Venice Biennale: against all odds, a Ukrainian artist and his curators are taking the “Fountain of Exhaustion” to Venice

On the evening of February 24, just hours after Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, art curator Maria Lanko got into her car and drove out of her home in Kyiv. Unaware of her exact plan and anticipating a potentially dangerous journey, she packed only a few personal items into her suitcase, along with 78 bronze funnels belonging to one of the country’s most famous living artists, Pavel Makov. Her task was to drive them out of the country to a safe place.

Last summer, Makov, 63, and his team of curators, including Lanko, won the competition to represent Ukraine at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international event known as the “Olympics” of the art world. The funnels were important parts of their intended entrance, a fountain sculpture called the “Fountain of Exhaustion”.

The work was first conceived in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine where Makov has lived and worked for over three decades. It was the mid-1990s and the post-Soviet country was still in transition after its people voted for independence in a 1991 referendum. The fountain was meant to be a metaphor for the social and political exhaustion that Makov witnessed as his country struggled with the civic and economic challenges of regaining an independent state. The constant shortage of water in the city also prompted him to look at the project from an environmental perspective, as he pondered the idea that resources are finite.

The Fountain of Exhaustion has taken many forms over the years, from sketches and prints to technical drawings and physical installations. The version planned for Venice was to be the first fully functioning fountain with 78 funnels arranged in such a way that the original flow of water splits again and again, descending the triangular device, its flow weakening until it reaches the bottom.

Watch the incredible journey of the Ukrainian art team to get to Venice Credit: VINCENSO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

A week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Makov and his team checked a newly built fountain to make sure the water was flowing normally. Thanks to the design and technical support of the Kyiv architectural bureau “Forma” (FORM), the installation started working. The team was delighted.

Soon after that, everything changed. While the threat of conflict loomed large, giving the team time to consider contingency plans, the surprise attack on Ukraine made the possibility of opening the Venice installation, less than two months away, seem impossible.

Journey from Ukraine to Italy

Personal safety was the team’s priority during the early days of the conflict, as they contemplated plans to escape and hide with family and friends. One of Lanko’s curators, Lizaveta Herman, was pregnant and living in an apartment in Kyiv when the war broke out. Just a few days before the birth, when the first rockets were launched, Herman wanted to stay in the city to be closer to her maternity hospital. But as the situation worsened, she and her husband made the difficult decision to move west to Ukraine’s cultural capital of Lviv, a city less threatened by the immediate threat. There she was joined by the third co-curator of the project, Boris Filonenko.

Lanko, meanwhile, was still driving. After six days of travel, 78 funnels packed into three boxes, she crossed the border with Romania. Later, exhausted by almost constant travel, she made a rest stop in Budapest, Hungary before eventually ending up in the Austrian capital, Vienna.

Pavel Makov according to the version of the “Fountain of Fatigue”, installed on the house of Oleg Mitasov in Kharkov (1996) Credit: Contributed by Pavel Makov

There she was waiting for Makov, who was working on his own evacuation plan. He was in Kharkov when the war began, for the first two days he gathered his family in his apartment. But the city was under such heavy bombardment that they were forced to retreat to a bomb shelter for almost a week, and as the situation worsened, the artist decided to flee, leaving the city with his 92-year-old mother, wife and two other women.

Herman gave birth to a boy on March 16 in Lviv. Speaking to CNN in a city hotel ten days later, she reflected on the role of art in times of extreme crisis. “I believe art has this symbolic potential to celebrate people’s lives and show that we are still here – to show that Ukraine is not just a victim of war,” she said.

By that time, Lanco had reached Italy. She found a production company in Milan who agreed to recreate parts of the installation she had left behind in Ukraine.

It suddenly seemed that, no matter what, they would get to Venice. There was also a growing sense among team members that they should act as ambassadors for their country. While their Ukrainian compatriots fought Russia on the front lines, served in hospitals and volunteered, Makov and his team began to create a new kind of defense against invasion.

“Ukrainian art has been in the shadow of Russia for a very long time,” Herman said, clutching the baby to her chest. “The cultural field must also be a battlefield, and we must fight.”

A few weeks later, Lanko, Filonenko, Makov, and German (with her baby) eventually reunited in Venice to complete final preparations together.

Attention paid for in blood

Speaking on Monday, two days before the press launch of the project, Makov said that he does not consider himself an artist, but a citizen of Ukraine, whose duty is to represent his country.

“I realized that it would be important for Ukraine to be represented (at the Biennale).”

Nikita Kadan

Nikita Kadan “Profanation Difficulties II” (2015-2022) against the backdrop of “Max in the Army” by Lesya Khomenko Credit: Pat Verbruggen/Courtesy Pinchuk Art Center and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation

With an influx of interest from the media and the art world, sculpture, once a broad reflection on how the world has exhausted itself, has taken on new meaning. By default, it became a work of “martial art” and the team found it difficult to be in the spotlight. “A little paid in blood,” Lanko said.

“We get all the attention because we understand that at the moment we are “speakers” – ambassadors of our country and our culture,” she continued, explaining that she hoped that the conversation around the pavilion could touch Ukrainian art more. generally.

As it turned out, Makov was not the only Ukrainian artist whose work was exhibited during the opening week of the Venice Biennale. Lonely work of the deceased Maria Primachenko hangs gracefully at the entrance to the main pavilion, in the festival’s Giardini district, a silent tribute to one of the country’s most respected 20th-century artists, whose name made headlines last month when the museum, which houses more than a dozen of her works, was attacked . Russian troops. There are fears that not all works of art were saved from the fire.

Message from the President

A little further in the building, about a 30-minute walk from the main site of the Biennale, there is also an exhibition of works by Ukrainian artists created over the past few weeks. This is a powerful reminder of the many creative people affected by the war and another example of the determination and resilience of Ukrainian artists.

An earlier paper version of The Fountain of Exhaustion (1995)

An earlier paper version of The Fountain of Exhaustion (1995) Credit: Contributed by Pavel Makov

One such artist, Lesya Khomenko, shows a series of large-scale portraits entitled “Max in the Army,” which she named after one of her heroes: her husband Max, who joined the military resistance. In another work, “The Difficulties of Profanation II” by Nikita Kadan, large fragments and debris, collected from the Donbass in 2015 during the last Russian attack on Ukraine, and then from Kyiv in 2022, hang on the frame.

Speaking via video link at the opening of the exhibition, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Art can tell the world what cannot be shared otherwise,” and urged the audience to support his country with art, word, and their “influence.”

Exhibition curator Bjorn Geldhof organized the exhibition in just four weeks. While walking around the hall, he said: “It is not easy to create in wartime. But that’s one of the things we wanted to do, to show the incredible resilience that contemporary Ukrainian artists have.”

This strength of character was fully manifested in the pavilion of Ukraine on the day of its opening. The press conference dedicated to the opening began with a moment of silence for the people of Ukraine. And while the media and visitors continued to speculate that the team behind the installation were heroes, Makov and his curators brushed off the platitudes, reminding people that the real heroes are those on the battlefield, in hospitals and in besieged areas. .

Pavel Makov and his curatorial team (Lizaveta German, Maria Lanko and Boris Filonenko) together with Kateryna Chuyeva, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, and Ilya Zabolotny, Head of the Ukrainian Fund for Emergency Art

Pavel Makov and his curatorial team (Lizaveta German, Maria Lanko and Boris Filonenko) together with Kateryna Chuyeva, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, and Ilya Zabolotny, Head of the Ukrainian Fund for Emergency Art Credit: Courtesy Ukraine Pavilion, 2022 Venice Biennale

The team also assessed the art’s ability to resolve conflicts. “I always say that art is more of a diagnosis than a cure,” Makov said. “I’m not entirely sure it can save the world, you know? But it can help save the world.”

Speaking weeks earlier, Lanko expressed a similar sentiment: “Art won’t stop a war right now, but it can stop the next one,” she said.

For Herman, the Fountain of Exhaustion is not a symbol of optimism, but she believes that the fact that they brought it to Venice at all will “give hope” and show that Ukraine is capable of moving forward in the darkest of times.

“Despite the fact that the war is still going on, we are able to build our future.”

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