Every night this week, the sound of an air raid siren rang across the quays of Venice. A stone’s throw from Giardini, the city’s gardens that serve as the heart of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition every two years, celebrated Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadirova took up residence in a small gallery. She hung the Ukrainian flag next to the door, and inside she built an installation that is as simple as it is expressive: on a long table with a white tablecloth lie ten stones exactly in the shape of bread, half of which is actually cut into slices like thin sandwiches.
At the back of the room, a video shows how Kadirova had to leave her studio in Kiev and take up residence in an abandoned hut in a remote region of the western part of the country. The smooth, oval stones of the river flowing there reminded her palianytsiaa typical Ukrainian bread that has taken on a new meaning since the Russian invasion of the country. Palianytsia is a word that the Russian occupiers cannot pronounce correctly, a shibboleth which, according to the artist, ‘separates friends from enemies’. The sandwiches are for sale, the proceeds go to emergency aid to the Ukrainian people.
In the video, the air attack siren goes over the quiet stone landscape by the river, and the same sound was heard three times in one night during the opening days of the 59th Venice Biennale. It’s a wartime biennial. Not that it was not wartime in previous editions – in its 127th anniversary there would not have been an edition without war. Among the countries represented this year with a national pavilion in Venice is Syria, but the air raid siren sounded for Ukraine and it did not stop there. On a lawn in the middle of the Giardini, where the Dutch Rietveld Pavillon is also located, a tall pile of sandbags refers to the way Ukrainians are trying to protect their heritage in their own country. There may not be EU membership, but Ukraine belongs in the historical heart of this art exhibition, an entirely European constellation. The Russian pavilion remained closed this year. Following a one-man operation by Russian artist Vadim Zacharov, who has previously exhibited in the pavilion and is now protesting against his own country, carabinieri are patrolling in front of the entrance.
The question is what the attention of this war on this art platform means. Visitors probably would not have drunk less than a glass of Aperol Spritz. And yet, visibility is of great importance: an international elite, from artists to private bankers and everything in between will take some of the significance of war home with art. So does President Volodimir Zelensky, who seized the opportunity for a speech. On the evening of April 21, he opened an exhibition further inside the city via a video link. Opposite the Dutch pavilion, which this year lent the Rietveld pavilion to Estonia and is located in a church in the northern part of the city, the Pinchuk Art Center from Kiev is located in a medieval school a very urgent exhibition. This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom collects works by Ukrainian artists with works from a number of hotshots, including Damien Hirst and Marina Abramović, who are supposed to attract visitors but themselves occupy a modest position on the second floor.
Everything in this church revolves around the here and now, many of the artists and works of art come directly from war zones. There are two gouaches by Maria Primachenko (1909-1997), of which 25 works of art, kept at the Ivankiv Museum near Kiev, went up in flames during a bombing raid on day four of the invasion. Nikita Kadan expanded its installation from 2015 to include waste from the invasion of Crimea in 2014, waste from Kiev in 2022, evidence of war. Lesia Chomenko portrayed volunteer soldiers, including her own husband, in full detail in a series of monumental paintings. The IT engineer, the chemist, the lawyer and the artist who takes up arms, they know how to touch like painted portraits that no photo can do.
“There are no tyrants who will not try to stop art because they see the power of art,” Zelensky said on a screen in the showroom. He stressed the importance of art, even in wartime, for a massive international art audience: ‘Art can tell the world things that can not be shared in any other way.’ And he talked about the importance, the meaning, and the difficulty of fighting for freedom. “If the whole democratic world is built on the ideas of freedom, why do you feel so alone when you defend freedom?”
It is a question to which no one has an answer, says Zelenski, because it is beyond words. No platform in the world that can express the feelings of the Ukrainian people, no economic report that can document the suffering. But art is ‘the answer to all questions’, according to Zelenski. ‘Support this fight with your art. But also support it with your words and your influence. ‘
Elsewhere in the city went the air raid siren.
This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom, through August 7 at the Pinchuk Art Center in Scuola Grande della Misericordia in Venice, pinchukartcentre.org