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At the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a team of workers and volunteers in the medieval city of Lviv rushed out to prepare its monuments for war. Restorers and museum workers, musicians and psychologists, artists and teenagers set about conserving Lviv’s sacred cultural relics from destruction. They removed and protected statues, boarded up stained glass windows, and hid paintings and other artifacts underground.
“Since the beginning of the war, we have all changed, searching for a role where we can be as effective as possible”, says Ukrainian photographer Elena Subach. “Before the war one of my favourite mottos was: ‘if there is no magic in art, then it is just media…But now my approach to photography has become a clear documentary. I document the present, because history in its concentrated form is unfolding here and now”.
Photographed using direct flash, the project is an almost forensic documentation. The images have a tense and uncanny atmosphere. Wrapped statues are pictured in streets and churches, becoming abstract forms that seem starkly out of place amongst the Gothic architecture of the city. Sandbags piled high allude to the approach of war. Groups of volunteers transport statues by hand, and in one image we see a man gently cradling a figure in his arms as he carries it.
In the final section of the book each statue is set against black; Subach digitally removed the backgrounds to conceal the destination of their storage. Here the figures float in darkness, fate unknown. Hidden, is a work that pictures the act of concealment, the conservation of heritage in the face of an approaching war.
The book opens with an essay by Ukrainian author Yurko Prohasko, reflecting upon his relationship with Jan of Dukla, the patron saint and protector of Lviv. Prohasko recounts taking the Saint down from his place above the city, looking directly into his eyes for the first time, before sending him underground for safekeeping. It’s a personal note that grounds and gives heart to the urgent documentation provided by Subach’s images.
Published by Besides Press
First Edition of 400
Softcover, hole-punched and bound with a document clasp
210 x 260 mm