Letters from Ukraine: 27/07/2022 – Summertime Sadness

In her final dispatch at the conclusion of her time in Ukraine, Hellen Rose reflects on her performance "Armies of the Fallen," and the local communities whose stories informed her work.

March 2022 in Kyiv, when the city was empty except for soldiers and volunteers and the tall gothic buildings stood like frozen giants with empty-eyed windows staring mindlessly, I was invited unexpectedly to a gig with an all-female group called Folkulaka, who turn traditional Ukrainian folk songs into dark fairy-tales of werewolves and headless women who roam the streets at night. All proceeds were to go towards purchasing more medical vehicles, which the musicians would then use to drive to the front line delivering medical supplies and nurses. The gig started at 4:00 p.m. because of the curfew; I was surprised to see a sizeable audience attending. The crowd was made up of hardcore city-dwelling bohemian types, the stonewash jean wearers and suits had all fled. The sort of crowd you’d now see in Australia’s Newtown or Marrickville: artists, rock ‘n’ rollas, tattooed with coloured hair, dressed punk style or black metal, queer and straight alike, tougher uni students, intellectuals, sculling Jägermeister and Ukrainian vodka.

In the crowd was a young woman with long blue hair wearing camouflage  pants and carrying an AK-47 over her shoulder. She told me her parents were in the Euromaidan protests and that she had been training for this day since then at age fourteen, and she was now age twenty-one. I looked into her purposeful and driven young face willing to sacrifice her life if she must. She knows it’s not a game, as she saw her fellow citizens shot down in the Maidan Square by the Russian-influenced president at that time, Viktor Yanukovych. She didn’t want to be filmed or have her face seen. The Russians were occupying Borodyanka at this time. In the seventeenth-century cobbled courtyard beer garden, a dark-haired young man chatted to me, only eighteen, he described himself as a poet and currently employed as a bar man. His poet’s face, so handsome, and his quick-witted mind, he spoke perfect English as he told me he wasn’t “accepted to go to the front line, quite yet, in this round.” He seemed slightly humiliated by this and his apple-rose cheeks lightly flushed in the most boyishly handsome way, and I realised I was looking into every young soldiers face ever painted from European history to now, every valorous young man with his pretty brains blown out across the fields of nodding daffodils, century after century.

Other faces joined him in my mind, of the beautiful youths of the unnecessarily tough streets of South and West Sides of Chicago, hundreds of years, generation after generation struggling for freedom. The pretty girls’ faces of Afghanistan muffled behind veils – they were in miniskirts in Kabul in the sixties but the Russians came and lost, sending them back to the Dark Ages where they still dwell. The list of the fallen goes on and on backwards in time to the tribal battles of the Britons, the tribal wars of Indigenous Australia and the Maori, all of us human beings on this earth constantly at battle with the enemy “other” who is always after all “us” . . .

The colours of the Ukrainian flag, the beautiful blue and yellow, I feel, are more like an elegant woman’s scarf – so many  of them proudly billowing, flowing, fluttering in the spring breezes now in the streets of Kyiv, no crest, no emblem, just a kind of cornflower blue and wheat-field yellow, rural, peaceful, bountiful as the spring equinox.

The pre-Christian celebrations of Europe were filled with magical beliefs of fertility and harvest, spring being the catalyst and peak moment that nurtures life itself and keeps it rolling on after the harsh, destructive winter months. Putin’s destruction happened just after Christmas and New Year. The wreaths and decorations are still up on doors of empty buildings, covered in collected months of dust and abandoned by those who have escaped the city. Many decorations and toys had hardly been played with by the children before Putin ripped them from their innocent joyous hands and scattered them amidst the rubble of their bombed homes.

The post-WWII Austrian artists, the Viennese Aktionismus believed that the monstrous Nazi killers were not “monsters” but human beings, their kinsmen and women. They hoped that the staged performance space, the gallery, the theatres, and even the streets were places where this “horror” that is within humanity could be explored and understood at last, without damaging anyone – a type of shock therapy.

Hermann Nitsch died 14 April of this year, 2022, amidst new carnage of Putin’s mass-murderous rampages. The Estonian demonstrations in the capital Tallinn, which saw around eighty women stand in the street in blood-soaked underwear, were also emulated by Lithuanian women who stood outside the Russian embassy in blood-soaked panties, shirts, hands tied behind their backs, sacks over their heads as a demonstration against the rape victims of Bucha. The same Lithuanian group of female artists/journalists, NARA, dyed the actual lake outside the embassy red so that it resembled a sea of blood, and arranged for a female Ukrainian Olympic swimmer to swim through it. It was a powerful protest that was meant to shock and horrify, and bring the reality of the carnage to those who committed it.

“Even blood is what it is: it is blood and not a symbol at all, and in its reality it is almost above the symbol.” 
― Hermann Nitsch

My performance titled The Armies of the Fallen – (Invocation and Defiance) will be the opposite visually; however, I would like to try and create a sense of beauty, power, happiness as well as shock and surprise. I want my persona to be an ancient spirit of spring rebirth, spreading the beauteous colours of yellow and blue, pouring paint from the glass skulls, an entity who will never be destroyed or muted or deterred from the centuries of fighting for freedom. Just as with the end of winter, the end of destruction is always inevitable – and just as the flowers will keep blooming even on the streets where the blanket bombing took place, Mariupol crushed to rubble, out of the burned, scorched earth sprouts a single blade of grass and then more rise, more and more until the destruction is covered like an ancient hidden relic of the past.

When in Odessa we were living across from a huge fabric store that had a large advertisement of a beautiful young woman on the wall covered in the blue and yellow flag. As I developed this work, this image rolled over in my mind – I went into the shop and found the most wonderful blue and yellow traditional flower print material, and I bought twenty meters of it. My initial idea was to appear in the costume and pour the blue and yellow paint out of glass skulls, over a destroyed “Punisher Palace.” This was named by George, and was a place where the Russian occupiers tortured and raped the people of Borodyanka, dispelling their atrocities, recycling their detritus like nature and growing flowers once again from the compost. 

When we arrived in Ukraine most people who were not in the direct line of fire were watching The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, after the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, first published in July 1952 and based on themes of the corrupting effect of power that turns to evil. Tolkien fought in the trenches of WW1, and his trilogy was written while the Nazis ravaged Europe. In Peter Jackson’s films, it is “the Army of the Dead,” the “oath breakers,” doomed to a life of purgatory, who save the day at the last moment, just by their sheer numbers and their ghoulish frightfulness; the Orcs and hordes of other monstrous killers are laid to waste at last. Peter Jackson didn’t want to include them as he felt they were just too unbelievable. However, the sense of relief everyone felt when they at last conquered the Orcs was profound. Most Ukrainians who were watching these films did so with the sound of bombs falling, and one atrocity after another being reported and witnessed. I have realised that Netflix and other online VOD platforms are a worldwide uniting link – people in Afghanistan, here in Ukraine, and Chicago’s South Side are all watching Peaky Blinders, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, especially during Covid lockdowns.

George started working with the Odessan Poet Viktor Solodchuck, and they discussed the Tolkien trilogy many times and decided to name their collaborative work Z the Defiler, after Sauron, the head of the Orcs. 

I started to develop the concept of”the armies of the fallen,” who would be manifold in numbers – sadly an army of all those fallen fighting for freedom, not “oath breakers” but “oath keepers” who gave their lives in Ukraine over centuries and then further afield. This visionary army, I believe, would be formidable. They have what we in Australia call “unfinished business” going back hundreds of years – so many killed, striving to keep their freedom and culture separate from generations of oppressive Russian autocracy.

Once back in Kyiv, we saw that many people had returned in the weeks we had been in Odessa, and shops had started to open. I wanted to find a cheap tailor to start building the “wearable performance icon.” I noticed a tailor was open just around the corner from us and I went in. Once inside I realised it was a very upmarket bespoke tailor’s shop, ostensibly creating haute couture for men. That is when I met Tim. “I can make this for 200 UAH.” “What? That is so cheap!” “Yes, but you are doing this for Ukraine.” We both started to well up with tears and began a dual mission to work on this together. “I feel like I’m doing something with my work that I love, to help” said Tim. I have also designed a headpiece for my “performance entity” and working with a local creator of traditional Ukrainian floral head crowns. The artist Ave has created the most beautiful set of six blue wings that go down the headpiece like an ancient Greek helmet or a mohawk, even reminiscent of an Australian cockatoo. We are finding that our engagement as artists with other artists here has a language that we as artists all know, and the actual creation, collaboration, and execution of the work is an extraordinary process that aims invisible golden arrows of energy towards ending this war. I have written several songs here that I am recording long distance with my band Soul Crime, but I thought it would be great to have Viktor Solodchuck write a poem in Ukrainian that is a type of “spell,” fitting with the ancient tribal magic/ritual of my people of Europe and with the traditions and direct connections here in Ukraine.

I will also sing “Je Crios Entendre Encore” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fisher. It’s a song for Leila, a priestess who has a long veil. In the opera, her job is to sing and pray all night to calm the demons of the deep and to ward off the spirits of the storm. The song is so beautiful and has the ancient timbre of a “love spell,” something beautiful to fill the air with hope. I have begun to think more and more about the traditions of our ancestors, and the innocence before the “Enlightenment” of the scientific revolutions that saw the diminishment of our “old ways.” How ironic it was that The Lord of the Rings, based on Western folklore with all its mysticism and magic, scoffed at by science and demonised by the newer Christian-based religions, was the main thing bringing psychological comfort to the brave Ukrainians facing down a possible WWIII.

The Armies of The Fallen performance manifests and invokes a semi-familiar “character” who will rise defiant from the burned ashes of grand pianos, burnt children’s ballet dresses, and destroyed antiquities with the rising tulips and blooming peonies and roses of spring, emerging from the rubble and singing an ancient spell to remind the world that freedom and beauty will always rise and rise again. This spell/prayer is an attempt to fill the air with vesnianky-hahilky type magic and hope once again. There are clear reminders here that mother nature herself is also in the sights of war mongers, who quietly spend the money of the poor building their private “Doomsday” planes.

Performance Day, 17 June 

I arrive at the Blue and Yellow House, Irpin, after midday to catch the afternoon gilded light that beams in through the blown-out windows that gape obscenely like smashed, toothed maws of burnt corpses – illuminating  ash dust particles, floating in their slow, curlicued rolling patterns, with the very slight movements of spring breezes. The strangest thing is that the entire place was burned to cinders except for the large dressing room and dance studio upstairs. The row of little lockers melted and buckled, with singed little girls’ ballet shoes still in some of them, is just outside the door. The windows are all smashed, but the large glass mirror isn’t even cracked! 

I made this the space where I got changed and prepared. 

The beautiful wings that Ave made for me, and the bodysuit that Tim Fain created, fitted without drama. I decide to create the train by just tying the material at my waist, which fell like a twenties-style cinched-knot gown. I’m visited by a bunch of pigeons who coo and cluck on the windowsill, as well as the most beautiful bird who sings like a tiny bell ringing, a bit like our Australian bellbirds. When spring first came to Kyiv, it was this bird that was the first nature sound I heard between the sound of bombs falling – such ironic contrast. I apply my face paint using water from bottles, and I’ve managed to sweep most of the broken glass from the windows aside. We all wear substantial footwear as every space of floor is covered in broken shards, but today I will be in bare feet for my performance. I know the floor so well by now that I feel confident I know where to tread to avoid snags. Everything in the main building was burned with such ferocious heat that the ashes of every imaginable piece of theatre furniture, fixture, and exhibit are piled like crematorium remains. The ashes are soft and cushion one’s tread, however there are odd bits of wire and melted glass – bits like oyster shells in mud flats, hidden. Every performer knows that when they are fully focussed and consumed by their character, superhuman abilities arise to almost levitate, feel no pain, dance across hot coals, tiptoe between the raindrops.

Every movement roused grey clouds of the fine ash that rose like a heavy smoke, then settled over all in its fall: over me, my hair, face, George filming, the cameras. I felt I was entering a portal through the ashes to a twilight world, where those on the brink of death and those who are the undead dwell. I could almost feel their feather-light hands reaching to me in solidarity, begging me to hold on, telling me they will fight until the last shadows of their ghosts fade into infinity.

Kiss me hard before you go
Summertime sadness
I just wanted you to know
That baby, you the best . . .

“Summertime Sadness,” a song by Lana Del Rey, seems to fit perfectly for this generation of Ukrainians. The whole album plays in a roadside diner me and Kate, our young assistant, are sitting in for a coffee break while on the way to Irpin. Kate nods with a half grin to hear me say the lyrics kill me. One song to make me cry always: the faces of the Ukrainian soldiers and their partners merge momentarily with the memory vision of my best friend at twenty-one – with her tear-filled eyes staring into mine – who committed suicide. All past nightmares fall by the wayside with the immediacy of survival as life takes on another role, yet both George and I are having  difficult nights where we awake with bad memories, all the traumas past, presenting themselves like some kind of slow-motion parade of “seeing our lives pass before our eyes.” Dragged out and episodic, we stuff them back down into the deep archives of our subconsciousnesses and face the day anew with our dear friends, all of us, living.

The Victory show attracted many locals as well as those who’d seen the advertising by the council. Two young women were travelling by on a bus and saw us working, hanging the show, and actually got off the bus to help us. We also attracted another local, Alex, whose wife is an artist but has gone to Amsterdam, like a million other refugees, for safety. Alex lovingly put her work on display, including it on the burned and bombed walls of the House of Art. Wonderful floral impressionist works with hidden skulls merged with the flowers, they felt like a manifestation of my performance in some ways. Olga, around twenty-one, was one of the young women who stepped off the bus to help us and worked every day to the end of the show and helped us bump out.

It’s been a very different experience for us than for locals who are still just now returning. They left their beautiful neighbourhoods to return to this level of destruction, and many are in shock. For us, we were not here before the destruction so we did not suffer the same type of shock; we were here while it was going on, seeing the dead, the fresh damage. Shocking and sickening as that was, we were spared familiarity and can go back to our home in Australia intact. Many people now are living in their destroyed houses in one standing room, and making a fire to cook on in their yards. These are people who work in offices in the city or in Irpin in the new upcoming ET sector, Ukraine’s Silicone Valley.

Olga introduced me to a small group of teenaged girls from Bucha, just up the road, who were attracted to our exhibition. They told us they hid throughout the occupation – they feared for their lives every second of the day and had no food for a week, and actually ate grass. They had a backyard basement that was totally underground and was like a hidden bomb shelter. They put gardening things over the door in the ground – it was pure random luck they were not bombed or found. One of the girls said that many times the Russians walked around their yard and house stealing everything they could, and that machine-gun fire pummelled their home. They would sneak out at night like animals searching for food, finding the scattered Russian lunch packages on the ground from the ones killed by the Ukrainian army. The father, very sadly, had to quietly put down their family dog, who could not stop barking at the invaders. Their whole family survived frozen in fear, hardly daring to breathe. They thanked us for the show – the oldest girl, grasping my hand, told me she used to perform in the House of Culture with the school choir. She said she was shocked when she and her family emerged from their bunker to see the level of destruction all around them – she said her mother cannot speak. She thanked us for putting on the show; she couldn’t believe it was real and she hugged me and thanked me.

Later in the afternoon, I was left to mind the gallery while George took all our helpers to lunch in a nearby café that has quickly restored itself. A group of three little children appeared, laughing and in a silly giddy mood, the little boy started to punch the caricature images of Putin that George bought in Odessa, by Staro Bazarnyi. The three of them spoke quite good English and started to question me about who I am etc. When I told them I was Australian, they looked so surprised. They see Australia as far, far away, and I guess we are. I told them that I was here creating art to fight the lies of Putin and that all the children in Australia say that the children of Ukraine are the bravest children in the world, and they send them love and solidarity. They smiled and thanked me. The littlest, cheekiest girl ran off and then returned with a small bunch of tiny daisies and handed them to me, then reached her little arms up to hug me. This instigated hugs from the other little girl and even the little boy as well. I smiled and waved as I watched them run off joyously again across the street, wondering which of the bombed houses was theirs, and what conditions they going home to.

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related