The Landscape as a Monument: Time, Space and Memory in the Geographies of Eastern Ukraine

Oleksandra Pogrebnyak and Dmytro Chepurnyi, Landscape As a Monument. Courtesy: IZOLYATSIA.

The landscape of Eastern Ukraine is typically visualised in the public imagination as a constellation of industrial mega-structures and mining towns, set in the arid, flat steppes and framed by several rivers. The region’s industrial history and its embeddedness in the Donets river coal basin even gave it its informal name, Donbas. But this history is fairly recent: the industrialisation of the mineral-rich steppe in Eastern Ukraine took place in the 19th and 20th centuries and came to define the densely populated, highly urbanised region of 3.5 million people for the rest of the country. But the industrial landscapes of Donbas coexist with the biodiversity of the steppe, the folds of the Donets Ridge and the salt of the Sea of Azov. There are layers of geological memory that were there long before humans arrived.

Today, this diverse landscape faces the “double challenges of de-industrialisation and military aggression.” In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, mining and other industries began to wither,1Hanna Shevtsova and Ohla Maslosh, “Structural and Technological Aspects of Neoindustrial Modernization of Donbas,” in Problems and Prospects of Territories’ Socio-Economic Development: Conference Proceedings of the 7th International Scientific Conference, 61-63 (Opole, 2018). leading to lack of jobs and economic flight. The conflict with Russia, which began in 2014 and saw large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied by Russian and pro-Russian forces, further added to the economic and social isolation of Donbas, depleting the meagre remaining industrial sites, displacing millions of local dwellers and threatening the environmental ecosystem. The landscape – geological, political, cultural, industrial – is in constant flux, from the melting of the glaciers thousands of years ago to the new contested territories ridden with old mines and overgrown vegetation, punctuated by new border checkpoints. How can we consider this landscape as a monument, something that we expect to always be there, unchanged and stable, despite the fact that it is constantly changing?

It is in response to these conditions and questions that the Landscape As a Monument art residency programme emerged in the summer of 2020. Organized by the Ukrainian IZOLYATSIA Platform for Cultural Initiatives, the programme brings together artists, curators, researchers and activists and focuses on the “revision of cultural landscapes, environmental history, human/nature dichotomy, industrial heritage and legacy.” Though the conceptual focus is on exploring the landscapes and themes of Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region, the programme is international in nature and seeks to raise broader questions about the Anthropocene and the interaction of human and nonhuman in the environmental, geological and evolutionary contexts. Other themes include histories of displacement, migration, war and catastrophes, commemoration, temporality and memory. These are explored through the processes of industrialization, modernization, and decommunization.

Tanya Lokot spoke to Oleksandra Pogrebnyak and Dmytro Chepurnyi, curators of the Landscape As a Monument, about the art residency programme, the broader themes it engages with and about some of the creative works and other outputs that have evolved from it.

Displacement

Founded in 2010 on the site of a former insulation factory in Donetsk, IZOLYATSIA takes its name from the original manufacturer. Since its displacement due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and its move to the capital, Kyiv, the cultural institution has achieved an almost mythological status.2In June 2014 the territory of IZOLYATSIA in Donetsk was seized by armed representatives of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. The foundation was forced to move to Kyiv, but has preserved its focus on the Donbas region. IZOLYATSIA has continued to focus on Eastern Ukraine, to support Ukrainian modern art and to feature marginalised voices and topics.

IZOLYATSIA’s former (Donetsk) and current (Kyiv) headquarters. ‘Dans les filets, la couleur’ installation by Daniel Buren, 2012 / ‘Remont’ Exhibition by Nadia Kaabi-Linke, 2012. Courtesy: IZOLYATSIA

How did the idea of the Landscape As a Monument project emerge? What were you inspired by?

Oleksandra Pogrebnyak: The artists in residency programme emerged as our curatorial commentary on the institutional conceptual direction of the IZOLYATSIA platform presented at the beginning of 2020.

Dmytro Chepurnyi: It is called Zazemlennya or Grounding and deals with the concept of the Anthropocene writ large, but also focuses on the Ukrainian context. Despite IZOLYATSIA’s displacement and move from Donetsk to Kyiv in 2014, our projects have always happened all over Ukraine, and we have always collaborated with international artists. And now, during quarantine, when everyone is online, we also had to change initial plans and hold our residency programme online, which proved to be quite a successful experience.

The theme of landscape as a monument was a sort of revelation to us from last year, when we also did a group residency, which is our speciality. A residency programme essentially provides space, resources and time to artists to create work and generate broad ideas, but also focus on specific topics. We came up with this concept as a continuation of the work we have been doing in our longstanding reading group, where we were looking at connections between art practices and their applications to the environment, commemoration, and ecology. These themes formed the foundation of the residency.

OP: In terms of the curatorial focus, we wanted to reflect on the concept of “grounding” as the organisation’s overall conceptual direction. In the spring we began a series of public discussions and talks with artists and curators that dealt with the relationship between the environment, landscapes, and ecology. So, this is the logical train of thought that led us to the residency programme in its current shape.

You describe the project as part of IZOLYATSIA’s new institutional concept of “grounding”, which reflects its history of being uprooted from the space that they were grounded in during the war. How did this displacement influence the residency project? It seems interesting that, having been displaced from its place of origin, IZOLYATSIA now focuses on grounding.

OP: In one sense, the idea of grounding demonstrates that IZOLYATSIA are adopting a course for return, and seeking to return to Donbas in both material terms (IZOLYATSIA are planning to open a regional office in the town of Soledar, in the Donetsk region) and conceptual terms, as we try to reckon with the different institutional experiences of mobility, displacement and relocation.

The resident artists who joined the project also had varying experiences: some of them knew little about Ukraine and only had secondary knowledge of the country. Everyone who applied for the residency asked us how these projects could be realised without the ability to do the field trip and visit the Donbas region – how do you explore all that when your art residency experience also becomes displaced and moves largely online? To address this, the focus of the residency is deliberately broad. First, we look at the cultural landscape and the environmental, non-human factors that shape it. Second, we think about the artworks and the exhibition, which is more local to the Donbas region: some of the artists were able to travel there in order to create their work, and spoke with local communities, industry workers, and miners. The third component is the reflections on IZOLYATSIA itself, our interest in the theme of return to Donbas and how this can be achieved under the current circumstances.

DC: This interest was always there for the institution, even when it moved to Kyiv. For a time, we had a project called Donbas Studies – I worked on it for three years as a curator. Donbas Studies collects relevant sources into a library: literary publications, humanities archives, monographs, travel guides, modern but also historical, published by local publishers about the Donbas region. This is a unique collection that currently has about 300-400 items. This catalogue is available and is part of our open reading room for the residents and partners, who have used it extensively when developing their artworks and ideas.

This focus on the regional, the provincial, and the local is our attempt to offer a critical outlook on these topics, including the asymmetries of knowledge available to different actors. Some of these topics are becoming popular in art circles, but for us it is also about our personal experience of the space we inhabit during the quarantine. For instance, I was interested in exploring gardening practices as an artistic practice and this is how one of the residency labs was born. Or the experience of solitude or isolation in a kind of wilderness – one of the projects we are curating right now, by Maria Pashkowa and Yaroslava Kovalchuk from Addenda Press, is called Kyiv Thickets. It’s a kind of travel guide that takes you through the lesser known and less trodden spaces of the city.

In terms of the structure of the residency, we saw it as an opportunity to facilitate collaborative work in four directions, reflected in the four labs: visual, sound, garden and curatorial. Within this structure, we were able to combine online elements of communication, events and collaboration such as slow reading and discussion of theoretical texts, discussions with mentors, workshops, iterative work on individual and group projects with a limited amount of offline activities such as exploratory walks at a safe distance, field work, excursions to Donbas industrial enterprises, and individual meetings with representatives of the local cultural scene and local communities.

The participants of the residency collective call. Courtesy: Ruslan Synhaewsky, IZOLYATSIA

OP: I might add that knowing that the residency was going online due to quarantine, we prolonged the term by an extra week and we took this week to get to know each other better via Zoom. We put a lot of emphasis on reflection sessions, scheduled three times a week in the mornings. For some participants from the UK, this was quite early, 8:30am, so we began the day together and had a focus for each meeting, but the main goal was to verbalize the experience received and to determine what was important to do together. These meetings with all residents also helped create the connections between labs, because in each lab artists could communicate more freely in small groups, but we thought it important to create conditions for collaboration between labs.

The results of the residency are group and individual curatorial, research and art projects meant to provoke development of discussion about the correlation of contemporary culture and the environment, politics, economy and to present new views on solutions of environmental problems. The participants of the residency are not only researching the local context through their practices, but also are exerting influence on the views of the communities involved on their own history, heritage, landscape and environment.

Grounding in the Anthropocene

The Landscape As a Monument project concept builds on Claire Colebrook’s idea of the enlargement of archives in the age of Anthropocene to include the Earth’s geological stratification3Stef Craps, Rick Crownshaw, Jennifer Wenzel, Rosanne Kennedy, Claire Colebrook, and Vin Nardizzi, “Memory studies and the Anthropocene: A roundtable,” Memory Studies 11, no. 4 (2018): 498-515. . At the same time, Tim Ingold4Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape,” World Archaeology 25, no. 2 (1993): 152-174 suggests imagining the landscape as a continually unfolding story, thus referring to it as both constantly in flux and monumentally still.

In the Anthropocene, landscapes thus become living archives, conduits of access to histories of both human and non-human activity. The geological layers of the Donbas landscape are best seen at a distance, but a close-up view can also be revealing. At the same time, the impact of the human forces on the landscape can perhaps be even more acutely felt when access to the landscape and its spaces is curtailed, whether by conflict or by the pandemic. Many of the works connected to Landscape As a Monument explore these themes in greater depth.

Tim Ingold stresses that while landscape remains in the same place, it is constantly changing. On the other hand, it has those qualities of a monument, which we think of as something man-made and static. How do the artists involved reconcile these?

DC: You can interpret the landscape differently, but we also speak of this dichotomy between history and evolution, this extra-human perspective of the landscape as a monument to something larger than human. For instance, the terricones or slag heaps that have become symbols of the Donbas landscape are connected to the mines and the work of the miners, but they all appeared during the industrial age, during the last 300 years. If you go further back before modern human history, back to the Carboniferous, you can imagine a much broader perspective. And this is something our artists have engaged with as well: what was once plants has become coal. This very simple thread of history is quite visible in the landscape. We were recently in Lysychansk (a town in Luhansk region), and a local historian Nikolay Lomako gave us a piece of fossilized wood from a local mine, basically a part of a tree, a failed coal of sorts, because it didn’t turn into coal due to the fact it was preserved in the wrong conditions, next to a bog. This coal and not-quite-coal also preserves a kind of memory, though one that is not anthropocenic, as Darya Tsymbalyuk argues in her article about the memory of coal.

View of the AZOT plant in Sievierodonetsk, Donbas, Ukraine, 2019. Photo: Darya Tsymbalyuk.

DC: The Landscape As a Monument title was in many ways inspired by this duality of the Donbas landscape, where the man-made mixes in with the natural in a very organic but powerful way. There is a place, on the right bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, when you step out onto a sort of observation deck near a restaurant: the space has been commercialised now, but it also offers insight into what is happening. And from the deck you see the Azot chemical plant and the city of Sievierodonetsk, and the plant occupies a quarter of the city. This landscape is on the one hand entirely industrial, and on the other, if you look past the industry, it’s green all over and the woods and nature are all around. And this is the landscape, both static and dynamic, its temporality, and its fleeting nature that we allude to in the residency concept.

How important was it for the project to bring together these ideas of human-made, urban, industrial spaces and the ideas of ecosystems – steppes, rivers, marine ones – and to examine this co-existence? Or the conflicts that take place between human-made and non-human?

OP: A number of artworks respond to these ideas emerging from the residency. One example is the second chapter of the project by Daryna Mamaisur, “A steppe with rabbits and pheasants running around, and where some even saw foxes”. It reflects on this complicated, ambivalent history. The title is a phrase that she spotted on Google Maps written by some of the locals about the Azov Steel Plant near the town of Mariupol in the Donetsk region. This artwork is about the nostalgia for a pre-industrial landscape. Volodymyr Kulikov, writing about the transformation of industrial landscapes of Donbas,5Volodymyr Kulikov, “Industrialization and Transformation of the Landscape in the Donbas Region (late 19th–early 20th century),” in Migration and Landscape Transformation: Changes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th Century, edited by Heidi Hein-Kircher and Martin Zückert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), 57-82. notes that this industrial landscape emerged quite recently. And where now people are nostalgic for industry, before they were nostalgic for nature. Archival research suggests that the first colonisers of Donetsk or the founders of Luhansk, when it emerged as a town around the metalwork plant, banned the workers from growing vegetable gardens. But this pull towards the land was always there, villagers came to urbanised spaces, brought their customs, and then those were eradicated. People are continuously nostalgic for these pasts: in the archives we can find a lot of recollections about this nature, steppes, forests, rivers, and how these are replaced by cities, urban structures, and industrial aesthetics. And the current generation seems to be nostalgic for both nature and industry; it’s a more general sense of nostalgia.

Your project brings together people who know more about the region and people who know next to nothing and have never been there. So it is also interesting to ask who has the right to be nostalgic and for what, and to decide what happens to the region next?

OP: In this context of exploring who is local and who is an outsider, and how memory and commemoration happen, I would mention the project which we just completed in Myrnohrad: the video work by Roman Himey and Yarema Malashchuk, “So They Won’t Say We Don’t Remember.” They are both from Kolomyia, in Western Ukraine. The work is part of our forthcoming exhibition, which includes works by both residency artists and invited artists.

DC: Why is this work interesting? Roman’s wife is from Myrnohrad, a mining town in Donbas, and her father was a miner. Roman went there to visit her family and saw a monument to three perished miners that was not by the road, but further out in the field. Roman thought this was quite strange: in Western Ukraine, such monuments are always by the road, and are very visible to passers-by. He found out that this was the place where the miners had been crushed to death in a mine underground, so in a way it reveals the underground landscape.

Myrnohrad is known for another big mining tragedy of the recent past, when a terricone (slagheap) at the 5/6 mine exploded due to a chemical reaction in the 1960s. This influenced the development of the urban areas around the mines, as the rules were changed about building too close to the terricones, which resulted in a great wave of relocation in the region. The explosion took the lives of between 18 to 60 people, according to different reports. It was a huge eruption. The locals compare it to Mount Vesuvius, and for them this has become a mythologised event passed down through generations, especially because it was kept secret by Soviet authorities at the time. It has accumulated these different mythical components: the lava flowing out, ash falling down, steam and dust. Two streets of a small village completely disappeared in the eruption.

So we came to Roman with this story and he told us about the monument. We began to work on the history of the mines in Myrnohrad. There is a notion of a landscape that leads to the appearance of a city – usually cities emerge on the banks of rivers, beside trade routes or major roads. But in Donbas, cities and towns such as Myrnohrad are born around mines, resulting in these suburban agglomerations. The Novator mine was a new, modern mine opened in the early 1950s (during the Stalin era), and it closed in 1977 after the tragedy. As they learned more about this abandoned mine, Roman and Yarema were interested in exposing the underground map of the city, according to which the city had grown. In European cities, there is usually a town hall that is the focus and the centre of the city, but in Myrnohrad this centre is hidden underground and is liable to disappear in the near future.

Novator Coal Mine, Myrnohrad, Ukraine. Courtesy: Dmytro Chepurnyi.

We joked darkly that the monument to the three miners who were buried underground was a performative act and that it would be apt to dig a deep pit in that space and to find the bones of the perished miners and rebury them. So the artists did something symbolically similar. We found a mine’s adit where the miners used to enter the mine and then spread out into the horizontal levels to work. From there, we took an overground walk following the route of the mine’s roadway.

The resulting artwork is a video of the journey. We walked for over an hour, maybe two, through the thickets, through the steppe, the overgrowth, through the miners’ district of the town. It was a difficult route. And it became a commemorative practice for all involved. We walked with school pupils, students, engineers, miners, teachers, local citizens – all invited at our request by two local activists. The work became a sort of delegated performance. It offers the view of the outsider artist on the city in contrast to the locals – where they find similarities and discrepancies, but they are people who can never get to the heart of things and are always making superficial observations about the region. The artists acknowledged this position before embarking on the project. When they were on location, it was very important to them to be precise in documenting what was happening and what they learned. Roman, one of the artists, said that in the end, this process became his own experience of the city, individual to him, as before he had only experienced it through his wife and her family. This time he was the local and was showing the mine and the city to us as visitors, and forming his own memories of the landscape, gaining ownership of the place, making it his own.

Novator’s Mine Overground Guided Walk, ‘So They Won’t Say We Don’t Remember’ by Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey, Myrnohrad, Ukraine. Courtesy: Artists, IZOLYATSIA.

World for Everyone and for Everything

Let’s talk about the exhibition. How is it connected to the project? And how did you imagine it at the outset, given all of the diverse activity happening in the residency labs, and what is it turning into now that it’s online?

OP: The main question we had to answer was would the exhibition be the outcome of the residency and showcase the variety of all the works, or would it be our separate curatorial statement that would develop the theme of the residency with a narrower focus on the Donbas region? We decided to go with the second option. The exhibition got a different name, and its concept is different from that of the residency, but led in part by the artworks.

The name came up when we drew the map of all of the works and saw the overall dramaturgy. We realised which groups and narrative lines were emerging, and how they connected and empowered one another. The exhibition is titled World for Everyone and for Everything. This title is based on the ideas of British anthropologist Tim Ingold. He became an important source for us, in particular his article “The Temporality of the Landscape” written in the 1990s.6Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape.” Ingold writes about landscape as a temporal structure, something that is very much a living thing. As we look at the landscape we also become a part of it. Our skin peels off from our bodies and turns into dust; carbon that we exhale grows into plants. This attempt to equalize the opposition between man and environment leads us to conclude that landscape is history that contains the living memory of all of its inhabitants.

DC: “World for everyone and for everything” is a paraphrase of Ingold’s understanding of a sustainable world and that we have to take into account the interests of everyone and everything to promote this idea of fullness, a comprehensive entity whose elements are in constant transition. And the title describes our idea of the abstract zooming-out from history and memory into the extra-human perspective – not just everyone, but also everything – the road, the landscape, the river. We see the landscape from a human perspective, so we see differently than birds, ants or fish. But there is also a macro view, both in terms of scale and in terms of time, and it also makes us reconsider how we conceive of our own existence.

OP: Tim Ingold actually joined the reading group during the residency and participated in our discussions about the theme of Landscape As a Monument. We thought it was fantastic. This was the first week of the residency in lockdown conditions, and we sharply felt the responsibility for everything as curators. To wake up to his email saying he would join us was very inspiring.

Tim Ingold, joining the residency reading group by Zoom. Courtesy: Ruslan Synhaewsky, IZOLYATSIA.

DC: Our reliance on online connections also allowed us to include an artist living in the currently occupied city of Donetsk. We usually don’t work with people based in occupied territories, as it is next to impossible due to all the restrictions. But to have him among the participants was important to us, and we were very lucky to have his input.

How did you approach the design of the exhibition?

OP: We deliberately worked with a designer and architect on the exhibition, even though it had to move online. This was a decision we made as curators, since the easiest thing to do online is to create a website where we could place links to the works and have some simple navigation to engage with them. But we felt it was necessary to think about it as a space, so we invited Dana Kosmina who is both an artist and an architect and she developed an exhibition format for us that would influence the experience of the viewer despite their inability to engage with the works in physical space. She proposed basing the exhibition on the zoomed-out, macro view concept. This gives a viewer a kind of Google Earth experience but on an unfamiliar planet where the projects of the artists would be represented as continents or land masses. You can zoom in, investigate them by turning the globe, and this also creates a certain unique landscape to traverse. It also offers the viewer an opportunity for personal experience when switching between works, as they can decide the order of viewing and develop their own route. Of course, we are also planning curated tours, but we felt it was important to give agency to the viewer.

When the exhibition opens, it will become a living thing, it will be a process and will look different day to day, with new stages of some works being added at various times.

If the exhibition is not a direct outcome of the Landscape As a Monument art residency, how do you see it extending its themes and the general aims and objectives of IZOLYATSIA?

DC: Olena Chervonyk, who was one of the first curators at IZOLYATSIA in 2012-2014, before the war, describes the task of the institution in Donetsk as “to show IZOLYATSIA’s audience a new way of existing, of being” in general – in the monofunctional town and landscape. You can go on a bike ride or collect trash. So our work is not just about art. And returning to the question of working with the place, the territory, it is always important to do this work that goes beyond creating art, that critically examines the issues a particular space or landscape is implicated in. But it works differently when the process is mediated, both through our online engagements and through the media used by the artists. By and large, culture and art can do little for people’s lives and circumstances here and now, but we can metaphorically show another life, that it’s possible to show another possibility, to engage in speculative art and speculate about the future. In the residency, we spoke a lot about speculation, of theorising about the future and what could be.

I’d say the Landscape As a Monument project (as well as the work of IZOLYATSIA) is marginal itself and works with marginal themes and audiences, addressing themes such as decolonisation, provincialisation, supporting those weaker narratives, highlighting something that seems routine and common-sense, but looking closely at its elements. In our design, we have arrived at this supply-chain, assembly-line approach when we explain, for instance, what landscapes are made of, their chemical and geological composition. Even with our residency merchandise, we draw attention to where and how it is made, its materiality. The vernacular landscape emerges in our artworks as well, with content sourced from social media and online maps, underscoring the low-brow, amateur nature of these sources. I wouldn’t call it decentralisation exactly, but Latour speaks of distributive connections where everyone connects to everyone and there is no centre. But this is a constant struggle, getting away from the centre and highlighting the provincial, the marginal.

“Terrazzo of the Central Railway Station in Kyiv” by Studio 12345678910. Courtesy: Artists, IZOLYATSIA.

OP: One of the art collectives taking part in our exhibition is Studio 12345678910. Their work is called “Terrazzo of the Central Railway Station in Kyiv” and it is exactly about this pull of centralisation: thousands of people arrive in Kyiv, and flow across the floor of the central railway station, which is created using the terrazzo technique where marble chips and other mineral elements are mixed, and this surface gets shaped unevenly by the wave of people, and in time some chips of stone resurface. This signifies temporality, a pull towards the capital and the flood of people stepping over the same place daily. And this initial mistake, these alien elements that are there from the very beginning – the element of surprise that this technique doesn’t work as intended – this is a thread that is visible throughout all of the works that are part of the exhibition. Many of them are speculative and look into the future, others look to the past and attempt to reengage it today. And all the artists are also reflecting on what can be said with certainty, and what remains uncertain in the current moment.

The exhibition World for Everyone and for Everything is available online now.

Notes

↑ 1. Hanna Shevtsova and Ohla Maslosh, “Structural and Technological Aspects of Neoindustrial Modernization of Donbas,” in Problems and Prospects of Territories’ Socio-Economic Development: Conference Proceedings of the 7th International Scientific Conference, 61-63 (Opole, 2018).
↑ 2. In June 2014 the territory of IZOLYATSIA in Donetsk was seized by armed representatives of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. The foundation was forced to move to Kyiv, but has preserved its focus on the Donbas region.
↑ 3. Stef Craps, Rick Crownshaw, Jennifer Wenzel, Rosanne Kennedy, Claire Colebrook, and Vin Nardizzi, “Memory studies and the Anthropocene: A roundtable,” Memory Studies 11, no. 4 (2018): 498-515.
↑ 4. Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape,” World Archaeology 25, no. 2 (1993): 152-174
↑ 5. Volodymyr Kulikov, “Industrialization and Transformation of the Landscape in the Donbas Region (late 19th–early 20th century),” in Migration and Landscape Transformation: Changes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th Century, edited by Heidi Hein-Kircher and Martin Zückert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), 57-82.
↑ 6. Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape.”

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