Kateryna Iakovlenko: Visual Violence in Art and Documentaries

April 14, 2021

Photo Credit: Aliona Lobanova

The Shevchenko Scientific Society in the United States will host Kateryna Iakovlenko, a contemporary art researcher and public program curator at the PinchukArtCentre, in the spring of 2021. Over the past several years, she has been researching the transformation of the heroic narrative of Donbas via new media and worked as a curator and program manager of the Donbas Studies at IZOLYATSIA, an interdisciplinary research project and a platform for a discussion of practices, processes, and conditions in the public discourse of the region. She was an editor of the books Gender Studies by Donbas Studies Research Project (2015) and Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019), co-editor of the 2019 special issue of Obieg magazine, Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Art and Society after 2014, and Curatorial Handbook (2020).

Her current research interests include art during political transformations and war, and women’s and gender optics in visual culture. Iakovklenko discussed her research project in an interview with Olena Nikolayenko, chair of the Society’s communications committee.



What is the topic of your research project?

The title of my research project is “The Tyranny of Gaze: Visual Violence in Art and Documentaries about Military Conflicts.” For several years, I have been working on the topic of violence in visual culture and, in particular, the current war in Donbas. Having lived through different political conflicts, it is interesting for me to examine what is perceived today as visual violence. What images evoke strong emotions in the viewer, e.g. fear, panic, or hope? Can we say that contemporary visual culture no longer causes such strong emotions in the viewer? In this case, is art able to talk about military conflict with the same emotional power and influence the audience? In particular, I am interested in a feminine gaze, as well as female strategies of surviving during various conflict situations. Are women artists able to talk about war differently? What paths do they choose to reach the goal? In carrying out this research, I would like to use feminist approaches and look at the war through female eyes who directly witnessed and became a victim of the war. I would like to analyze primarily the work of women photographers, reporters and artists who continue to work on this topic along the frontline, as well as artists who talk about different forms of violence.

In observing the nature of violence and war, we should pay attention to the type of basic images that a person consumes when reading news about Donbas in the twenty-first century. Photo reports from the war, documentaries, and feature films that immerse the viewer in the military context of Donbas carry different functions, most often informational, analytical (for example, in investigative journalism as an evidence base) and ideological (for example, reports from military parades and military drills). The versatility of the military photographic language is also reflected in the authorship of a photo. Photos are almost never accompanied by the name of the photographer, but rather by the name of the website or information agency that commissioned or purchased the image.

I interviewed artists and camerawomen who worked upon the military theme in Ukraine. But I am interested in looking at the problem more broadly, using the experience of colleagues in the United States.

Why did you decide to pursue your research on a Fulbright scholarship in New York City?

By now I have been working at the PinchukArtCentre for five years, doing research and curatorial work for the public program. But my interest in the topic, which I proposed as a Fulbright fellow, has been with me for a long time. I am grateful to the Fulbright program for giving me an opportunity to continue my research. After a while, I have developed a detached view of the topic, which is necessary to carry out research. During the fellowship period, I intend to interview professionals (artists, cameramen, film directors) who worked on different wars and covered the war situation in different ways. Furthermore, I would like to conduct interviews with women, focusing not only on violence but also on such issues as moral, personal and physical conditions of work at the frontline. I intend to conduct several interviews with female reporters and camerawomen with different experiences in the military zones.

What are you planning to accomplish as a result of your research visit to the United States?

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), the American art historian Susan Sontag draws attention to the power of photography, which is capable of creating a sense of the present recent past. Images can evoke emotions in a person and excite feelings and memories. However, according to Sontag, the biggest problem is not that people remember thanks to the photos, but that they only remember the photos. This kind of memory overrides other forms of understanding and remembering. In this sense, documentary films and documentary scenes are more ‘dangerous’ because they are able to impose on the viewer an experience that has not happened to them. Sontag insists that individual photographs are not capable of telling a story because the viewer does not remember the story, but the image and the atrocities depicted in the photograph, the specific plot, the specific photograph. This experience can convince the viewer of atrocities without going into details of military operations. Images encourage fantasies, and fantasies shape the context and interpretation of the war, giving it new details. In this sense, the media changes reality by changing the perception of an event. Larger tragedies may be inferior to smaller losses. Meanwhile, is it possible to compare the loss?

During the fellowship, I would like to research the question of the representation of visual violence in the context of the wars, not only about Donbas, but also in other conflicts.

How are you going to benefit from your affiliation with the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the United States?

I am grateful to my colleagues at the Shevchenko Scientific Society for giving me an opportunity to conduct research in New York. It is a great honor for me to become a part of the outstanding academic community.

My interdisciplinary research lies at the intersection of visual culture, art, media, and gender studies. Society’s members also have different research interests, which in some aspects overlap with mine. I hope to receive helpful feedback on my work, advice, and comments. I would like to meet like-minded people in the profession and form new connections with the community.

What will be the main output of your project?

In the short term, I intend to write several essays from a woman’s perspective on visual arts and media critique. In the long term, I would like to publish a book on the topic.

Kateryna Iakovlenko can be reached at k.iakovlenko@gmail.com.