The Ukrainian National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Backstage
via Mykola Rydnyi
Ukraine’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year raised several problematic issues. The selection of participating artists [Mykola Ridnyi, Gamlet Zinkovskyi, Zhanna Kadyrova] was done by the Institute for Contemporary Art (IPSI), led by Victor Sydorenko, the commissioner of the pavilion. Sydorenko himself represented Urkaine at Venice as an artist in 2003. The appointed curators were Oleksandr Soloviov and Victoria Burlaka, who had also participated in the national pavilion in Venice before. It so happened that right after the participants had been chosen, the Minister of Culture of Ukraine was replaced, a change which delayed the pavilion preparation process for months, regardless of all organizational deadlines. Moreover, the state-allocated budget of 100.000 Euros caused a lot of criticism in the press, as Ukraine is not one of the richest country in the world. As many financial questions arose, the participating artists were forced to justify every dime they spent to the Ministry of Culture, and in some instances were not compensated for the costs they incurred. The artists either produced the works in the exhibition previously to the biennale or created new works from their personal budgets. Furthermore, the pavilion organizers did not even take responsibility for the transportation of the finished works.
What follows is a selection of diary-like entries by Mykola Ridnyi and Zhanna Kadyrova about their experiences before, during and after the opening of the Ukrainian National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013.
Mykola Ridnyi: I arrived in Venice. The opening of the National Pavilion of Ukraine was scheduled for the 29th of May, which meant I had only four days to install my works – a rather nerve-wracking situation. It was not possible for me to arrive earlier: the state budget allocated funds for only a six-day stay in Venice. I found all this out a month before the trip, when the press release went out (including to the international press) – by then it was impossible to pass up my participation. In fact, I found out that I will be taking part in this project with certainty only two months before the trip, during a working meeting.
The Ukrainian national pavilion was placed in an even smaller and narrower space than what I had imagined from the photographs. There was no funding for preliminary visits to the site, as the Ministry of Culture did not understand the need for them.
Hotel. There was no accommodation provided for artists’ girlfriends/ wives or boyfriends/ husbands. Therefore my companion had to stay in the hotel room illegally. The trick worked. In the morning I stole away croissants and yoghurt. In my case, the room was booked for two people, but not for me and my companion, but for me and another person involved in the exhibition organization. We lived in close quarters, but it was not impossible . The artist Gamlet [Zinkovskyi] had a similar situation, but the same trick did not work in his case, and he and his partner had to live separately.
Zhanna Kadyrova: My assistants Denis and Timofey and I came to Venice on the 20th in order to prepare everything. As both of my works had to be built on site, I asked for 10 days for the installation, however I was told that the conditions were the same for all the participants – 6 days and nothing more! The first few days we lived in the apartment of the REP group and then moved to a hotel on the Lido. (besides Kadyrova, the group includes Kseniya Gnylytska, Nikita Kadan, Volodymyr Kuznetsov, Lada Nakonechna, Olesya Khomenko. The artists organized an exhibition “Union of Hovels” on the Lido Island, while Kadan participated in the Pinchuk Art Center’s “Future Generation Prize” at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac). It turned out that they had booked a triple room for us, without even asking if this was appropriate for me and my assistants. Before, I had to convince the organizers that without my assistants I could not physically build the installation, and that if they wanted the work in the exhibition and to publish it in the catalogue, then they had to consider the technical side of things as well.
Ridnyi: The installation of the exhibition. The situation was tense as the planned installations did not fit in the space. Victor Sidorenko, the commissioner of the project, was the only person who had seen the space before, when he came to Venice on an earlier trip at his own expense. But he and the curators, Oleksandr Soloviov and Victoria Burlaka, were still in Ukraine and due to arrive only a day before the opening. Like everyone else, they were only funded to spend six days in Venice. All the artists were assigned one coordinator who was also the installer. Together we placed the podium under the art objects, sawed down the tables that turned out to be too large, fastened the projectors to the ceiling…Zhanna Kadyrova received help to install her works from a couple of friends who came as her assistants and by the artist Kseniya Gnylytska, who despite exhibiting elsewhere, showed her friendly solidarity.
Kadyrova: In addition to helping construct the installations, Denis also did the video-editing while Timofey handled the sound editing and all technical communications. We had to spend two weeks in Venice to prepare for the opening, while the Ministry of Culture only paid for accommodation and board for six days. Neither the artists nor their assistants were paid.
The delivery of the materials for installation to Venice was a very difficult issue. To avoid any problems, I asked the Italian gallery that I work with, Continua, to have all materials on hand before I arrived. The delivery took five days. According to the Ukrainian legislation, it was not possible to send money for the materials to be bought in Italy: it is necessary to make a contract with the person which receives and buys them. Considering that I received my production fee on Friday, May 17th, if I had arrived in Venice on the 20th and ordered the materials there, I would have got them only on May 25th. In addition, I needed ten days to assemble the work. Therefore, at the opening on May 29th we would have had a stack of unfinished works and bags of cement. Furthermore, that there was a preliminary agreement that the Biennale commission would be also visiting our pavilion at the opening.
Ridnyi: We barely managed to get everything ready for the opening, except that the my complete sculpture series was missing. My series “Platform” were on loan from the collection of the Moscow Foundation Victoria. They were delivered separately from Moscow, and not Kiev, with a horrible delay.
Ridnyi: The sculptures arrived one day before the opening, but, we were in for an unpleasant surprise: the sculptures had been scratched and broken on the way. The Ministry of Culture employees told me that they knew the works that were being sent had some minor damages before leaving Moscow. It was the first I had heard about it. One of the works was broken into fragments, and this damage was obviously caused by the negligence of the transportation company. I remembered then how they had recommended that I take out insurance on the series myself, supposedly to speed up the transportation process. Someone had even suggested the wild scenario that I should have driven to Moscow at my own expense and bring the works from there. I listened to Zhanna’s advice and my own common sense, and of course did not take any liability myself. In this case, my intuition failed. As a result, only one object out of four was suitable to be displayed in the pavilion. That night I decided to drink heavily.
Kadyrova: We left the pavilion at 10 PM. We managed to finish everything in time. Since the plasma display that I had ordered I received at the last minute (on Wednesday, May 15th, in the afternoon, and I had to take it through customs on Friday, May 17th in the morning), I was only able to make the design and adjust the image, but could not do a sound test: I saw the columns from the work only once they were in the pavilion – and it turned out that they didn’t match the plasma display. Through some miracle, we managed to find a converter in Venice, and it finally worked!
Ridnyi: Opening day; some unexpected details came up. It turned out that there would be a Ukrainian-Italian business forum in the Palazzo Loredan, a floor above where our exhibition was located. It also turned out that we had a joint reception with this business forum.
A lot of journalists from TV channels came. They asked about the works, but that’s the last thing I wanted to talk about. My dissatisfaction with the organization overshadowed all artistic messages.
The exhibition opening. After the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine gave a speech, suddenly, we heard the national anthem being played. This came as a surprise even to the Commissioner of the project, since he didn’t have time to finish his speech. Everyone looked dazed and confused. At the same time, I noticed that the entrance to the exhibition was covered by a patriotic yellow and blue ribbon [e.n. Ukrainian flag colors]. The ribbon was then officially cut and each artists received a pice of it. I kept mine as an artifact for a future project. Meanwhile, a concert began outside. A team of male dancers in traditional costumes accompanied by girls in embroidered shirts singing. The last one to go was an elderly woman singing Ave Maria. She could not finish it off with a dramatic ending because the equipment was turned off – she was clearly upset and indignant about this. Some time ago, I filmed a concert in honor of “School Day” at a vocational school in Kharkov. I even had an idea to adorn the video with embroidery and place it in the National Pavilion at the Biennale, but even without my irony the scenario came true in the form of this official live performance.
Kadyrova: At 10 am we were kicked out from the hotel – on Opening Day! I took this as a very symbolic gesture. I was late for the opening ceremony, after hearing complaints from the Ministry of Culture. But the fact was that during the installation of the project there was not one agreement between the participants and the organizers, making all claims ridiculous.
Rydnyi: After I was forced to check out of the hotel, as my six days of paid budget ran out, I took advantage of my friends’ invitation to spend the night in their rented apartment.
Ridnyi: I went to the self-organized exhibition “The Union of Hovels” on the remote beach Lido. The idea of the exhibition belongs to the group “Hydrada.” I brought a video on my laptop to be shown in the exhibition. On my way, on the vaporetto I ran into a friend to whom I mentioned the upcoming event. She asked, “Is there an exhibition for sure, I don’t see it in listed in any guide?” I said yes, and I was quite happy with this format. Despite its remote location, not only participants themselves but also curators, gallery owners and artists from other countries came to the exhibition. Inspired by the Lido, but with a bitter Venetian after-taste, I left the next day to wonder around Naples.
Kadyrova: After the show at the Lido, I spent the night on the beach. The weather was good, and I did not want to bother any of my friends to host me.
Kadyrova: Departure from Treviso, on the airline Wizzair; my flight was delayed for five hours. The day before, some friends were even “luckier”: the Venice – Kiev flight was cancelled altogether.
Ridnyi: We flew out of Rome to Ukraine. They refused to pay for my return ticket because it was dated “later than June 3rd.” According to the state bureaucracy, the artist cannot be compensated for the return trip if the ticket is dated later than the date of the official opening of the national pavilion. I still had to somehow find a way to get home from Kiev to Kharkov. However, there was no budget for internal travel – moreover, after the upgrades for the Euro-2012 the trains are significantly more expensive. The seats on the express have european prices, but are not of european quality. In short, according to the bureaucratic logic, it became clear to me that for them Ukraine is just Kiev.
Ridnyi: I called the Ministry of Culture to clarify when they will reimburse me for the vaporetto trips in Venice. According to the preliminary agreements, these expenses should have been covered. But I was told that they were carefully reconsidering it, because I had given a very critical interview. It was particularly offensive to them that I spoke about my broken sculptures. Their reasoning was as follows: “We don’t need an international scandal! We prefer to solve it quietly.”
Kadyrova: The Ministry took all my checks to be translated and reviewed. Afterwards, they called back and said that I should give things like knife and pliers to the Ministry to store, as they were reusable. They did not even consider the receipts for sound hardware and plasmas – as they were not stamped.
Ridnyi: All in all, the questions remain: will there be a sequel to this story, two years later and with different actors? And does it have to play out in the same way?
A part of this article was published in Russian on colta.ru. Translation by Corina L. Apostol.