Lots of Ukrainian art at the Biennale, protest against the Russian pavilion


Russian artist Vadim Zakharov stands in front of the Russian pavilion with a protest sign against the war. An Italian agent has stood in front of him.Statue Hester Alberdingk Thijm

“People keep calling us heroes here in Venice. But we are not heroes, we just do what we can and we can make exhibitions.” At the Venice Biennale, curator Lizaveta German speaks to a packed auditorium during the press conference on the Ukrainian pavilion.

Still, it is a heroic story how the work of Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov (63) ended at the Biennale. When the threat of war began to take hold in late February, German colleague Maria Lanko had packed the dismantled fountain, consisting of 78 bronze funnels, in three boxes and loaded it into her car. Immediately on the evening of February 24, the day of the Russian invasion, Lanko was able to drive from Kiev and reached the border six days later. Two weeks later she arrived in Vienna with the boxes full of art from which they could be sent to Venice. In Milan, she found a company that could assemble the bronze funnels.

'Fountain of Exhaustion' by Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov, at the 59th Venice Biennale.  Behind the fountain is the colorful Kosovo exhibition.  Statue Anna van Leeuwen

‘Fountain of Exhaustion’ by Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov, at the 59th Venice Biennale. Behind the fountain is the colorful Kosovo exhibition.Statue Anna van Leeuwen

That Fatigue Fountain ‘ (‘source of exhaustion’) makes it, to the visible relief of the curators. But can there really be room for art in wartime? In fact, they believe that it is now of the utmost importance that the world learns more about Ukrainian culture. And especially how it differs from the Russian. Moreover, it is said: in a war one lives from day to day, art is created for eternity.

Here in Venice, one can also turn the question: can there be room for war in an art exhibition? There is no other way at the Biennale. A large part consists of land pavilions, so the war is automatically present. The artists who were to exhibit in the Russian pavilion decided not to come. So the big building, in the middle of the exhibition garden, is almost empty. Pictures are taken, including selfies. There is a scaffolding with a can of latex paint and a security guard going back and forth.

The empty Russian pavilion during the premiere of the 59th Venice Biennale.  Statue Anna van Leeuwen

The empty Russian pavilion during the premiere of the 59th Venice Biennale.Statue Anna van Leeuwen

On Wednesday, a protest took place here by the Russian artist Vadim Zakharov (63). In 2013, he represented Russia at the Biennale in this pavilion, now he stood in front of it with a protest sign: ‘I protest against Russia’s propaganda and the Russian invasion that led to the war in Ukraine. The killing of women, children, the Ukrainian people is a disgrace to Russia. ‘ His brave protest was interrupted by the Italian police.

Less than a hundred meters from the Russian pavilion, protests against the war are allowed on a ‘Piazza Ucraina’, specially decorated by the curators of the Ukrainian pavilion. A collection of posters showing current works of art by various artists from Ukraine. A smart solution because it does not require complicated logistics.

'Piazza Ucraina' in the Giardini, at the 59th Venice Biennale.  Statue Anna van Leeuwen

‘Piazza Ucraina’ in the Giardini, at the 59th Venice Biennale.Statue Anna van Leeuwen

There are confrontational paintings and drawings, for example of a bomb shelter, or a soldier who has taken a stand on a playground. In the center of Piazza Ucraina lies a high mountain of sandbags. It is a reference to the way Ukrainian statues are wrapped, how Ukraine is trying to protect its heritage.

Of course, this does not always work. In late February, it was revealed that a museum in Ivankiv, north of Kiev, had been set on fire by Russian troops. The museum included 25 paintings by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997). Italian curator Cecilia Alemani hastily added a work of art by Prymachenko to the Biennale’s main exhibition, ‘Of Solidarity with Ukrainian Culture’.

    'Wretched War' (2004) by Damien Hirst, in the exhibition 'This Is Ukraine'.  Statue Anna van Leeuwen

‘Wretched War’ (2004) by Damien Hirst, in the exhibition ‘This Is Ukraine’.Statue Anna van Leeuwen

Also beyond the area of ​​the Biennale, Ukrainian art has come to Venice on a large scale. Huge posters in the colors of the Ukrainian flag hang on a large building in the Venetian district of Cannaregio. Here is the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom which was conceived just four weeks ago.

In fact, this place is supposed to host an exhibition of the Future Generation Art Prize, a two-year prize awarded by the wealthy Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk’s art fund. Such an exhibition of prizes would be inappropriate, so Ukrainian and international anti-war art were quickly brought together.

Just before the press opening, a sculpture by the British superstar Damien Hirst was installed: Miserable war, from 2004. Hirst also made a special work of art in yellow and blue, as did the equally well-known Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. These big names (Marina Abramovic are also present, as is the French street artist JR) are mainly the ‘lures’ on the poster here, the exhibition revolves around Ukrainian art, which responds directly to the war.

Lesia Chomenko, paintings from the series 'Max in the Army' (2022), in the exhibition 'This Is Ukraine'.  Statue Anna van Leeuwen

Lesia Chomenko, paintings from the series ‘Max in the Army’ (2022), in the exhibition ‘This Is Ukraine’.Statue Anna van Leeuwen

The gigantic paintings made by Lesia Chomenko, 42, of civilians who have taken up arms to defend their country are immediately striking. It started with a portrait of her own husband, Max, it says in the room text, which she made after she and her daughter Kiev fled, and he went into fights.

Works of art by the folk artist Maria Prymachenko will also be exhibited here, but they had not yet arrived in Venice during the press opening. It concerns two gouaches that were rescued from the burning museum by a man who lived nearby, it appears from the hall text. They will be there on Thursday at the festive opening, where President Zelensky will speak to the guests via video link.

Photographer Yevgenia Belorusets (40), who lives in Kiev, kept a diary for the German magazine from the beginning of the war of the mirror† Her texts and pictures are included This is Ukraine exhibited. She herself also came to Venice from Kiev via Berlin. It feels unreal, she says: ‘It’s strange, the beauty of the city does not touch me as during previous visits. My whole picture of reality has been changed by the war. ‘

In 2015, Belorusets was one of the artists participating in the Ukrainian group exhibition at the Biennale HOPE† She showed in her photos how Ukrainians in areas occupied by Russia tried to continue their everyday lives. Hope is still there, she says: “The idea of ​​hope is very powerful. Ukraine will survive and we will rebuild our country. The fact that the war is being felt even here at the Biennale is a sign that the war concerns us all.”

Ukrainian pavilion. 23/4 to 27/11, Arsenale di Venezia, Venice.

Piazza Ucraina. 23/4 to 27/11, Giardini della Biennale, Venice.

This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom. 23/4 to 7/8/2022, Scuola Grande della Misericordia, Cannaregio, Venice.

Logistical problems

Not only was it very difficult to get Ukrainian works of art to the Biennale, the presentation of Kazakhstan is also struggling with logistical problems due to the war. During the opening of the exhibition, the works of art were still lying in trucks on the border with Georgia. The main exhibition ‘Due to the Invasion’ lacks a large work of art by the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón (1967-1999), from the collection of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. However, a life-size rendering of the painted triptych The blessing to see.

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