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Documenting the War in Ukraine, One Year Out

Written by Julia Brukx

March 14, 2023

A new, blink-and-you'll-miss-it exhibition has appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Just in time for the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the exhibition, titled "Who Holds Up the Sky," doesn't occupy one of the museum's traditional exhibition halls. Rather, it sits squarely in the welcome hall; reckoning with it is inevitable for anyone hoping to enter the museum. I found myself overwhelmed as I tried to take in the small exhibition, which shares its space with a host of other functions. A group of elementary age children paraded through, patrons asked receptionists for their best recommendations, a drawing class dotted the room. Whether it was a misguided effort to expose the exhibition to as many people as possible or a solution necessitated by a lack of space, this placement undermined the full experience of the exhibition.

A wall panel introduces the exhibit in English and Ukrainian. For a project that seemed so devoted to capturing the realities of war, I was a bit thrown off by how the introductory paragraph began. It frames Ukraine as calm and peaceful right up until the invasion, despite the fact that virtually the whole world knew it was coming, and were nearly placing bets on when Putin would finally invade. It was a time defined by fear and anticipation; it seems condescending to attempt to rewrite history to erase that fear.

The exhibit is composed of photographs by war journalists Vadym Belikov, Yana Kononova, Kostiantyn Polishchuk, and Efrem Lukatsky. Each has a distinct style of photography which emphasizes different aspects of war. Kononova's, which focuses on the materiality of the war, zooms in on black-and-white details of destruction. Her artistic choices imbue the pieces with a sense of universality–at first glance, it is not immediately clear that her subject is  present-day Ukraine. It could just as easily feature New York after 9/11, London in the midst of the Blitz, or France during the occupation. Modern warfare has changed dramatically in the last century, but Kononova’s photographs insist upon the fact that the realities of destruction remain the same. Though strikes may occur using drones rather than planes, the image of a rubbled home remains the same. Though updates may come from Twitter rather than from radio, the results of war still, ultimately, remain the same: refugees displaced from their homes and a sky that will never again look as it once did.

The exhibition also includes drawings by Inga Levi decorating the pillars of the entrance hall. They are presented in a style reminiscent of a comic book, with Ukrainian language captions. The drawings juxtapose war scenes with images of everyday life in Ukraine. For this article, I took a picture of one of the drawings which features a young woman photographing a building in front of her. The building's walls have cracks, but the sketch-y nature of the drawing prohibits clear interpretation over whether this is age- or war-based deterioration. In taking a picture of this drawing, it became clear that I was imitating its central subject. This parallel wasn’t lost on me. Were we both simply photographing something completely normal, like an old building or an art exhibit? Or were we both attempting to capture the incongruence of knowing there’s a war going on while normal life persists?

The title of the exhibition poses a question: who holds up the sky? If you are familiar with Greek mythology, there's a one-word answer to this: Atlas. The Titan condemned to hold up the sky has retained metaphorical associations with carrying unfair burdens, and is a popular subject in art. The MFA has a large depiction of Atlas by John Singer Sargent in its main hallway, commissioned by the museum in 1921. A 2020 exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum revealed the model for Sargent's Atlas paintings, a black elevator operator named Thomas McKeller. That exhibition, titled "Boston's Apollo," presented the thesis that the world's Atlases are overlooked but paramount, carrying undue burdens not because they want to, but because someone has to. In this exhibition, it's the artists who hold up the sky, making sure the world sees and remembers the realities of war, not because they want to, but because someone must.

The exhibition is designed to be able to be approached from either side, so that a visitor might begin anywhere and still gather understanding. Therefore, there is not a single narrative presented, but dozens based on the order in which you approach the works. Some parts may benefit from repeat viewing, going back to photographs and captions before and after viewing other works.

The comic strips are the only indication that the exhibition concerns a modern war, with specific denotations such as the aforementioned cell phone picture and graffiti that calls out Putin by name. This feels like a purposeful choice, as for many people across the world, the way we approach the war is distinctly modern. In the first few months, it was called the "TikTok War." While Russia still denied that they were even participating in a large-scale invasion, activists and influencers showed footage and photographs of tanks rolling through towns and Russian soldiers occupying cities. These clips raised awareness of the true scale of the war, and undermined Russian propaganda. President Zelenskyy's public persona, transmitted to the world via social media, had a huge impact on the view of the war in the world consciousness, and the way that other nations approached aid. Though social media may have had the quickest reaction, these war journalists are also creating the view of the war in the public consciousness on a much longer scale. Looking back over the past year, the exhibition asks the viewer to consider what images and impressions will ultimately shape the history of this moment.

Tucked away in a corner, the exhibition also features a project titled Behind Blue Eyes, wherein a pair of volunteers distributed cameras to children and teens and asked them to document their lives for a week. The resulting photographs were then paired with interviews asking the children about their dreams for the future. This project culminates in a simple thesis: that reality is complicated and that hope still exists amidst destruction. However, at the one year mark of the war, when it is slowly falling out of the news cycle, it helps to take another look and to remember just how much has changed.

The exhibition will be on view until May 21, 2023.

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