At the Venice Biennale, the Russian-Ukrainian war interrupts the dream

VENICE — “What happened to freedom of expression in Italy? shouted one of the roughly 50 spectators on Wednesday morning as a security 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 shuttered national pavilion where he represented his country at the 2013 Biennale. The two artists and the curator who were to present works for Russia in the edition of This year withdrawn in February after Russia invaded Ukraine. The pavilion has since been closed.

Still and silent, Zakharov, a member of Moscow’s radical conceptual art movement in the late 1970s, held a handwritten message that read in part: “I protest against Russian propaganda 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 conduct interviews with reporters for about 20 minutes and then left.

“I’m not in Red Square,” Zakharov said with a smile as he walked through the grounds of the Biennale garden, among those lucky enough to have tickets to the premiere of four days of what is perhaps the most prestigious and elegant artistic event in the world. The fashionable sneaker crowd might not have been quite ready for political activism at the time.

This year’s Venice Biennale, which opens to the public Saturday and ends November 27, is the first since 1942 to be held while a war of foreign aggression is raging in Europe. The main exhibit was inspired by 20th century surrealism, and there was definitely a surreal feel to the event: As the crowd of cool contemporary art wandered among the exhibits, Ukraine was pounded by missiles , and there was hardly a Russian in sight. But curators, collectors, dealers and artists were organizing many events in support of Ukraine, and an impassioned personal address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally shook the Biennale out of its reverie.

The Biennale’s main exhibition, titled “The Milk of Dreams” and featuring more than 200 artists, mostly women and non-binary, was selected by Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York. Taking as its starting point the imaginary universe of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, the curatorial theme “a liberated world, overflowing with possibilities” seems to have been overtaken by events. But the sprawling presentation’s focus on two sites on contemporary artists who challenge “the presumed universal ideal of the white, masculine man of reason” was definitely in tune with the moment.

“These are some of the most explicitly violent works I’ve done,” said the Los Angeles-based artist. Christina Quarlesspeaking in front of “Hangin’ There Baby,” a large 2021 canvas from the show that appears to depict mutilated body parts hanging from a tree, evoking unsettling memories of Goya’s “Disasters of War” series.

“People say, what’s the relevance of art when there’s so much real stuff going on?” said Quarles, who is among the most renowned young painters in the international art world. “One of the things that art is able to do is make these unexpected connections.”

On March 2, in response to the Russian invasion, the Biennale announced that he would “collaborate in every way with Ukraine’s national participation” in this year’s edition. At the same time, he said, the Biennale “would not accept the presence at any of its events of official delegations, institutions or persons linked in any capacity to the Russian government”.

Russian visitors – and their yachts – have been notable absentees this year. In 2011, Roman Abramovich local Venetians outraged by mooring his nearly 400-foot megayacht in the waters just a three-minute walk from the Biennale. Abramovic is now one of many Russian billionaires subject to international sanctionsand several of their yachts were seized by authorities around the world.

“I haven’t heard of Russians,” Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian-American curator, said in an interview at a café in Zattere on the southern outskirts of Venice. “By now we would have had hordes of them. On sunny days, Abramovich’s yacht would come, and then there would be another, and another,” he added.

“International contemporary art was perceived 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 palace established in 2017 by Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, which also funded the huge GES-2 Museum in Moscow. The VAC’s wooden and bronze doors were firmly locked on Wednesday, and the museum said in an email that operations were “suspended for the time being.”

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 has spent millions in recent years on trophies from international stars such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and also founded a center for contemporary art in kyiv, was the driving force behind the exhibition”This is Ukraine: Defending Freedomin the majestic Scuola Grande della Misericordia, recently restored, north of Venice.

The Biennale’s official satellite event, the two-part presentation features works specially commissioned by Pinchuk from established international names like Hirst, Marina Abramovic and Olafur Eliasson, as well as contemporary Ukrainian artists including internationally exhibited Nikita Kadan. It also features two paintings by self-taught 20th-century folk artist Maria Prymachenko, dozens of whose works have been destroyed by Russian troops in the early days of the war.

At the Thursday night opening of “This is Ukraine,” co-hosted by the country’s culture ministry, attendees 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 cannot be shared otherwise.

Two hours later, in the most majestic Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with its famous paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto, the virtuoso auctioneer Simon de Pury organized a gala sale of 15 works by some of the most famous names in the world of contemporary art for the benefit of museums and charities in Ukraine. Over 200 people attended the event, with tickets costing up to 10,000 euros. The auction itself brought in €1.2 million, with a maximum price of €375,000 for a 2021 painting by Richard Prince. Another online auction of more than 40 works will end on Sunday.

“We have to present something,” said Zakharov, the protesting artist, as he walked away from the Russian pavilion on Wednesday. Smartphones informed passersby of the Biennale that the Russian army had threatened to “eliminate” the last defenders of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“The world is getting crazier and crazier,” Zakharov said. “We do what we can do.”

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