Running to War and Time, Ukraine Participates in the Biennial

VENICE — 78 bronze funnels were ready, the pump was tested and the floor was almost ready. Thus, when war on Ukraine seemed most likely imminent, Maria Lanko, one of the curators of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, was determined to get the fountain sculpture of artist Pavlo Makov out of the country safely.

In a recent interview in New York, Lanko described how he loaded the funnels into three boxes and placed them in his car. “We were waiting for something to start,” he said. “There was a lot of tension and Putin gave us a lot of clues.”

On the evening of the first day of the war, when explosions surrounded the city, Lanko set off from Kiev with his dog and a colleague, the mansion’s artistic director Sergiy Mishakin. “I started the journey without a definite route,” said Lanko. “I had to decide which road was the safest.”

Thus began the grueling three-week journey that took Lanko from Ukraine and to Vienna, driving 10 hours a day on back roads, staying in unheated places, where sculpture materials were sent to Italy.

“He’s the reason we’re here right now,” Makov said in an interview in Venice this month. “He took all these funnels and said, ‘We’re going to do it anyway. Then we got to work and we succeeded.”

It wasn’t that simple: Seventy-eight funnels don’t make a fountain by themselves. They had to be equipped with modern hydraulics and there were restrictions on their installation at the historic Arsenale where the work was to be shown. Just weeks before the biennial’s opening, the curators needed to find a company that could assemble the structure in time.

Makov had considered staying in Kharkiv, in the northeastern Ukraine where he lived. But after days of bombings—and worrying about her 92-year-old mother, who refused to stop her fourth-floor walk downtown—she decided to get her family to safety.

Makov; his wife; her mother; Tatiana Borzunova, graphic designer of the pavilion catalog; her mother; and a cat slumped in his car with only a few personal items, choices dictated by the frenzy of the moment. “You open the drawers and think what to buy and realize that you don’t want to buy anything,” she recalled. “I didn’t take anything. I left everything.”

They too set out for Venice via Vienna, where there was a home for mothers.

Meanwhile, Lanko had set up a company in Milan to build the fountain’s structure. It cost much more than he budgeted for, and the Biennale has stepped in to pay for it, he said.

“Maria can get through the wall if she needs it,” said Makov.

The building arrived in Venice last week just in time for the Biennale’s preview. The event will open to the public on Saturday and will run until November 27.

The Ukrainian pavilion’s installation entitled “The Fountain of Fatigue” is an updated version of a 1995 sculpture by Makov.

It consists of an eight-foot pyramid of descending layers of funnels, the ends of which feed water into the funnels below them. Water flows into the upper funnel, but once it reaches the bottom tier, the flow slows to a trickle.

Makov said he had the idea for the fountain in 1994. He was inspired by the local situation in Kharkov in the first difficult years after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “There was this lack of will in society, this lack of vitality,” he said, adding that the city’s fountains were deserted. ‘ the work at the moment was like manifestation.

The title of the piece reflects “what I felt at the time,” he said.

He has made other versions over the years. One on display at the National Gallery in Kiev in 2003 was purchased by the Pinchuk Art Center, a private museum in the city, and in 2017 a massive version containing more than 200 funnels was shown in Lviv in western Ukraine.

Makov expanded its meaning with each iteration to symbolize “the lack of vitality in Europe and the extinction of people in a democratic world.”

And the message was transformed once again with the Biennial installation.

“It connects to Venice because the city is depleted,” said Mavok. “Take out the tourism industry and there’s nothing left.” This version was a “tribute to the city”. It may be sad, but honest. ”

“We are tired of our relationship with nature,” Makov said.

“Now we are all worried about the war, but three years ago we were very worried about the fact that the ice was melting. The ice is still melting and it will be melting in 10 years,” he said. We can’t take responsibility for our relationships with nature.

Makov said he has taken on an unexpected role of national spokesman since arriving in Venice a month ago. “I don’t feel like an artist here, I feel more a citizen of Ukraine and it is my duty to represent Ukraine at the Biennale,” he said.

Lanko said that this year’s Biennale is an important moment for Ukraine and that the country’s artistic talent and to convey the message that a nation under siege can still make a creative contribution. “There is no information in the world about Ukrainian culture and art,” he said. “It is still considered part of the Russian cultural space. By being in places like Venice, we can raise our voices with our art and our words.”

In Giardini, the gardens where the Biennial pavilions of most major countries are located, Lanko realized an outdoor installation called “Piazza Ucraina” together with the other curators of the Ukrainian Pavilion, Borys Filonenko and Lizaveta German.

The installation includes a series of columns that have been studied by the curators and will be covered with posters reflecting the war. In the centre, a mock-up of a sandbag-covered monument symbolizes Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its heritage.

The biennial’s president, Roberto Cicutto, said in a statement that it is “a space dedicated to Ukrainian artists and their resistance to aggression” and that it will “help raise awareness in the world against war and everything that comes with it”.

Cecilia Alemani, curator of the biennial’s main exhibition, said that during its 127 years of existence, the event “recorded the shocks and revolutions of history like a seismograph”. Our hope is that with ‘Piazza Ucraina’ we can create a platform of solidarity for the Ukrainian people in the world of Giardini.”

Uncertainty will continue as long as the war continues; Makov said he wasn’t sure what would happen next. After the Biennial opened on Saturday, “There are no plans and I’ve decided not to even think about it. I’ll see,” he said.

Lanko said he hopes he will be able to return to Kiev soon. For now – though she remains worried about her family and friends in her hometown – she tries to focus on the positive: she arrived in Venice through Makov’s work; The Ukrainian Pavilion will not sit idly by. “I wake up, give myself an hour to cry, and then do something,” she said. “It was important to succeed in the end despite the circumstances. Not everyone has the opportunity to leave Ukraine and have a voice.”

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