art world

The Venice Biennale, Without the Russians

A mound of sandbags, surrounded by posters made during the war by various Ukrainian artists, is pictured outside the Pavilion of Ukraine Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

There’s something missing in Venice this week. It isn’t noticeable at first: The city’s 59th Art Biennale — curated by New York’s own Cecilia Alemani, artistic director of the High Line — has brought the global art world back to the place for the first time since the pandemic, clogging the bridges and alleyways with makers, machers, buyers, journalists, and the occasional celebrity culture vulture. Tilda Swinton was on hand for Chanel’s party honoring the recipients of its new Next Prize, and Bradley Cooper was spotted taking in the Isamu Noguchi show at the Museo Querini Stampalia. But from Larry Gagosian’s birthday party on the Giudecca to the halls of the Arsenale exhibition space, one major contingent was conspicuously missing this year. Having drinks near the Rialto, Max Levai, a New York art dealer and five-time Bienalle attendee, put it succinctly. “I’ve noticed no Russians.”

As by far the largest event on the art calendar since the full-on invasion of Ukraine in February, the Biennale is now serving as a proving ground for a (provisionally, at least) de-Russified global culture scene. Russians, wealthy ones in particular, have been an unavoidable part of the art world for years now, starting and supporting museums, collecting, buying at auction — even owning a certain auction house.

And they have always been hard to miss in Venice: The yachts that typically moor near the Giardini during the spring preview — some equipped with helicopter pads, others with launches big enough to be yachts themselves — have served as a surefire sign that the oligarchs were in town. Their owners, figures like Roman Abramovich and Leonid Mikhelson, could be counted upon to make the rounds, and though Venice is not technically a commercial event, they were nonetheless paid ample court by dealers, gallerists, and others. “There’s definitely been less of that,” says Dan Oglander, a Manhattan-based art advisor, referring to the lavish parties and semi-outré displays that typically accompanied the oligarchical presence.

Today, both Abramovich and Mikhelson are facing international sanctions; the VAC Foundation, the Venetian outpost of Mikhelson’s Moscow-based art program, appears to be closed indefinitely, and though one Biennale attendee was reportedly spotted wearing a T-shirt from the Garage Foundation (the Moscow art museum founded by Abramovich’s ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, also shuttered at the moment), it was apparently intended as a joke.

The shift has come in no small measure through the voluntary actions of Russian creatives, beginning last month when Russian Pavilion curator Raimundas Malašauskas announced that he would be withdrawing from the project, signaling the cancellation of the nation’s 2022 exhibition; as one of the participating artists said in a statement, “There is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles.” The pavilion, extensively refurbished just in time for last year’s Architecture Biennale, stands completely empty, serving only as a site for protest: On Thursday, artist Vadim Zakharov, whose work was featured in Russia’s 2013 show, stood in front of the building with a sign announcing his opposition to Putin’s war. He was eventually hustled off by the Carabinieri who now stand guard over the pavilion at all hours, guns at the ready — “The best installation in Venice,” as one passerby quipped.

This hardly marks the first time that any nation has found itself cut out of the Biennale. Russia itself has taken a pass on multiple previous occasions since its pavilion was first added to the Giardini in 1914: The country sent no delegation in 1922, owing to its then-ongoing civil war; it sat out the years from World War II through the Korean War; and it stayed home again in 1978 and 1980 amidst the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. History has converged on the Biennale in other ways, often with disruptive consequences — just four years ago, during the height of the Me Too moment, a group of women designers at the Architecture Biennale stormed the Giardini, bearing signs refusing to “stand silent” about misogyny in the design world, as their manifesto put it. Scholar Jenna Altomonte, looking at VABs in the context of successive world crises, writes that “artist-activists respond … by bringing attention to environmental concerns, corporate greed, misogyny, and labor violations.” Far from an isle of artsy tranquility, Venice and its premier show have always shaken with whatever political tremors happen to be going around.

In 2022, those shocks are emanating straight from Ukraine. And while the effect has been to push Russia to the sidelines, it has also led to the almost inescapable presence of another group — Ukrainian artists and curators, who have defied considerable odds to make it to Italy along with their installations, paintings, and sculptures. “I had to take a train to Berlin, and then to here,” said Yevgenia Belorusets, an artist featured in the off-site exhibition “We Are Defending Our Freedom.” Sponsored by the Kyiv-based PinchukArtCentre, the show features both Ukrainian and international artists reflecting on the war and its human impact. Belorusets’s piece, a series of diary entries and photographs presented under vitrines, documents her own harrowing experiences in the city since the Russian troops began their push westward. The inauguration of the Pinchuk pop-up featured a prerecorded video message from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who put a pointed question to the Venice crowd: “Are you ready to fight on this cultural front?”

If the Biennale is serving as a proxy for the Donbas, the momentum certainly appears to be on the Ukrainian side, notwithstanding a few moments of sentimentalist overkill (viz. Damien Hirst’s contribution to Defending, a Ukrainian flag dotted with butterflies). A more effective bit of political art in the Giardini, “Piazza Ucraina,” features works of wartime art, including posters, photos, and maps, mounted to burnt posts arrayed around a heap of sandbags. “It’s always a big question, making art in a time of war,” says Borys Filochenko, one of the curators who created the piece. “The question for us was, can you make art after Bucha?” Sitting only a few steps away from the Russian Pavilion, the “Piazza” seemed more than an adequate riposte to the other space’s eerie, militarized emptiness. But the proximity of the two did point to another missing element, an inevitable casualty perhaps of any wartime Biennale.

Its loss came into high relief on Wednesday, when the official Ukrainian Pavilion staged a press conference to discuss this year’s installation, a work from Kyiv-based Pavlo Makov. Entitled Exhaustion, the piece features a series of finely wrought bronze funnels, flowing with a constant stream of water; intended to speak to the metaphorical “exhaustion” of his country’s rough transition to democracy, the title also seemed a literal reflection of Makov’s state of mind: “I came to Venice directly from the bunker,” the artist said later that day, standing in the Arsenale. “All I could bring was my wife and my cat.” During the morning media event, one Italian journalist pointed to a statement from Cecilia Alemani that the Biennale should be a place of “encounter.” How, she wanted to know, was any such encounter possible, without any Russian representation in Venice?

The question hung in the air for a moment. It was, perhaps, something many wanted to ask, but were afraid to; the panelists, including this year’s Ukrainian Pavilion curators Maria Lanko, Lizaveta German, and Borys Filonenko, hesitated to answer, but Makov seized the mic. He spoke slowly. “Unfortunately,” he said, “right now, Russian culture is arriving in Ukraine on the backs of tanks. That is the only ‘exchange’ taking place.” Maybe one day, he suggested, the Biennale could again fulfill its old role, providing a place for cultural dialogue between Ukraine and Russia — or at least between Ukrainian artists and their conscientious counterparts, like Zakharov, who opposed the war. For now, even that was beyond reach. “The only place for dialogue,” said Makov, “is the front.”

The Venice Biennale, Without the Russians or Their Yachts