Art Biennale in Venice: Between Surrealism and Real War

Status: 04/21/2022 11:48 a.m

The preview of the art biennale is currently running in Venice, and the art show will open to the public on Saturday. This year it is all about surrealism – and the Ukraine war.

Jörg Seisselberg, ARD Studio Rome, z. Currently Venice

Cecilia Alemani stands in front of the central pavilion in the Giardini and shrugs her shoulders with a smile. Yes, the 45-year-old Italian admits, times were different when she started planning the Biennale two years ago. At that time – in the middle of the pandemic – she had decided in favor of surrealism as the formative art direction of the exhibition. But because of the war in Ukraine, the artistic theme of the Biennale is more topical than ever, as the New Yorker by choice emphasizes.

“If we think about the conditions under which Surrealism emerged in Paris in the 1920s, then it was a situation very similar to what we are experiencing today,” says Alemani. Surrealism developed “from the ashes of World War I, at a time when totalitarian regimes came to power, with the rise of fascism”. It was a very political art movement, anti-militaristic, anti-totalitarian.

The art biennale 2022 under the motto “The Milk of Dreams” is a political one. The central pavilion is characterized by surrealist works that work with the alienation and distortion of human bodies and objects and deal with the relationship between man and technology, between man and nature.

Venice Art Biennale 2022

Anja Miller, ARD Rome, daily news 12:00 p.m., April 21, 2022

War in Ukraine takes center stage

The most important political theme of the Biennale of Surrealism, however, is the real war in Ukraine. For a long time it was unclear whether the Ukrainian contribution would even make it to Venice. When the war broke out, the 78 funnels of the water installation by artist Pavlo Makow were still in Ukraine, says the curator of the Ukrainian pavilion, Maria Lanko: “We started clearing our camp when the war was approaching.” The funnels of the installation could have been placed in three boxes. It was clear that they fit in a car and “that it is possible to bring them out like this to represent our country here with what we have”.

Personally, Maria Lanko was brave enough to get behind the wheel and bring the work of art across the border to Poland and from there – with the support of the Biennale organizers – to Venice. “The funnels had to be brought out and they had to be brought out by me,” Lanko says. Because she was the only one on the team who had no children or other relatives to take care of. That’s why, says the curator, she was able to get in the car and just drive away.

Artist Pavlo Makov’s “Fountain of Exhaustion” in the Ukraine Pavilion.

Image: AFP

Russia is left out

The artwork, explains artist Pavlo Makow, also tells of the exhaustion of democratic societies that are not prepared to protect themselves. Until the beginning of the war, his artwork was a warning, now it’s a statement.

Makow reacted abruptly to the statement by Biennale director Alemani that art in Venice should enable dialogue even in times of war. Makow, on the other hand, refuses to talk, even with the Russian artists who canceled their participation in the Biennale in protest against Putin’s war of aggression: “Unfortunately, Russian culture has now come to Ukraine on tanks and rockets.” Ukrainian artists are now trying to save their culture. So, Makow says, “I don’t feel like I can talk to them now. The only place we can have a dialogue now is at the front.”

In addition to the Ukrainian national contribution, the Biennale management has set up a Piazza Ucraina, a square of Ukraine, directly at the entrance to the Giardini. The central work of art, a pyramid made of sandbags, can be seen from afar. The large Russian pavilion, on the other hand, will remain closed this year. Officials who have contacts with the Russian government are not allowed to participate in the Biennale.

More women there

A biennial that experiences a turning point in the shadow of the Ukraine war. For the first time, 80 percent of the participating artists are women. There are so many strong female artists, says Biennale director Alemani, so the turnaround is overdue after many years of male dominance.

The German pavilion is also designed by a woman. The conceptual artist Maria Eichhorn has revealed – in the truest sense of the word – the history of the fascist-influenced German building on the Biennale grounds. Plaster was removed from the walls and parts of the foundations were uncovered to show how the National Socialists in 1938 had put their extension over the original German pavilion from 1909.

“Relocating a Structure” by the German artist Maria Eichhorn can be seen in the German Pavilion.

Image: EPA

Eichhorn herself does not want to comment on her work. Curator Yilmaz Dziewior says: In view of the current situation in the world, it is more necessary than ever to deal with totalitarian structures and to raise awareness of them. Maria Einhorn managed to translate this into a powerful and at the same time poetic image by exposing the seams of the building history in the German pavilion. The result of their work, says Dziewior, shows a great need to deal with German history.

The removed plaster and the partly excavated foundation in the German pavilion are just a part of Eichhorn’s contribution to the Biennale. This also includes the parallel guided tours through Venice, to sites of anti-fascist resistance during the German occupation.

Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement goes to Germans

The German sculptor Katharina Fritsch was awarded a Golden Lion for her life’s work in Venice this year. Her life-size sculpture of a green elephant stands at the entrance of the central pavilion – and is one of the most important works of the surreal 2022 Biennial.

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