The particular contemporary art of catastrophe is the photograph. This has been true as long as the camera has been a tool for documentation, training its lens on war since the 19th century, and only made more prevalent in the information age.
Wolfgang Schwan’s portrait of Olena Kurilo, which the American photojournalist posted on Instagram on Feb. 25, has become one of the most ubiquitous pictures from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The picture shows the bandaged, bloodied face of Kurilo, a Ukrainian civilian and schoolteacher.
Photographs of people have the power to humanize conflict, but they also have the effect of absolving onlookers of responsibility by promoting a sense of helplessness.
“Civilians are often the ones who suffer the most,” Schwan told the Independent. “This is what happens when someone invades another country. It’s terrible to look at but it has to be taken, because otherwise it’s just going to be photos of guys with guns.”
I agree with Schwan’s assessment that terrible things ought to be recorded and looked at. But why weren’t satellite images of Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border as troubling as the face of Kurilo? Why is the imminence of violence easier to ignore than its aftermath?
Speaking to the trauma he experiences working in the midst of that violence, Schwan admitted, “When you have something terrible in front of you, and you have this little device you can put between you and what you’re seeing, that helps.”
Like Schwann’s camera, the photograph itself is also a little device that we place between ourselves and difficult realities. When we look at the photograph of troops on the border or the face of Kurilo, we feel a certain distance from these events that equalizes them. We may feel fear, anger and sadness, but we also get the sense that there’s nothing we can do, so we do nothing.
On April 14, the Guardian posted a video interview with a Ukrainian woman, standing outside her shelled apartment building in a suburb of Kyiv. “I have nothing,” she says. “Not even a photograph.”
What strikes me about this statement is how little documentation does for the victims it portrays. We have video footage and photos of these women, and many other individuals, to ease our collective conscience by making us feel that at least their plights are being recorded, while they have nothing.
Often, a single image will come to represent a conflict: the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém; a lone figure standing before a platoon of tanks in Tiananmen Square; the portrait of Kurilo. What these powerful, necessary images omit is that war also possesses many less sensational subtleties. The images also suggest that what we’re shown is somehow shocking, hasn’t happened before, is somehow worse than what happened yesterday, is happening today, but will happen again tomorrow.
In art and writing about war, there is always the feeling of coming to the subject too late. But what would preventative art look like, rather than responsive art? Or an art of activism, rather than an art of observation?
Some Ukrainian artists have joined in non-art protests and mutual aid, while the international art world’s response has been underwhelming. On March 5, New York-based Ukrainian artists dropped paper planes on visitors inside the Guggenheim Museum. Several international artists have pulled out of major exhibitions in Russia. The artists slated to represent Russia at the Venice Biennale both pulled out as a way of canceling Russia’s participation in the art fair. These mild statements might raise awareness (though is anyone unaware?), or somewhat impact the Russian economy, but they don’t actively aide Ukraine.
I think of the intrepid Susan Sontag staging Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” in Sarajevo in 1993, in the midst of the Bosnian genocide. By choosing to enter the warzone and posit art as a form of resistance, Sontag modeled a different kind of sensational response to a humanitarian crisis. She gave the people of Sarajevo the kind of hope that art delivers in the face of adversity: The reminder that beauty is possible despite — and in spite — of evil. Sometimes that beauty takes the form of joining someone in their fear and uncertainty: art as vigil, rather than observation. “Godot” is, after all, a play about waiting.
In 2008, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “Singing in a cage is possible and so is happiness … Tomorrow, we will remember that we left the canary / in a cage, alone / not singing to us / but to passing snipers.” I want to believe that art in dark times (though what times aren’t dark?), is capable of refuting that darkness just by existing. Perhaps, in this time of waiting, that promise of a song must be enough to see us through.
I want to believe that art can affect the context in which it exists but, writing this, I feel helpless: I feel the sense of arriving too late, the frustration of being unable to reach a solution, a certain vulgarity in grappling with the subject of war at all. But it is war that is vulgar, war that sullies anything it touches, and brings about a profound helplessness to which art and writing alone may not proffer a solution. What they do offer is the reminder that we need not be helpless alone. I’ll wait with you.
Max Blue is a San Francisco-based critic who writes about the visual arts and modern culture.