As It Happens

Ukrainian artist showcases his work at Venice Biennale as war rages back home

Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov says it's important to show the world that Ukrainian culture is real and unique — despite Russian claims to the contrary.

Pavlo Makov says it's important to show the world that Ukrainian culture is real — no matter what Russia says

Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov speaks at Ukraine's pavilion during a press day at the 59th Venice Art Biennale in Venice on April 19, 2022. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov says it's important to show the world that Ukrainian culture is real and unique — despite Russian claims to the contrary. 

As war rages on back home, Makov is displaying his art at this year's Venice Biennale in Italy, one of the world's oldest and most important contemporary art fairs. 

"For us, it was important because Ukraine, especially now at [this] time, at the time of the war, has to be represented as … a society with its own culture, as a country with its own culture," Makov told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

"In a nation without culture … there is no identity. It doesn't exist. And that's what Russia openly says, is 'We want to destroy Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian culture doesn't exist.'"

Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified the invasion of Ukraine by claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people." Throughout the war, Ukrainian cultural artifacts, including museums and architecture, have been a regular target.

Makov was already scheduled to appear at the 59th Venice Biennale before Russian troops invaded his home country in February. 

But when the war broke out, he was at home in Kharkiv, and the Biennale was the last thing on his mind. 

Russian missile attacks forced Makov and his family to move into a bomb shelter — all except his 92-year-old mother, who refused to leave her house.

After a couple of weeks, he says he decided he had a responsibility to get his family out of harm's way. He fled in a car with his wife, his mother, his cat and two family friends, all while missiles flew overheard. His adult son and daughter decided to remain in the country. 

Art curator Maria Lanko poses by Makov's Fountain of Exhaustion. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Makov says he had to leave most of his art behind. But fortunately, the pieces of the work he was planning to showcase in Venice — a massive sculpture of copper funnels called The Fountain of Exhaustion — were in Kyiv. 

One of his curators, Maria Lanko, was in the capital at the time. She packed the funnels into her car took them to Vienna.

"When [my family] arrived to the west of Ukraine, she gave me a call, and she said that she's really determined to still make our pavilion in Venice — and we decided to make it," Makov said.

"This project is definitely a collective work, you know, because I wouldn't be able to make it alone."

'Exhaustion of democracy'

The 3 1/2-metre Fountain of Exhaustion consists of 12 rows of copper funnels assembled into a pyramid. As the water cascades down the sculpture, it splits first into two streams, then four, then six, and so on, so that what begins as a powerful flow is slowly reduced to a light trickle.

"This is kind of an image of exhaustion, you know, that our society, especially democratic societies, are living through now," Makov said. "I mean exhaustion of power, exhaustion of humanity, exhaustion of democracy, if you want."

When he first created the fountain in the '90s, he says it represented post-Soviet Ukraine as it transitioned to an independent nation. 

Over time, he grew more hopeful about his country's future, so he stopped showcasing the fountain. But then, he says it took on new relevance as "a global symbol." 

Curator Lizaveta German, right, poses next to the Fountain of Exhaustion. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

So far, he says the installation has been well-received in Italy — though he suspects that has more to do with the war than the art itself.

"It's also a sad thing that we got maybe some extra interest because of the situation in the country. And this interest, unfortunately, is paid by blood," he said.

The Ukrainian pavilion is just a short walk away from the Russian pavilion, closed this year after Ukrainian artists and curators protested its inclusion and the artists pulled out.

The Ukrainian pavilion curators  — Lanko, Lizaveta German, and Borys Filonenko — have taken over the space, erecting a mound of sandbags in the centre, surrounded by posters made during the war by Ukrainian artists.

A view of an installation at a square titled 'to Ukraine' at the Biennale of Arts. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

Makov says some people have asked him why he doesn't reach out and engage in artistic dialogue with Russian artists.

"I said that it's impossible to have any kind of dialogue with so-called Russian culture, because Russian culture created the society that is moving towards devastating my country with tanks and missiles," he said.

The Biennale opened Saturday and runs through Nov. 27. After that, Makov isn't sure what he and his family will do.

"Now we have to think about what what to do next," he said. "This is a big problem."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Pavlo Makov produced by Katie Geleff.

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