‘YO I hope my ex was killed by a rocket,” one message reads. “I’m ashamed that I miss my cats more than my own father,” someone else writes. “I want to kill my father for his Soviet beliefs,” confesses a third. “I can’t masturbate,” one person confesses. Another: “I wank every day.” And someone else: “I want to have amazing 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 at the Jam Factory, an elegant arts center in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv that, improbably, opened in the midst of the Russian invasion. They are taken from a collection of anonymous wartime “secrets” that artist Bohdana Zaiats collected using an online Google form and posted to Instagram. Each provides a fleeting glimpse into the most private and unspeakable thoughts of Ukrainians reeling from the anguish and dislocation caused by war.
It is one of the most fragile and vulnerable moments in Jam Factory’s inaugural exhibition, titled Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our We. The show, curated by Kateryna Iakovlenko, Natalia Matsenko and Borys Filonenko, focuses on those raw emotions and brings together works that express the tender peculiarities of inner life in a way that journalism or documentary cannot. But it also moves away, closer to a historical panorama that dates back to the 19th century and that is often disturbing, painful and complex.
You start with Crimea. Even before entering the exhibition, the ticket you are given at the reception is itself a work of art, titled I Have No Other Homeland Except 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 the inhabitants of Crimea. Tatars, often labeled Islamic extremists by Russian authorities, remain on the illegally occupied peninsula.
Once inside the exhibition, you will be greeted by a panoramic work from 1991-92, made when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. Entitled The Defense of Sevastopol, it is a set of five paintings by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy. Its form and imagery allude to an earlier commemorative panorama of the 1854-55 Crimean War made by the painter Franz Roubaud in 1904, badly damaged in World War II. Going back to the 19th century war is a wise decision, given the current traumatic situation. “This land was always desired,” says Iakovlenko of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. “It was always a red line in politics.”
The most recent work abandons the historicist details of Roubaud’s panorama, offering instead a startlingly blurred vision of a contested landscape that could just as easily be placed in the 1940s as the 1850s. But it turns out that some artists, unknowingly, They paint the future when they paint the past. The Defense of Sevastopol could also be a painting of the annexation of 2014. Or, for that matter, the Ukrainian battlefields of 2024. Such is the ability of art to collapse time.
What do we remember, what is the use of remembering, what is better to forget? Katya Buchatska, whose work will be featured in the Ukrainian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, considers how the earth itself suffers loss in a 2023 video work, This World Is Recording. As the camera pans over fields marked by shell holes, one thinks of other voids, other empty spaces caused by war: lives cut short, artistic works that will never be made, houses occupied or destroyed that can never be visited again. . Paradoxically, these voids in the lives of survivors do not feel like empty spaces, but rather are made of pain that fills the body to the point of suffocation. The curators know this firsthand. Iakovlenko lost his first house, in the Luhansk region, to the occupation in 2014. He lost a later house, in Irpin, near Kiev, to a direct hit during the first months of the full-scale invasion in 2022 .
Buchatska considers the role of memorials, which often also serve as a warning. But remembering terrible events, he points out, is not always an effective safeguard to prevent them from happening again. Buchatska’s work ends with the proposal that a garden could one day be planted on those wounded and pockmarked fields, instead of a traditional monument, “so that we have something to lose.”
If the earth keeps the memory of trauma, so do stomachs and mouths. Open Group is a collective of Ukrainian artists who will represent the neighboring country of Poland at this year’s biennale (a last-minute replacement, by the newly elected Polish government, of the conservative painter chosen by the previous far-right administration). For their work Repeat After Me, they spent time in Lviv recording war-specific sounds, vocalized by refugees who had fled the front.
The film begins with Svitlana, from the Luhansk region, imitating the sound of a Ka-52 Alligator, a new Russian attack helicopter designed to destroy tanks and infrastructure. After offering a long descending “tr-tr-tr”, Svitlana invites the audience to “repeat with me”: the work is in the form of karaoke. Next comes Antonina, with the mournful, shuddering wail of the air raid siren, a sound that most people in Western Europe only know from World War II films. Iryna imitates a T-80 tank, while Mariupol’s Boris imitates the sound of aerial bombing, a soft wail followed by resounding bangs. “Repeat after me, so you’ll remember,” he says, because these are memories that are historically important and too many for one person to contain.
Other Open Group work consists of films of 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 appears on the faces of these elderly women as one remembers a particularly fruitful cherry tree in the garden, and the other remembers the precise angle of a poker that stood next to the fireplace that last warmed it in the 1940s. While the women talk, the artists draw and use computer images to “rebuild” the houses; Later, the collective literally rebuilt the houses as architectural models: the fleeting images of memory solidified.
Everything in this exhibition vibrates with a sense of the power and limits of memory: some memories are frantically and traumatically preserved, others float beyond our reach, perhaps lost forever. There is a small, unpretentious and pragmatically realized image in the exhibition that, at first, was not even intended to be considered a work of art, especially since the artist, at the time he made it, was completely focused on volunteering humanitarian. A mobile phone is displayed on one of the gallery walls. On your screen is a photograph of a wooden fence crossed by a double gate. It was taken by Yaroslav Futymskyi, an artist interested in language, while helping in the reconstruction of the northern Chernihiv region after it was vacated early in the war.
On the door is written “DETY”, which in Russian means “children”. These signs were usually painted as a plea for mercy from approaching invaders. In this case, the letters are divided, two on each side of the gate, which invites a different reading. In Ukrainian, “DE TY” – two words – means: “Where are you?” It could almost serve as an alternative title for the exhibition, since it is dedicated to excavating a sense of place in time and history, and finding a way to recover, somehow, those things that have disappeared.