Inner Space: The Word in Ukrainian Art Amid The Full-scale War

28 листопада, 2023

by Yuliya Karpets

In this essay, literary critic and co-curator of the project "How are you? Exhibition and discussion" Yuliya Karpets reflects on Ukrainian art during the Russian full-scale invasion and the change of language and meanings of words in contemporary art.

With this publication, ArtsLooker continues a series of essays and interviews in partnership with the Museum Of Contemporary Art NGO and UMCA (Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art) about Ukrainian art during the full-scale war in the framework of the Wartime Art Archive preparation.

I often wonder how I would internalize the phrase "air-raid alarm" if I had never heard a siren and would only meet it as a random literary trope. However, an air alarm inevitably wakes me from sleep at night, loudly greets me in city squares, and accompanies intimate morning hours. Bizarrely, the first time I heard an air raid alarm on the radio was in my grandmother's country house, where the siren covered muted icons in towels in the corner, embroidery, and old photographs. The embroideries in Zhanna Kadyrova's "Air-raid Alarm" series signify such a personal space, physical or intellectual, that is inevitably engulfed by the "commonplace" of war.

Zhanna Kadyrova, "Air-raid Alert," embroidery. Photo: DTF/Magazine.
This text is an attempt to reflect on the metamorphoses that the language is going through in the artistic practices of Ukrainian artists during a full-scale war. In Ukrainian art after February 24, 2022, the word has clearly appeared as Lacanian “points de caption” (which literally translates as "point of quilting" or "point of attachment" to denote something that coexists together at the moment with another, that is, there are points in which "signifier and signified are connected together"). The visual image and the specific event or experience that gave rise to the artwork are held together. In this way, the word aids the process of documenting and illusory certainty in a fixed meaning. The transformation of the practice of the artist Anton Sayenko, who gave up his usual non-figurative painting for a while, comes to mind: In the oil work "Searching for a Word," we see the silhouette of a person emerging from a silent red landscape, and below the words that denote this breaking point and the inescapable need for articulation.

The fastest metamorphoses occurred with the land: roadblocks, mining, trenches, and craters from bombings. The language also absorbed the imprints of the war - fragments of the surrounding reality, first trying to reveal their abnormality, then using them as organic and the only possible ways of transmitting information about the war.

The diary has become a cornerstone of artistic practices as a way to sort through reality, a ritual in which hand movements, spoken reality, and an elusive image are united. Pages of personal diaries, whether visual or textual, published on social networks contributed to more durable intersubjective connections and connection to the collective body, mostly without leaving an intimate space. When a rigid, straightforward slogan prevails, the word becomes a purely ideological tool for fixating meaning and loses its aesthetic potential. This also applies to poetry, which incorporated front reports, lists of the dead, and stories heard at train stations and shelters as artistic entities after the start of a full-scale war. However, another path of language after the shock is worth mentioning: despite the silence, there were brave attempts to identify the traumatized corporeality that is inextricably present in the reality of war. The poem Women by Kateryna Kalytko comes to my mind. The heroine puts her found right hand instead of her own, and it becomes part of hers. However, when touching her body, the one cannot hear "clover field and hawk feathers," only the hum of the earth, railway stations, and the dead.

It seems that what followed was the exhaustion and devastation of figurative thinking, and what remained was to speak common words in an attempt to grasp fragments of deformed culture and statehood. In her "Lviv Diary" series, Vlada Ralko reflects on how connections form between culture, the state, communication, citizens, civic duty, etc. One of the drawings contains an inscription, "Language speaks about the obvious." At the same time, it is precisely in Vlada Ralko's practice that language acquires expressionistic capacity and the power to poetic variability.
Vlada Ralko, "Lviv Diary," drawings series. Source: Instagram of the artist.
Artistic practices differ from the usual archiving in that they preserve the freedom to manifest ruptures and create their own intimate worlds. In such worlds, language is emancipated: In the eyes and voice of the artist, it is deprived of its usual instrumentality and finds embodiment of its poetic ability. In the "Tablets of Rage" series, Olga Fedorova creates prayer poems on bed sheets. In the physical sensation of each letter written on the fabric, the artist seems to appropriate the language anew, feeling it from the inside. However personal, the texts relate to shared feelings of rage towards the Russian invaders, indomitability, and desire to struggle.
Olga Fedorova, "Tablets of Rage." Photo: Dzyga Art Center.
In some other artistic practices, language is present as an inner experience, which itself preserves the imprints of the past. For example, in the comics about the bombing of Kharkiv, created by Danyl Shtangeev and Borys Filonenko, a memory of the past cultural experience in the city, such as the screening of films by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, is co-present with an unexploded rocket embedded in the asphalt. In this case, the word helps document the crimes of Russia, at the same time, we can grasp the intertextual thread that will lead us to an aesthetic experience, first, of a specific film and the tragic disproportion of the retrospective and the current state of Kharkiv. In "Fantasy" by Karina Synytsia, the girl holds a piece of paper with the words "did you see how wonderful it was here?" in the middle of a lonely, darkened landscape familiar to the artist. In both cases, the language gently invites a journey into the past and deepens the memory through the interaction of imagination and aesthetic image rather than a directive.
Danyl Shtangeev, Borys Filonenko, a fragment of the comic book. Source: Instagram
Language, as the heart of intimate connection, including with the past, is present in Anna Zvyagintseva's installation "To Plant a Stick." One of its elements is written lines from Dmytro Pavlychko's poetry, which the artist found in her grandfather's archive after his death in 2016: "Like a leafless tree, My soul stands in the fields." Stanislav Turina’s series of drawings, "Thank you" reveal the intersubjective space of care and support. Tamara Turliun embroidered the words "this is the beginning of trees, this is how a pile of stems looks" on white light fabrics with black threads, asserting the future. The verse of a famous poet of the Sixties, which emerged from a personal archive, the familiar word "thank you" placed on a fragile napkin, and the poetic observation of a young artist ended up in one windowless and roofless  room. The works of Zvyagintseva, Turina, and Turliun were exhibited at the apartment show "Everyone is Afraid of the Baker, but I am Grateful," curated by Kateryna Iakovlenko at the end of August 2022 in her own house destroyed by an enemy shell.
Stanislav Turina, “Thank You,” drawing, 2022. Photo: Maria Blindiuk.
War breaks language so that silence captures the body and mind, and only the physical understanding of the surrounding reality remains available. However, even amid desolation, we can witness the return of the word from the void. At the beginning of the full-scale war, "death," "freedom," "love," and eventually "war" came to life, their meanings were laid bare and lasting. Such immediacy is impressive in the work of Kateryna Libkind, "Dream of a Veteran," a video of a butterfly with trembling wings and the writing of an artist, in which there is a bold and gentle word that heals the fracture of consciousness. The memory evokes these words of Taras Prokhasko: "Something from that language that you try not to betray to remain yourself."
Karina Synytsia, “Fantasy.” Courtesy: the artist.
In this essay, I deliberately avoid formalistic conclusions because this is the field of responsibility of art historical analysis with a sufficient chronological distance and an appropriate methodological base. Instead, I wanted to expand the multiplicity of the embodiment of language in artistic practices after 24.02.2022 since its transformations cannot be included in one trend. Therefore, the freedom inherent in art and poetic language is preserved; it provides an aesthetic representation of the diversity of experiences around, thus promoting the development of empathy. Trust and respect for the other's vulnerability are born in privacy, not in radical public openness. Therefore, we should not forget what it is like to speak and co-create out of love, not hatred and fear.

Research and development of materials, Wartime Art Archive website development, and media partnership with Suspilne.Kultura and Artslooker are implemented by the Museum of Contemporary Art NGO with the support of the Fritt Ord Foundation (Norway) and the Sigrid Rausing Trust (UK).

The text in Ukrainian is available on Suspilne.Kultura


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