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Discourse of Trauma as a Source for 'Cruel Optimism' in Visual Projects of the Artists in Wartime Ukraine (2013-2023)

Project leader:
Lesia Smyrna (IKW)

4 years

Funded by:
FWF – Austrian Science Fund | Elise Richter (10.55776/V1034)

FWF | Elise Richter Fellow
Lesia Smyrna, Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies
Duration: 1.3.2024 – 29.2.2028

"Discourse of Trauma as a Source for 'Cruel Optimism' in Visual Projects of the Artists in Wartime Ukraine (2013-2023)" is a research project that examines the issue of postcolonial transformation of visual art in Ukraine and the representation of images, plots, themes, and motives that emerged in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The project reveals the configurations of overcoming the fear of encountering the unknown and catastrophic, and the emergence of resistance, a narrative of resilience to the colonial past. Forms of struggle against rashism have been eventually manifested in visual practices that become a factor in the consolidation of the "complex we" (Marisol de la Cadena), and artistic reflections on the war, according to the theory of US scholar Lauren Berlant, acquire signs of "cruel optimism" as a tool for overcoming the negative consequences of the war caused by russian aggression and as a motivator for creating a vision of Ukraine's future.

The project explores in depth how total destruction, pain, suffering, psychological trauma, an acute sense of instability and threat to the surrounding space, intensification of death motives and liminal states, as well as other key concepts that define the psychosocial landscape of the war in Ukraine, become an essential part of the narrative in which these concepts find impetus for transformation in the paradigm of "optimism" and the establishment of resistance through artistic reflection and visual practices. The study considers them as forms of creating an alternative reality. It is a model for overcoming suffering and pain, despair and fear of death, which are present in the dimension of instability and possible destruction of the future.

The project will analyse the categories of psychological temporality (loss of security, destruction of the archetype of home, remoteness or, conversely, proximity to the epicentre of hostilities), epistemology (structures of consciousness in a war situation, the life-world of war), grammar (forms of representation) and affect (sensuality). 
The artists are united by a common trauma caused by the invasion of their lives by the enemy. The project explores whether they have experienced forced displacement and how the change of borders and demographics affects their artistic pursuits; what psycho-cultural and geo-cultural field they are in; how the realities of violent armed confrontations on the front line become a new impetus for artistic visions, and bomb shelters and basements in the controlled and occupied territories become representative objects; how art projects can highlight the problems that military personnel face on a daily basis, suffering from psychological trauma, injuries, needing rehabilitation and socialisation, etc.

An important concept in the landscape of war is the geographical facet and spatial localisation. The project aims to identify the key spatial existences in the situation of a full-scale invasion, single marked loci that define the social and cognitive map of the current reality (mass graves, cemeteries, devastated and destroyed cultural sites, destroyed cities and buildings due to shelling, etc.) in order to classify the exceptional situation created by this altered space. 
Russia's aggression against Ukraine has also marked global changes in the geopolitical dimension, increasing the anticipation of a planetary catastrophe and a threat to global democracy. Therefore, the concept of the "complex we" demonstrates the forms of deep connection between everyone in Ukraine and abroad, presenting the horrors of war, understood in artistic reflections and practices as a post-colonial phenomenon.

Thus, art provokes questions rather than providing answers. The tension between cruelty and optimism as two opposing responses is where its true significance lies.