Ukraine Pavilion Curators’ Commitment to Exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in the Midst of War
Portrait, from left to right, of Borys Filonenko, Lizaveta German, Maria Lanko, and Pavlo Makov presenting the project of the pavilion of Ukraine for the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych.
At the Ukrainian pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale, artist Pavlo Makov will present The Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta (1995–2022). This kinetic sculpture, which speaks to infrastructural ruins, cultural erasure, climate collapse, and war, will be the focal point of the pavilion in Venice, despite the war in Ukraine, due in large part to the perseverance of the pavilion’s curators: Lizaveta German and Maria Lanko, co-founders of the Kyiv art space Naked Room, and Borys Filonenko, chief founder of IST Publishing. The Fountain of Exhaustion is currently paralleling the lives of those involved in its exhibition—rapidly adapting and responding to uncertain circumstances caused by war.
Art is routinely the first area neutralized in times of imperialism. If we think through other shared and intersecting histories of cultural imperialism, the erasure of one’s cultural history by the invader has been a strategy to justify war. This strategy suggests that the invaded nations have no culture to share or worth remembering beyond what the imperial nation provides. For Ukraine, dislodging their cultural history from Russia’s totalizing narrative is an act of resistance.
Architectural solution of the pavilion by ФОРМА1, 2022. Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych.
As of March 5th, Makov was in Kharkiv with his family. “[He was] spending most of his days and nights in Yermilov Arts Centre which is an official bomb shelter of Kharkiv National University,” Katya Pavlevych, head of communications for the Ukrainian pavilion, wrote me via email. “He kept in touch with the artistic community and talked to the press in four languages. His duty now is to fight on the informational front, letting people know what’s happening in Ukraine.”
In the days that followed, Makov had to leave Kharkiv as the city became increasingly under siege by Russian military forces. The artist is now on the move, traveling between cities and in search of a permanent place to stay. And so, too, is The Fountain.
The Fountain of Exhaustion, which is made up of a series of funnels, is currently being transported in parts, in the custody of curator Lanko, who drove its pieces from Kyiv to western Ukraine. “She was traveling in between different cities before she found a permanent place to stay,” Pavlevych wrote via email. “She is determined to take the pieces of the fountain to Venice and actually just yesterday she crossed the border in Romania. Today she is in Budapest.
Pavlo Makov, The Fountain of Exhaustion, 1995. © Pavlo Makov. Courtesy of the artist.
“Even before the invasion, when the tensions on the border were rising, Maria knew that in the worst-case scenario, it would be her responsibility to evacuate the funnels and move them towards Venice,” Pavlevych continued. “One way or another, we’ve got to be in Venice.…We’re determined to represent Ukraine in Venice and we [will] do everything possible to make it happen,” Pavlevych emphasized on behalf of her team.
“Borys Filonenko is in Lviv working on the final edits to the catalogue of the project and maintaining distant contact with our designer Tania Borzunova who is in Kharkiv,” she continued. “Borys is from Kharkiv as well and it’s heartbreaking for him to see how his city is being bombed. Liza German is nine months pregnant and is due in a couple of days. Nevertheless, she is in Kyiv, talking to the press, trying to make the pavilion happen and fortifying her apartment in case of an airstrike. She is considering leaving the city at this point, so her status may change when this story is out.”
Portrait, from left to right, of Lizaveta German, Borys Filonenko, Pavlo Makov, and Maria Lanko, 2022. Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych.
The curators’ fierce commitment to ensuring the show go on is matched by their immediate objectives and calls for action. “We call for solidarity not only in words but in actions: we ask the artistic society to look back at centuries of cultural appropriation of Russia towards Ukraine and finally provide Ukrainian artists with the recognition and opportunities they deserve,” Pavlevych shared. “It’s time for Ukraine to claim back cultural artifacts and heritage that have been stolen by Russia.” The team is also calling for greater sanctions on the Russian government and holding art institutions accountable for their funding from and ties to the Putin regime.
To that end, in spite of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the curators are persistent in their goal to realize the Ukrainian pavilion. Their commitment to exhibiting The Fountain of Exhaustion is profound as it does not abstract the conditions of the current war, but rather materializes them to audiences. Yet surprisingly, discussion of the Ukrainian pavilion and Makov’s work has been overshadowed by the artists of the Russian pavilion, who resigned from the Biennale in protest.
“It became major news, which is weird since it’s not Russian artists’ country that’s been bombed right now,” Pavlevych said. “Seeing articles about Russian artists who are afraid of being canceled is sickening for Ukrainian artists who had to fight for their lives.”
Pavlo Makov, The Fountain of Exhaustion at the confluence of rivers Lopan and Kharkiv, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.
Prior to Russia’s assault against Ukraine, Makov’s presentation of The Fountain of Exhaustion at the Biennale was framed in relation to its staging in Venice, an environment that is a key example of climate collapse’s effects being witnessed in relation to capital enterprise. This is evident in Venetians’ continual protests against cruise ships that enter the city’s waterways and overload canals—hastening the already rising sea levels and flooding the city experiences.
The kinetic sculpture is made up of a series of funnels with water running through: One funnel splits, channeling water to the succeeding funnels that also split their water ration and so on, until the concluding funnels only receive droplets from the initial funnel. Metaphorically, the work comments on exhaustion of natural resources, but also the predicament of political capital being leveraged against smaller former U.S.S.R. countries that lack financial and infrastructural capital to “rebuild” the urban detritus from the Soviet era. Directly influenced by the intersection where the Lopan and Kharkiv rivers converge in Ukraine, The Fountain of Exhaustion foregrounds the relationship between geography and humanity, showing how natural confluences emerge and are gradually exhausted for capital and political profit.
Each time it is exhibited, The Fountain of Exhaustion takes on the history of the environment it is staged within. Following February 24, 2022, the work will take on Russia’s forceful attempt to occupy Ukraine. In this light, The Fountain of Exhaustion must be contextualized as a pivotal way of remembering the dispossessed while centering the narratives and cultural production of Ukrainians, their history, and contemporary practices.
Portrait of Pavlo Makov by The Fountain of Exhaustion mounted on the Oleh Mitasov’s house in Kharkiv, 1996. © Pavlo Makov. Courtesy of Pavlo Makov.
For many within the Western world, Eastern European practices are aggregated together with a preference towards Russia’s cultural production over that of the smaller countries that gained sovereignty following the collapse of the U.S.S.R., like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and others. Pavleych asserts that the perception that these independent nations share the same arts and culture as Russia is a form of erasure.
One history that has been reexposed during the current conflict is that Ukrainian cities like Kyiv—founded in 482 C.E.—predate Russian cities, including Moscow, which was founded in 1147. That Western audiences would be unaware of such profound cultural legacies is all the more disturbing when Euro-American narratives prioritize Russia’s cultural histories over its neighbors. The importance of gaining independent cultural recognition has been critical for Ukrainians since Russia’s attempts to occupy Ukraine in 2014. As the curators of the Ukrainian pavilion emphasize, “Ukrainian art has been in the context of the war and the big theme of rethinking imperial and Soviet influence all this time. Rethinking their own place, its present and its past, the holes in the history, relationships with the avant-garde, hidden events, destroyed works and missing artists of the last century are the central themes of today’s art, which the war makes even more significant.”
Presentation of the project of the pavilion of Ukraine for the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Courtesy of Katya Pavlevych.
The staging of The Fountain of Exhaustion at the Venice Biennale presents an opportunity for Ukraine’s cultural heritage to take center stage on an international level. The piece will afford audiences the chance to bear witness to and with the growing awareness of Ukrainian culture following the cataclysmic histories that include the invasion in 2022, the revolution in 2014, and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, to name a few in the past 30 years. International cultural outreach is critical and a survival tactic in times of war. How we come to know about a culture, a people, is invaluable towards the survival of a community.
The commitment to exhibiting Makov’s work at the Biennale is larger than the Biennale itself. The work coalesces the collisions of cultural erasure, infrastructure ruins, and the sustenance of a people in the midst of war. Lanko’s efforts to bring The Fountain of Exhaustion to Venice have been nothing but an extraordinary feat. “I think the challenges our team are facing add value and new meanings to [The Fountain of Exhaustion],” Pavlevych offered. “I think that the myth behind the work will be part of the work itself.”