How Ukraine’s artists are taking on Putin’s Russia

From The Guardian:

When I meet him, artist Oleksiy Sai, along with his wife and son, have slept the night in their studio, a warren of rooms tucked behind an unassuming courtyard in central Kyiv. It’s on the ground floor, and with good walls, so they reckon it’s reasonably safe from Russian rockets. Safer, that is, than their apartment: the previous day they were woken by the juddering scream-boom of cruise missile strikes, one cratering a children’s playground a block from their flat. Somehow, their windows survived, though the glass was blown out of most of the nearby buildings. Now, the whole family is busy making work: his son Vasyl is at a screen editing videos; his wife, Svitlana Ratoshnyuk, is making folksy textiles embroidered with “Fuck Putin” in Ukrainian.

Before the war, Sai – slim, intense, wearing a black hoodie – used to make colourful works, based on Excel software, that wryly commented on “office life and global culture”. But when the Russians invaded on 24 February, he says, “I forgot about art completely, I forgot all my plans and started working for the war.” First, he began rolling out designs for protest posters. “I know how to do it fast,” Sai says; he honed the skill nearly a decade ago, during the 2013 Maidan Square protests against the pro-Russian then president, Viktor Yanukovych. Sai’s banner designs have been seen on the streets of London, New York and Berlin. They are not subtle. “Unilever! Quit Russia!” reads one, the familiar corporate logo rendered as a U-shaped spatter of blood. Another depicts a line of Russian medals “For torture”, “For looting” and “For the genocide of the Ukrainian people”.

Later, Sai made a video work. He shows it to me on his computer. Brutal images march across the screen in a grim procession: shattered and broken bodies, twisted and collapsed buildings, the full Goya-esque horror of war. The raw material for the piece was 7,000 photographs from the conflict’s barbaric heart – gathered from journalists, but also from photographers he knew who had signed up as combatants and taken pictures deep amid the raw carnage. “My goal is to terrify people,” he says. “To show that the war is total. To show that it’s fucking serious.” The work has been shown at the Nato headquarters, at the European parliament. Its sound consists of radio intercepts of Russian soldiers talking to their mothers or girlfriends, along with a sort of dull metronomic beat that gives the whole work a “zombified” feel, as Sai puts it. “It’s too scary for news,” he says. “But for art, it’s possible.” None of the images is captioned, there’s no contextual information; it’s designed to cut to the marrow. It’s certainly not intended to be journalism. As an artwork, “it gives you a deeper emotional connection, and a deeper knowledge”, he says. He calls it “propaganda” before checking himself: “It’s not propaganda. It’s not the stuff I want to do, it’s the stuff I need to do.” He adds: “It is practical and useful, and people changed their minds about the war. It worked.” In the resistance against the Russian invasion, Sai’s art is his weapon.

The work is distressing; after a few moments, to my relief, he pauses the video. I can’t help wondering what it was like to live among these images, studying them, editing them together in his small dark studio. “It was three weeks of hell. I dreamed about them. They got into my head,” he says. He developed a nervous tic, started scratching himself obsessively. For relief, he has been making what he calls his Smoke series of drawings – swirls of black that recall the clouds rising from the site of missile strikes. After Russian attacks, Ukrainian outlets show footage not of the affected buildings, but only the smoke – so as not to reveal whether the intended target was hit. There’s a stack of these Smoke works at the back of the studio; he’s given lots away so they can be sold to raise money for the war effort. “I’m lucky to get to edit in this comfortable place, smoking and eating,” he says. “I won’t lose my leg doing it. It’s easier than firing a gun.”

. . . .

Where to begin a story of war? Every war teems with stories: stories of survival and violence, of resistance and compliance, of struggle and terror. They go together: many of the oldest stories that survive (the Iliad, the Odyssey) are stories of war and its aftermath. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war full of stories but also a war about a story, about the accepted facts, about the prevailing narrative. Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, as he calls it, seems to have been intended to provide a spectacle, a kind of war movie, for domestic consumption, drawing the Russians together against what he hopes to frame as a common enemy – described variously as Nazis, terrorists or even, bizarrely, as the forces of Satan. At the same time, the war’s false justification has its own disturbing narrative, its own warped internal logic. Underlying Putin’s military aggression, as his speeches and essays have for years made clear, is his assertion that Ukraine has no distinct existence – that it can be seen only as an adjunct to Russia. In such a war on a nation’s culture, identity and history, it is artists and cultural figures who find themselves the crack troops of the resistance. The war is on one level about borders, and it is being fought with shells, Himars rocket launchers and Shahed-136 drones. But it is, on a deeper level, about culture. And, desperately holding the line, fighting on the cultural front, weaponising their work, are Ukraine’s artists.

. . . .

What happens to art when a war appears as an unwelcome guest in your country? In the short term, war ruptures language and meaning; art seems pointless. No one I speak to in Ukraine can forget the shock of the first day of the invasion – a day that is sealed into people’s memories as surely as a fly trapped in amber, to borrow an image from Maksym Kurochkin, a Kyiv-based playwright turned soldier. Musicians tell me how they seemed to fall deaf, in those early days; novelists, how they started to muddle languages they’d never confused before. Art is no use against rockets or guns. “You could not protect your family from a rifle with your poems,” as Oleksandr Mykhed, a writer I meet at a book festival in Lviv, puts it. Everything collapsed in on itself, in those early days.

The best use of words, as the invasion began, was not to arrange them into elegant poetic forms, but to use them to send a message to your friends that you were alive, or to help someone stay safe. Mykhed speaks of a backpack his wife, Olena, has put together, containing equipment to use in the event of a nuclear attack, along with directions. “If the backpack survives, then we have a piece of nonfiction with instructions for restoring life,” he says. On 23 February, the day before the invasion, he finished writing a book. As the tanks rolled in, he volunteered for the military. On the fifth day of the war he was sleeping in barracks. On the seventh, his home was shelled to destruction. In such a way, war renders a life unrecognisable, over the course of a single week.

Link to the rest at The Guardian