Back in 2020, Daryna Mamaisur created these video and photo series, exploring the lost but never forgotten steppes of Eastern Ukraine. In her work, she reflects on the uneven flow of history and the representation of the natural landscape in times of ecological, military, and humanitarian crisis.

Two years back, I happened to travel for nine hours by bus from Lysychansk to Mariupol. The bus route ran through the line of separation, a territory marked as the control zone at the first checkpoint. This was one of the first times I travelled to Donbas, and my excited and amazed eye, I’m sure, was similar to the eyes of those who witnessed the region’s intensive industrialisation over a hundred years ago. Rough terrain, creeks and hills emphasised the vastness of the expanses where giant industrial buildings occasionally emerged. At the same time, it was an excitement you would immediately want to put in doubt and undermine because of its naivety and shallowness. This inner contradictoriness inspired the exploration of symbolic oppositions around the (non)industrialised landscapes of Donbas. 
The name of the project embodies an ad litteram quote taken from a Google Maps review (2018) that referred to some industrial establishments in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zhdanov comments about the plant in Mariupol: “The Azovstal is gradually turning into a steppe with rabbits and pheasants running around, and where some even saw foxes.” The first part consisted of photos and short essays, reflected on the industrial landscape in Donbas and the symbolic order built around it. In this second part, I wanted to take a step back and focus on the pre-industrial landscape and the ‘landscape in transition’. It was the late 19th-early 20th century when industrialisation gained momentum and changed the look of the region. For many witnesses, the rural, pristine, and untouched fields/steppe were the subject of loss. During past years, this narrative was more associated with the collapse of the industry. The video was an attempt to fantasise and speculate on the flow of history represented in a landscape, to imagine the utopian scenario where the steppe is returning to its lands. And to reflect on how loss looks back at us—as it is accompanying us at every moment of time.
This video work, whose sound design is done by Anna Khvyl, was filmed in the national reserve “Stone Tombs”, which is one hour ride from Mariupol. It is part of the Ukrainian Natural Steppe reserve. In 2014, its biggest branch called “Khomutiv Steppe” was occupied by the armed militants of DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic). Under threats, its workers were forced to leave the reserve, so they had to continue their work in the other departments. These days the “Stone Tombs” reserve is partly or completely occupied enduring the constant dangers of war. It is a tiny part of technogenic and environmental disasters created by the Russian troops. According to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, 44% of the most valuable natural-reserve territories are in the war zone, under temporary control of Russian invaders, or inaccessible to Ukraine. 

Along the publication of the video, I would like to encourage readers to donate to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group. It is working during the war to keep Ukraine’s natural protected areas functional and support their employees. Moreover, I would like to highlight these initiatives: 

  • FreeFilmers, a Ukrainian, Mariupol based, collective of filmmakers and artists. Some of them lost their homes or still are in danger from the war. They are helping other underground artists, queer activists, and neurodivergent people threatened by the aggression of Putin’s Russia. They are also raising funds for basic needs, medical help, and relocation to safer places.
  • Platform “Tu”, a Mariupol based cultural center created a fund to gain financial aid to help the people of Mariupol who managed to flee the city and lost everything. 
  • Museum Crisis Center, which is a grassroots initiative created by Olha Honchar, culture researcher and director of “Museum of Terror”, in Lviv. It is realised in partnership with numerous art institutions and private benefactors. Museum Crisis Center supports small regional museums and their teams during the war.

The work was created during Landscape As a Monument A-I-R Programme.

Daryna Mamaisur (Nikolenko) was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is a visual artist and filmmaker, currently studying at DocNomads Master programme. She studied philosophy and publishing, and besides, participated in various international workshops and courses on art critics, photography and urban studies. In her works, she addresses the topics related to public space and its transformations, memory, and visual culture.