The Morphology of War (2017)

Text written for the upcoming exhibition Goodbye East! Goodbye Narcissus! Unlearning Eastern Europe at EKKM Tallinn, curated by Tanel Rander, which reconsiders actuality of this project for the contemporary situation of the full-scale invasion:

The Morphology of War: Against Neo-Colonial Narcissism

The Morphology of War is a project that acts as a reflection on both the atrocities and the misinformation brought about by Russia’s war on Ukraine. In 2017, three years after the beginning of the war, when this project was initially created, I spoke about the formation of the two sides of the struggle and the ways in which society produces an image of an enemy. My text accompanying the series reflected on the vision of the then-hybrid war, when the hope for the relativity of positions was still an acceptable option:

“The Morphology of War focuses on the idea that each society gives birth to its own monsters. In times of conflict, they procreate. A friend changes his shape and becomes an enemy – unfamiliar, ridiculous, and potentially dangerous. He experiences severe morphological changes. Collective unconscious influenced by mass media propaganda produces ideological “monsters” embodied by real people. This project is an ironic reflection of the ugliness of an armed conflict that distorts the image and the content with its aggression but it is also an exploration of how deeply these destructive instincts are rooted in the visual culture. A viewer is a witness of this saturnalia, in its initial carnivorous impulse. The continuous line of monsters is reminiscent of the symbolism of the danse macabre taken by Ingmar Bergman for the conclusion of his film The Seventh Seal.”

Such a vision refers to the profound hybridity of the situation, which is reflected in the chimaera-like appearance of the monsters involved in the deadly dance. In postcolonial theory, hybridity is defined as the often-conflictive unity of two narratives – that of the colonizer and that of the colonized. This logic works two-fold when the oppressor typically begins sharing the features of the oppressed. The 2017 series still spoke to this entanglement, while the full-scale brutal invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought about a sharpened and clarified understanding of the necessity of resistance to the aggressor, while also highlighting the previously inconceivable truth of the unreasonable and uncontrollable evil behind the aggressor’s actions.

Everything has changed for me and the entire Ukrainian society since that insight occurred. The hybrid warfare has turned into a sweeping hot war, which dissolved any postcolonial hybridity and ambivalence, or even common sense doubt, when the former witnesses of aggression have turned either into its victims or its agents, in many cases defined by the borderline dividing the territories of Ukraine and Russia. In a situation of extreme violence, impartiality proved to be impossible; and taking responsibility for this war is the only option that may preserve human traits, as the understanding of oneself as a human being concerned about violence and atrocity. However, the longer society that fuels the war – and I mean Russian society – keeps on this track, the less they are able to see the profound transformation of decay and disfigurement that has transformed from media tool to their way of life. The immersion into the process of falsification of the existential reasons to keep fighting against Ukraine provokes both appearances and inner nature to change, yet this metamorphosis remains unnoticed by its subjects.    

This has to do with narcissism.

The aspiring neo-colonial state looks at itself in the mirror and sees itself within its imperial past, loving itself not in its current state but in the fading reflection of its colonial “glory”, elevated to a myth which is created and disseminated by its propaganda machine. The profound narcissism of this neo-colonial state is inward-looking and, therefore, blind to any outside perspective. It easily overlooks its own monstrous appearance and does not notice that the wild orgiastic dance of death leads it and its citizens to the abyss. Yet, the reflection of this in the eyes of others is horrifying.

The disfigurement is the result of epistemic violence that accompanies the physical atrocities and every monster’s indirect participation in it. The distortion that the popular support to the war brings upon Russian society focuses instead on the vanity of the warfare: from the popular discussions on “not everything is that unambiguous” to Russian influencers taking staged photographs in Mariupol, a city destroyed by their army. The seeming “ambiguity” of the situation that sometimes is also cherished in the international media appears profoundly anachronic and replicates monstrosity as a result of the attempts of invoking hybridity in the situation when the only reading possible is a disentangled one.

As an art historian, I have recently written much about the decolonial transformation brought about by the war, loss of ambivalence being part of this process. The defiance of narcissism and the ability to see the epistemic disfigurement is a capacity that is needed for avoiding the abyss. The magical hypnotizing mirror of imperialism, however, keeps doing its work.

Participation in this danse macabre may be seen differently by its participants, however, the catastrophic end to the grotesque performance together with the fall of the narcissist neo-colonialism is inevitable.

The Dance of Death

Death leads the roundelay

But one dancer

Has his legs crooked and short

And he stumbles

Steps on the foot of another one

Who recoils

Falls backwards

Pulls the hand of the third one

The third one is late

To release the hand of the fourth

Who falls to the left and forward

And because he is heavy

As my heart

Pulls all the rest.

The domino effect

And bad choreography

Work in the dance of Death

As in any other.

Only Death persists

Losing all his dancers

In the last round.

The neighbour’s dog Cerberus

Watches this clumsy ballet

With lazy disdain.

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