Ukraine’s best-known sculptor, Mikhail Reva was once famous for his whimsical works – playful, oversized creations that can be found in parks and squares across the country and dotted around his southern hometown of Odessa.
Russia’s war against Ukraine changed all that.
The 63-year-old sculptor, with his kind features hidden behind a welder’s mask, gestures at an industrial workbench housing the dark materials of the day: jagged rocket fragments, dented shell casings, twisted chunks of shrapnel ready to become towering, talismanic Works to be put together reflect an upside down world.
“For me, it’s like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together, a jigsaw puzzle of horror and chaos,” he said. “This is the life of this war – what has become of our life.”
In his cavernous workshop near the Black Sea coast and in an immaculate studio and showroom in downtown Odessa, the fight is never far away: here a fearsome dragon-like figure sculpted from the broken roof of a Russian military vehicle; there the flapping wings of a giant owl, conjured from misshapen mortar fins. A metallic starburst depicts an explosion, but the title “Blossom” is a somber reminder that the violence of war can grotesquely reflect the beauty of nature.
“For me, it’s like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together, a jigsaw puzzle of horror and chaos.”
— Ukrainian sculptor Mikhail Reva
The idea of repurposing war debris for his art came to Reva last year after his dacha – the Russian word for a simple country cottage – was damaged in a Russian missile attack. Reva wasn’t there at the time; He was in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, where the first wave of shocking atrocities of the war had come to light after the retreat of Russian forces.
War crimes investigators are still documenting the killing, torture and sexual assaults of hundreds of civilians during months of Russian occupation of a number of towns near the capital at the start of the invasion in February 2022.
A close-up of details of spent ammunition collected from the war. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)
“When we found out what had happened to the people there, I couldn’t even begin to think how to put it,” Reva said. “I thought at the time: There are no words. There must be another way.”
When he returned to Zatoka, the seaside resort near Odessa, where in his absence a rocket attack blew up the doors of Reva’s workshop, a neighbor who had collected spent ammunition and fragments of debris near the dacha presented them to him. With this, the sculptor realized that he had found his new medium.
“It’s a treasure to me,” he said of the war scrap he’s now working with.
Reva estimates he used about two tons of remnants of battlefield weapons and debris from Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and towns. Contacts in the Ukrainian military ensured that these dangerous battle remnants were secured for artistic reuse: material as material.
In his own account, which is reminiscent of novelists who describe their characters as having lives of their own, Reva’s warfare springs from a flash of insight rather than a carefully planned plan.
“I start layering the fragments and then I see the shape they want to take,” he said. “This owl, for example – the eyes and the tip of its beak – it all came about almost by accident.”
Nearly a year and a half after the full-scale Russian invasion, the war remains a kind of supply line for Reva, a never-ending tide stirring up new flotsam and flotsam. Odessa — a gracious old imperial capital known as the “Jewel of the Black Sea” — had been largely spared the direct attacks that have devastated many other major population centers, but that too has changed.
In July, almost immediately after Russia withdrew from an internationally-backed initiative enabling vital shipments of Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea, the baroque city center of Odessa, a UNESCO-listed site at risk, was hit for the first time by Russian missile attacks .
The ongoing bombardment destroyed historical monuments, including museums, mansions and the venerable House of Scientists, housed in a 19th-century palace that once belonged to the Russian noble Tolstoy family. From his ninth-floor apartment, Reva witnessed the strike that destroyed the Transfiguration Cathedral, Odessa’s oldest and largest.
The recent rain of projectiles — ship-to-land missiles, drones and cruise missiles — has fueled anger against the Russian invaders. The city’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, who was considered a strong pro-Moscow supporter before the war, published a video message in which he railed against the Kremlin.
“If you only knew how much Odessa hates you,” he seethed. “You probably hardly know us Odesans. You won’t break us; You’re only going to make us angrier.”
In his art, Reva channels that anger, fiery like the sparks that fly from his welding torch.
“Art is a tool that freezes time,” he said. “I have to commemorate this tragedy.”
One of the most monumental pieces in his war work is a bristly, 12-foot-tall mass of shards of metal that he believes to represent Moloch, a Canaanite god appeased only by cruel human sacrifice. It has the rough shape of a bear, the unofficial symbol of Russia.
“We are all hostage to one man and his sick ambitions,” Reva said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Moloch sculpture, currently in Berlin, is the centerpiece of a planned exhibition ice-coldly titled Russkiy Mir. The term, meaning “Russian World,” is used by Putin and his supporters to justify rule over sovereign countries that they nonetheless legitimately consider part of Russia.
“Art is a tool that freezes time.” “I must create memories of this tragedy.”
— Mikhail Reva
Developed into an international seaport by Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century, Odessa has always had close ties to its imperial past, especially since Ukraine’s independence more than three decades ago following the collapse of the Soviet Union. An imposing statue of Catherine stood in pride of place near the city’s Italian landmark, the Potemkin Stairs, until Ukrainian authorities removed it late last year.
Reva readily recognizes itself as a product of the Russian world. He was born in 1960 when Ukraine was still a Soviet republic. He hails from the Crimean peninsula, which was conquered and annexed by Putin almost nine years ago. He spent formative years at an elite art school in St. Petersburg, a city he is unlikely to ever see again.
His career began with a few state-sponsored artistic commissions for what he now describes as false and soulless. More than 20 years ago, commissioned by the Kremlin-allied Ukrainian government, he made a small silver sundial that was presented to Putin – who was then considered by many in the West to be a potential reformist – who reportedly left it on his desk.
Like many Odesans of his generation, Reva uses the Russian language in his daily life. Switching to Ukrainian, a common impulse in much of the country, is easier for younger people, he said. His adult daughter, an artist living in Kiev, now speaks almost exclusively Ukrainian, he proudly added.
In a war that left almost no family here spared, his work draws on private suffering. Shortly after the invasion, he took his elderly mother, Valentina, out of the country to safety. But she died aged 89, after a rapid decline he attributes to the stress of forced relocation.
“When this all started, I looked into my mother’s eyes and saw the fear of this little girl who survived World War II,” he said. “This war took the most precious thing I had. If she could have stayed here in Odessa, she would be alive today.”
Reva’s Odessa roots, he said, are rooted in family ties, particularly his memories of his mother and captain’s father – “the one who taught me to look at the mysterious horizon”. He describes his lineage as a reflection of the city’s rich traditional cosmopolitan mix of Jews, Greeks and Crimean Tatars.
“There is no other place like Odessa in the whole world,” he said.
The city, in turn, has long accepted him. Visitors and locals alike snap selfies with his best-known works, often based on local lore. On a main boulevard, people are climbing onto an oversized chair – a nod to a Soviet-era satirical novel penned by two Odesan writers about the unseemly scramble for a lost inheritance of jewels hidden in a dining room set.
Another popular peacetime installation, this one by the sea — a large, ornate doorframe modeled after an old Odessa mansion — has been given an ominous new meaning: the open portal frames the Black Sea, from which Russian warships are now firing missiles into the city.
Reva said he was confident that the soul of Odessa – easygoing, sardonic, seductive – would survive the war. But sometimes he wonders, he said, if he would ever find what he calls the romance and optimism of his earlier works. He is already considering designs for large-scale memorials in places like Bucha.
“I’m not the type to make ploughshares out of swords,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe one day there will be a time. But not now.”