When Ukraine became mired in conflict with Russian-backed rebels in March 2014, thousands of volunteers trekked to Eastern Ukraine to defend their land. The historic significance and iconic status of Ilya Repin’s painting, were brought back to life by Ukrainian soldiers then fighting in the Donbas region. They spontaneously recreated the scene at their barracks and the footage was captured by Babylon’13, a fantastic group of Ukrainian cinematographers who shared their footage with me to recreate this tableaux.
“O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil's kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can't slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we've no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother“
The above is excerpt from a 17h century letter written by Zaporozhian Cossacks (inhabitants of modern day Ukraine) to the Turkish Sultan in response to his demands to surrender or face annihilation. Ilya Repin (an iconic Russo-Ukrainian 19th century painter) reimagined the historic moment of the Ottoman Empire’s campaign to expand through the painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, depicting the soldiers crafting their letter replying to imperialist demands.
When the newly founded Ukrainian government became mired in conflict with Russian-backed rebels in March 2014, thousands of volunteers trekked to Eastern Ukraine to defend their land. The historic significance and iconic status of Repin’s painting, were brought back to life by Ukrainian soldiers currently fighting in the Donbas region who spontaneously recreated the scene at their barracks which was captured by Babylon’13 (a fantastic group of Ukrainian cinematographers).
When I came across the video footage of the reenactment of Repin’s Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, I was inspired to paint a contemporary variation of the tableaux. The resulting painting, Letter to the Tzar, questions notions of reality within the information war where Ukrainians nearly lost their country. The inversion of the clothing and weapons of the volunteer soldiers into its photographic negative is a metaphor for the skewed, mediated, and disinformed reality, orchestrated by decision makers behind closed doors, in which we citizens often find ourselves. The background seamlessly merges from what at first appears to be a normal pastoral scene of some tree on the left, into an army night vision viewing filter on the right referencing the militarization of civilian population to serve the needs and goals of the ruling class. I often wonder if we are all child soldiers on the inside...
In the middle of the background, patches of a flat green screen color appear underneath the foliage alluding to a chroma key technique (in film and video, chroma key allows moving subjects to be separated from their environment and superimposed onto an entirely different scene). By painting vantage points of reality in the same picture I hope to shine a light on the confusion and chaos experienced by individuals. Conflicting narratives of patriotism and conspiracy as amplified in mass media where agents of a power struggle to shape the narrative of unfolding events. Painting the flesh of the soldiers in this way emphasizes their humanity and speaks to the conflated hyper reality we find ourselves in amidst information wars. It is as if Alice has ceased to be able to tell which side of the looking glass leads to salvation or confusion any longer.
Through this visual language I propose certain questions of the viewers: How can we know what is happening in the world elsewhere? Could we ever trust stories and rumours of what has happened knowing that all reports are mediated, if not due to malicious intent than simply because no account can escape subjectivity? Once we receive these reports could we trust our own critical faculties to parse through the information to understand the events? Perhaps most sinisterly, are we already too preconditioned to believe certain truths as reality?Whatever the outcome of your search, I invite you to consider the veils that cover your reality.“
"We see things not as they are,
We see things as we are.”