03 ukraine venice art
Venice, Italy CNN  — 

On the evening of February 24, just hours after Russia launched its full-blown attack on Ukraine, art curator Maria Lanko got into her car and left her home in Kyiv. Unsure of her exact plan, and with a potentially dangerous journey ahead, she packed only a few personal items into her trunk along with 78 bronze funnels belonging to one of the country’s most important living artists, Pavlo Makov. Her mission was to drive them out of the country to safety.

Last summer, 63-year-old Makov and his team of curators – including Lanko – had won a bid to represent Ukraine at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international event known as the “Olympics” of the art world. The funnels were crucial parts of their proposed entry, a water fountain sculpture called the “Fountain of Exhaustion.”

The artwork was first conceived in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine, where Makov has lived and worked for over three decades. It was the mid-’90s, and the post-Soviet country was still undergoing a period of transition after its people voted for independence in a 1991 referendum. The fountain was intended to be a metaphor for the social and political exhaustion Makov witnessed as his country grappled with the civic and economic challenges of rebuilding an independent state. Constant water shortages in the city also inspired him to view the project from an ecological perspective as he ruminated on the idea that resources are finite.

Over the years, “Fountain of Exhaustion” took many forms, from sketches and prints to technical drawings and physical installations. The version planned for Venice was to be the first fully functioning fountain, with the 78 funnels mounted in such a way that the initial stream of water divides again and again as it makes its way down the triangular arrangement, its flow weakening until it reaches the bottom.

Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov poses by his piece 'Fountain of Exhaustion' at Ukraine's pavilion during a press day at the 59th Venice Art Biennale in Venice on April 19, 2022. - Eighty countries, including Ukraine, will have a pavilion at the 59th Biennale, which is set to begin on April 23 and runs through November. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)
See the incredible journey to get this artwork out of Ukraine
05:39 - Source: CNN

The week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Makov and his team ran a test on the newly constructed fountain to ensure the water flowed properly. Thanks to design and technical assistance from Forma (ФОРМА), a Kyiv-based architectural practice, the installation worked. The team was elated.

Soon after that, everything changed. While the threat of conflict had been building, giving the team time to consider contingency plans, the sudden attack on Ukraine made the possibility of unveiling the installation in Venice, then less than two months away, seem impossible.

The journey from Ukraine to Italy

Personal safety was the team’s priority in the conflict’s early days, as they scrambled together escape and shelter plans with family and friends. One of Lanko’s co-curators, Lizaveta German, was heavily pregnant and living in an apartment in Kyiv when the war began. Just days away from her due date when the first missiles were launched, German wanted to stay in the city to be close to her maternity ward. But as the situation worsened, she and her husband made the difficult decision to move west to Ukraine’s cultural capital Lviv, a city that was under less immediate threat. There, she was joined by the project’s third co-curator, Borys Filonenko.

Lanko, meanwhile, was still driving. After six days on the road, the 78 funnels crammed into three boxes, she crossed the border into Romania. Later, exhausted from the near-constant travel, she made a rest stop in Budapest, Hungary, before eventually ending up in Austria’s capital, Vienna.

Pavlo Makov by a version of the 'Fountain of Exhaustion' mounted on the Oleh Mitasov's house in Kharkiv (1996)

There she waited for Makov, who was working on his own evacuation plan. He had been in Kharkiv when the war began, gathering his family in his apartment for the first two days. But the city was under such heavy bombardment that they were forced into a bomb shelter for nearly a week, and as the situation worsened, the artist decided to flee, driving out of the city with his 92-year-old mother, his wife and two other women.

German gave birth to a baby boy on March 16 in Lviv. Speaking to CNN in a hotel in the city ten days later, she reflected on art’s role in times of extreme crisis. “I do believe that art has this symbolic potential to celebrate people’s lives and to show that we are still here – to show that Ukraine isn’t just a war victim,” she said.

By that point, Lanko had made it to Italy. She found a production company in Milan that agreed to re-create the parts of the installation she had left behind in Ukraine.

Suddenly, it seemed that – against all odds – they would make it to Venice. There was also a growing sense among the team members that they should act as ambassadors for their country. As their fellow Ukrainians fought Russia on the front lines, served in hospitals and took volunteer roles, Makov and his team wer