Six pavilions of the 60th Venice Biennale worth attention in Ukraine (and the one most problematic)

28 march, 2024

The Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, has been appointed curator of the 60th Venice Biennale, which runs from April 20 to November 24, 2024. The theme of this year's exhibition is "Stranieri Ovunque" ("Foreigners Everywhere") and is dedicated to questions of migration, diaspora, indigenous populations, and the artistic self as Other. In this text, we have compiled the top six projects that touch on acute issues for Ukrainians, and selected one for the "Most Problematic Pavilion" category.

Oleksandr Burlaka, model of the Ukrainian pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale, 2024. Source: instagram.com

"Net Making," Ukraine

Artists: Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, Andrii Rachynskyi and Daniil Revkovskyi, Katya Buchatska, Oleksandr Burlaka
Curators: Viktoria Bavykina, Max Gorbatskyi

Katya Buchachka, "Best wishes," 2024. Source: instagram.com
The title "Net Making" refers to the widespread practice of creating camouflage nets for protection against enemy surveillance systems. For the Ukrainian pavilion, this is a symbol of Ukrainian society, which develops self-organized networks of mutual support to aid the Ukrainian army. There won't be real nets in the pavilion. Instead, there will be presented four art projects by six artists, who will work together to convey the experience of war. And not necessarily their own. All authors, related to different communities, will work as facilitators of the artistic process, gathering diverse experiences of Ukrainians both at home and abroad.

"Work" by Oleksandr Burlaka is a traditional embroidered home-woven fabric, which serves as a background for a personal narratives about war events in other artworks of the project. Katya Buchatska's project "Best Wishes," based on collaboration with 15 neurodiverse artists, explores the transformation of language in life-threatening conditions through a reimagining of clichéd greetings and wishes, which often are empty conventions rather than genuine necessities. The duo of Revkovskyi and Rachynskyi will present the project "Civilians. Invasion" — an archive of found videos shot by ordinary citizens before and after the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories. Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev will showcase an ironic exploration of stereotypes and expectations from refugees titled "Comfort Work," for which the duo engaged Ukrainian communities across Europe. The curatorial team emphasizes that all these works reinforce each other and are less about being artworks themselves. Rather, they are manifestations of the reality that speaks for itself.

"Repeat after Me II," Poland

Artists: Open Group (Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach, Anton Varga)
Curator: Marta Czyż

Open Group, "Repeat After Me II," video screenshot. Source: labiennale.art.pl
The selection of the Ukrainian Open Group to represent Poland at this year's Biennale was accompanied by a scandal. Initially, the country planned to submit another project — "Polish Exercises in the Tragedy of the World: Between Germany and Russia" by Polish artist Ignacy Chwartos. It consisted of 35 paintings depicting scenes of violence perpetrated by the German and Russian armies against the Polish people. However, after the ruling PiS party lost the elections in the fall of 2023, the new minister of culture, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, decided to replace the project. Now, the pavilion will present the project "Repeat after Me II," which is a collective portrait of witnesses of Russia's war against Ukraine.

The work of Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach, and Anton Varga is an audiovisual installation based on studying interactions between people affected by Russian aggression. In it, the group creates so-called "open situations": witnesses recount their war experience, vocalizing the sounds of rocket explosions, gunfire, artillery shelling, and screams — and invite others to repeat after them. "Repeat after Me" was filmed in 2022 and 2024 — in a refugee camp near Lviv and beyond Ukraine. However, these sounds remain part of the trauma even outside the territory of immediate danger. The Open Group aims to convey this shared experience to an international audience, regardless of age, background, professional and social status, etc.

"Exposition Coloniale," Serbia

Artist: Aleksandar Denić
Curator: Ksenija Samardzija

Aleksandar Denić, view of the installation "Exposition Coloniale." Source: artreview.com
In the project for the Serbian Pavilion, visual artist and scenographer Aleksandar Denić explores contemporary colonial systems and the consequences of oppressing nations and cultures. Ukrainians know that modern usurpation systems prevail in politics, finance, and values and principles.

"Exposition Coloniale" is dedicated to forced resettlement and the experience of emigration. The artist knows the last one from his own experience — Denić moved to Germany seeking for professional development. Denić promises to immerse viewers in a "reflective discomfort" that will make them doubt their sense of belonging and "feel like foreigners in their own country." Many Ukrainian artists can already relate to this experience. Perhaps, the project will help reflect on it. The show will combine several media — music and sound, light, heating, and other sensory elements, designed to "blur the boundaries between the physical and emotional spheres."

"Kiss and Don’t Tell," Timor-Leste

Artist: Maria Madeira
Curator: Natali King

Maria Madeira, “Lips to Kiss and Don’t Tell” (“Ibun Kulit ba Rei no Labele Koalia”) — Study III, tais (traditional East Timorese cloth), red earth, glue, sealer on paper, 2023. Photo: Juventino Madeira. Source: e-flux.com
This year, the small island nation of East Timor will present its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It will feature Maria Madeira's work, which also focuses on her own experience of displacement. The most famous artist from the young country grew up in a Portuguese refugee camp, where she and her mother were evacuated during the Indonesian invasion. Later, the family emigrated to Australia.

The installation "Kiss and Don't Tell" draws on the collective memories of the artist's grandparents and uses local materials such as tais (traditional textiles), betel, and soil. Additionally, the project combines trauma with tenderness through the act of kissing. At the pavilion's opening, Madeira will kiss the walls of the pavilion, leaving lipstick marks while simultaneously singing traditional songs from her village in the native Tetum language. The pavilion presentation commemorates the 25th anniversary of Timor-Leste's independence.

"By the Means at Hand," Croatia

Artist: Vlatka Horvat
Curator: Antonija Majaca

Vlatka Horvat, "Venice (at hand)" No. 9, 2024. Source: e-flux.com
In "By the Means at Hand," artist Vlatka Horvat explores improvised postal systems prevalent in Croatia and worldwide. These informal networks involve relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers helping each other transport packages, letters, money, and other items between their countries of birth and residence. For Ukrainians, this practice became even more relevant after Russia's full-scale invasion.

The project examines the concept of home, which in contemporary conditions includes diaspora and prolonged travel. The pavilion will showcase works by migrant artists delivered to Venice precisely through this method. Vlatka Horvat will remain in the pavilion throughout the Biennale.

"The Neighbours," Bulgaria

Artists: Krasimira Butseva, Lilia Topouzova, Yulian Chehirian
Curator: Vasil Vladimirov

View of “The Neighbors” exhibition at the Bulgarian pavilions at the 60th Venice Biennale, 2024. Source: bulgarianpavilionvenice.art
Bulgaria will present the multimedia installation "The Neighbours," which explores the suppressed memories of those who experienced state violence during the Soviet occupation of the country from 1945 to 1989. The work includes found objects, videos, and audio recordings conveying the stories of people who endured persecution and served terms in labor camps and prisons. The pavilion partially recreates the homes of surviving witnesses to repression, where the artists recorded conversations with them. In addition to oral testimonies, visitors can see videos from two former camps — Lovech and Belene.

The project results from 20 years of historical and artistic research by Krasimira Butseva, Lilia Topouzova, and Yulian Chehirian. These findings trace deep collective traumas and represent the consequences of their concealment — a significant fragment of memory missing from the collective consciousness.

Most problematic pavilion of the 60th Venice Biennale: Austria?

Artist: Anna Jermolaewa
Curator: Gabriele Spindler

Anna Jermolaewa. Source: krone.at
Anna Jermolaewa, a Russian artist born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1970, will represent Austria at the 2024 Venice Biennale. She has lived and worked in Vienna since the age of 19, having moved there following accusations of anti-Soviet agitation. In her practice, she combines photography, video, and installation, exploring the socio-political structures of everyday situations.

At the Biennale, the artist will present new works reflecting various forms of nonviolent resistance. Her project, "Swan Lake," refers to childhood memories of Soviet censorship, when, during protests and upheavals, the television would broadcast the eponymous ballet by Russian imperialist Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Jermolaewa's project poses problems for Ukraine on several levels. In a world on the brink of a third world war, discussing nonviolent resistance seems, at best, naive. This is especially absurd coming from someone who identifies with a nation currently engaged in imperialist conquest. Toothless pacifism has never stopped wars and has already demonstrated its indifference, even hostility, toward Ukraine, the victim of aggression.

Nonviolent resistance is also a prevailing idea among Russian intellectuals, few of whom are willing to acknowledge personal responsibility for the genocidal war against Ukraine. Jermolaewa's work supports their mindset and strategy of resistance, the effectiveness of which was dubious even before the invasion and now makes no sense at all. The Russian intellectual "elite" should have realized on February 24, 2022, that they had lost, that things would never be the same again — and either take up arms or at least aid the Ukrainian Armed Forces and stop spreading the culture of the aggressor country. This did not happen, so now the theme of the Austrian pavilion looks like a reincarnation of the corpse of collective Navalny.
Oksana Serheieva and Anna Jermolaewa at the "Swan Lake" rehearsal, 2023. Source: phileas.art
Another point is the reference to Tchaikovsky's world famous ballet. It seems that Anna is using "Swan Lake" to separate Russian culture from the Putin regime. But this cannot be done with the stroke of a pen, probably — only with a bullet to the head of a Russian soldier brainwashed by decades of propaganda. Putinism uses this culture just as the USSR did — as a shield for police violence and genocidal wars. In fact, the author's childhood memory of watching ballet on television instead of news about the suppression of protests suggests this.

The project's key issue is Ukrainian choreographer Oksana Serheieva's participation in Swan Lake. The Ukrainian managed a ballet school in Cherkasy before moving to Austria. This representation once again supports the myth of "fraternal peoples" and creates an image suitable for Russian propaganda in which Ukrainians and Russians strive for peace together. Of course, the question is always about what kind of peace it is.

Jermolaewa needs Serheieva to explore the accompanying theme of the project — the experience of political migration. Another issue is the equalization of the experience of the Ukrainian woman's relocation in 2022 and the escape of the Russian "dissident" in 1989. Are they the same victims of the totalitarian regime of the USSR and the authoritarian regime of Putin? No, their relocations and identities are different. One is a representative of the culture of the aggressor country, the other represents a country defending itself. Can people be innocent victims of their political regime? It sounds illogical. Can "intellectuals," part of the people, be victims of the authoritarian choice of the majority? I think yes, but then we need to talk about it — about your inability to change the regime, about the fact that your own people become your enemy. But Jermolaewa doesn't talk about it. The impression from the project is that Jermolaewa considers Russians victims of themselves—and thus removes responsibility from them, which Ukrainians have been so insistently pointing out for over two years.

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