Beauty and War

The 59th Venice Biennale was not a great year for the pavilions – until Ukraine stole the show.

Simone Leigh, Sovereignty, U.S. Pavilion: Façade, 2022. Thatch, steel, and wood; Satellite, 2022. Bronze, 7.3 × 3 × 2.3 m, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh.

Most people are simply blown away, get a lump in their throat, or smile from ear to ear as they approach Venice and the city’s outline emerges out of the milky-green lagoon water. Perhaps it is even impossible to relate to the Venice Biennale if one does not allow oneself to be seduced by the greatest work of art in the exhibition’s 127-year long history (a cliché, but nonetheless true): the city itself, which is every bit as full of violin music, blown glass and pink drinks served by waiters in white jackets as it is a real-life fairy tale riding the tides, a place where everything from veggies to fridges are transported on narrow canals. Only the chilliest of aluminium skeletons could resist engaging with that narrative, and perhaps that is why the world’s oldest international exhibition is still around and attracting new generations today.

Every night during the opening week, we discusses the day’s discoveries while taking in the beauty of yet another palazzo with ornamented terrazzo floors and frescoed ceilings with endless vanishing points. The mere fact of responding so extensively to beauty in a way that has been deemed démodé in art for centuries is part of the biennial’s eccentric scenography, one which has, time and again, proved to be a stimulating setting – particularly for those aspects of the biennial associated with the national pavilions, which will be the focus of this text.

This year, quipping about the ‘Eurovision of art’ feels less appropriate than usual. Having trawled through the Giardini on the first press day, I have the feeling that many of the pavilions are covered in some dull filter, an indefinable feeling of resignation. Might this be the result of three years of pandemic-related lockdown? Or had the extra preparation time suddenly added when the biennial was postponed a year due to Covid caused energies to wane just before the final dash? Do the pavilions suffer from too much time? Is it the war in Europe? Or is it just about a general shift in the zeitgeist, from decolonisation to digitisation, offering up too many or to few directions in which to go? 

One thing is certain: this year it feels inappropriate to speak about a “battle of nations.” A historically large number of pavilions address postcolonial issues, including decolonisation – or even outright relinquishment of sovereignty. The vanguard is made up of the old empires, such as the British Pavilion where Sonia Boyce has created a setting reminiscent of clubs and recording studios as a disco-abstract backdrop for homing in on the Black protagonists of British music. Zineb Sedira’s exhibition in the French Pavilion is part film studio, part exploration of the southern European films from the 1960s–70s which followed in the wake of the Algerian independence movement. Just as Boyce is the first Black woman ever to represent Britain at the biennial, Zidera is the first artist with Algerian roots to represent France.

Zineb Sedira, Les rêves n’ont pas de titre, The French Pavilion, The Venice Biennale 2022 (detail). Photo: Kunstkritikk.

The Netherlands has taken things farthest, abandoning its pavilion altogether to instead exhibit in a church in the city while handing over its prestigious pavilion in the Giardini to Estonia. A radical act that I do not recall having seen before (France and Germany exchanged pavilions in 2013, but did not leave the Giardini) – and a gesture which is in itself more interesting than the two national exhibitions. In a similar vein, this year the Nordic Pavilion has been renamed The Sámi Pavilion in order to make way for Sápmi, the geographical area that existed before any such thing as a Nordic region existed at all.

The most successful pavilions often act along the same lines as good public art: a simple, solid gesture. One example is Simone Leigh’s U.S. Pavilion – one of the few pavilions this year to take on the building from the outside (and it might have been even stronger if the exhibition inside had been dropped altogether). The roof is covered with straw and supplemented with wooden columns, making the building reminiscent of a West African palace from the 1930s. The references invoked here include the palaces from colonised areas built for The Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, while colonisation was still in full swing. 

The huge bronze figure at the pavilion’s front is an enlargement of a headdress, a D’mba, which the Baga people on the coast of Guinea traditionally wore to engage in ritual communication with their ancestors. At the top of Leigh’s D’mba is a circular disk, a kind of satellite dish. Perhaps this is what transported me back to a lecture Kerry James Marshall gave in Copenhagen almost a decade ago in which he spoke about the possibility of creative time travel: a think tank for African and diasporic artists who could, jointly, go back in time to explore what African art might have looked like without any colonial interference. If, for example, the D’mba figure had not first and foremost arrived in the realm of European modernism through the intervention of Picasso and friends, what might it have looked like? Leigh’s self-governed bronze head with its critical, architectural body is a good answer.

An antithesis to the monumental U.S. Pavilion is offered by Francis Alÿs’s Belgian Pavilion, which employs a far lighter and brighter approach. “All videos from the ‘Children’s Games’ series are public domain,” says the text on the wall by the entrance. A piece of information infused with dual meaning, including the exquisite fact that there are still games in the world that are not commercialised or owned by anyone other than those who play them. The pavilion felt open and easy to navigate as I watched short films from around the world, all showing children playing. In DR Congo, little boys push a big tractor wheel. In Mexico, children play hide-and-seek in abandoned buildings while “shooting” each other with sunrays reflected by hand mirrors. And in Afghanistan, the children fly paper kites – although these were banned when the Taliban were last in power; I wonder how things are today? Undoubtedly, this is one of the most poetic pavilions by an experienced artist who thought long about what it is important to pass on.

Francis Alÿs, The Nature of the Game, The Belgian Pavilion: Children’s Game #10: Papalote, Balkh, Afghanistan, 2011, 4’13 min. In collaboration with Félix Blume and Elena Pardo © Courtesy the artist.

Another favourite this year is the Greek Pavilion by Loukia Alavanou, which takes its starting point in virtual reality. Sitting in a chair with the full complement of gear attached to my head, I was transported to a birdcage with a pair of live vultures. Shortly afterwards, I found myself in a Roma camp west of Athens, and even entered a dilapidated living room where a child was watching TV. Alavanou has cast real Roma people for the piece. They wear masks in the Disney style, presumably to protect their identities, but the effect is unusually unheimlich, and I believe this is the first time I have seen VR work so well in an art context.

A side effect of the many pavilions addressing decolonisation is that of a dual gaze, an added layer of X-ray vision which makes you spot the historical testimonies to dissolved nations with which the Giardini is already overflowing. One example is the white building complex from 1932 which houses several pavilions on the other side of the wide canal. Here, the names of the countries are an integral part of the architecture and cannot be removed. Façade architecture reading “Jugoslavia” is now supplemented with a sign saying Serbia. We observe something similar in the neighbouring Egyptian Pavilion, which is emblazoned with the initials RAE (Repubblica Araba d’Egitto, a former political union between Egypt, the Gaza Strip, and Syria). The examples are legion. The big difference between this year’s juggling of the national pavilions and the various historical precedents is that in 2022 these are voluntary, albeit symbolic, surrenders of sovereignty. And yet. The big elephant in the park is, of course, the Russian Pavilion, located in the middle of the Giardini’s main axis.

Executed in the so-called Russian Style, the mammoth pavilion from 1914 has just been completely renovated, but it is now closed. Silence shrouds the pavilion; there are no informational signs and no one is in any doubt about the reasons why. The curator and artists withdrew on the fourth day of a calendar which made itself more and more insistently felt during the initial opening days. For example, the first opening day of the biennale, conventionally known as Tuesday 19 April, was day 55 for the Ukrainians – those in Venice and in Ukraine, as well as the five million refugees scattered across Europe – whose new timeline began with the Russian invasion on 24 February. The fact that the Ukrainian Pavilion officially opened on day 57, while the Russian Pavilion remained closed, carries much more than purely symbolic significance.

No one has the time to see all eighty national pavilions, but this year few will have missed the Ukrainian Pavilion, which has no fixed abode. This year, it is located on the first floor of a building in the Arsenal. The small exhibition consists of a simple sculpture by Pavlo Makov: 78 small bronze funnels which together form a fountain making a quiet rippling sound, Fountain of Exhaustion (2022). At the press conference associated with the exhibition, neither the artist nor the organisers did anything to hide the fact that the pavilion itself, as a gesture, plays the main role here. It was at this conference that I first heard the new timeline applied emphatically. The curators related how they sensed, on day 3, that the war would escalate rapidly. In Kyiv, they hurriedly packed the work in boxes, loaded them into a car and drove for days to Venice. In contrast to the many countries currently experimenting with lending their pavilion to others or sharing it, the message from the Ukrainian representatives was unequivocal: “It is very, very important that we get our own permanent pavilion,” a mantra they repeated during the press conference.

From this point on, Ukraine essentially took over my experience of the 59th Venice Biennale. Early on day 57, rumours began circulating that President Volodymyr Zelensky himself would speak at the opening of an exhibition organised by the Pinchuck Art Centre, This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom. I dashed through the rain to reach a press conference that was followed by, as it turned out, a rather prominent opening event for the upper crust of the worlds of art and politics, led by Victor Pinchuck, whom Wikipedia describes as a “Ukrainian businessman and oligarch.”

In a sense, This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom became an extra – and extravagant – Ukrainian pavilion, carefully conceived in two parts, one Ukrainian, the other international. Works by young Ukrainians (Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan, and Lesia Khomenko) were exhibited alongside art-historical treasures brought out of the country by museums in Kyiv and Lviv. There was something mind-blowing about standing in front of a painting by Maria Priymachenko, whose works have recently suffered such a dramatic fate, followed by the entire world over the past few weeks. A thought-provoking work, not least in terms of what the near future will bring, is Tetyana Yablonska’s Youth (1969), an almost Surrealist painting of a young man with his back turned towards us, standing in front of an enigmatic lake. The work was painted under Soviet rule, during which depictions of nature were one way to get around mandatory Social Realism. The international department featuring superstars like Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramovic is to a greater extent part of a super-communication of which Zelensky is apparently not the only master.

Space does not permit a full blow-by-blow account of the entire event, which was well-orchestrated and lasted over three hours with contributions from a Ukrainian rock star who used to fill stadiums and now sent a film of himself and a handful of musicians – on piano, cello, and violin – playing amid war-torn rubble. A brief telephone recording from a bunker in Mariupol featured the last words of a woman who died a few days later: “Don’t say you’ll help us unless you actually do it.” We heard the touching story of a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, Anastasiia Gulej, who told us about how she fled Ukraine for the first time in 1942 and now again in 2022. And yes, Zelensky, in a pre-recorded message from Kyiv, addressed the responsibility and role of art in the struggle for freedom. Finally, a woman came onstage to sing the Ukrainian national anthem while scattered voices around the room sang along and the rest of us stood completely still. I was moved and dazed as I tumbled out onto the street.

The question of whether the national pavilion set-up is a good or bad idea is a recurring, ritualistic discussion in any review of the Venice Biennale – and justifiably so. This year, mine is tinted by two opposing currents. On the one hand, this is not a great year for the pavilions; the main exhibition by curator Cecilia Alemani is the real draw. On the other hand, there can be no denying that the Ukrainian exhibitions, and especially the Ukrainians present in Venice, gave the pavilions a concrete geopolitical significance that is impossible to ignore. Will there be a Ukrainian Pavilion in Venice in 2024?

Tetyana Yablonska, Youth, 1969, Oil on canvas. Part of Pinchuk Art Centre’s This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom, 59. Venice biennale, 2022.