“Before my eyes is an army of the dead against which living humanity must unite,” said Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Budnikov, referencing the Russian army that has invaded his homeland, during an interview with Hyperallergic. Otherwise, he warns of “the triumph of death.”
Now based in Berlin, Budnikov is one of the painters, illustrators, and artists whose works are featured in Piazza Ucraina (“Ukraine Square,” in Italian), an open-air exhibition set up at the very last moment in the Giardini section of the 59th Venice Biennale. The works were compiled by the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund (UEAF), which helped organize the show along with the curators of the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Biennale — Borys Filonenko, Lizaveta German, and Maria Lanko.
“When we discussed the exhibition with the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund, which archives wartime artwork, they talked about how artists help them to better understand what they themselves feel, and some of these pieces have a therapeutic effect,” Filonenko told Hyperallergic. “Pictures appear in social networks every day in the same feed with urgent news from the battlefield and from cities under shelling and occupation.”
Designed by architect Dana Kosmina, Piazza Ucraina consists of a square with a tall tower made of sandbags in the center and demarcated on three sides by vertical wood panels on which reproductions of wartime paintings and illustrations are displayed. The sandbag tower, evocative of those used to safeguard Ukraine’s cultural heritage, has a wider base that narrows towards the top like an obelisk, lending the space an uncanny resemblance to an ancient monument. If so, it would be the portal to a temple of pain: The images are raw and urgent. The suffering is conveyed immediately to the viewer.
Right behind a panel displaying one of Budnikov’s watercolor, marker, and pencil on paper works from his series Time of War (2022), showing a skull suspended in the air and separated from the torso of a skeleton in a blur of red and black, visitors to the Biennale are having food and drinks at the tables of an open-air restaurant. The dissonant images highlight the contrast between the realities of two places that are only a couple of hours of flight apart.
The artists’ touch — the delicacy of the lines that depict the horror — adds poignancy to the scenes they portray. Kinder Album’s watercolors highlight the fragility of women in war, the quintessential male contest. And yet, front and center in these works, just by being there, women symbolize life, are life, and as such they appear unvanquishable.
The drawings, Kinder Album said in an email to Hyperallergic, are “my war diary, which helps me realize the events, reflect on them, express my emotions,” hoping that the audience “can also feel them.”
The images, the artist adds, “are sometimes stronger than words and now are an alternative source of information about the war on another, emotional level.”
Artist Katya Buchatska was away from her home in Kyiv when the war broke out and had to stay behind in Lviv. As help given to the displaced, she was given a tablecloth, yellowed and useless. Her work at Piazza Ucraina, “Alarm Tablecloth” (March 30, 2022), shows a photo of the items she had with her at the time lying on the tablecloth and then the outline she drew of them on the tablecloth itself.
“Making art during wartime is both too difficult and too easy,” Buchatska told Hyperallergic. “It’s difficult because it is impossible to argue with the war and any statement looks helpless and useless.” And yet, the all-encompassing nature of the war makes it easy, too, “because there is a topic that you want to talk about exclusively.” After the initial shock that paralyzed her, she realized, “I still have the right to testify and that my experience, although not a combat one, is also important.”
Daniil Nemyrovskyi’s drawings are haunting. Holed up in a bomb shelter in Mariupol during the worst of the relentless Russian attack on the city, he documented life underground with pen on paper. Now in the relative safety of Kyiv, he expressed his concern for soldiers who have been fighting for 62 days at the Azovstal plant in his hometown, adding that they are running out of “drugs and strength” and fearing they may die “a slow death from starvation and dehydration in the blockade” imposed by the Russian army.
Art “gave me a sense of a certain rationalization of events, because art for me is a way of knowing and a way to see,” Nemyrovskyi told Hyperallergic. It was difficult to see in the shelter’s near-total darkness, he recounts, “when every 15 minutes the plane drops bombs somewhere nearby, and you are surrounded by enemies.”
He was relieved that his drawings were not lost at the checkpoints on his way out of Mariupol and, more importantly, that “the people depicted in the pictures managed to escape from Mariupol alive and unharmed.”
From Berlin, Budnikov reflected on the existential impact of war beyond the devastating loss of life. “Russian aggression brought destruction and death, and also posed an urgent question to the whole world: What is the name of the evil that tempts man until everything human in him dies?” he said.
“In my opinion, the Russian state is not only carrying physical death,” Budnikov added. “Since Soviet times, its efforts have been aimed at removing human qualities from a living person.”
This is not the first time that wartime politics or world affairs enter the Biennale. The United States and other countries boycotted the exhibition in 1936 in repudiation of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini; in 1974, protest murals against General Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile the previous year were displayed in lieu of other art.
The art on view at Piazza Ucraina and created by Ukrainians right now, Filonenko said, is “about everyday life inside the war, documentation of crimes, fixation of anxieties, feelings, plans for the future.”
Paraphrasing German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s statement about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, he wonders: “Is art possible after Bucha?” The Ukrainian town just outside of Kyiv, where hundreds of civilians were tortured and murdered by the Russian military in March, was the site of the war’s worst documented where atrocities so far. “And as we can see today,” Filonenko continued, “there is a lot of art in the war.”