The national pavilions in the Giardini, Arsenale and venues across Venice remain at the core of the Biennale’s identity, as essential to the experience as the curated exhibition. When the late, great Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor took on the challenge of organising the Biennale in 2015—a show whose impact rippled through the international art world for longer than most Venice exhibitions—he told The Art Newspaper that the pavilions offered a chance to explore “the fantasies and the desires that many of us carry about our place in the world”. In his text about the Biennale that year, he described the “Giardini with its ramshackle assemblage of pavilions” as “the ultimate site of a disordered world, of national conflicts, as well as territorial and geopolitical disfigurations”.
There is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missilesKirill Savchenkov, Russian artist
This year, his comment seems more apt than ever. As the Biennale was in the final stages of preparation, Russia invaded Ukraine, and immediately provided a tragic new context for the entire event. The fate of the Ukraine pavilion, in the Arsenale, was initially uncertain. As the invasion began, the organisers said that they were “not able to continue working on the project of the pavilion due to the danger to our lives” but were “determined” to represent Ukraine in the Biennale. They added: “If the situation changes, and it is safe to continue our work and travel, we will be in Venice.” Later, the artist Pavlo Makov confirmed that one of the pavilion’s curators, Maria Lanko, was able to take the work destined for Venice—Makov’s installation Fountain of Exhaustion—from Ukraine across the border into Poland “on the backseat of her car”. They later confirmed the pavilion would go ahead.
The Russian pavilion, built in 1914—one of the grandest in the Giardini, and recently restored by the Russian/Japanese practice KASA Architects—will be an inevitable lightning rod for attention. The pavilion’s Lithuanian curator, Raimundas Malašauskas, and the two selected artists, Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, pulled out of the pavilion in February, with Savchenkov writing on Instagram that “there is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles, when citizens of Ukraine are hiding in shelters, when Russian protesters are getting silenced”.
At the time of writing, it seems likely to be empty. The Biennale made an official announcement that it will “not accept the presence at any of its events of official delegations, institutions or persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government” while the invasion persists. And while it is clear that those who would have shown in the pavilion have no truck with Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, the connections between the would-be commissioners and the Russian state run deep. The father of Anastasia Karneeva, the pavilion’s commissioner, is the former Federal Security Service general, Nikolay Volobuyev, now the deputy chief executive of Rostec, a Russian state-owned defence contractor. And Karneeva co-owns Smart Art, an art production and exhibition company contracted to run the pavilion, with Ekaterina Vinokurova, the daughter of Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister who is one of the leaders of Russia’s campaign against Ukraine.
The pavilions are long-planned so whether widespread dismay at the Russian invasion in the art world will find a form of expression in late artistic interventions in any of the pavilions is moot. The last time war hit mainland Europe with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia beginning in 1991, artists at the Biennale did respond. In 1993, when Antoni Tàpies showed in the Spanish pavilion alongside Cristina Iglesias, he created Rinzen, an installation including an oversized iron bed mounted to the wall, with bedclothes and other objects tumbling from it—a work the artist described as “a plea against war and violence”. Tàpies won the Golden Lion for painting that year. One might expect gestures of solidarity with Ukraine to be similarly rewarded in 2022.
Instruments of soft power
Few ties between commissioners and states will be as dramatic as Russia’s, but still, it is impossible to ignore the fact that pavilions are largely instruments of soft power, often commissioned by ministries of culture, and wielded with different degrees of state interference and independence. Elsewhere in this magazine you can read about strategies adopted to subvert nationhood, and the jostling in the Giardini. One is particularly novel: the Netherlands has handed its Gerrit Rietveld-designed pavilion to Estonia and decamped to a church in Cannaregio. But, as Enwezor pointed out, pavilions can provide a structure whereby “the fantasies and the desires” of national identity can be explored in a loaded, richly historical context, even if they are not the pavilions’ core subject. In the British pavilion, Sonia Boyce recognises that her work confronts the question: “Who do you expect to be British? And how do we negotiate difference in our day-to-day lives.” And this will undoubtedly be common to other pavilions: Boyce is the first Black woman to represent her nation, the same is true for Simone Leigh in the US pavilion, and Stan Douglas is the first Black artist to occupy the Canadian pavilion. Other pavilions are at last acknowledging their countries’ diverse cultural heritage: Zineb Sedira is the first artist with an Algerian background to be commissioned for the French pavilion; the Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas will be in the Polish pavilion; and the Nordic pavilion has been renamed the Sámi pavilion and will feature artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna, all from indigenous communities in the north of Scandinavia.
As Boyce says of her own selection, it is shocking that in 2022, these are such novel inclusions. Indeed, representation, diversity and equity seem certain to be the major themes and preoccupations in this year’s pavilions, even if events in Ukraine will also be foremost in people’s minds.