Ihor Okuniev <em>Kyiv region</em> 2022. Courtesy of the artist<br/>
© Ihor Okuniev

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

What is the sound of war? A human mind might conjure up the rumble of rolling tanks, the hum of planes overhead and a cacophony of explosions and gunfire. But what does nature hear? What song does a war-ravaged land sing? Ukrainian artist Ihor Okuniev explores this concept in Land, a haunting, twentyminute soundscape he made in 2022, the year Russia began its full-scale occupation of Ukraine after almost a decade of war.1a & 1b

Land begins with a gentle, atonal chime blinking and echoing in the void. A solitary piano note enters from the distance, unsettling the atmosphere with stabbing staccato. A slow rumble builds from the ether, as if a disturbance beneath the earth is about to erupt upwards. A sound like dripping electricity soon becomes the only discernible tone. About halfway through, the composition becomes more expansive and enveloping; a sense of dread permeates, symbolising the descent of an uncertain winter. It’s as if the music is spreading out across the ground, embedding itself into the earth. These are the sounds of a land in turmoil. Soon, winter overtakes all and the composition settles into a pulsing hum, like the breath of the earth itself, stoically thrumming away, awaiting the day it will once again be free to grow and nurture life.

Okuniev was born in Kyiv in 1989 and later moved to Yalta, Crimea. His interest in art began as a teenager, when he started a graffiti crew with friends. He soon became interested in photography and studied graphic design at university. After his studies he moved back to Kyiv, where he developed a practice working in various media and became interested in Ukrainian traditional culture, ethnography and folklore. Later, he began ‘to combine different media to create a story, a complete work’, experimenting with music and sound to form a fuller palette with which to produce layered, multidimensional work.2

Okuniev recorded Land in between his work with Livyj Bereh, a volunteer organisation he developed with a group of friends at the beginning of the 2022 invasion, starting in leftbank Kyiv then branching out to other regions.3 They work to restore the roofs of houses in villages damaged by the invasion and provide supplies to the military.

‘Now, almost the entire territory of Ukraine [is] under Russian missile attacks’, Okuniev explains. ‘I spend a lot of time close to the places of combat or in liberated territories, so I personally see the consequences of the war. The scale of the destruction caused by the Russian invasion still horrifies.’

He calls Land a symbolic reflection on his experience and says he is interested in creating more work highlighting the situation in Ukraine.

The work’s title is no afterthought: land is important to Ukrainians. Okuniev goes so far as to call it a sacred symbol: ‘This applies to both the land on which people live and the land that feeds them. The land is often reflected in culture, folklore, poetry, songs and fine arts.’

Okuniev has also created photographic pieces that accompany Land, taken in 2022 in the regions of Kharkiv, Černihiv and Kyiv. They include photographs of bullet-riddled metal, undiscernible pieces of burned-out vehicles, and what at first glance looks to be a small dam full of green water but is actually an enormous bomb crater, its epicentre the middle of a major highway – the strike was clearly targeted to cut off whoever once relied on the road. But these are not the usual photographs of mass devastation and bombed-out buildings we are used to seeing; most show close-up details and no human presence can be detected. All seem to focus on the point where humanity’s destructive streak meets nature’s resilience. In one photograph a tree appears to have been blown up from the inside and is bleeding – or perhaps crying – bright orange sap from a deep gash in its side. The shrapnel littering its base is already rusting into a hellish mulch, echoing Okuniev’s observation that nature ‘absorbs the traces of war’.4

Okuniev conceived Land while travelling his scarred country, taking solace in nature and inspiration from the abandoned industrial infrastructure he saw around him. Amid the destruction, there was a constant source of hope: ‘I [remember] how the sun would rise over a large, destroyed high-rise or over a destroyed house in the village, illuminating the ruins’.5

This is represented in the last few minutes of Land, when the pulsing drones return, symbolising the thawing of winter. They are renewed, heavier and more determined, with a vast resonance suggesting regathered strength after a long hibernation. Soon the drones fade away to be replaced by uplifting, Vangelis-like synth pads that seem to melt everything away. A new sun rises. As Okuniev reminds us, while ‘the land has been traumatised, [it] will eventually recover’.

Listen to Land

MICHAEL RYAN is a writer and Project Editor, National Gallery of Victoria.



Although the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the two countries have been at war since 2014. For an overview, see Center for Preventive Action, ‘War in Ukraine’, last updated 26 June 2023, Global Conflict Tracker, Council on Foreign Relations, <https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ukraine>, accessed 30 June 2023;


Also see Eric Nagourney, Dan Bilefsky & Richard Pérez-Peña, ‘A year of war in Ukraine: the roots of the crisis’, 27 Feb. 2023, The New York Times, <https://www.nytimes.com/article/russia-ukraine-nato-europe.html>, accessed 30 June 2023.


Unless otherwise cited, all quotes and biographical details were obtained through email correspondence with the artist in June 2023. Minor grammatical edits have been made.


You can see Livyj Bereh’s work on Instagram (@livyj_bereh), where they post updates and photographs of their work, including images of each roof they repair and the house’s occupants. Donations are accepted via linktr.ee/livyj_bereh.


Quoted from unpublished email correspondence between Okuniev and Haus der Kunst in preparation for Land’s exhibition as part of Tune, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2022–23.


5 ibid.