The Echoes of Russian Atrocities in Two Venice Pavilions

VENICE — Two imposing pavilions in the Venice Biennale’s Giardini, the Polish and Russian, made dramatic changes late in the game, both opting to exhibit foreign artists. The first is excellent, the second exceptionally problematic. 

Figurative painter Ignacy Czwartos was originally selected to represent Poland. His themes of Polish nationalism, victimization, history, and religion meshed with the conservative and populist ideology of the right-wing government then in power, headed by former prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his Law and Justice party.  

After a center-left coalition, headed by current prime minister Donald Tusk, triumphed in the October 2023 election, the new culture minister summarily jettisoned Czwartos. In a radical move, he was replaced by the Ukrainian collective Open Group (Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach, Anton Varga). 

Crying censorship, Czwartos has staged his own sparsely attended protest/vanity show of 15 paintings a stone’s throw from the back of the pavilion. It is awful, including the cringeworthy “Nord Stream 2” (2024), which one can see here. 

Together with Polish curator Marta Czyż, Open Group fashioned at warp speed the profoundly moving video installation “Repeat After Me II” (2024), in which Ukrainian refugees, filmed individually and head on, briefly recount their experiences of Russian attacks and then vocalize the sounds of specific weapons; textual information on each weapon is provided in the videos.  

After reciting the sounds twice, the refugees calmly instruct viewers to “repeat after me,” then silently mouth them. Viewers are invited to participate from their seats, standing, or karaoke-style, using microphones in front of the two large videos on either side of the pavilion. This makes the war, often remote for many outside Ukraine, suddenly intimate and close — to personally replicate what a Russian missile sounds like, a helicopter, a mortar, a bomb. 

Open Group made the first video in 2022 in a refugee camp, interviewing those who fled Eastern Ukraine for the comparative safety of Lviv in the West. The second, from 2024, features Ukrainians in foreign countries. Presumably, the artists never expected that a second video would be necessary, but Putin’s vicious war grinds on. 

It is searing and mesmerizing to watch and hear a young woman as she recalls Russia’s infamous destruction of a crowded theater in Mariupol and then mimics the sounds of aerial bombing. Her trauma is palpable, while she and all the interviewees exude strength and resolve. An older woman, Halyna, from now-occupied Polohy, expertly replicates a helicopter and incessant bombs while fraught emotions play over her face. These civilians, all untrained for the camera, are riveting. This powerful installation bears witness to Russia’s atrocities and literally gives voice to the Ukrainian civilians so impacted by them.

Two years ago, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian pavilion went dark when the artists and curator withdrew in protest. It was slated to remain empty again until a late decision to lend it to Bolivia, embraced by the country’s opportunistic government. As Russia pursues its horrendous war, it has been assiduously cultivating friendly relations with African and South American countries, as in Soviet times, Bolivia among them. Bolivia has a large supply of lithium that Russia covets, for uses extending to the very weapons with which Russia is attacking Ukraine. In 2023, Bolivia signed lithium agreements with both Russia and China. This is Bolivia’s first time in the vaunted Giardini. 

A win-win situation for the two countries, with artists and artworks as window dressing.

Curated by Esperanza Guevara, Bolivia’s Minister of Cultures, Decolonization and Depatriarchilization (that’s quite a mouthful), “Looking to the Futurepast We Are Treading Forward” (a translation from the Aymara, “Qhip Nayra Uñtasis Sarnaqapxañani”) features artists from Bolivia and several other South American and Latin American countries and seems hastily cobbled together without a coherent focus. It includes a small clay female figure by Bolivian Olga Rivera Diez (from the ministry’s holdings); sumi ink on rice paper drawings by Salvadoran Ronald Morán that ominously resemble razor wire; and two vibrant acrylic paintings by Indigenous Salvadoran Oswaldo De León Kantule. 

The context, however, is deeply troubling. This exhibition helps to burnish Russia’s reputation, positioning it as a benefactor, international friend, and supporter of Indigenous peoples, even as it attempts to brutally subjugate Ukraine. The day of the vernissage, when performers in colorful garb danced, sang, and played music, three Russian missiles struck an apartment building in Chernihiv, killing 11 and wounding 22. Such incessant attacks are unacknowledged in this denialist show, and unintended ironies abound. 

Panamanian Humberto Vélez has contributed “The Magician” (Il Mago) (2015), a Super 8 film (transferred to video) about a boxer who enjoyed some fame, made his way to the US, and went missing from the historical record. 

At least tens of thousands, and likely far more than that, Ukrainian children have also gone missing because they were abducted and deported to Russia, leading to International Criminal Court arrest warrants for Maria Lvova-Belova, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, and Vladimir Putin.

Zahy Tentehar’s science-fiction, Indigenous futurism video “UREIPY – Máquina Ancestral” (2023) is a highlight here. A bit of research informs me that the Tentehar-Guajajara artist from Brazil is also an activist and supporter of Guardians of the Forest, a pro-Indigenous group resisting encroachment on and destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The owner of this pavilion — which invited Bolivia free of charge as a guest country — is committing ecocide in Ukraine, wreaking havoc on its air, water, and soil, and on its forests. 

Guevara’s wall text is troubling. She profusely thanks the Russian Federation for the wonderful opportunity to exhibit in the Giardini, blithely ignoring Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine. She states that “art and culture must remain independent,” although neither are in Russia, and that the “mission” in Bolivia is “to protect all cultures; to guarantee them equal dignity and the right to exist.” Putin hardly treats people with dignity; he has also declared that Ukraine has no right to exist. Guevara’s head-in-the-sand approach betrays her excitement that her country has been invited, at long last, to the prominent party. But a party in the house of murderers?

The 60th Venice Biennale continues through November 24. The Biennale was curated by Adriano Pedrosa.

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