The Russian invasion of Ukraine has cast a shadow of uncertainty on the award ceremony for this year's Future Generation Art Prize. Although winners of the prestigious prize for artists aged 35 or younger have already been announced, neither the award ceremony nor the planned exhibition showcasing work of the nominees – both traditionally held during the Venice Biennale – will take place this year. Barbara De Coninck spoke with Bjorn Geldhof, who has held the post of artistic director of the PinchukArtCentre since 2015 for our May issue, but we are already publishing a preview of the conversation in the run-up to the opening of the Venice Biennale.
Located in the heart of Kyiv, the PinchukArtCentre was founded in 2006 by Ukrainian businessman, collector and philanthropist Victor Pinchuk (1960, Kyiv). It's one of the biggest and most dynamic private institutions for contemporary art in central and eastern Europe. In the span of its still young existence, it has already received more than three million visitors.
The PinchukArtCentre is a branch of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, the largest private philanthropic foundation in Ukraine, whose main activities are rooted in the educational and healthcare industries. The stated mission of the art centre is to 'empower future generations to become the change makers of tomorrow'. Bjorn Geldhof (1979, Kortrijk), a Fleming, has worked as artistic director of PinchukArtCentre since 2015. In mid-March, he, too, was compelled to flee the country. We spoke in Antwerp, where Geldhof and a few members of his team have set up a temporary base.
Barbara De Coninck: Preparations were already underway in Kyiv for two exhibitions, Less Human and Oleksandr Roytburd (1961–2021). What's happening there now?
Bjorn Geldhof: Both exhibitions were supposed to open at the end of March. Unfortunately, the works for Less Human – an international show that also contained quite a few commissions from Ukrainian artists – could not even be shipped. The Roytburd exhibition, which included numerous works from public collections, was never even installed. When the threat of war became real, museums closed their doors. Then, on February 24, 2022, the first bombs hit. PinchukArtCentre is on lockdown. It's neither possible nor safe to keep the centre open. Let's hope that the exhibitions can still take place at a later date.
BDC: Will the PinchukArtCentre award the Future Generation Art Prize at the 2022 Venice Biennale?
BG: We won't. The name of the winner, Aziz Hazara, has already been announced. The award ceremony took place even before the war broke out. Under normal circumstances, we would show work from all 21 nominated artists in Venice in an exhibition that includes newly commissioned work. For the first time, we would occupy the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, a magnificently renovated city palace. It would have signified a historical moment in the expansion of the Future Generation Art Prize.
In wartime, of course, it's difficult to defend the premise of wanting to celebrate the talent of young artists. So instead, we decided to organise the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom @ Venice 2022. President Zelensky has personally committed to this emergency project, which will take place under his high protection. The key visual is his idea: using a dip pen, he wrote the following phrase on a Ukrainian flag: 'We Are Defending Our Freedom'. An emotional statement, entirely in line with the reality on the ground.
The exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom @ Venice 2022 is a joint project bringing together the public and private sectors. The aim is to achieve the strongest possible presentation of Ukraine. In cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, PinchukArtCentre is also working on a discursive programme including lectures, debates and educational activities.
BDC: How did this alternative exhibition come about?
BG: This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom @ Venice 2022 is an 'impossible project' that only began in late March of 2022. It features work by three Ukrainian artists – Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan and Olesia Khomenko – with whom PinchukArtCentre shares a long history, complemented by several heritage treasures that testify to Ukraine's deep cultural history. Currently, PinchukArtCentre is working with the government and the Ministry of Culture to evacuate these masterpieces from Ukraine. The exhibition also features urgent work by a community of international artists. It could offer an answer to the question, 'what can/should the world do?' or 'how can/should the world come together around Ukraine?' Among the names are Boris Mikhailov, Marina Abramovic (who used to engage in debate with countless students in Kyiv and the surrounding area), Takashi Murakami (who, in 2005, was already making work about the war), Damien Hirst (who from day one has been on standby for PinchukArtCentre), Olafur Eliasson (who hosts people from the PinchukArtCentre team in Berlin and whose commitment is unshakeable) and JR.
BDC: What's happening in the meantime at the national pavilion? Ukraine doesn't have its own pavilion in the Giardini – historically, it's always occupied a space in the Arsenale.
BG: In Arsenale, Pavlo Makov's solo exhibition will take place as originally envisioned and planned. Makov is showing a new, monumental version of his installation, Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta (1995-2022), arguably one of the strongest works ever made by him.
With architect Dana Kazmina, an emergency pavilion is being built in the heart of the Giardini – a temporary structure with an expressive architecture designed to increase the visibility of Ukraine. The architecture of this ephemeral pavilion is meaningful in itself. Atop this structure will be an alternating art project that will show what kind of art is being made in Ukraine today.
The PinchukArtCentre's project for the Biennale will be implemented by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture; PinchukArtCentre will take on the role of facilitator.
BDC: Will we get to see Ukrainian art elsewhere in Venice?
BG: Three former nominees of the Future Generation Art Prize will show work at the Fondazione In Between Art Film (Biennale, collateral event). Two of them are prize-winners: Aziz Hazara and Emilija Skarnulyte. A dozen veterans of the Future Generation Art Prize (not all of them Ukrainians) are even participating in the Biennale's official exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani. That is heartening. Among them are quite a few female artists. Their names are somewhere on my computer... which is still in Kyiv.
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