I Live in a Bombed Apartment Block in Borodyanka

Spending time filming George painting on a wall of a destroyed apartment block in Borodyanka today was like sitting still in a forest as creatures gradually start emerging quietly everywhere. However, the spring flowers here are blooming in a tortured forest of burned monolithic giants, towering totems of torched horror, smattered with occasional blossoms. It is now a place some people have had no choice but to return to.

A year on, and slowly many of these apartment blocks that were too condemned to live in have been demolished, and the hills of rubble around them carted away. The apartment that the little girl’s white party dress featured in several of George’s paintings, belonged to, has now been completely destroyed, and entirely gone, leaving a flat bed of dirt. The little white dress had been desperately hung in the window by the mother, as a type of surrender flag, while the Russian soldiers roared in a terrifying screeching metallic attack with tanks firing into the high-rise blocks all around. The little white dress fluttered in the hope that the soldiers would realise children were in the apartment block and not fire rockets into them. The little dress was no deterrent, and when we found it, it was covered in soot, and dirt, and flapping carelessly, wildly, in the elements, still hanging on the window, all alone, a month after the Russians retreated, and the families, and children were murdered in their homes. However, many buildings still remain in varied states of slow collapse, it is among these that we found ourselves surrounded by today.

The song I have been working on to accompany my new performance piece is Olim Lacus Colueram “Once I lived on Lakes” never seemed so appropriate. The song was actually originally a poem written by an unknown author and unearthed in 1803 at a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria believed to be a window of the souls of the Medieval Goliard priesthood in the twelfth/thirteenth century and turned into a song in the Opera Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. The song is in the voice of a beautiful white swan that has been killed, roasted, and devoured by greedy, callous, and thoughtless humanity. I translated the original Latin into English, and the swan laments that she once lived on lakes, and was beautiful. The chorus cries, “misery me, now I am burning and roasting furiously,” and the last stanza goes, “Now I lie on a plate, I cannot fly anymore, I see bared teeth.”  My performance is about the destruction of beauty because of greed. It is as if the grabbing hands of slavish greed choke the very thing that they coveted in the first place. This piece titled “Enlaced,” the costume for the piece is all lace purchased in Salem from instructions in a dream/nightmare before heading back to Kyiv.

The word lace is from Middle English, from Old French las, noose, string, from Vulgar Latin *laceum, from Latin laqueus, noose; probably akin to lacere, to entice or ensnare.
The first trace of the use of lace in a liturgical context was found in the Egyptian sarcophagus. The Mummy was laced in gold.

We set up to film, and slowly I realised that the people around had not arrived on a visit to see the Banksy artwork, or to see George paint his portrait of as a monster. They were not stopping for a green moment in the park, but were actually living back in these buildings, spending most of the day in the thin Spring sun, in the little remaining garden areas that had fought their way back to life, up out of the rubble in random areas missed by the scorched earth policy of Putin and his henchmen, green shoots popping up along the edges of bomb craters and around rubble piles.

As I filmed one of the destroyed buildings a father, and daughter walked casually, hand in hand into the blackened, and blasted front entrance of one of the apartment blocks. I watched them ascend the central stairwell through the blown-out windows as they climbed the floors, casually in a daily routine. I realised that one of the apartments had plastic nailed to the windows, I saw the pair walk in with their shopping bags, the mothers’ arms reached out the doorway. These cavernous, cadaverous, colossi with incinerated gaping mouths, and eyes now had a little flickering light of hope within their monstrous appearance, a little flame heart of faith illuminating from a kerosene lamp in the darkest nights, barely visible, but undeniably there flickering through a hardy, packing plastic covered window. A little family huddles.

Out the front near a giant crater blast in the ground two young boys patted a large woolly dog with thick black fur and little caramel-coloured ears, one flopped down in the cutest way and little caramel rings around searching black eyes. Suddenly it found a boot in the still remaining mounds of ejected human “personal belongings” now decomposing under dirt a year on after the occupation. The dog trotted along with it purposefully; it pranced along around the parkland area as if trying to find his master to deliver his slippers. After covering most of the area around the children’s playground, and the areas between the disintegrating buildings, gradually he abandoned the idea and lay down in the grass. The boys patted him again and then he jumped up, and made his way towards me; he suddenly pushed himself into me like a cat, when I put my hand down to pat him he flinched, startled, like I have never experienced from a dog. I rubbed him, and cooed as he pushed into me as if needing a full hugging embrace. He suddenly play bit me on the leg and I realised it seemed a little crazed; the boys saw this and came over to pull him away from me, patting him. The dog kept doing the rounds of the inhabitants of the garden, once pampered a beloved family pet. He was quite fat, and I realised that although no one lay claim to him that everyone gave him food, and everyone paid him a little attention, but still his true owners were not to be found. He searched every face round and round the grounds everyday – alas.

The two little boys close to maybe nine to eleven years old, were not like ordinary boys of that age; full of sly looks, and mischief, yelling, and riding bikes in daredevil tricks, they were quiet, pale as if they had both seen ghosts, in a permanent kind of resigned shock. They smiled when they saw George’s ugly monster version of Putin with his hideous foot in the mouth of its underling, representing the gagging of the Russian population. They got out iPhones, and watched the steady progress of George’s brush strokes unnaturally quietly as if drugged. There is no electricity, or TV; no Netflix, and video games. Many friends of these boys were killed, burned alive, or crushed under cement slabs; or became permanent refugees, leaving everything behind including their dog or cat as they fled as the rockets fire, and bullets ricochet all around them. So they saw their mothers screaming and their fathers go pale or go to the front line with their elder brothers, never to return, or return disfigured with limbs missing or minds blown or healed somehow and ready to head back to the front line once more. They forbearingly contemplate their own destinies.

A group of women sat in the little park on a small children’s roundabout in the filtered sunshine. At first glance I somehow registered this sight as just people out getting some sun where they could, who decided to stop in a park, even if it’s under the shadow of the blasted bullet riddled apartments to warm themselves. A middle aged woman, with a cream coloured wool beanie with some kind of appliqué flower on the front of it that was crumpled and old, came marching over to us. She looked up to us anxiously, and rattled off a rant in Ukrainian, her icy blue eyes filled with disturbance, we smiled, and I reached out to her and said English, sorry, our assistant Kate came running over and listened to her. She told us she was concerned that if George painted on the wall of the destroyed building that the council wouldn’t rebuild their homes, that the counsel would instead memorialise the artworks. The idea that council  could rebuild is another cruelly broken dream; her home now sadly is totally hazardous. These apartments are at least 20 stories high with huge gaping wounds, refrigerator, dining tables and chairs, cupboards full of clothes on every floor upwards spilled like guts hanging out from a medieval etching of the Spanish inquisition. Now a year on since the initial bombing, the stink of leaking gasses, burned things putrefying, exposed, flapping in wind and rain, huge slabs of cement hanging from metal girders with clothes ensnared on ugly jags. Somehow this woman sees this as home, hopes to have her home back that has been so diabolically taken from her by Putin, and his henchmen.  The apartments will eventually be demolished completely and rebuilt. The woman looks like so many women from Russian novels, kind of burly, but averaged height, and wearing outmoded trousers and jumpers possibly from refugee handouts. She goes back to the roundabout, with her mind changed about the artworks going up. If they can keep the world thinking about her and her friends then that must be a good thing. She tromped back to the roundabout in a bustling kind of manner; “equal rights for workers” airs about her in that particular way that anyone whose childhood was spent living under communism might have emitted through assertive gesture, and upright, stout posture.

There is an understanding between the new and older generations of Ukraine, the older generation of “workers” now realise they were duped, they know their minds were programmed, and they want differently for their grandchildren, and children. The Gen Y are almost aliens to them with their computers, bit coin fortunes of new money, and TikTok, Instagram realities. This new reality has brought them all out of poverty, and although these destroyed apartments were always modest, they had private bathrooms, and a kitchen that they didn’t have to share with five other families. They had new electric cars, and iPads for the kids in school! She never wanted the clock turned back to Soviet times ever.

She sat with the other women, and they rotated slightly back and forth on the remaining round about. This was the centre where the small community of those who had moved back into these apartments gathered, a slightly buckled children’s carousel. Their demeanour now calmed as they chatted among each other watching on while George painted, and Kate and I filmed. A couple of hours went by and suddenly I noticed they had all moved to a worn looking rainbow painted park bench right at the side of the entrance ways that had somehow stayed intact where it has always been pre the destruction of their homes. They sat three in a row, without talking, with arms crossed as if defiantly refusing to budge. I realised they were there, as a matter of routine when the sun no longer shone on the children’s roundabout. They caught the last rays in that spot as they had done possibly for decades.

As the sun finally moved to an angle that couldn’t find its way around the shadow cast from the giant blackened carcass of a building, the women finally moved into the burned doorway, and up through the carbonised stairwell. Seeking out their only shelter, their once humble apartment homes are now a double mockery of their lifetimes of personal sacrifice. The fumes of leaking refrigerators exposed, burned matter, rained on, snowed on, soaked, and then dried last summer, still rotting a year on, started to make my eyes water, and my throat seize. There was a refrigerator on every floor, unreachable, chord hanging, and rattling in the wind; the plastic on the windows slamming, and straining against their tethers as the wind started to howl, and slap these plastic sheets like drum skins.

Most people had returned to their homes if there was one room still with a roof over. They sifted through the remains of their lives finding a saucepan, or plate that wasn’t completely destroyed. One home we visited just out of Kyiv in Lukyanivka, the father pulled out a bizarre, melted metal conglomerate of all their cooking pans that they had somehow melted together into one big blob. He laughed as he picked the entire lump up with a protruding pan handle to show me – it was the only way he could cope with the moment. I imagined the women alone in the singed, and dilapidated remains of their apartments: little kerosine heaters, oil lamps, the fumes of the burning fossil fuels giving off a stream of acrid black smoke to add to the rest; huddled under too many blankets. At least they had some remnants of some of their life’s history around them, dreaming that their houses wouldn’t be knocked down, somewhere deep down knowing that they had to be,  also knowing that their meagre insurance didn’t include “destruction by invasion” on their policies. For now they were huddled in a dark corner of their new realities, they reach out with their work worn hands from under the blankets to turn off the little kerosine lamp, and Putin the richest man in the world, and his henchmen smile . . .

I knew I had to revisit these areas from our first residency in March of 2022 under Russian occupation, these locations are the giant wounds inflicted upon the thing which Putin covets, the beauty and wealth of Ukraine. The older people lived in these apartment blocks, but their children spent newfound money on freestanding houses in newly built villages of Irpin (Ukraine’s Silicone Valley), and Bucha (like Australia’s Bowral or Mosman), and new estates in Borodyanka. These were all pillaged, and blown apart, as well. Any land gained by the Russians is now a waste land a literal quagmire of destroyed buildings, and forest habitats with completely decimated infrastructures, and will be incredibly expensive to rebuild. Like a strangled swan, burned, and cooked, and served to Putin on a silver plate.

Written on second residency of filming in Ukraine April 28th, 2023, with partner George Gittoes

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