Between plant fossils and oral histories: tracing vegetal imaginaries from Donbas, Ukraine (2021)

Darya Tsymbalyuk

About this exposition

This exposition brings together multiple contexts, narratives and modes of expression to tell multispecies (hi)stories about and from Donbas region, Ukraine, where a military conflict broke out in 2014. By engaging with fossils, paleobotany and testimonies of internally displaced persons, the exposition explores vegetal imaginaries of the region in a series of drawings and questions stories we tell about Donbas and displacement, and ways in which we tell them.
typeresearch exposition
keywordsplants, cultural memory, memory, displaced persons, Displacement, fossil, multispecies, vegetal, migration, war, conflict, geology
last modified21/05/2021
share statusprivate
affiliationUniversity of St Andrews, Scotland
copyrightDarya Tsymbalyuk
licenseAll rights reserved
published inRUUKKU - Studies in Artistic Research
portal issue16. Working with Vegetal

Simple Media

id name copyright license
947439 transplantation (5) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947444 фикус Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947449 Valentina Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947452 Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printer (2) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947459 transplantation (4) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947463 Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printer (1) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947467 transplantation (8) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947471 Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printer (7) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947475 Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printer (3) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947479 Natalia Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
947484 transplantation (7) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
948482 transplantation (5) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
948484 transplantation (5) copy Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
948486 transplantation (5) copy Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
948507 Розен Б.Я. Повесть о горючем камне (1981) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
948523 Розен Б.Я. Повесть о горючем камне (1981) Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved
1138153 transplantation 9 Darya Tsymbalyuk All rights reserved

RUUKKU portal comments: 2
nimetön/anonym/anonymous 24/05/2021 at 09:49

This is an edited version of the peer review comment, which the author has used as an aid when finalising their exposition:


This is a very well-researched and engaged practice that offers new insights into both actual histories of the Donbas region and into the contribution of artistic research in telling histories from a situated and grounded perspective, and in particular telling natural-cultural histories.

The author reveals multiple strata of human histories of Donetsk and Luhansk, and their less visible or even backgrounded inter-relations with natural histories, in particular plants.

This exposition will be of interest both to arts and humanities scholars working with the issue of the vegetal, but also, more broadly, to the artists and scholars in memory studies and microhistory. Its deep grounding in people's histories and the historical context is a very welcome contribution to the field which, in my view, sometimes struggles with its historicity. The author strikes a very fine balance between staying responsible to both their human subjects and the vegetal, which is, I would argue, very hard to achieve and I acknowledge this as very inspiring and empowering for us working in this area of concern. This issue of accountability both to other-than-human and human subjects is a key concern and often a challenge within multispecies/more-than-human area of work, and the author shows a highly personal mode of dealing with this ethico-political question.


The blending between artwork and analytical text or meta-narrative is well done, and they are mutually enriching. It reveals the motivations and the drivers behind the whole process. As such, it conveys convincingly the ‘what, why, and how’ of the artistic research process.

There are some questions that I raise below, and I would like the author to take them into consideration.


The most salient aspect of the exposition in my view are the artworks themselves, and equally, the strong sense that the narrative/text slowly and carefully unpacks more and more strata within the artworks. This is a very interesting entanglement.

Second important aspect is the original and challenging bringing together of oral histories of internally displaced persons, fossil histories conveyed through paleo-botany and plants connected to the stories of displaced persons due to conflict. It is a very strong entanglement, and it sheds light on how history can be written in such way as to collapse the dichotomies between natural and social history. As many authors have indicated, this might be one of the core challenges for arts and humanities today, so it is a very valuable effort.

Thirdly, and very importantly, the practice and the exposition tell crucial histories about a very recent conflict and tells them from the perspectives which are still largely missing, especially beyond Ukraine. In this sense, I hail the work as an important socially engaged historical practice.


It is clear that the whole process is driven by artistic work, and this comes across very well from the exposition itself. At the same time, the reader can understand why it is important to engage with these histories also through other research methods, and how this feeds the artwork.


As a comment and suggestion: the exposition might contribute [benefit] from clarifying how the artistic process itself drives the impetus of the whole research process, as well as its aims and objectives. This would amount to a more detailed unfolding of different stages of the process, how different strata eventually came together.


Another question that arises through the work is also the issues related to the debates in memory studies and science studies that the author draws upon, and have to do with the questions of representation, responsibility and accountability. The author summarises this very well here: “Extending the category of an inscription, I work with oral histories as inscriptions of the experiences of the displaced persons, and plant fossils as inscriptions of experiences of plants.” This is a very important and clear proposition and reveals how deep the understanding the author has achieved through this process is.


However, from my perspective, the density of the work and the oral and natural histories conveyed, requires some more positioning of the author in-between these bodies, agencies, voices. The situatedness is largely there, and it comes across especially through artworks, however, it would be of great help for artistic research debates if it was also spelled out more clearly.

This work will have an interesting contribution to “environmentalising” memory studies but also environmental history itself, as it very compellingly troubles human and natural history in a very original way and reassembles them in a very careful manner.

The exposition clearly sets out the aims and objectives, and it answers them in a rounded manner. As mentioned above, I deem it as a contribution to artistic research practice, with possible implications to several other fields as well.


On the other hand, it does indeed not contextualise itself within the realm of art practice and artistic research and the current discussions around it, but since the work is very compact and dense as it is, I would not say that it is necessary. On the other hand, it will speak well to the context of the special issue on “Working with the vegetal” so I find that it is satisfactorily connected to this particular area of work.As said above, there could be some more explication of the artistic research process itself, and there are several methodological comments/questions that would benefit further explication. They are not essential though, and I only ask the author to give it another thought. Perhaps there are some bits that have been excluded and could have been important.


The design is freeform, but it is still quite easily legible. It seems to materialise with the idea of strata and the vegetal, so in this sense it works very well and invites for exploration and curiosity while not making it too complicated to follow.


One comment: some quotes are repeated between the text and the artworks, perhaps this could be avoided through a closer intertwined formatting of text and the artworks?


The exposition lacks the explication of the interview methodology and ethics, e.g. whether the interviewees have been anonymised and have they given consent for their use within the artwork etc. This would be essential to explain. Possibly important would be also to include some information about the interviews, e.g. place/date, and if the author decides not to include them, to explain why.


The work clearly sets out its goals and follows them through, so it is a sound and, I would say, highly relevant piece of artistic research. In particular, I would like to note that the author positions their work very well in the power nexus of representation and grand history writing, and the consequences of it. And they also show very well how this practice radically differs from the power nexus between science and mining industry, and the nexus between war and landscape destruction. This is a powerful statement and a valuable ethico-political aim for artistic research and art, and a great contribution to this field of work and studies.


Last notes:


There are some methodological moments that could benefit from a more elaborate and detailed explication. For example, how does the author “work with the nonhuman”? There are multiple methods and challenges involved, and it is one of the core themes of this issue, and I find that it would be good to have a more self-reflective approach to this.


Furthermore, it would be of significance to read more about how and why the author adopts and transposes Donna Haraway's SF methodology, which has its roots in science fiction, speculative fictioning, etc. It is not that obvious how that manifests in the artistic research project. In my view, the use of “the game of string figure” likewise requires a more historical/situated explication, as it comes from a specific tradition and it has already been transformed in important ways through Haraway's inscription. Not the least since Haraway's methodology is more concerned with constructing speculative futures, whereas the author's work is so strongly rooted in the present and the histories of the place. This does not mean that they are not compatible, but that it invites for further thinking and could be another strong takeaway from the exposition. Perhaps there are some other frameworks that could even more adequately describe the author's process, dialoguing with “history-from-below” methodologies, diaspora studies...?

nimetön/anonym/anonymous 24/05/2021 at 09:52

This is an edited version of the peer review comment, which the author has used as an aid when finalising their exposition:


The exposition directly responds to the theme of the issue of Ruukku: Working with the Vegetal. The author – in a beautiful and original manner – brings together visual and verbal stories of plants and plant fossils on the one hand, and people inhabiting the very same area of Donbas, on the other. Methodologically, the project employs Donna J Haraway’s concept of ‘string figures’ as a way to weave these different narratives through one another and, by doing so, engage with the questions of more-than-human memory, multispecies (i.e. human-plant) relationalities, and vegetal imaginaries. Theoretically, the exposition draws on plant studies, contemporary continental and feminist philosophy as well as the posthumanities. Finally, it plays with the idea of hybridity in both its form and content. In other words, it perfectly responds to the call and the topic of the issue.


The author executes the idea of string figures as a methodological lens in a skilful and truly beautiful manner: stories and histories of fossils, particular plants and people (often referred to as ‘internally displaced persons’ – the author carefully problematises this label along with other forms of ‘ordering’ and ‘classifying’ of humans and nonhumans – in this case plants – alike) from the area of Donbas are woven and shaped through one another. The author meticulously follows each of the threads/stories, maps out the terrain and entwines these different strings together. Furthermore, the drawings and the texts (captions) accompanying them also respond to the format of posthumanities-kind of hybridity in both the visual and literal sense. The author carefully situates themselves and their project in a broader geo-political, artistic and scholarly context – this is both important and valuable. Finally, the reader is led by the hand.


The author positions the project within the field of artistic research: “The in-between nature of the speculative illustration and of oral histories echoes the in-between nature of artistic research, which engages, explores and creates ‘at the crossroads of art and academia’, between research and imagination.” – as they write. And I do agree with this statement. The author combines various methods and forms of practice: verbal and non-verbal storytelling, speculation, drawings, ethnography. The theme, aim, methods and methodology as well as outcomes are clearly research-oriented and contribute to both the field of artistic research as such, and to posthumanities and environmental humanities in their broad sense.


The exposition contributes to such fields as posthumanities, environmental humanities, plant studies. It is a prime example of inter-/trans-disciplinary engagement, which also results in a great and innovative use of mixed methods. Along with its original take on the question of plant imaginaries and cultural memory, it also brings to the fore a fascinating and important case study of the Donbas region.


The submission contains a very clear exposition of the research problem, employed theories and methods. The exposition and their author are clearly situated (in this way also responding to the notion of situated knowledges in the spirit of Haraway, who, in both methodological and theoretical sense is one of the key figures for this project). The research problem (i.e., multispecies histories from the Donbas region) is carefully contextualised by the author in relation to social, geo-political, historical, artistic and theoretical issues/aspects. In fact, these contextualisations – especially the ones directly linked to the ‘stories’ of Donbas – are particularly important. The submission offers an original composition of methods and formats; with storytelling and speculation – across geological and historical periods – being especially valuable. The methods employed are adequate and the conducted analysis is thorough. /--/


This is a very original and important contribution to artistic research and, in particular, to such fields as posthumanities, environmental humanities and plant studies. The exposition, in an attentive manner, builds on theoretical concepts from across posthumanities, plant studies, philosophy, etc. It is executed in a careful and elegant way. The notion of hybridity becomes beautifully enfleshed through both the text and the drawings. Finally, the importance of this contribution also consists in its exposing of the entwinement of human and nonhuman stories of displacement and implicit (or explicit at times) violence, situated in a particular, historically and geopolitically meaningful region.


I have two points I would like to invite the author to address. In addition, I also have a third point that might be of use for future thinking:


  1. Drawings – the author reflects (especially in the conclusion) on the role and character of the texts included in the drawings, but there is not so much being said about the process/context/character/hybridity of the illustration/drawing themselves, i.e., the non-verbal side. Of course, I see that perhaps the author intentionally refuses to discuss/reflect upon that aspect themselves, but I still think it could be fascinating to hear more about this part of the process.

  2. The concept of the nonhuman – throughout the text the author uses the concept of the nonhuman while referring to plants or plant fossils. In a way, consciously or not, a great multitude of other nonhumans become somehow erased. Thus, I would recommend addressing the choice of the terms here and preferably saying what delimitations the chosen term has.

  3. Finally – while this doesn’t really have to be in any way included here – the exposition in many ways touches on various threads included in Elizabeth Povinelli’s geontological thinking (the question of fossils; their relation to capitalism/industrialisation/neoliberalism, etc) – I would be very curious to know if the author engages somehow with her work in other parts of their PhD work.

Comments are only available for registered users.