The exhibition, organized by the curators of the Ukrainian Pavilion in Venice – Borys Filonenko, Lizaveta German and Maria Lanko -, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund (UEAF) will feature artists drawn from the Wartime Art Archive of the UEAF were selected. The artworks, collected from social media, will be printed out as posters and displayed in a space designed by Ukrainian architect Dana Kosmina, which will be regularly updated with new works in the prestigious Giardini section of the Biennale. (The Giardini include several country pavilions, including the US pavilion.)
According to curator and UEAF CEO Ilya Zabolotnyi, it is important to highlight Ukrainian artists not only to draw attention to the war but also to assert Ukraine’s cultural independence. “We’re not just fighting for democracy. We fight for identity,” Zabolotnyi said in a joint Zoom interview from Kyiv with Olga Balashova, an arts administrator and curator with whom Zabolotnyi shares oversight of the UEAF. “The Russian imperial narrative clearly wants to erase that.”
Zabolotnyi added that on February 21, as Putin tried to justify the impending invasion, “one of the key messages of his statement is that there is no Ukraine. There is no Ukrainian culture. It’s part of Russia. Therefore, one of the most important moments for creators and their vibrant, living voices is not to disappear.”
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The Venice Biennale, one of the premiere events of the international art world, began in 1895 and was often held at the Center of political disputes, wars and other current events. In 1936, several nations, including the United States, boycotted the event in protest against Italy’s Fascist government, and in 1940 the Biennale went ahead despite the Second World War – an event which art critic Lawrence Alloway described as “as impressive as it was bizarre.” As particularly extreme reaction to political events, protests took the place of an exhibition after the putsch by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1974. Looking back on 2015, Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor called the 1974 protests “one of the few instances where Venice faced simultaneous catastrophe and at that moment launched a radical critique,” and asked, “You can imagine doing that today? ”
“Piazza Ucraina” comes after Ukraine’s biennial curators redoubled their efforts to ensure their country’s pavilion would go ahead at all, with Lanko personally transporting several parts of a kinetic sculpture by participating artist Pavlo Makov from Kyiv. It also comes after the withdrawal of Russian artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, and curator Raimundas Malasauskas, a Lithuanian who worked on the Russian Pavilion, from the Biennial in February.
The showcase shows works by almost 40 artists who managed to produce art despite the war. The earliest work in the exhibition will be a work by Kateryna Lisovenko, made shortly after Putin’s 21st of February Speech. It shows a mother and child both raising their middle fingers in rebuke.
Balashova has been collecting the artworks since early March and says she feels very comfortable with the work. “When I collect them with my colleagues, it’s like a healing practice,” she says. “When you see these images that symbolize this emotional state, you can understand what is happening to you.” Viewing the works online adds another layer of solidarity, she says. “You see how many people comment on the art and express that they could never imagine that what they see is what they feel.”
Some of the invited artists follow a quasi-documentary approach. For example, Kinder Album will contribute watercolors depicting refugees squeezing onto trains and women being abused by Russian soldiers, as well as a painting of nude figures pushing away a tank. Matviy Vaisberg’s offer includes quiet, almost abstract Mixed media scenes from a series called ‘Travel Diary’, while Vlada Ralko’s visceral graphic drawings entitled ‘Lviv Diary’ bring the viewer chillingly close to the violence in the artist’s hometown.
Those who come to Venice for vibrant art will also get a taste of a less glossy reality.
Zabolotnyi says he wakes up every day in Kyiv and marks not the day of the year but the day of the war. “Everything can change drastically in any minute,” he says. “So it’s a very visible horizon one day.” However, looking at this art, he finds these instantaneous artifacts oddly appropriate. “When you reduce your life to a day’s planning and work with material that can basically last for centuries, it’s a very close connection,” he says. “It’s a step into eternity.”