This year, my personal Venice Biennale started with a line-up of pictures on social media featuring a middle finger against a background of the closed and empty Russian pavilion. Here it was, European geopolitics in a nutshell: superpowers and empires don’t disappear completely; they may turn silent for a moment, if forced to do so, but will not let go of their space, thereby retaining their presence and visibility. Is flipping the bird all we can do against it?
The 2022 Venice Biennale is a living metaphor for the power relations behind the war that ravages Ukraine: the West doing business as usual, pretending that Russia is not there but keeping the space open; Russia doing its own business as usual while being quite sure that its presence in the global cultural space is secured no matter what it does; and Ukraine fighting on every front, including culturally.
It would sound like the plot for a pathetic novel or a provocative art project if it wasn’t so real. While the Russian pavilion, built in 1914 with Ukrainian art collector and patron of the arts Bohdan Khanenko’s money, remains closed due to the curator and artists’ refusal to participate, the Ukrainian pavilion has become more than a space and even more than an artwork. It tells the story of its curators, artist and entire team’s tremendous effort, risks and persistence.
Kharkiv artist Pavlo Makov’s Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta consists of a system of copper funnels channelling water from top to bottom, the flow gradually diminishing. The piece is installed in one of the pass-through spaces in Arsenale, rented by the countries that don’t own a pavilion in Giardini but still want to be close to the Biennale’s physical centre. Through its surrounding story, the fountain becomes a narrative of resilience, emancipation, and fight for cultural and political agency, calling for solidarity and care.
As the water runs through the funnels, splitting itself into smaller and smaller streams, it carries multiple, overlapping voices, some alluding to thirty years ago, others to the days in late February/early March 2022. Two curatorial statements connect these timeframes. The first, written before the war, provides an insight into the artwork’s history from the mid-1990s in the city of Kharkiv, when it went through major alterations and disruptions to its public space – a situation familiar to all inhabitants of 1990s post-Soviet urban spaces. There, ‘exhaustion’ referred to the neoliberal takeover of urban infrastructure, its liveability perverted and exhausted by a drive for profit.
The second, written on the thirty-second day of the war, situates itself in the hometown of the artist and one of the curators, an already drastically devastated Kharkiv – an experience fortunately unfamiliar to most Eastern Europeans. In reversing the natural flow of water, the fountain represents the inverted course of history, which right now seems to flow backwards toward the ‘never again’ promises vouched at the end of the Second World War. At the same time, the piece stays quite literal and factual, as much as an artwork can: a signifier of the here-and-now condition of utter exhaustion – of people (but also of places, objects, memories, hopes) run over by war.
Connected to both statements are personal stories. Maria Lanko, one of the curators, packed the piece into the trunk of her car on the first days of war and drove west, first to Milan and then to Venice. Lizaveta German, another curator, prepared to give birth to her first child in a Kyiv bomb shelter but left at the last moment as the city was increasingly being hit by missiles. She delivered her son in Lviv and took him with her to Venice. Curator Borys Filonenko escaped collapsing Kharkiv for Lviv to keep working on pavilion’s catalogue, joining his colleagues in Venice later. Pavlo Makov meanwhile spent the first weeks of the war in a Kharkiv shelter before he and his family managed to escape.
How to deconstruct a pavilion
Maybe a story of the artwork and people around it, escaping the atrocities of war to get to the Biennale, would better suit a book or a movie rather than a mega art show. Or is it a clash of different realities, different geopolitical dimensions and, therefore, different artistic contexts we are dealing with here?
In one story, the idea of national pavilions is obsolete and outdated. It locks the artist into a shell of ‘national representation’ and needs to be deconstructed (Hans Haake’s Germania, German pavilion, 1993), inverted (Roman Ondak’s Loop, Czech and Slovak pavilion, 2009), swapped (French and German pavilions, 2013), given to Indigenous peoples (Nordic pavilion renamed Sámi pavilion, 2022) or trans-European minorities (Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ Re-enchanting the World, Polish pavilion, 2022), or to neighbours who didn’t have one (the Netherlands gave its Giardini pavilion to Estonia in 2022).
Yet, in another, (re)presentation at an international platform means voicing one’s rights to exist, one’s agency to speak for oneself. Here, the national pavilion is a sign of sovereignty and equality that can become obsolete only after sovereignty and agency are left in peace, respect and care.
In this sense, the Venice Biennale is a perfect case study for the ambiguities of the allegedly post-national world firmly defined and articulated by the West. It tolerates empires as long as they do not threaten it directly, accepts the Global South and East Europe as long as they volunteer to deconstruct or redefine the idea of ‘national’, and allows all others to make every possible sacrifice just to get an entry ticket.
Three years ago (and almost three years before the war) the Ukrainian pavilion in Venice, curated by the artists collective Open Group, bore the title The Shadow of Dream Cast upon Giardini della Biennale. On 9 May, during the opening, the largest cargo plane in the world, called Mriya (The Dream), was supposed to fly over Giardini and cast a shadow. On board this plane would have been a hard drive with a register of the 1,143 Ukrainian artists and art groups that responded to the curators’ open call to send in their portfolios and become Biennale participants.
Of course, the plane didn’t fly. The flight was impossible due to several bureaucratic complications, but it didn’t really matter. (Now it will be forever impossible: the Mriya was hit by Russian missiles in the first weeks of the war and has been deemed irreparable.) But the story of the pavilion was not about the flight. It was about the dream itself.
Yet again, or, in this case, also then, the Ukrainian pavilion was a multilayered story, a critical narrative rather than a space or time-based artwork. Open Group interwove references: 9 May, Soviet Victory Day, which used to separate the Soviet Second World War discourse from that of the West and until recently still connected many countries from the former USSR; an image of the ‘biggest cargo plane in the world’, signifying a never-ending and ever-losing competitiveness that Ukraine, as part of ‘the catch-up world’, is locked into; and an attempt to create a truly open and horizontal art space where everybody can participate, and no selection or judgment is provided whatsoever.
The Shadow of Dream was a strong critique on the power structures in place in the global art world and their seductiveness. Curators played with the dream: of being from an important and recognised country, even if it was because of the production of the biggest cargo plane or just through ‘casting a shadow’; of having one’s proper, even if elusive, place alongside other countries whose pavilions have been a part of the Biennale for a hundred years, unlike Ukraine; and of writing the country and its artists names into world art history. At the same time, the long list of artists deconstructed both the idea of ‘national representation’ and the symbolic value bestowed upon them.
In their curatorial statement, Open Group referred to other tools of creating hierarchies and inequalities – mapping and articulating artwork through the external Western gaze as in Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology, a MoMA publication from the Primary Documents series, published in 2018:
A careful reader flipping through the end pages of this book would land on maps of the cities that the members of the research team and curators from the institution visited. Amidst all the notable capitals of central-eastern European countries (and not just capitals), a glaringly blank space appears in the place of Ukraine. It is those same steppes of Europe and just 25 years later they are totally blanketed in snow (1).
Even the capital is hidden under a thick blanket.
This is not the first instance of an authoritative global institution’s exclusion of Ukrainian art, seemingly from its own context as a key community in the region. And, of course, the question arises: why is our legitimization by institutionally developed countries so important? Or, to put it bluntly, by the influential professional community and the global market?
Steppes of Europe
As Open Group stated, the MoMA publication was far from being the only surveying look at art of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 that excluded Ukraine. In fact, until very recently, all major exhibitions, collections, conferences and various art mappings either ignored Ukrainian art completely or only showed a passing interest. If between 1990 and 2000 this could be explained as an oversight or human error based on the vastness of lands, peoples, contexts and arts that needed to be ‘discovered’ and incorporated into the ‘normality’ of the global art world, what about ‘the snow blanket’ that remained between Warsaw, Vilnius and Moscow in the thorough research conducted in 2010s, involving professionals from the region and extensive research trips?
One might acknowledge that with the EU’s expansions in 2004, 2007 and 2013 the case of Eastern Europe was perceived closed. Even though the new members were still seen as somehow lesser Europeans, historical wrongs were righted – and the former West focused on reimagining itself as the Global North and being burdened with doing justice to the Global South.
One could also follow British art critic and historian Claire Bishop who in her essay from the same MoMA anthology notes, ‘the economic realignment between Western and Eastern European countries’ slowly grew after 1989/91. Baltic states were drawn into a ‘hip and thriving “Nordic art scene”’ through the economic expansion of Germany and Scandinavian countries into the region. ‘The other gravitation hub for cultural funding’, Bishop explains, ‘was (and remains) Austria, which set its sights on Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in a similar attempt to consolidate economic hegemony’ (2). However, Austrian investments, based on historic and cultural ties, stopped on the border of the EU, in Eastern Galicia.
What was left between the eastern borders of the EU and economic interests of European heavy-weights, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, was a blind spot of multiple epistemological failures: the failure to grasp and name these lands and people that fell into the gap of whatever was east of Eastern Europe; the failure to acknowledge the political and economic drivers under this mapping exercise, where the East of Eastern Europe was seen as Russia’s zone of influence; and the failure to recognize the political consequences of previous failures.
All the emancipatory discourses that enabled the start of the debate on decolonization and moral responsibilities of the Global North vis a vis the Global South, didn’t help the introspection of the ‘former West’ and its power of naming, mapping and silencing the East of Eastern Europe, didn’t help to acknowledge how historical sentiments and economic interests influenced and inflexed both mental geography and an art market to exclude Ukraine.
The war that Ukraine is fighting today is a two-fold decolonial war. On the main front, it is a brutal and unjust war against Russia, an outdated empire that cannot let go of its imperial territorial and cultural claims, and is ready to eradicate the whole country for them. And, on the other, not deadly yet crucial, it is a decolonial stand against the West that still holds the reins to the power to naming, (re)presenting and deciding whose sovereignty is worth fighting for. As Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan puts it in one of his recent works made in a Kyiv bomb shelter: ‘WE ARE THE PRICE’.
- This is a reference to the exhibition Steppes of Europe, the very first show of independent, ‘alternative,’ and non-conformist art from Ukraine that took place in 1993 in the Zamek Ujazdowski Art Centre, Warsaw, curated by Polish-Ukrainian-Canadian Jerzy Onuch.
- Claire Bishop, Introduction to ‘Exhibiting the “East” since 1989’, in Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology, ed. Anna Janevski, Roxana Marcoci, Ksenia Nouril. MoMA, NY, 2018, p.68.
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna.
The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City Council, ZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.