Dark times revisited… Defense of Sevastopol by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy (1991-92).Photo: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian
“I hope my ex was killed by a missile,” reads one message. “I’m ashamed that I miss my cats more than my own father,” someone else wrote. “I want to kill my father because of his Soviet beliefs,” a third confessed. “I can’t jerk off,” someone confides. Another: “I jerk every day.” And someone else: “I want to have great sex before the nuclear attack, but in two months I haven’t had the emotional resources to even open Tinder.”
These intimate confessions are displayed on a wall of the Jam Factory, an elegant arts center in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine that, improbably, opened in the thick of the Russian invasion. They come from a collection of anonymous wartime “secrets” that artist Bohdana Zaiats collected using an online Google form and posted to Instagram. Each offers a fleeting insight into the most personal, unspeakable thoughts of Ukrainians reeling from the heartbreak and dislocation caused by the war.
It is one of the most fragile and vulnerable moments in the Jam Factory’s opening exhibition, entitled Our Years, Our Words, Our Loss, Our Searches, Our Us. The show – curated by Kateryna Iakovlenko, Natalia Matsenko and Borys Filonenko – zooms in on such raw emotions, bringing together works that express the tender idiosyncrasies of inner lives in ways that journalism or documentary cannot. But it also zooms out – to a historical panorama that goes back to the 19th century and that is often disturbing, painful and complex.
You start with Crimea. Even before you enter the exhibition, the card you receive at reception is already a work of art, entitled I Have No Other Homeland But You. It was created by exiled Crimean Tatar designer Sevilya Nariman-qizi, who “had never been present in Ukrainian galleries, or had any connection with the art world,” says Iakovlenko – part of a history of exclusion that is now radically magnified for those Crimean artists. Tatars, often labeled Islamic extremists by Russian authorities, remain on the illegally occupied peninsula.
The curators know this grief firsthand. Iakovlenko lost her house during the invasion due to a direct hit
Once inside the exhibition, you are greeted by a panoramic work from 1991-92, created when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. It is entitled The Defense of Sevastopol and is a suite of five paintings by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy. The form and imagery refer to an earlier commemorative panorama of the Crimean War of 1854-55, made by the painter Franz Roubaud in 1904, which was itself badly damaged during the Second World War. Harking back to the 19th century war is a conscious choice, given today’s traumatic situation. “This country has always been wanted,” said Iakovlenko of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. “It was always a red line in politics.”
The newer work omits the historicist details of Roubaud’s panorama and instead offers an eerily blurry image of a contested landscape that could just as easily take place in the 1840s or the 1850s. But it turns out that some artists unconsciously paint the future when they paint the past. The defense of Sevastopol could also be a painting of the 2014 annexation. Or, for that matter, of the Ukrainian battlefields of 2024. Such is art’s ability to collapse time.
What do we remember, what is the point of remembering, what is it better to forget? Katya Buchatska, whose work will be on view in the Ukrainian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, explores how the country itself perpetuates loss in a 2023 video work, This World Is Recording. As the camera moves over fields littered with shell holes, you think of other voids, other empty spaces caused by the war – lives cut short, artistic work that will never be created, houses occupied or destroyed that can never be visited again. Such voids in the lives of survivors paradoxically do not feel like empty spaces, but are made of sadness that fills the body to the point of suffocation. The curators know this firsthand. Iakovlenko lost her first home, in the Luhansk region, to occupation in 2014. She lost a later home, in Irpin near Kiev, to a direct hit during the first months of the large-scale invasion in 2022.
Buchatska reflects on the role of memorials, which are often also intended as a warning. But remembering terrible events, she notes, is not always an effective defense against such things happening again. Buchatska’s work ends with the proposition that one day a garden could be built over those pitted, wounded fields, in place of a traditional memorial – “so that we have something to lose”.
If the land harbors the memory of trauma, so do stomachs and mouths. Open Group is a collective of Ukrainian artists who will represent neighboring Poland at this year’s biennial (a last-minute replacement, by the recently elected Polish government, for the conservative painter chosen by the previous, far-right government). For their work Repeat After Me, they spent time in Lviv recording specific sounds of war, as spoken by refugees who had fled the front line.
The film opens with Svitlana, from the Luhansk region, imitating the sound of a Ka-52 Alligator – a new Russian attack helicopter designed to take out tanks and infrastructure. After offering a long, descending “tr-tr-tr”, Svitlana invites the audience to “repeat after me”: the work takes the form of karaoke. Antonina comes next, with the sad, heartbreaking wail of the air raid siren, a sound most people in Western Europe only know through World War II films. Iryna imitates a T-80 tank, while Boris, from Mariupol, imitates the sound of aerial bombardment, a thin whine followed by resonant thumps. “Repeat after me so that you will remember,” he says, for these are memories that are historically important, and too many for one person to comprehend.
Another work by Open Group consists of films by two Ukrainian women describing their abandoned homes – one lost during World War II, another during the conflict with Russia that began in 2014. A distant look of love comes over the faces of these older women as one remembers a particularly fertile cherry tree in the garden, and the other remembers the precise angle of a poker that stood by the hearth and last warmed her in the forties. While the women talk, the artists draw and use computer images to ‘rebuild’ the houses; the collective later literally rebuilt the houses as architectural models: the fleeting images of memory became solid.
Everything in this exhibition pulses with a sense of the power and limits of memory – some memories are frantically and traumatically retained, others float just out of reach, perhaps lost forever. There is one small, unpretentious, pragmatically made image in the exhibition that was not even intended to be considered a work of art in the first place – not least because the artist was completely focused on humanitarian volunteer work at the time he made it. A mobile phone hangs on one of the gallery walls. On the screen is a photo of a wooden fence, bisected by a double gate. The photo was taken by Yaroslav Futymskyi, an artist with an interest in language, while helping to rebuild the northern region of Chernihiv after its evacuation at the beginning of the war.
The gate says “DETY”, the Russian for “children”. Such signs were usually painted as a call for mercy for the approaching invaders. In this case the letters are divided, two on each side of the gate, inviting a different reading. In Ukrainian, “THE TY” – two words – means: “Where are you?” It could almost serve as an alternative title for the exhibition, as it is invested in unearthing a sense of place in time and history – and in finding a way to somehow bring back the things that have disappeared to find.
• Our Years, Our Words, Our Loss, Our Searches, Our Us is on view at the Jam Factory, Lviv, Ukraine until March 10.