VENETI — “What happened to freedom of expression in Italy?” shouted one of about 50 onlookers Wednesday morning as a guard stood in front of a lone anti-war protester at the Venice Biennale, trying to block his message.
Berlin-based Russian artist Vadim Zakharov had just unfurled a banner in front of the blinded national pavilion where he represented his country at the 2013 Biennale. The two artists and curator who would be presenting work for Russia in this year’s edition moved in. February after Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, the pavilion has been closed.
Standing still and silent, Zakharov, a member of the radical Moscow Conceptualist art movement in the late 1970s, held a handwritten message that read, in part, “I protest against the propaganda of Russia and the Russian invasion.”
The Italian guard, a member of the Biennale’s own security services, immediately called for reinforcements. The banner was confiscated, but after polite negotiations, the protester was allowed to interview reporters for about 20 minutes and then left.
“I’m not in Red Square,” said a smiling Zakharov as he walked away through the Biennale’s garden district, among those lucky enough to have tickets to the four-day preview of what is arguably the world’s most prestigious and elegant art event. . The fashionably-sneaker crowd may not have been quite ready for political activism at the time.
This year’s Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs until November 27, is the first since 1942 to be held as a war of foreign aggression rages in Europe. The main exhibition was inspired by 20th-century surrealism, and the event certainly had a surreal feel to it: while the cool crowd of contemporary art meandered among the exhibits, Ukraine was ravaged by missiles and there was hardly a Russian in sight. But curators, collectors, dealers and artists staged numerous events to support Ukraine, and a passionate personal speech by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, finally shook the Biennale out of its reverie.
The Biennale’s main exhibition, entitled “The Milk of Dreams”, featuring more than 200 artists, mainly female and non-binary, was selected by Cecilia Alemani, the director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York. Taking the imaginative world of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington as its starting point, the curatorial theme of ‘a world that is free, brimming with possibilities’ seemed to have been overtaken by events. But the expansive two-room presentation’s emphasis on contemporary artists challenging the “supposed universal ideal of the white, male ‘Man of Reason'” was absolutely in tune with the moment.
“These are some of the more explicitly violent works I’ve created,” said Los Angeles-based artist Christina Quarles, speaking for “Hangin’ There Baby,” a large canvas from the show’s 2021 that depicts mutilated body parts hanging from a tree. evoke disturbing memories of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series.
“People say, what’s the relevance of art when so many real things happen?” said Quarles, one of the international art world’s most esteemed young painters. “One of the things that art can do is make these unexpected connections.”
On March 2, in response to the Russian invasion, the Biennale announced that in this year’s edition it would “cooperate in every possible way with the national participation of Ukraine”. At the same time, it said the Biennale “would not accept the presence of official delegations, institutions or persons associated in any capacity with the Russian government at any of its events.”
Russian visitors – and their yachts – were notable absentees this year. In 2011, Roman Abramovich infuriated local Venetians by docking his nearly 120-foot megayacht in waters just a three-minute walk from the Biennale. Abramovic is now one of several Russian billionaires subject to international sanctions, and several of their yachts have been seized by authorities around the world.
“I haven’t heard any Russians,” Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian-American curator, said in an interview at a cafe on the Zattere, the southern edge of Venice. “We would have had hordes of it by now. In the golden days, Abramovich’s yacht would arrive, and then there would be another, and another,” he added.
“International contemporary art was seen in Russia as a symbol of modernity, a return to the West. Now it is a symbol of political subversion,” Akinsha said. He pointed to the nearby VAC Foundation, a contemporary art museum in a waterfront palazzo founded in 2017 by Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, who also funded the massive GES-2 museum in Moscow. VAC’s wood and bronze doors were securely locked on Wednesday, and the museum said in an email that its operations were “suspended at this time.”
While the Russians stay away, the Biennale and the art world are doing what they can to help Ukraine. Ukrainian steel magnate and art collector Victor Pinchuk, who spent millions in recent years on trophies from international stars such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and also founded a contemporary art center in Kiev, was the driving force behind the exhibition “This is Ukraine : Defending Freedom”. in the stately, recently restored Scuola Grande della Misericordia in northern Venice.
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
An official Biennale satellite event, the two-part presentation features works specially commissioned by Pinchuk van established international names such as Hirst, Marina Abramovic and Olafur Eliasson, as well as from Ukrainian contemporary artists, including the internationally exhibited Nikita Kadan. It also displays two paintings by the self-taught 20th-century folk artist Maria Prymachenko, whose dozens of works were destroyed by Russian troops in the early days of the war.
At the Thursday evening opening of “This is Ukraine,” co-hosted by the country’s Ministry of Culture, those in attendance received a rousing, live-streamed speech from Zelensky, who vividly described the horrors his people endured. Dressed in his signature khaki fleece, with a digital Ukrainian flag waving behind him, Zelensky said: “There are no tyrannies that wouldn’t try to limit art. Because they can see the power of art. Art can tell the world things that otherwise cannot be shared.”
Two hours later, in the even more stately Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with its famous paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto, the virtuoso auctioneer Simon de Pury held a gala sale of 15 works by some of the most famous names in the contemporary art world for the benefit of museums and charitable organizations. in Ukraine. More than 200 people attended the event, with tickets up to 10,000 euros. The auction itself raised €1.2 million, with a top price of €375,000 for a 2021 painting by Richard Prince. Another online auction of more than 40 works will close on Sunday.
“We need to present something,” said Zakharov, the protesting artist, as he walked away from the Russian pavilion on Wednesday. Smartphones informed passing Biennale-goers that the Russian army had threatened to “eliminate” the remaining defenders of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“The world is getting crazier,” Zakharov said. “We’re doing what we can.”