The Venice Biennale happens once every two years, and planning for the art extravaganza can take almost as long. This year, though, the exhibitors will include a very last-minute addition—including art created mere months ago.
Days before opening, the 59th Venice Biennale announced it will include an installation featuring Ukrainian artists. Titled Piazza Ucraina, the open-air show will include work from around 40 artists that was mostly created since the Russian invasion began in February, the organizers announced on Friday.
The Biennale, arguably the world’s most famous and prestigious art exhibitions, begins on April 23. But this year’s showing by Ukrainian artists was nearly derailed when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Instead of pulling Ukrainian participation, however, the pavilion’s curator and event organizers redoubled their efforts to ensure that the show be staged as planned. With the help of the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund (UEAF) and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, they’re doing just that.
The Biennale revolves around national pavilions organized by different countries’ government-funded art organizations. When the invasion began, the Ukrainian Pavilion’s curators sprang into action. One of them, Maria Lanko, personally transported pieces of a sculpture made by artist Pavlo Makov from Kyiv to Venice during a three-week journey in which her home country transformed into a war zone.
The pavilion’s original entries will be supplemented with art created since the invasion, including Vlada Ralko’s Lviv Diary, which sometimes includes explicit drawings in watercolor, pen and marker on paper. The pieces, which usually include the color red, depict body parts, skulls, words and scribbles. One image shows a double-headed eagle—one of Russia’s national symbols—dropping bombs as it flies over a landscape.
Also on display will be Matviy Vaisberg’s Travel Diary, a mixed media piece featuring abstract scenes with striking hues; and Kinder Album’s watercolors depicting a nude figure in despair surrounded by animals and women abused by Russian soldiers.
The invited artists were selected from the UEAF’s Wartime Art Archive, which gathered the art from social media. Their work will appear in a pavilion designed by Ukrainian architect Dana Kosmina.
One of the pavilion’s most striking pieces is by artist Ekateryna Lisovenko, who will display a painting that portrays a mother and child raising their middle fingers to protest Russian president Vladimir Putin’s speech on February 21. During the address, Putin attempted to justify the invasion with false claims that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian speakers and said that the nation “never had traditions of real statehood.”
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Kelsey Ables, curator and UEAF CEO Ilya Zabolotnyi says that one of Putin’s “core messages…is that there is no Ukraine. There is no Ukrainian culture. It’s part of Russia. That’s why it’s one of the most important moments for cultural workers and their vibrant, alive voices not to disappear.”
The Venice Biennale is no stranger to international controversy. Since it began in 1895, it has faced diverse global disruptions, including war and political strife. In 1936, different countries—including the United States—boycotted the Biennale in protest of Italy’s fascist government, notes the Post. In 1940, the show was held despite World War II.
“In its 127 years of existence, La Biennale has registered the shocks and revolutions of history like a seismographer,” Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani says in a statement. “Our hope is that with Piazza Ucraina we can create a platform of solidarity for the people of Ukraine … among the historical pavilions that were built on the very ideal of nation-state, shaped by twentieth century geopolitical dynamics and colonial expansions.”
One formerly planned pavilion won’t be present at the Biennale this year: the Russian Pavilion. Shortly after the war began, its curator and multiple Russian artists decided to resign their positions in the show. In a statement, curator Raimundas Malašauskas wrote that “This war is politically and emotionally unbearable” and that he could not “advance on working on this project in light of Russia’s military invasion and bombing of Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian artists organized their installation around the concept of a piazza, or town square, after seeing how artists express themselves in the public square with the help of social media, even during wartime. In their curatorial statement, the installation’s curators say their pavilion is organized around a monument surrounded by sandbags in homage to the ways Ukrainian cities have attempted to protect their public art from bombs.
“We hope that this initiative will help raise awareness in the world against the war and all that comes with it,” said La Biennale’s president, Roberto Cicutto, in a statement.