In the second part of her essay on the underrepresentation of contemporary Ukrainian art in the West before the Russian invasion, Kateryna Botanova focuses on the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Looking back on the overflight planned for the 2019 Biennale by the Ukrainian mega transport aircraft Mriya, which has since been destroyed by the Russians, she questions the Biennale’s representational logic of the nation. And she again points to the blind spots that continue to shape not only Europe’s art market, but Europe’s understanding of “its” East. Read the first part of the essay here.
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: super-powers and empires do not disappear completely; they can become silent for a moment if forced to do so, but they will not let go of their space and, through this, of their presence and visibility. Is flipping the bird all we can do against it?
In 2022 the 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 retaining space for it; Russia doing business as usual while being quite sure that its presence in the global cultural space is secure no matter what it does; Ukraine fighting on every front, including the cultural one.
It would sound like a plot for a pathetic novel or a provocative art project if it wasn’t so real. While the Russian pavilion, built in 1914 with the money of Ukrainian art collector and patron of the arts Bohdan Khanenko, stays closed due to the refusal to participate on the side of the curator and the artists, the Ukrainian pavilion becomes more than a space and even more than an artwork, a testament to the tremendous efforts, risks, and persistence of its curators, artist, and the entire team.
Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta by Kharkiv artist Pavlo Makov is an object consisting of a system of copper funnels channeling water from top to bottom, so that the flow gradually diminishes. It is installed in one of the pass-through spaces in Arsenale, rented by the countries that do not own a pavilion in Giardini but still want to be close to the physical center of the Biennale. Through the surrounding story, the Fountain becomes a narrative of resilience and emancipation, a symbol for the fight for cultural and political agency, calling for solidarity and care.
As the water runs through the funnels, splitting itself in smaller and smaller streams, it carries multiple overlapping voices, some leading thirty years into the past, some referring to days in late February, early March of 2022. Two curatorial statements connect these two timeframes. The first one, written before the war, provides an insight into the history of the artwork, which started in the mid-1990s in the city of Kharkiv, which, at the time, went through major alterations and disruptions of public space. (This situation will be familiar to all the inhabitants of the post-Soviet urban spaces of the 1990s.) There, ‘exhaustion’ referred to a neoliberal takeover of the urban infrastructure, its livability perverted and exhausted by drive for profit.
The second, written on the thirty-second day of the war, situates itself in an already drastically devastated Kharkiv, home town to the artist and one of the curators. (Fortunately, this experience is unfamiliar to most fellow Eastern Europeans.) This fountain inverts the natural flow of water to form an image of the inverted course of history, which right now seems to flow backward toward to the “never again” promises that followed after the end of WWII. At the same time, it stays quite literal and factual, as much as an artwork can: a signifier for the here-and-now condition of an utter exhaustion – of people (but also of places, objects, memories, hopes) run over by the war.
Connected to both of these statements there are personal stories. Maria Lanko, one of the curators, packed the work of art in the trunk of her car in the first days of war and drove west to get it to Milan and then to Venice. Lizaveta German, another curator, prepared to give birth to her first child in one of Kyiv’s bomb shelters but left at the last moment as the city was increasingly hit by missiles. She delivered her son in Lviv and went to Venice with him. Borys Filonenko, also a curator, escaped collapsing Kharkiv for Lviv to keep working on the catalog of the pavilion, to later join his colleagues and the artist in Venice. Pavlo Makov, the artist, spent the first weeks of the war in the bomb shelter in Kharkiv before he and his family succeeded with their escape.
How to Deconstruct a Pavilion
Maybe a story of the artwork and the people around it escaping the atrocities of war to get to the Biennale in Venice would better fit in a book or a movie than in the biggest art biennial. Or is it a clash of different realities, different geopolitical dimensions and, therefore, different artistic contexts we are dealing with here?
In one perspective, the idea of national pavilions appears obsolete and outdated. It locks the artist into the shell of ‘national representation,’ which is why it needs to be deconstructed (Hans Haake’s Germania in German pavilion, 1993), inverted (Roman Ondak’s Loop in Czech and Slovak pavilion, 2009), swapped (French and German pavilions, 2013), given to local indigenous peoples (Nordic pavilion renamed Sámi pavilion in 2022) or transeuropean minorities (Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ Re-enchanting the World in Polish pavilion, 2022), or to the neighbors who do not have one (the Netherlands giving their Giardini pavilion to Estonia in 2022).
Yet, in the other, (re)presentation at an international platform means voicing one’s right 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 the sovereignty and agency are left in peace, respected, and cared for.
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 European East as long as they volunteer to deconstruct or redefine idea of ‘national,’ and allows all others to make all possible sacrifices just to get an entry ticket.
A Shadow of a Dream
Three years ago (and almost three years before the war) the Ukrainian pavilion in Venice, curated by the artists collective Open Group, bore a title The Shadow of Dream Cast Upon Giardini della Biennale. On 9 May, during the opening of Biennale, the largest cargo plane in the world, called Mriya (The Dream), was supposed to fly over Giardini and cast a shadow. On board of this plane would have been a hard drive with the registry of 1,143 Ukrainian artists and art groups that responded to the curators’ open call and sent in their portfolios to be participants in the Venice Biennale.
Of course, the plane did not fly. The flight was impossible due to a number of bureaucratic complications, but it did not really matter. (Now it is forever impossible: the plane Mriya was hit by Russian missiles in the first weeks of the war and is 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. The Open Group interweaved the references to 9 May, Soviet Victory day, which used to separate the Soviet WWII discourse from that of the West and until recently still connected many countries from the former USSR, with an image of the ‘biggest cargo plane in the world’ to signify the never-ending and ever-losing competitiveness that Ukraine as a 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 of the power structures in place in the global art world and their seductiveness. Curators played with the dream of being from an important and recognized country, even if it was only because of the production of the biggest cargo plane or just through ‘casting a shadow’; the dream of having one’s proper, even if elusive, place in a row of all other countries whose pavilions have been a part of the Biennale for a hundred years; the dream of writing the country and its artists’ names into the history of world art. At the same time, the long list of 1,143 artists deconstructed both the idea of ‘national representation’ and bestowed symbolic value upon them.
In their curatorial statement, the Open Group referred to yet another tool of creating hierarchies and inequalities by mapping and articulating through the external Western gaze: 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.”
Referring to the exhibition Steppes of Europe, the very first exhibition of independent, ‘alternative,’ and non-conformist art from Ukraine that took place in Warsaw in 1993, the curators continue: “It is those same steppes of Europe and just 25 years later they are totally blanketed in snow — 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 to us? Or, to be blunt, by the influential professional community and the global market?”
Steppes of Europe
As the Open Group stated, the MoMA publication was far from being the only survey of 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 showed only a passing interest. If between 1990 and 2000 this could be explained by an oversight or a 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 expansions of the EU 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, the historical wrongs were done justice to—and the former West focused on reimagining itself as a 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 in the MoMA anthology mentioned above notes “the economic realignment between Western and Eastern European countries” that 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.” However, Austrian investments, based on historic and cultural ties, stopped at the border of the EU, in Eastern Galicia.
What was left between the eastern borders of the EU and economic interests of European heavyweights on the one hand and Russia on the other was a blind spot of multiple epistemological failures. A failure to grasp and name these lands and people that fell through the gap of whatever was east of Eastern Europe; a failure to acknowledge the political and economic drivers under this mapping exercise, where the East of Eastern Europe was seen as Russian zone of influence; a failure to admit 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-à-vis the Global South did not weaken the introspection of the ‘former West’ and its power of naming, mapping, and silencing the east of Eastern Europe, did not help to acknowledge how historical sentiments and economic interests influenced and inflected both mental geography and an art market to exclude Ukraine.
Ukraine today is in a twofold decolonial struggle. On the main front, it is fighting a brutal and violent war against a Russian invader, an outdated empire that cannot let go its imperial territorial and cultural claims and is ready to eradicate the whole country for them. But Ukraine also needs to take a stand against a West that still retains the power to name, to (re)present, and to decide whose sovereignty is worth fighting for. As Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan has put it in one of his recent works, done in the bomb shelter of Kyiv: “We Are the Price.”