Pavlo Makov, Ukraine’s Venice Biennale artist, on why he’s standing firm in Kharkiv
On April 20, the great, the good and the simply stratospherically wealthy of the international art world will descend on Venice for the city’s 59th art biennale. Chances are, however, that Pavlo Makov, the artist chosen to represent Ukraine at this year’s event, will not be there. Nobody knows how the conflict in his country will have developed by the end of the week let alone by mid-April, but as things stand, he tells me down the line from Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, he’s not going anywhere.
“We decided to stay the first day,” Makov, 63, says in rapid English (he apologises for mixing up his words - he’s just done another interview in Italian). “My son came to me at five in the morning and said, they started the war. We collected our things and of course I had to ask my wife, shall we leave [the country]? And she said no.” The whole family has remained, for now - Makov and his wife are staying with around 30 other people including families with children at the Yermilov Arts Centre on the university campus (a building cheerfully described on its own website as “a bunker”), while Makov’s son, his daughter-in-law and her mother are staying at the small lower-ground floor restaurant in the town centre which his son runs, where they were well-stocked for forthcoming events and weddings. “They prepare food for the army,” Makov says.
As for his own mother, “she’s 92 and she refused point blank to go to any shelter and she stays in her house,” he says. She has enough food for “maybe the next four days, then we’ll see. But for now it’s possible to go out.” Possible, but uncomfortable, he says. “Yesterday especially we have a lot of small groups of armed people.” He can’t think of the word in English, “it’s not like real regular army, but they were introduced here in November, December; they were hidden and now they’ve come out, and they want to make some kind of diversions here in the centre of the city. They want to make trouble.”
We struggle briefly through my confusion, then he explains, “they simply want to prepare the ground for the Russian army if they are be able to get in here.” Kharkiv is in the North East of the country, only about 25 kilometres from the Russian border. “We’re surrounded by Russian troops, but not seriously,” Makov says. “So yesterday they [the authorities] said the hours when we can go out, it was from 6am to 12 noon, but they asked in the [afternoon] that the locals they don’t go out, which means that anybody who is in the street who is not the regular army is part of these groups, so it’s easier for them to point them out and destroy them. But at least for now it’s under control as far as I understand.”
The precariousness of the situation is outlined hours later when I see a news report that the city has been hit by rocket strikes since our conversation. I text Makov to find out if they’re ok, and he says that at least 11 civilians have been killed (initial reports say “dozens”) and many wounded. “When they can’t do anything with the army they start to kill the population, bastards...” he writes.
Basic food and other essential supplies are still available when we speak, and the shops open “but of course there are long, long queues. But people behave very nicely in the queues, I want to say, people are even more polite than they would be in a normal situation,” he says.
Until just a week or so ago, Makov had been expecting to fly out to Venice on March 15, a couple of days after the composite parts of his artwork, an updated version of his 1995 sculpture The Fountain of Exhaustion, to oversee its construction at the Ukrainian pavilion. It quickly became clear, however, that this was not going to work.
“We are not in immediate danger, but the situation is critical and changes every minute,” he and the project’s three curators, Lizaveta German, Maira Lanko and Borys Filonenko, wrote in a statement published on Instagram. “Presently, we are not able to continue working on the project of the pavilion due to the danger to our lives.
“We can not confirm yet that our project will be completed, but we can promise that we will do everything possible to save unique artwork produced by Pavlo Makov and our big team specially for the upcoming biennial during the past five months, and to represent Ukraine in the international contemporary art scene the way it deserves to be represented,” they continued.
Since then, Raimundas Malasauskas, the curator leading on Russia’s pavilion, also resigned, along with the artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov. In his statement, also posted on Instagram, Malasauskas, who was born in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union, wrote:
“I cannot advance on working on this project in light of Russia’s military invasion and bombing of Ukraine. This war is politically and emotionally unbearable... I have lived through the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989, and have witnessed and enjoyed my country’s development ever since. The idea of going back to or forward with living under a Russian or any other empire is simply intolerable.”
Makov appreciates the gesture, he says; he understands that most artists in Russia are appalled by the conflict. But he is not surprised by it.
“This is very important, the war started in 2014 [with Putin’s annexation of Crimea],” he says. “That’s what I have been saying to many friends across Europe.” He tells me about an occasion just two years ago, when a 40 year-old German friend asked him over dinner, why not Putin? Germany is so dependent on gas, why not? “He didn’t realise that by even saying that, he is abusing my feelings. This is my land. For example, imagine if somebody will come to Germany and say, Bavaria was always ours. And we don’t care about the borders [put in place] after the Second World War. It’s the same.” He cut all ties in Russia as soon as Crimea was annexed, and lost his connections in Moscow, he says. “I couldn’t continue relations with a country that was at war with my country.”
Part of what seems to have wrong-footed Putin is the resistance that his troops have met on Ukrainian soil.
“We are more prepared for war because we have always had this,” Makov says. “Over the last years I have participated with my friends, we have made charity auctions to sell work and to give the money to the army. We are of course very proud to have this army, but the Russians have always used just one tactic, even during the Second World War.
“It’s also partly the difference in mentality between the west and Russia, they never care about human life,” he continues, and quotes - apologising for his slightly rocky translation of what turns out to be a very succinct point - a sentiment attributed to the wartime Red Army general Georgy Zhukov. “He said, you take care of the technical side, and more soldiers will be born by the women.”
He thinks the same attitude is being displayed now. “They are sending more and more and more soldiers,” he says, “but they are absolutely not motivated. The Russian troops, they don’t know what to do. I have seen lots of videos of those taken prisoner, everybody behaves with them absolutely normally and allows them to call their mums and fathers in Russia and describe the situation, and mostly these are young people and they are not motivated. And we are very motivated. I even don’t have fear. I’ve expected this for 30 years.”
Makov has represented Ukraine as an artist on numerous occasions, but he is, he explains, “three quarters” Russian (the other quarter is Czech). He was born in St Petersburg, moving to Ukraine aged three, and studied fine and graphic art in Crimea. “It’s incredibly important to understand that this is not a war between Ukrainians and Russians,” he says, detouring rather interestingly for a minute or two on the similarities between the Ukrainian, Russian and Polish languages. Rather, this is a war between opposing mentalities, - and Ukraine “was always a very Europe-orientated country, even though it was formed out of the Soviet Union. If Ukraine is occupied, and if we’re alive, I wouldn’t stay under Russia. That’s the only situation [in which I’d leave] - it wouldn’t be Ukraine any longer.”
His project in Venice will be an act of resistance. Though it’s highly unlikely that it will be able to go ahead as planned, “the heart of the project” looks like it might make it. The Fountain of Exhaustion is a sculpture made up of water spilling through a series of bronze funnels hung on a wall. In 1995 it was intended to represent the feeling of exhaustion and draining vitality that Makov perceived in the world - with the environmental crisis, the loss of privacy to the internet and so forth; he intended to update it as things seem to have only got worse. Two days into the war, Maira Lanko collected all the funnels and put them in her car. “She managed to take them out, she got out of Kyiv and she has now reached Poland,” Makov tells me (Filonenko is in Lviv; German, in the late stages of pregnancy, remains in Kyiv).
“There are lots of suggestions that people would like to help, from Austria, and our English-language catalogue was ready to be printed on the 23rd, the day before the war started, so we have sent the pdf somewhere else to print it.” If Lanko can get to Venice, Makov says, “she will definitely organise it so we can show at least the core of the project, and the catalogue will be there, and it’s OK. In the situation which we have now, I think our participation will be a positive thing for Ukraine.” Though he admits ruefully that right now, the world “is a little bit ahead” of his metaphor.
He has nothing but praise for his country’s government and the former comedian at the head of it, Volodymyr Zelensky. “I will tell you honestly, I was not very fond of our president,” he says. “I knew his career as an artist and everything, that was a little bit strange for me. But now, I can tell you, our president, phew, he’s a real man you know,” he says with audible admiration. “It’s an incredible transformation. I trust them absolutely 100 per cent. They are very courageous and very good people.”
As for himself, he’s no soldier, he says (though he underwent compulsory military training during the Soviet era, he’s a little rusty by now), “but of course if it happens at the very end of it, I also can shoot from a machine gun, you know?” He prefers to do what he can as an artist - give money, and “give interviews, because I think information is also important, for the world to hear from people.”
Art, he thinks, is of limited use in the frontline situation the country is in now. “I think that art is very important part of our life; we can’t live without culture, neither politics nor the economy work without culture, this is the key to open those locks. But at the same time, right now, art won’t help a hell of a lot. This is my duty now, working on the information front.”
The 59th Venice Biennale is open to the public from April 23 to November 27, labiennale.org