Ukrainian artist performs culturally at the Venice Biennale

VENICE – Artist Pavlo Makov’s role as Ukraine’s representative at the Venice Biennale has become an act of resistance against the Russian invaders, whose attacks on his adopted homeland of Kharkiv have intensified in recent days.

The Russians not only want to take over his country, says the Russian-born Ukrainian, they also want to wipe out Ukrainian culture.

“This war in Ukraine is not an ethnic conflict,” Makov, 63, told The Associated Press. “It’s a clash of cultures. They want to destroy, destroy, wipe out Ukrainian culture so that Ukraine doesn’t exist.”

Makov, one of Ukraine’s most important living artists, drove to the Biennale on March 2, cramming in his wife, two family friends and his 92-year-old mother. Rockets flew overhead as they left Kharkiv, he said.

Already the center of the historical city, which was the first Soviet capital of Ukraine and known for its constructivist architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, was largely destroyed, including the oblast administration building and the parliament.

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Makov left behind his adult son and daughter, who worked as volunteers to help the beleaguered populace – and his lifelong production of artworks.

“It wasn’t a question of taking art because there wasn’t room for it,” he said. “Also, we left the bomb shelter, we didn’t leave our home or the studio.”

His plants have since been evacuated to safer ground in western Ukraine. Some pieces have already been requested for exhibitions elsewhere.

The copper funnels that make up his sculpture for the Ukrainian Pavilion were in Kyiv and were taken out of the country by one of the curators, Maria Lanko. Another curator, Lizaveta German, escaped with her baby son, who was born in a hospital in the western city of Lviv during a lull between air raid sirens. Now a month old, he is happily nursing in the gazebo to the sound of falling water.

Makov’s sculpture entitled The Source of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta” joins the funnels into a 3 1/2 meter (11 1/2 ft) tall cascading fountain in front of a concrete wall at the Arsenale, which houses the newer national pavilions participating in the world’s oldest and most important contemporary art fair. The 59th Venice Biennale opens on Saturday and runs until November 27th.

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Makov’s project was inspired by the lack of vitality he felt when Ukraine became an independent nation in the early 1990s and again when he toured Europe in the 2000s.

“I felt this lack of ability to protect ideas. I felt that this dependence on the energy Europe received from non-democratic societies was increasing,” Makov said. This culminated in the pandemic, which curators said represented “the accumulation of exhaustion,” and then war with Russia.

Now in Venice, Makov finds he talks more about the war than his art.

“It’s like a diplomatic mission for us,” Makov said. “I see myself less as an artist and more as a citizen of my country.”

A short walk away in the Giardini, the Russian Pavilion, built in 1914, is being closed after the artists withdrew their participation, despite protests from the Ukrainian artist and curators. A protest letter signed just days after the February 24 invasions underscores the irony that the Russian pavilion was built with money from Ukrainian art collector Bohdan Khanenko. His collection is at the heart of the country’s most important museum for European, Asian and ancient art, which Makov fears may be under threat in Kyiv.

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In the Giardini, the curators of the Ukrainian Pavilion – German, Lanko and Borys Filonenko – have created a Ukrainian piazza around a hill of sandbags, surrounded by posters made by Ukrainian artists during the war.

These include stylized depictions of soldiers using playground equipment for cover, babies whose concerned parents have their birth dates and names written on their backs in indelible markers in case war should separate them, and the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva.

“You know, the only dialogue we have with Russian culture now is at the front,” Makov said. “There is no other dialogue.”

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