring for the people who were evacuated from the boarding school.
He only realized that he had also been traumatized when he left Kyiv in August for the first time since February. He takes an issue of oberih with him to the Carpathians – and photographs it in front of an impressive mountainscape. Only once time has passed can you speak of post-traumatic disorder, he points out.
Many of the objects strewn across the airship have something magical about them – for example the colorful collection of wooden walking sticks of former studio colleague Artem Ibadulaev, which remind me of ritual, magical prostheses. Are the people of atelienormalno also concerned with producing ‘oberihs’, objects with a cathartic, protective function? Stanislav denies this at first and emphasizes how important the process, the meetings and daily tasks are: “It’s about communication.”
But he also talks about that Valentyn Petrovych Radchenko, one of their artists, has written “magical poems” – having a metaphysical perspective. The war plays a role in his poem “Ship” (“Korabl’”), for example, which is included in one zine and ends with the lines: “Kyiv airplane now comes a missile / In Kyiv war now goes” [own translation, editor’s note].
Later Stanislav returns to ‘oberihs’: “I’ll keep on thinking about it, what meaning oberihs have in the context of atelienormalno.”
Back in Berlin I receive an unexpected visit by Margarita Polovinko; she’s on her way back to Ukraine. The young artist has been processing the war on paper from a far-Eastern distance – she spontaneously left Kyiv at the end of January: fantastical fairy tale worlds, inhabited by hybrid, animal-angel beings. The sketch book is her friend – her ‘oberih’.
The word ‘Arkada’ (Turkish for “friend”) is emblazoned on the leather cover. It literally means ‘someone who watches you from behind’, but also “someone who protects”, she explains to me. In contrast to her colorful and expressive large-scale oil paintings, the fable-like and naïve pencil drawings meander lightly across the small pages.
In the first weeks of the war, when she is unable to understand how people can spread such cruelty and commit such crimes in her country, Margarita paints monsters: “Not humans but monsters. In time I came to understand that humans are also capable of these deeds.” Recurring motifs, which she also shares via Instagram over the months: angel and bird creatures (“dead children”, “sad, immortal angels”), gruesome, grotesque dogs (“pain”), deformed and fluid bodies (“Bucha,” “Mariupol’”), blood-red elephants.
Delving into the history of other wars and genocides – for example the genocide in Cambodia – paradoxically helps her to bear Ukraine’s suffering. “You understand that your catastrophe isn’t the only one, perhaps not even the worst one, that you’re not alone.” In this attitude – as much as in her fragile drawings – a concrete and emotional way of looking at the world meets a superhistorical universal one in a dialectic, lightning-like reading of history: in the (Benjaminian) moment of awakening.
For a fleeting moment we are sitting in front of a take-away in Berlin’s Sonnenallee. Two days later an Instagram story will tell me that she has reached her hometown Kryvyi Rih, roughly 150 kilometers from the front. Shaped by a history of iron mining, the industrial city has produced a red-metallic mountainous topography: “Even before the war it looked like a bomb had hit,” Margarita explains, “how will it have changed?” Margarita, herself an angelic being, survives on these apocalyptic landscapes – as one can see in her dark, hybrid fantasy worlds.
“The nature of angels is often described by assimilating them to the thinnest, lightest and fastest things in the material world: fire, wind and especially light.” (Yevhen Hulevych: Invisible Worlds, in: Angels, Artbook Publishing House/Ya Gallery Art Center, Kyiv 2019, 16.)
— (postscript: black suns)
The artifacts collected in this essay, the words and images, are apologias of living in times of death and destruction. They are little rays in apocalyptic despair, “imaginary suns, bright and dark at the same time.” (Kristeva 1987) They resist the “mystic formula of death in life,” which declares the speechless state of “spacelessness, timelessness, and signlessness” as the only adequate way to deal with the ruptures of historical trauma.
The revaluation of the everyday to symbolic, powerful and – in museum contexts – tolerated art objects; the tendency towards the literary-aesthetic “small form” (whether from a lack of material or time or because of its superior transportability); the concentration, on the one hand, on the concrete, material, haptic as the bearer of one’s own or found memories, and, on the other, on the transcendent, transgressive, transmedial as the state of being and vanishing point of the imagination – all these seem to be cultural phenomena in times of war.