Oleksiy Sai on the Bombed series, documentation of Russian war crimes, and horizontal «propaganda»

1 september, 2023
Oleksiy Sai, fragment of the artwork from the Bombed series, 2022.
 Oleksiy Sai is an artist who works with various media, including painting, photography and multimedia installations. He is best known for the series of paintings in the author's genre of Excel-Art, in which he subtly criticizes the early 2000s office culture. In this series, Sai uses Excel as a tool of visual language. The first Excel-Art exhibition took place in 2007 at the TSEKH Gallery in Kyiv. In 2009, Sai was nominated for the PinchukArtCentre Prize. His artworks are collected by numerous museums and private collectors. 

Oleksiy Sai has long been speaking about the war waged by Russia against Ukraine and actively raising awareness about it abroad. In 2014, Sai started the Bombed series, depicting the damaged Ukrainian landscape as visible in satellite images from the combat zones.From August 17 to October 8, 2023, these works are in Sai’s solo show Exhibition at the Voloshyn Gallery in Kyiv. On this occasion, Ivan Skoryna interviewed Sai for Artslooker. They talked about volunteering, photo documentation of Russian war crimes, suffering as a driving force of the creative process, and the difference between Soviet and modern propaganda.

Exhibition project was supposed to open at the Voloshyn Gallery on February 24, 2022. Due to the full-scale invasion, the opening only took place for close friends. Do you remember how it happened?

On the morning of February 24th, it became clear that there would be no opening. But Lesya Khomenko called me and decided to come with sleeping mats [Voloshyn Gallery is in the basement, so technically it's one of the municipal shelters during the air raid – ed.]. Yasia Khomenko and Max Robotov accompanied her, then my wife and I joined (as we live in the city center), and later, Mykyta Kadan came to the gallery. We had a company, but you can't call what was happening “an opening". Everyone, of course, was surprised by this psychedelic coincidence: we could hear the booming sound of the first explosions in Kyiv at the presentation of the series about bombardments. 
Installations from the Bombed series at Voloshyn Gallery, February 24, 2022. Photo: provided by the author. In the photo: Svitlana Ratoshnyuk, her father Anatoliy and son Vasyl with his girlfriend Sasha.
 Did the gallery actually function as a bomb shelter? When was the Bombed exhibition officially closed down?

No, people from the street didn't use the gallery as a shelter; only our acquaintances did. There was another shelter right next to the gallery building. Later Mykyta Kadan changed the exhibition. He stayed there for a while longer and made a curated exhibition with different works that were in the gallery. It was a good exhibition, we'll have to recreate it sometime.

That spring, I was busy creating posters for demonstrations, and the Bombed artworks had been ‘on display’ at Voloshyn Gallery until they were transported to Poland, around May 2022. At first, friends wanted to hold the exhibitions in embassies, but it turned out it wasn’t quite possible. So, in summer, the works were handed over to the Ujazdowski Castle (for the Under a Different Sky exhibition).

Bombed is a harbinger of the full-scale war. You started this series back in 2014. How did the idea come about?

I started the series in August 2014, the battle for Ilovaisk was already happening. I was in despair and thought, «What am I doing at all?». My wife and I were looking at satellite photos — it was shocking. Wars can vary from one another. Back then, we couldn't even imagine the ground could look like that. But it was like that from the very beginning, just localized around Donetsk, where artillery was active all the time. We found out that our acquaintance was wounded there. I would just stare at these landscapes and feel restless. I wanted to distract my mind and hands by doing something. Over the next four years, I didn't show these works to anyone. I usually work on a series for a long time, and it comes to something over the years. Everything goes in parallel. 
Battle for Ilovaisk from August 6 to August 31, 2014 was the first clash between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the regular army of the Russian Federation. Until August 24, the Ukrainian army had an advantage over the forces of the Donbas separatists, but when the Russian troops entered the battle, the Ukrainian units found themselves in a cauldron. On August 29, the Russian side created a corridor for the exit of Ukrainian troops, but during the march, Russians shot them dead.
 These works are made from Excel-Art installations — it looks like a deliberate rejection of digital art in favor of the real object. The same as changing an office context to military life. Did you aim for this meaning or was it rather a practical decision (‘leftover’ works that you didn't mind reusing)?

Back then, I simply didn't understand why I was creating Excel-Art. It wasn't a grand gesture, like «Look, I'm destroying my own works.» I still simultaneously create images in Excel — it's a way to distract myself from heavy thoughts, just a pastime.

Perhaps, one can see criticism here: it was from the world of the monitor, and here someone came and scattered this world. That's true. But I don't differentiate between digital and non-digital art — everything is mixed now. These are just media. The idea behind Excel-Art was that Excel is a tool for everyone, thus I was making art accessible to everyone. It’s easier to read it that way. 

Work from the Excel-Art series. Photo: oleksiysai.com
 The Bombed series is your first set of works about the war, isn’t it?

Just like now, I was creating utilitarian things, helping volunteers. I'm not one of those who woke up on February 24. I started doing something useful right away in 2014. The same story repeated in 2022. In general, I have both the utilitarian and conceptual artist in me. I create posters anonymously and pragmatically: if a poster for certain purposes has to be unattractive — it will be, if it has to be stupid — that's possible as well. 

So, I don't know if the Bombed are my first works about the war. At the time, it seemed to me that I shouldn't hype this. To convey the intended meaning of these works, a societal consensus is needed. The viewer has to understand. In 2014, the audience of these works was smaller.

Technically, it looks like this: I peel off the layers of Excel-Art paintings with an angle grinder, and then I create these holes with an iron abrasive brush. It's more about the physical contribution and personal suffering from the work. It's uncomfortable.  I drilled 12,000 of these holes in one artwork.

I get it. In spring 2022, I was helping Kyiv territorial defense to dig trenches. It's pleasant when you can work with your hands and don’t overthink. You're doing almost the same — digging these holes, only on a canvas.

Yes, there's a certain mental relaxation in that — you support yourself with mechanical work. As (Vikor — ed.) Pokidanets said about producing Soviet banners: «You stand, you paint — and you're at peace with yourself.»

Do you have the same attitude to your posters?

I treat posters like cleaning — you just do it. People need them, and I don't even review them. Although there have been around 50 exhibitions (I stopped counting), it's not that important. What's important is that these were requested by activists. Like: «We're going to protest against Unilever — make us a bunch of posters that look like different people made them.» And I made about 5 posters for them — I did so many times. Once, I came to a Ukrainian Saturday gathering at Times Square in New York (by the invitation of Genndiy Kozub). I arrived — and they announced: «Let's welcome the guy who designed all our posters.» It was fun. And it helps people.

And the Bombed series is also something that people need. I've long believed that art is also a functional thing. Like smart weapons targeted at a specific audience. But I don't think the words «cultural front» actually mean something. It’s just as long as I'm effective... We'll see what happens next. I haven't really rested in the past year and a half. 

Posters by Oleksiy Sai. Photo: courtesy of the artist.
 Let's talk about your other war-related works. I know you made a film called «6400 Frames.»

It's a compilation of photographic evidence of Russian war crimes — there's a lot of material and contributors. I can't say whether it's art or what. It's just a piece of work that brings a very concrete practical result. It looks very harsh — people cry, get upset. It's effective.

In 2022, it was shown at the Russian War Crimes exhibition, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, then at the London Parliament. At places, where the people capable of providing planes and HIMARS launchers go. To reach them, you need the power of art. You need to do it with love — that's when it works. It's hard to measure the effect, but when people abroad are asking well-thought-out questions — that's already a shift. This topic has become a part of everyday life in Europe. It will be different now.

Ukraine has become a subject in international politics, but that doesn't mean we're already great. To be interesting to the world, we still need to fight. And here there will be competition with more educated, developed, and wealthy countries. 

Photo from the film «6400 frames» by Oleksiy Sai. Photo: youtu.be
 Regarding cultural and other «fronts.» You have a series with the lead soldiers, dressed like office workers. In 2022, they were exhibited at the «She Asked, I Followed. Her Name is After» exhibition in Miami. This work fits into the discussion on total mobilization and the so-called «economic front». What was the initial idea?

That's an old work from 2009. The motivation was completely different. My generation played with those Soviet lead soldiers.That’s why I cast the tin clerks, painted some of them so that they wore office uniforms. At that time, corporate life was booming — it was somewhat caricatured. I worked in an advertising agency, and I wanted to depict that world. These were toy soldiers to be looked at from a human height — as if you were a deity above them. You could drown them, take them captive, bury them in a flowerpot. I wanted to make something cute and funny, yet simultaneously frightening.

This series is about the generation of the early 2000s, who thought they would live in eternal glamor — that annoyed me a lot. Because it was such an unconscious consumeristic life. As if everything would only get easier and easier — it turned out completely differently. Now people have been bombed and everyone understands what's really going on.

The first exhibition of photos of these soldiers was called Welcome Attitude — they all had smiles on their faces. Now this culture has become the norm for us, but in the late 90s, it was completely fake (because Soviet people didn't smile). It was just like «May I take your order?» — maximally insincere, but everyone did it. The next exhibition was called We're Still Smiling. These figurines were already damaged there. I made them older, buried them, scorched them — tortured them, like children do with their toys. They took on the characteristics of real people: one without an eye, another without half a head, the third without something else. They still live with me, I photograph them. In 2022, In the Miami exhibition, they showed photos of their faces, as if it’s portraits.

From this same motive, Excel-Art began — as lyrical criticism. You have to balance: if the work is only charged with social criticism, it won't be interesting. You have to provide something intriguing — then you can have an impact on something. If you just shout «Shame on all of you», the response will be: «Well, whatever.» 

Exhibition Welcome Attitude by Oleksiy Sai. Photo: oleksiysai.com
 Regarding Excel: Have you ever thought about engaging in other forms of digital art, such as working with Apple interfaces, Google Street View, or artificial intelligence?

I'm constantly changing my activities and have experience with progressive digital tools, though it's not always apparent. I don't think about technology. It just leads me somewhere. For example, I created a total 360-degree installation called Control Freak in a Shukhlyada virtual gallery.

In Excel Art, the tool is connected to the idea of the series itself. It's not that I want to be a digital artist. I've worked with a chainsaw at the same time. There's no difference. I work more with certain tasks than with forms. I love working with challenging material — it gives a sense of struggle. You're not moving toward a result, you're breaking through to it—that's part of the work for me. When you need to come up with something, especially when it's not working, it breaks along the way—that's interesting. And canvas and oil painting are just relaxation.

How long does one Excel painting take? And how much time is spent on the Bombed series?

Excel artworks take, on average, up to a month. It can be done faster, but the result will be different. Excel Art is like artisan handmade digital art. I could write macros to automate the process, but that wouldn't be the same. Here, it's all about the manual process: you spend a long time on it and eventually discover something. And making a bombed-out piece  takes about the same amount of time.


Oleksiy Sai's drawings from the News series. Photo: oleksiysai.com
 What are your plans? Do you have ideas for future projects?

Right now, I plan to finish everything that's unfinished — I've accumulated quite a bit. It's not like you just sit down and think, «Alright, I need to create a new work.» There are some ideas, but I haven't tested if they're alive yet.

In between editing «6400 Frames,» I created a series of drawings called News — around 400 pieces. They're smudges without geographical context — similar to how our news shows rocket fallings — so that it's unclear where and from where. They work as a single object and also travel to various exhibitions.

For the last 8-10 years, I've also been writing Statements — 100 pieces on one sheet of paper. It's about the interaction with bureaucracy (both governmental and private). Once, to enter the workshop on a weekend, I had to write a statement with passport details and car information. Every which way you feel belittled. In this series, I wrote anything, but always in a specific format and addressing someone specific. I still write these things occasionally.

The Slogans series employs a similar technique as the Statements — text overlays. What is this work about?

It's about how people stop seeing and hearing totalitarian appeals, even when there's nowhere to hide from them. Here, the slogans are overlaid on each other as if they're supposed to convey something, but they don't. That's how it was in the USSR — nobody read propaganda. It was just background noise, like yellow leaves in autumn. In Rusanivka district, there used to be huge inscriptions on three adjacent buildings: «Lenin. Party. People!» Nobody felt any emotional connection to these three words; everyone just knew that someone lived in the «Party,» someone in «Lenin,» and someone in the «People.»

I was surprised when young people started seeing the USSR as something romantic. Through this series, I wanted to show them that the Soviet system didn't work. It was a «crap machine» that went nowhere. I'm one of the last witnesses of that. My generation was born in the USSR, but became active when it already collapsed. For me, this reality was unpleasant. Childhood is only happy because you're a child. As a teenager, I already hated the Soviet system — I participated in all revolutions and protests. At the same time, I was studying to be a graphic artist at a technical school. So, I can write classic banners. Viktor Pokidanets and Serhiy Yakunin came to see these works and almost cried — they worked in art factories for some time.

In fact, we transitioned from that Soviet society to a caricatured capitalism. We lived in this distorted, amusing reality for a couple of decades. Now, reality is real. We have a sense of the flow of history now, whereas before, we were at a dead-end. Not in the liberal «end of history,» but in some sort of trap. 

Works from the series Slogans and Statements by Oleksiy Sai. Photo: oleksiysai.com
  You said that propaganda in the Soviet Union didn't work as planned. However, you mentioned in the BirdInFlight interview that you work as a propagandist. Are you not afraid that modern Ukrainian propaganda will also stop being effective?

Actually, I'm not engaged in classical propaganda in the sense that I don't have a sponsor and I don't receive any money for it. Even when someone suggests selling these posters, I tell them that 100% of the proceeds go to weapons.

Propaganda can be totalitarian and centralized, like in Russia, or it can be like it is here. I'm not referring to the United News telethon, but artists, musicians, and volunteers. Those who have a voice do everything they can to express their views to those who will hear them. This is horizontal «propaganda». It works for all of us — it's about creating a societal consensus. When someone poured paint on a sculpture in Striysky Park, and all hell broke loose in social media — that's also propaganda of certain ideas and values (on both sides). Eventually, those who oppose it will get a dose of «propaganda» from those who support it.

United News Telethon is nescessary ocassionaly, to calm people down. Even Arystovych was nescessary at one point — and where is he now? All distorted things have an expiration date. At some point, people will start fighting against the telethon, and they'll win. When we all engage in individual small-scale «propagandas,» we undermine the potential success of large-scale propaganda. This is our duty: if you can say something, say it.

To read more articles about contemporary art please support Artslooker on Patreon