As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, with the latter’s capital Kyiv now under siege, Ukrainian artists, both at home and abroad, face an uncertain future.
The situation in Ukraine has the potential to disrupt the country’s participation at the Venice Biennale, the world’s biggest art exhibition, which is set to open in April. This week, the organizers of the Ukrainian Pavilion said they had been forced to suspend preparation for their exhibition, which was set to feature the work of Pavlo Makov. “We are not in immediate danger, but the situation is critical and changes every minute. Presently, we are not able to continue working on the project of the pavilion due to the danger to our lives,” Makov and curators Lizaveta German, Maira Lanko, and Borys Filonenko announced on Twitter on Thursday.
According to Artnet News, Makov is sheltering with family in the beleaguered city Kharkiv, while all three curators remain in the capital. The rest of the curatorial team lives in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine.
“We are determined to represent Ukraine at the 59th Venice Biennale, but not everything depends on us,” the statement continued. “We cannot confirm yet that our project will be completed, but we can promise that we will do everything possible to save unique artwork produced by Pavlo Makov and our big team specially for the upcoming biennial during the past five months, and to represent Ukraine in the international contemporary art scene the way it deserves to be represented.”
In a statement of support, the Venice Biennale described itself as “a place where all peoples meet in art and culture,” saying it “stands by all those who are suffering as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine.”
The Biennale continued: “We invoke peace and firmly reject all forms of warfare and violence, confirming that La Biennale remains a place of dialogue between institutions, artists and citizens of every country, language, ethnicity and religion. We express the hope that international diplomacy will find the strength to pursue a shared peaceful solution in the shortest time possible.”
Ukrainian curators planned to present an updated version of Makov’s 1995 work The Fountain of Exhaustion, a three-meter-square wall installation consisting of 78 bronze funnels. The piece was to be sent to Venice in two weeks, but plans were canceled when Russia initiated its land and air assault on Ukraine following weeks of heightened tensions at the country’s eastern border. All flights to and from Ukraine have since been grounded.
“We call on the international artistic community to use all our influence to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the Ukrainian pavilion team said.
Artists in Ukraine and Abroad Call for Aid
In the wake of Russia’s siege of Ukraine, antiwar protests have broken out in cities worldwide. Demonstrations in Moscow have been met with swift, brutal suppression from Russian military and police, with countless protestors arrested. Despite the violence, several prominent Russian arts figures have decried the invasion. Nadya Tolokonnikov, a founding member of Pussy Riot and outspoken critic of Putin’s regime, has launched a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), a crypto community that crowd-sources decisions, to raise funds for Ukrainian organization that are aiding displaced and imperiled Ukrainians.
“Sanctions against Kremlin were not solid enough when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. So he jailed Navalny, turned lives of Pussy Riot and other Russian activists into hell, forced many of us to leave our home behind and run, and now he started a war in Europe. When is enough,” reads a statement posted on Pussy Riot’s Twitter.
AES+F, a collective of Russian artists Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes, who represented Russia at the 2007 Venice Biennale, shared a black square on Instagram. Popularized during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the gesture symbolizes solidarity and protest. The Russian government has warned of “legal repercussions” for anyone participating in antiwar demonstrations.
In a statement posted to Instagram, Serbian artist Marina Abramović voiced her support for Ukraine: “Last year I worked in Ukraine, and I got to know the people there. They’re proud they’re strong and they’re dignified. I have full solidarity with them in this impossible day. An attack on Ukraine is an attack on all of us, is an attack on humanity. It has to be stopped.”
The German news outlet Deutsche Welle, interviewed several Ukrainian figures the day before war broke out, many of which added calls for Western artists to take a stand against Russia.
“Unfortunately, as writers and artists in general, we have less influence on the situation than our colleagues did during World War I and World War II,” author Andrei Kurkov said. “However, this does not mean that one should remain silent. What I miss is a clear positioning of the leading artists from other countries of the world. Where are the voices of artists from France, Germany, the US? It is up to the artists to shake up their governments.”
In a series of interviews with the Art Newspaper, several Russian cultural figures lamented the invasion of Ukraine as inevitably increasing the isolation of Russia’s contemporary art scene from its European peers. Dmitry Vilensky, a member of the Russian art collective Chto Delat, said that the government had successfully suppressed most means to protest the war.
“It’s now almost impossible to protest against what is going on,” he said, adding: “Most people in the Russian contemporary art scene do not support the reactionary turn in Russian cultural politics and certainly do not support any military [action] and colonialism in Ukraine, but because of strict control of the public sphere, it is difficult to articulate your disagreement publicly, apart from posts on social media.”
Museums and Artists Are Moved to Action
Some artists in Ukraine made new work as a form of protest. In Kyiv, Ukrainian-Russian conceptual artist Aljoscha staged a protest in front of the Motherland Monument, which is property of the city’s National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The sculpture is one of the few enduring symbols of Soviet Communism in Ukraine. (The country outlawed the display of most similar statues in public spaces in 2015.) The massive statue holds a sword in one hand and in the other a shield embossed with the hammer and sickle.
Aljoscha stood naked holding two pink sculptures made of plastic, acrylic, and fiberglass. The two forms represented a core tenet of his practice, “biosim,” which that artist has defined as “extending life to non-living beings” and thus “constructing new forms of life.”
“There [are] no justified conflicts, all of them are criminal, causing violence and pain to all kind[s] of biological beings,” Aljoscha said in a statement. “Any kind of human ideology is violent.”
Foreigners were also spurred to act, with some pulling artworks and exhibitions from Russian museums. Constant Dullaart had the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow take away a work of his that featured the Ukrainian flag. And Ragnar Kjartansson shuttered a show at the GES-2 in Moscow early, according to a statement posted by the museum on social media.
Online Resources to Help Ukraine Circulate
As the Ukraine invasion intensifies, so too does a humanitarian crisis that has seen more than 100,000 Ukrainians displaced and imperiled. Nonprofit organizations are providing online resources to help those affected by the war, while several art institutions have pitched in ways to aid Ukraine. In an Instagram post, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam shared a list of organizations accepting donations.
Others in the cultural sphere have stressed the importance of solidarity among art institutions during a war exacerbated by propaganda and misinformation. In a piece for Artnet News, Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, director general of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex in Kyiv, warns of the global consequences of Russia’s actions.
“Remind yourselves and remind others that this war is a war against the whole civilized world, free thought, democratic values, and truth,” she wrote.
Addressing the responsibility of art institutions as records of history, Ostrovska-Liuta said: “Include information about the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine into your public talks—mention this invasion at art and literature events that you attend or participate in. Bring this up at your exhibitions.”