72 Perspectives on War: Inaugural Exhibition at the Jam Factory Art Center

14 december, 2023

Yevheniia Tsatsenko

The long-awaited opening of Jam Factory, Lviv's largest art center, is accompanied by a massive exhibition titled “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us.” Curated by Katerina Yakovlenko, Natalia Matsenko, and Boris Filonenko, the exposition features works by over 70 Ukrainian artists. The exhibition delves into the complexity and diversity of life during war: from the experience of forced relocation to being on the front lines; from rescuing people to preserving museum collections; from personal losses to grieving for those we do not know; from hope and laughter through tears to a sense of total despair and devastation. This war did not start on February 24, 2022, or February 20, 2014. The burning landscapes painted by Taras Shevchenko in exile and the massive canvas “The Defense of Sevastopol” by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy, dedicated to the events of the Crimean War, suggest from the start that we have been fighting since the 19th century (and actually, almost as long as we have existed).

Vitaliy Kokhan, “Real Wooden Swords,” wood of different species, the author's technique, 2023. All photos courtesy Vita Popova.
The piecing together of history's fragments and establishing connections between past and present events is one of the several crucial missions undertaken by the curators of the exhibition. There is a demythologization of essential figures in Ukrainian history: they depart from the sacral sphere, becoming more comprehensible and closer as our contexts also converge. In response to the reactivated call of Ivan Mazepa to defend with weapons in hand during the time of the great invasion, Vitaliy Kokhan creates “Real Wooden Swords.” These eleven sabers of different shapes and lengths resemble the wooden ones we dreamed of in childhood. Today, the hetman's words, "we have the right through the sword," referenced by Kokhan, also adorn the insignia of the 54th Separate Mechanized Brigade.

Vlad(a) Valizhevsky liberates portraits of Nestor Makhno, Lesia Ukrainka, and Vasyl Stus from frames and dusty towels. The artist transforms them into actors of the present — those who fight for the freedom of contemporary Ukraine. In the year of Ukraine's independence, Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy created a massive panel titled “Defense of Sevastopol,” deconstructing the events of 1854-1855 that Russian historians still use as evidence of “heroism and loyalty of the Russian people.” 

Old New Realities

Alternative realities constructed by artists emerge to replace lost spaces. Mount Ayu Dag, located on the southern coast of Crimea, is now accessible in a virtual environment constructed from the photos, memories, and dreams of Yuriy Yefanov. Curators refer to this gesture as a “temporary compensation” — similar compensation is also provided by the models recreated by the “Open Group” of Ukrainian houses lost during the Second World War and the current Russo-Ukrainian war. While artists cannot restore Crimea to its 2013 state or rebuild the ruined houses, they can offer an alternative to oblivion. In this way, we symbolically maintain a connection with important places and objects, access to which we lack, and whose condition we can only speculate about.

The show allows for emptiness and gaps: the curators remind visitors of artworks by Ukrainian artists that were abducted by Russia, leaving empty spaces on the walls of the exhibition. Labels for the absent works serve as reminders of these gaps. Including photographs or reproductions of these works was impossible, as it would equate to reconciling with the current situation. Yuriy Pikul also reflects on the issue of lost cultural heritage: in the artist's works, ruined buildings and evacuated museum collections are engulfed by three-dimensional black holes.

Yuriy Pikul, “After the War, the French Decided Not to Reconstruct Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles,” fibreboard, oil, fabric, 2023.
Yuriy Pikul, “There Are No Paintings in the Museum During the War,” fibreboard, oil, fabric, 2023.

Why Look at Nature

Coping with darkness and emptiness is aided by turning to nature, which continues to live its life even in the conditions of ecocide—such as the potatoes in the photographs by Mykola Kolomyiets, sprouting shoots in a cold cellar. Inhuman agents have a different temporality — they send out roots, grow, bloom, and bear fruit according to their own calendar. A sense of peace comes with the realization that a vast universe without war coexists with you in the same space and time. Immersing oneself in its contemplation is a kind of escapism. To delve into that same alternative dimension is not imaginary or virtual but entirely real. Of course, nature not only blooms — it withers, decomposes, and decays. But this does not bring sadness: Katerina Aliinyk's paintings, depicting the process of decomposing tuber, have a therapeutic effect. They speak of self-cleansing of the land — an urgent issue for Ukraine, the country with the most mined territory as of 2023.

Kateryna Aliinyk, “Double Crop 1,” acrylic on paper, 2022, and Kateryna Aliinyk, “Everything Is OK Underground...,” series, oil on canvas, 2022.

Crises of Representation and Meaning

Instead, the decay of familiar things caused by a full-scale invasion is much more frightening. When something as horrific and destructive as war comes to your country, all previous experiences become irrelevant instantly, and the old and reliable tools, such as language, become ineffective. A crisis of representation ensues—reality resists both verbal and visual description. At least, no narrative or image fully captures it, so artists choose safer strategies. Yaroslav Futymskyi and Anton Saienko create monochromatic paintings. Sasha Maslov, Bohdana Zayats, and Andrii Rachynskyi document: soldiers, damaged buildings, others' thoughts, their friends, and, ultimately, themselves. Such observational works (almost) exclude artistic intervention—rather, they serve as photo and video archives of a full-scale war rather than artistic statements. In his book “Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other,” French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that creating truthful representations of apocalyptic events like war or genocide is impossible—they can only be depicted as a “gap in history that we cannot fill with any narratives,” with any interpretations.

Katya Buchatska, “Spring Time,” oil, printing on canvas, 2022.
The exhibition features works that reconsider the role and reliability of language in the context of a full-scale war. The Russian word “дети” (children) in Yaroslav Futymskyi's work transforms into the question “де ти” (where are you). Later, this warning word appears in the photographs of Katya Buchatska. She repeatedly writes “дети” on the seashore, after which the tide washes away the writing — thus, the artist calls into doubt the real meanings and weight of words. In the works of the artist and ATO veteran Liubomyr Tymkiv, letters that once formed the phrase “куріння вбиває” (smoking kills) and were cut from a cigarette pack blend and create chaos (because it is not smoking that kills — at least, not here). However, for some artists, language itself, rather than creating visual images, becomes the only possible way to express the war. In the context of the full-scale invasion, the words “світл” (light) and “люди” (people) become central characters in the works of Yevhen Samborskyi — they spread across the monochromatic canvases of the artist.

The exhibition “Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us” does not dramatize, nor does it attempt to make predictions or promises that are impossible to keep. Instead, the curators create a retrospective, unfolding vast temporal layers, inviting us to look back and find the answers we need now. They show us ourselves in our struggle — past, present, and future.

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