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‘I want to have amazing sex before the nuclear strike’: Ukrainians’ fears and desires go on show

<span>Dark times revisited … Defence of Sevastopol by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy (1991-92).</span><span>Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian</span>
Dark times revisited … Defence of Sevastopol by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy (1991-92).Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

‘I hope my ex has been killed by a rocket,” says one message. “I feel ashamed that I miss my cats more than my own dad,” writes somebody else. “I want to kill my father for his Soviet beliefs,” confesses a third. “I can’t wank,” confides one person. Another: “I wank every day.” And someone else: “I want to have amazing sex before the nuclear strike, but in two months, I haven’t had the emotional resources to even open Tinder.”

These intimate confessions are displayed on a wall of the Jam Factory, an elegant arts centre in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine that has, improbably, opened in the thick of Russia’s invasion. They are taken from a collection of anonymous wartime “secrets” that artist Bohdana Zaiats collated using an online Google form, and posted on Instagram. Each provides a fleeting insight into the most private, unsayable thoughts of Ukrainians reeling from the heartbreak and dislocation brought about by war.

It is one of the most fragile and vulnerable moments in the Jam Factory’s opening exhibition, titled Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us. The show – curated by Kateryna Iakovlenko, Natalia Matsenko and Borys Filonenko – zooms in on such raw emotion, bringing together works that express the tender quiddities of inner lives in ways that journalism or documentary cannot. But it also zooms out – on to a historical panorama stretching back as far as the 19th century, one that is frequently troubling, painful and complex.

You start with Crimea. Even before you step inside the exhibition, the ticket you are handed at the front desk is itself an artwork, titled I Have No Other Homeland But You. It was created by exiled Crimean Tatar designer Sevilya Nariman-qizi, who “had never been present in Ukrainian galleries, or had any connection with the art world”, says Iakovlenko – part of a history of exclusion that is now radically magnified for those Crimean Tatars, frequently labelled as Islamic extremists by the Russian authorities, who remain on the illegally occupied peninsula.

The curators know this grief firsthand. Iakovlenko lost her home to a direct hit during the invasion

Once inside the show, you are greeted by a panoramic work from 1991-92, made as Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union. Titled The Defence of Sevastopol, it is a suite of five paintings by Oleksandr Hnylytskyi and Oleg Holosiy. Its form and imagery allude to an earlier commemorative panorama of the 1854-55 Crimean war made by painter Franz Roubaud in 1904, itself much damaged in the second world war. Casting back to the 19th-century war is a pointed choice, given today’s traumatic situation. “This land was always desired,” says Iakovlenko of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. “It was always a red line in politics.”

The newer work abandons the historicist detail of Roubaud’s panorama, instead offering an uncannily blurred vision of a contested landscape that could be as readily set in the 1940s as the 1850s. But it turns out that some artists unknowingly paint the future when they paint the past. The Defence of Sevastopol could also be a painting of the annexation of 2014. Or, for that matter, of the Ukrainian battlefields of 2024. Such is art’s ability to collapse time.

What do we remember, what is the point of remembering, what is better forgotten? Katya Buchatska, whose work will feature in the Ukraine pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, considers how the land itself holds loss in a video work from 2023, This World Is Recording. As the camera pans over fields scarred with shell holes, one thinks of other voids, other empty spaces caused by the war – lives cut short, artistic work that will never be made, homes occupied or destroyed that can never be revisited. Such voids in survivors’ lives, paradoxically, do not feel like empty spaces, but are made of a grief that fills the body to choking. The curators know this firsthand. Iakovlenko lost her first home, in the Luhansk region, to occupation in 2014. She lost a later home, in Irpin near Kyiv, to a direct hit during the first months of the full-scale invasion in 2022.

Buchatska considers the role of memorials, which are often also intended as a warning. But remembering terrible events, she notes, is not always an effective safeguard against such things happening again. Buchatska’s work ends with the proposition that a garden might one day be planted over those pitted, wounded fields, rather than a traditional memorial – “so that we have something to lose”.

If the land holds the memory of trauma, so do stomachs and mouths. Open Group is a collective of Ukrainian artists who will represent the neighbouring country of Poland in this year’s biennale (a last-minute replacement, by the recently elected Polish government, for the conservative painter chosen by the previous, far-right administration). For their work Repeat After Me, they spent time in Lviv recording specific sounds of war, as vocalised by refugees who had fled the frontline.

The film begins with Svitlana, from the Luhansk region, imitating the sound of a Ka-52 Alligator – a new Russian attack helicopter designed to take out tanks and infrastructure. After offering a long, descending “tr-tr-tr”, Svitlana invites the audience to “repeat after me”: the work is in the form of karaoke. Antonina comes next, with the mournful, gut-clenching wail of the air raid siren, a sound that most people in western Europe know only through second world war movies. Iryna imitates a T-80 tank, while Boris, from Mariupol, mimics the sound of aerial bombing, a thin keening followed by resonating thunks. “Repeat after me, so you’ll remember,” he says, for these are memories that are historically important, and too much for just one person to contain.

Another work by Open Group consists of films of two Ukrainian women describing their abandoned homes – one lost during the second world war, another during the conflict with Russia that began in 2014. A faraway look of love comes over the faces of these elderly women as one recalls a particularly fruitful cherry tree in the garden, and the other recalls the precise angle of a poker that sat by the hearth that last warmed her in the 1940s. As the women talk, the artists draw and use computer imagery to “rebuild” the houses; the collective later literally rebuilt the houses as architectural models: the fleeting images of memory made solid.

Everything in this exhibition pulses with a sense of the power and limits of memory – some remembrances frantically, traumatically preserved, others hovering just out of reach, perhaps for ever lost. There is one tiny, unpretentious, pragmatically made image in the exhibition that was not even intended, at first, to be regarded as an artwork – not least because the artist, at the time he made it, was entirely focused on humanitarian volunteering. On one of the gallery walls is displayed a mobile phone. On its screen is a photo of a wooden fence bisected by a double gate. It was taken by Yaroslav Futymskyi, an artist with an interest in language, while he was helping with reconstruction in the northern region of Chernihiv, after its deoccupation early in the war.

On the gate is written “DETY”, the Russian for “children”. Such signs were commonly painted as an appeal for mercy to the approaching invaders. In this case, the letters are divided, two on each side of the gate, which invites a different reading. In Ukrainian, “DE TY” – two words – means: “Where are you?” It could almost serve as an alternative title for the exhibition, invested as it is in excavating a sense of place in time and history – and in finding a way to recover, somehow, those things that have gone.

Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us is at the Jam Factory, Lviv, Ukraine, until 10 March.