A surreal feel at a wartime Venice Biennale
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A surreal feel at a wartime Venice Biennale
A 12-part tapestry by the Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas on display at the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy, April 20, 2022. This year’s event is a lopsided affair, with a forceful central exhibition but disappointing national pavilions, writes New York Times critic Jason Farago. Gus Powell/The New York Times.

by Scott Reyburn

VENICE.- “What happened to free speech in Italy?” shouted one of the 50 or so onlookers Wednesday morning as a security guard stood in front of a lone anti-war protester at the Venice Biennale, trying to block out his message.

Berlin-based Russian artist Vadim Zakharov had just unfurled a banner in front of the shuttered national pavilion where he represented his country at the 2013 Biennale. The two artists and curator who were set to present work for Russia in this year’s edition pulled out in February after Russia invaded Ukraine. The pavilion has been closed ever since.

Standing still and silent, Zakharov, a member of the radical Moscow conceptualist art movement in the late 1970s, held a handwritten message that read in part: “I protest against Russia’s propaganda and the Russian invasion.”

The Italian guard, a member of the Biennale’s own security services, immediately called for backup. The banner was confiscated, but, after polite negotiations, the protester was allowed to conduct interviews with reporters for about 20 minutes, then left.

“I’m not in Red Square,” said a smiling Zakharov as he walked away through the Biennale’s garden precinct, among those lucky enough to have tickets for the four-day preview of what is perhaps the world’s most prestigious and elegant art event. The fashionably sneakered crowd was perhaps not quite ready for political activism at that moment.

This year’s Venice Biennale, which opens to the public Saturday and runs through Nov. 27, is the first since 1942 to be held while a war of foreign aggression rages in Europe. The main exhibition was inspired by 20th century surrealism, and there was certainly a surreal feel to the event: While the cool contemporary art crowd strolled among the exhibits, Ukraine was being pummeled by missiles, and there was hardly a Russian in sight. But curators, collectors, dealers and artists were staging plenty of events to support Ukraine, and a passionate personal address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy finally shook the Biennale out of its reverie.

The Biennale’s main exhibition, titled “The Milk of Dreams” and featuring more than 200 artists, predominantly female and nonbinary, was selected by Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art in New York. Taking the imaginative world of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington as its starting point, the curatorial theme of “a world set free, brimming with possibilities” seemed to have been overtaken by events. But the sprawling two-venue presentation’s emphasis on contemporary artists who challenge the “presumed universal ideal of the white, male ‘Man of Reason’” was definitely in tune with the moment.

“These are some of the more explicitly violent works that I’ve made,” said Los Angeles-based artist Christina Quarles, speaking in front of “Hangin’ There Baby,” a large 2021 canvas in the show that seems to depict mutilated body parts hanging from a tree, evoking unsettling memories of Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” series.

“People are saying, what is the relevance of art when there are so many real-life things happening?” said Quarles, who is among the international art world’s most highly regarded young painters. “One of the things that art is able to do is make these unexpected connections.”

On March 2, in response to the Russian invasion, the Biennale announced that it would “collaborate in every way with the national participation of Ukraine” in this year’s edition. At the same time, it said, the Biennale “would not accept the presence at any of its events of official delegations, institutions or persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government.”

Russian visitors — and their yachts — have been conspicuous absentees this year. In 2011, Roman Abramovich outraged local Venetians by mooring his nearly 400-foot megayacht in waters just a 3-minute walk from the Biennale. Abramovic is now one of the many Russian billionaires subject to international sanctions, and several of their yachts have been seized by authorities worldwide.

“I’ve heard no Russians,” Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian American curator, said in an interview at a cafe on the Zattere, Venice’s southern edge. “By now, we would have had hordes of them. In the golden days, Abramovich’s yacht would arrive, and then there would be another, and another.

“International contemporary art was seen in Russia as a symbol of modernity, a return to the West. Now it is a symbol of politician subversion.”

Akinsha pointed toward the nearby V-A-C Foundation, a contemporary art museum in a waterfront palazzo created in 2017 by Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, who also financed the enormous GES-2 museum in Moscow. The wood-and-bronze doors of V-A-C were firmly locked Wednesday, and the museum said in an email that its activities were “suspended at this time.”

While Russians stay away, the Biennale and the art world are doing what they can to help Ukraine. Ukrainian steel magnate and art collector Victor Pinchuk, who in recent years spent millions on trophy works by international stars such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and also founded a contemporary art center in Kyiv, was the driver behind the exhibition “This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom,” in the stately, recently restored Scuola Grande della Misericordia in the north of Venice.

An official Biennale satellite event, the two-part presentation showcases works specially commissioned by Pinchuk from established international names such as Hirst, Marina Abramovic and Olafur Eliasson, as well as from Ukrainian contemporary artists, including internationally exhibited Nikita Kadan. It also presents two paintings by self-taught 20th-century folk artist Maria Prymachenko, dozens of whose works were destroyed by Russian troops in the war’s early days.

At the Thursday evening opening of “This Is Ukraine,” co-organized by the country’s culture ministry, attendees received a rousing, livestreamed address by Zelenskyy, who vividly described the horrors his people were enduring. Dressed in his trademark khaki fleece, with a digital Ukrainian flag fluttering behind him, Zelenskyy said, “There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art. Because they can see the power of art. Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise.”

Two hours later, in the even more stately Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with its celebrated paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto, virtuoso auctioneer Simon de Pury conducted a gala sale of 15 works by some of the contemporary art world’s best-known names to benefit museums and charitable organizations in Ukraine. More than 200 people attended the event, with tickets costing up to 10,000 euros. The auction itself raised 1.2 million euros, with a top price of 375,000 euros for a 2021 painting by Richard Prince. A further online-only auction of more than 40 works will finish Sunday.

“We have to present something,” said Zakharov, the protesting artist, as he walked away from the Russian pavilion on Wednesday. Smartphones were informing passing Biennale-goers that the Russian army had threatened to “eliminate” the remaining defenders of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“The world is becoming more and more crazy,” said Zakharov. “We do what we can do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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