Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused a violent severing of connections. The war has forced millions to flee in search of safety, while millions more have become internally displaced, still inside a country fighting for its existence but unable to return to their homes. In the context of this existential struggle, what does connection – to place, to community – mean for those forced to experience such ongoing rupturings? For Alexandra Clod (Krolikowska) and Karolina Uskakovych, the two Ukrainian artists whose work makes up (Re)Grounding at The NewBridge Project in Newcastle, such a question is not an abstraction to be theorised but a reality to be faced.
(Re)Grounding has grown out of a long-term residency, conceived to explore the climate emergency in post-industrial contexts. But, like so many things, it has been reshaped by the war. Instead of taking place in Ukraine, the project has developed over more than a year through a partnership between D6: Culture in Transit, based in Newcastle, and the Izolyatsia arts platform in Kyiv. Izolyatsia has been through its own process of forced regrounding: the organisation was previously located in a former insulation factory in Donetsk, in the east of Ukraine, until the city’s capture by Russian armed forces in 2014. Izolyatsia is now based in a shipyard in Kyiv, while the Donetsk factory building is operated by Russians as an illegal prison, rife with torture and abuse. D6, meanwhile, has worked since its foundation in 1991 to position the arts as a source of connection between people and place, especially when it comes to thinking beyond sensationalised narratives around migration, diversity and cultural heritage.
Clod and Uskakovych both explore ideas of land, belonging and climate justice in different ways: Clod through legacies of mining; Uskakovych via gardening and growing. In March, the artists presented preliminary ideas and research during an event in Newcastle’s The Common Room, formerly the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. They showed ‘Empty Spaces’ (2023), a collaborative site-specific intervention into the Institute’s Edwardian lecture theatre. A wood-panelled room containing semi-circles of banked seating, its walls are lined with over 100 black-and-white portraits of former presidents and secretaries of the Institute, all of whom are white, and all of whom, except one (Catherine Miller) are men. In response to this homogenous display of authority, Clod and Uskakovych playfully introduced images of fourteen actors often marginalised from certain industrial narratives. These included pit ponies and donkeys forced to live their entire lives underground, a canary, a plant fossil imprint, miners themselves (including women and children as young as eight), and Trichonympha, the bacteria inside the guts of termites which allow them to digest wood.
Since then, Clod has continued to research connections between the industrial histories of the east of Ukraine, where she grew up, and those of North East England. Via email, she writes of visiting the Woodhorn Museum, and looking at the work of the Pitmen Painters: ‘I was thinking about my grandfather who spent all his life working underground in a mine. What if he had such an opportunity to learn painting, what would he paint?’
Following this period of research, Clod has made work across photography, video and installation, often foregrounding the symbolic potential of objects, bodies and stories, and engaging intensely with the relationship between materiality and myth. ‘Co2 Curtain’ (2023) is a video piece showing clouds covered by smoke, which speaks to global ecological concerns, acknowledging our inescapable connections to the nonhuman world. As Clod herself tells me: ‘I was able to leave Donetsk, but I’m not able to escape the planet’.
Another video, ‘The Roots of My Longing’ (2023), shows the artist digging into a coal spoil heap having journeyed there with her mother. A complex and beautiful accompanying narration of half-remembered fragments connects deep-time geology with geopolitical conflict and an intense personal quest for origins. However, Clod’s journey was not to Donetsk, impossible to access since Russia’s occupation of the region in 2014, but to Chervonohrad in the west. This points to two central difficulties in Clod’s current work: how to navigate connections at a time of violent disconnect, and, relatedly, what new powers do symbols attain when reality is no longer accessible?
The exhibition also includes a series of still life photographs, Katabasis, which extend the artist’s interest in the symbolic by bringing together, as the title suggests, artefacts associated with the journey to the underworld of classical mythology. Pomegranates, for example, are a reference to Persephone, who was abducted by Hades and forced to spend half the year underground. Flowers, meanwhile, recall Donetsk’s moniker as ‘the city of a million roses’ and also nod to the solace from war and trauma that George Orwell found in planting roses, as detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s 2021 book, Orwell’s Roses, a touchstone of Clod’s current research. Alongside these symbols are artefacts like miner’s helmets, mining lamps and pieces of coal that situate this industrial heritage among the myths of the past, poetically suggesting an end to the fossil fuel era.
Clod’s work also asks: what holes are left behind when industries decline? This is not only a material question, relating to the gaping wounds that mining has carved into the earth; it is also social and metaphorical. In both England and Ukraine, communities have been formed around single industries such as coal mining. When that shared structure of connection and belonging is suddenly removed, many people experience a loss of identity, purpose and livelihood. Clod’s own background has been shaped by such industries: her grandfather was a miner in the east of Ukraine; she recalls playing in an abandoned mine as a child. Via email, she describes her own research process as a kind of katabasis – an intensely personal journey into darkness. In linking the histories of these two regions, underpinned by her own lived experience, Clod opens up these ideas of connection, legacy and place to wider possible resonances. Many places are grappling with the same question of how to mourn the loss of a shared connection without romanticising histories of extraction.
Where Clod engages with the legacies of a dead – or dying – past, Uskakovych focuses on living connections. ‘Boots on the Ground, Hands in the Soil’(2023) is a fifteen-minute film that traverses a series of conversations, in person and via phone and video call, between the artist and her grandmother, Zoya. As the title suggests, the work is a direct response to Russian violence, drawing a pair of metonymic oppositions between boots (markers of an invading army) and hands (embodied tools of care) and between the ground (a territory to be occupied) and the soil (a place of nurturing and mutual survival). With huge swathes of Ukraine’s own soil now planted with Russian landmines, gardening can be seen as a mode of resistance. This idea has complex political implications in relation to state control over bodies. During the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s, growing one’s own food in privately owned gardens was ruthlessly suppressed. Today, Ukraine’s authorities are encouraging ‘victory gardens’ to reduce food shortages during the ongoing war.
Uskakovych approaches these complexities with care and subtlety. The film is intimate and understated, its atmosphere of physical isolation lending greater power to the tender moments of connection and humour. The film is set in both the Netherlands and Ukraine. Uskakovych utilises various technologies of communication and transport, while Zoya discusses the interconnectedness of species. In a Dutch supermarket, tomatoes are bland, plastic-wrapped and immediately available. By contrast, we see Zoya in her back garden, pointing out where she plans to plant six rows of tomatoes despite the snow that carpets the ground, then handing over seeds for her granddaughter to grow, and later collecting buckets of ripe fruit. The film suggests that gardening can provide a sense of stability amid war: to plant a seed is implicitly to believe in a future; to pick a fruit is to connect to one’s own recent past. Zoya links her current use of a watering can back to Soviet times – a further thread of continuity amid a context of turmoil. For Uskakovych herself, who completed her Master’s degree in The Hague (but now divides her time between Ukraine and the UK), growing tomatoes from the seeds she received from her grandmother offered what she describes as ‘a practice of reconnection’, made all the more poignant by the distances between them.
Uskakovych is aware that romanticised ideas of ‘tradition’ can easily fuel nostalgic nationalisms based on fictionalised monocultural pasts. ‘Traditions are so rich that they cannot be squashed into one idea or identity,’ she tells me, pointing to her own mixed heritage (including ancestors from Turkmenistan and Poland) as well as the diverse population of Vinnytsia, the largely agricultural region where she grew up. As a result, the artist’s interest is in small-scale communities – anarchist and horizontal, rather than hierarchical and nationalist. Relatedly, she emphasises the heterogeneous nature of what is called traditional ecological knowledge. Some forms of knowledge, she explains, may be embodied, oral and practical. Others might be re-embodied, picked up, performed and mythologised. ‘There is no one tradition’ she tells me. This ethos is embodied in the film as Zoya remembers certain knowledge practices from her childhood, but also watches gardening tutorials on YouTube.
Over the course of several conversations, in person, via email and over video call, the two artists draw my attention to several unexpected connections between their work. One is between gardening and mining, not only as practices of digging but specifically in relation to North East England. Many miners in the region were issued with allotments, which gave rise to a rich culture of growing. Leek growing, I’m told, became especially competitive. This connection is explored in the exhibition through a series of texts, photographs and a map of communal gardens across Newcastle, the product of Uskakovych’s research and her personal connections to the area (her partner is from Newcastle so she has been able to spend significant time there in recent years). In the exhibition, these research aspects of the project are being presented in raised beds (a necessity in many places due to contamination of the earth).
In the context of Uskakovych’s links between gardening and state control of bodies, I’m reminded that, according to Corinne Fowler’s 2020 book Green Unpleasant Land, allotments were historically issued by the landed gentry as a way to quell peasant rebelliousness without ceding to more radical systemic change. The exact size of allotments was also carefully considered: large enough so that a peasant’s family would survive but not so large as to prevent them from having to work (and thereby generate profits for capitalists and landowners). Having been allotted, these plots could always be taken away: the threat of being evicted from allotments was used to sabotage the formation of the Agriculture Labourers Union in 1872.
In the end, the works in (Re)Grounding connect through digging. Digging back into histories at once personal and political, industrial and ecological, communal, embodied, mediated, mythic. And digging into the soil, which is itself always heterogeneous (soil as the very basis of heterogeneity perhaps): whether it’s a window box in The Hague, a back garden in Vinnytsia, a coal mine in Northumberland, or a spoil heap in Chervonohrad. The land is never simple and nor are our connections to it and to each other. Digging is material and metaphorical – a practice, a journey. It is art and labour.
In his 2018 book, Down to Earth, Bruno Latour writes of the necessity of forming new allegiances in the face of the ecological crisis: ‘When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, you understand at once that you are going to have to be concerned with the floor’. The issue, he argues, is not some abstract concern about ‘nature’, but a direct question of land and territory. Similarly, for Clod and Uskakovych, these questions are not only ecological but also political, and increasingly urgent.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh.
Alexandra Clod and Karolina Uskakovych, (Re)Grounding is at The NewBridge Project from 18 November to 16 December, Wednesday to Friday: 12pm-5pm (Preview: 17 November, 5pm-8pm)
Artists talk at Hackney Depot, 13 November, 7.30pm-9.30pm.
The programme is part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture devised jointly by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute.
This feature is supported by D6 Culture in Transit.