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Thoughts on the opening of the exhibition "Icons on ammunition boxes" (Egmond Abbey, October 2023/Stevenskerk Nijmegen, December 2023)

Two realities

Thoughts on the opening of the exhibition "Icons on ammunition boxes" (Egmond Abbey, October 2023/Stevenskerk Nijmegen, December 2023)

Alfons Brüning

(Director, Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen)

If we are honest, it almost comes across as a provocation. The combination. Images of saints, meant for prayer and meditation, with a message of peace and repentance. Then painted on shelves of ammunition boxes, collected as remnants of death and violence on a battlefield. It amounts to an almost screaming contradiction for the senses - colors against gray and rust; noise against silence; art and design against destruction. One could go on and on. As icons are meant for prayer, but can you pray in front of that?

This contradiction becomes no less stark when one realizes what icons in the Eastern tradition actually stand for. "Windows to eternity" as they are sometimes called. More than just pictures or illustrations, but windows to another reality. Through it the primal image of the saint is present, turning his or her face and eyes toward you. With an icon you enter into prayer, into conversation even. From the texts, which Oleksandr Klymenko in particular has placed in the accompanying catalog, it is clear that precisely this dimension of dialogue was and is important to the artists.

But nowhere does that seem to be more difficult than now with this combination. The weathered and rusted boards also send a disturbing message. The exhibition has been on display in many cities in Europe in recent years. The usual introductory comments from the painters themselves and from organizers have appealed to what is then called "the reality of war."

This reality is also put before us. Somewhere far away, or maybe not so far away, there is not peace, but violence, destruction and killing. A story also of people who attack each other, sometimes in the name of religion. This is where provocation begins because if we are honest, we would actually rather turn away from this reality and make it disappear. Leave us alone!

Meanwhile, even in our remote corner here in the Netherlands, we succeed less and less in doing this. When the two artists Oleksandr Klymenko and Sofya Atlantova started their project in 2014/15, perhaps it was still possible to isolate the events of war in Eastern Ukraine, to demarcate them and keep our private spaces free for color, growth, construction, repentance, hope and future. Also in Kyiv, in Zhytomir, Kryvyi Rih, Zaporozhe they tried this for a long time, more or less successfully. The whole thing then acquired the name of a "hybrid war" - whatever that means.

Keeping the war at bay now no longer succeeds without a struggle. In this, too, we must be honest. It does no longer work for fellow human beings in Kyiv, L'viv, Kryvyi Rih or Zaporozhe, Poltava of course, for understandable reasons. However even in our fairly remote regions further in Western Europe, the reality of war is now present, albeit only as a disturbing, more or less loud cacophony in the background, an unpleasant basso continuo that constantly reminds us that the world is no longer whole. We do go on with our everyday activities and errands, but insofar as the "hybrid war" was there to be felt in the cities of central and western Ukraine at the time, it is with us now.

But what exactly is that - the reality of war? War always means hatred, destruction, death. One feels it by now not only along the front lines somewhere far away. Devastated are not only the lives of soldiers on a spatially limited battlefield. Devastated also are, in a broader sense and in many more areas, life perspectives, beliefs, human relationships, hopes, confidence in the future. That hurts even as the sound of bombs and artillery is pushed into the background.

People are waging war. A deep disappointment, then, concerns people themselves or humanity, if one wants to put it that way. Would it not have been possible otherwise to settle misunderstandings and resolve conflicts in other ways rather than by unleashing uncontrolled violence? Resolving conflicts in a way for which we would still want to use the term "civilized"?

Our visions of peace have been built on this. Instead, "war" reappears as "a demon, which does not want to give way," in the words of German publicist Alexander Kluge. Rather, some would want to tell us that we are dealing with a "clash of civilizations." This immediately opens the gates to enemy imagery and justification of war - because the "uncivilized", the barbarians and the degenerates, of course, are not full human beings. However, civilization and culture exist primarily in singular, not plural. There is only one form of civilization and it is distinguished from non-civilization and barbarism first of all by the skill and ability to solve conflicts with fellow human beings and with other states, in a way, which causes as little destruction as possible.

"Civilization" and "culture" are synonymous in many languages. It means law, a culture of the strength of the right versus the right of the stronger. However it also means creativity, insofar as culture rests on a form of "inner-world asceticism," which actually has nothing to do with capitalism, where it does have to do with control of passions such as anger, hatred and worse, intolerance and pedanticism. Now culture is not in the last place, as we observe nowhere better than in Ukraine, also in the attempt to give an answer to destruction, decay, pain and death. It is therefore about calling things by their names, but also finding names, which leave room and open perspectives for the real "traditional values" of Christianity: faith, love, hope. Culture is therefore the struggle against hopelessness, frustration, resignation, or depression - more precisely against what the Christian tradition in the East and the West knows as acedia (ukr. зневіра, russ. уныние ). Indeed, the "principle of hope" (Das Prinzip Hoffnung) is, according to the cultural philosopher Ernst Bloch, a driving force behind every activity of culture, behind painting, poetry, music, literature.

"Das Morgen im Heute lebt. Es wird ständig nach ihm gefragt." (The tomorrow lives within the today. It is always being asked about.) is a central phrase in his work. Does "tomorrow," the future, also exist in a war-ravaged, hurting country? Yes, and more than ever. Numerous examples in a particularly active cultural sphere in Ukraine today give affirmative testimony to this. In a sense, the icons present here are but one example of this.

Certainly there is also the danger of abuse. The relationship between religion and culture is of ambivalent nature. We now encounter the combination of religion and war more often, even as flags with icons on tanks. The question remains, whether a combination of symbols of war and of religion as presented in this exhibition does not come dangerously close to the examples of abuse of religion that we know from elsewhere. From this question, then, one cannot easily escape. We did have some discussion against this background, including at our institute, as to whether it would be appropriate to support the project. Why, for example, use planks of ammunition boxes as a testimony to battle and weapons, and not simply from destroyed houses or schools?

Therein also lies reason for the impression of confrontation that emanates from these art objects. This impression does not go away either, while the main impression - unexpected for many, who actually see the images for the first time - lies in hope and peace. It helps to look at them twice. The motifs used for the icons are generally of a peaceful nature and stature. If victory is involved, it is victory over evil, not over a fellow human being labeled as an enemy. Even Saint Demetrios, the celestial warrior and soldier martyr, who in other contexts even in the Eastern tradition could well be made a kind of celestial general and ally against perceived evil enemies (such as the Turks in the Middle Ages), kills dragons here, not humans. The image of the Mother of God follows the iconographic motif of the "Eleousa," the tender - the Mother of God looks at her child full of love, but also with clear sorrow in their eyes, knowing that suffering awaits her child.

With such motifs, then, one does enter into a dialogue of prayer. The goal of prayer, especially in the Orthodox, Eastern tradition has always been internal tranquility and peace. If that goes well, it results in a purification of the soul. With an angel, a holy martyr and a loving Mother of God, such a dialogue of prayer is possible; with a flag on a tank, or with triumphant, victory celebrating figures in war glorifying buildings, it is not possible, without losing an internal peace, and giving room to, perhaps, only aggression and self-aggrandizement.

Yet these images are painted on witnesses of hatred, violence, destruction. Yet they bunk, in an almost imploring way, against the pervasive destruction - at the same time against the temptation, to simply resign oneself, and become victims of hopelessness oneself. To give up the real "traditional values" of Christianity - faith, love, hope. That is not allowed, and then we don't want that anyway.

Here is what even Western theologians, such as Karl Rahner, have called the "trouble and blessing of prayer." That includes listening and looking to eternity. Otherwise it becomes yet another monologue. After all, it was revealed to us that all will be well. Of this too, despite all the sadness in her eyes, the tender Mother of God and the child on her arm, give testimony. Viewed closely then, the icons are actually "windows from eternity" (in a "reversed perspective” thus, as the Russian theologian Pavel Florensky, he also being a victim of violence, wanted to see it).

Dialogue, not only with God, but also with fellow man is a central element in the teaching of man in modern Orthodox theology. I learned from the texts of the two artists that this dimension, not in the least as a characteristic of man, played an important role for them, also with a view to politics and society. Dialogue with the Saints, ultimately with God himself is at the beginning, dialogue with fellow man follows, to the extent of what is possible.

Very often it seems not possible, or far too difficult or too dangerous. We sometimes no longer believe in a whole world. We cannot however live well without having some idea of this in us. That means resisting the temptation to resign. These icons may help with that. That is why we have decided to support this project.

Thank you for your attention!