In Venice, Ukrainian Activists Raffle Crimean Vacation

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“Don’t think you can make something anti-Russian, absolutely not.” This is not the edict of some Kremlin avatar but rather the reported pronouncement of Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk regarding the national pavilion he funded at the Venice Biennale. This overture against explicit politics in Pinchuk’s Ukrainian pavilion offers a potent counterpoint to the guerrilla tactics of “#onvacation,” an anonymous group of mostly Ukrainian artistic activists intent on blitzing the Biennale with a social media-fueled series of ad hoc “occupations” of national pavilions — especially Russia’s.

Formed as a parody of the propaganda rhetoric surrounding the troops who occupied the Ukrainian region of Crimea a little over a year ago, an incursive force described by Russian authorities as simply present in the region as if on vacation and not on official orders, “#onvacation” encourages visitors to the Biennale to don specially-produced military uniforms and “occupy” pavilions of their choice, documenting the interventions on social media with the titular hashtag. To top it all off, all participants — as determined by publicly uploaded images — will be entered into a raffle for a Crimean vacation. The destination, in keeping with the project’s anonymous theme, is the Crimean city of Balaklava.

“In our project there’s something that resembles humor, but we’re not approaching it humorously,” an artist and organizer of “#onvacation” told ARTINFO in a recent telephone conversation. “The humor comes from the absurdity of this Russian media strategy, more absurdism than humor, to have soldiers on the ground [in Crimea] and to be able to deny it… it’s a certain kind of absurdity that is the perfect context for an art action.” Despite being grounded in a very concrete political situation, “#onvacation” members insist on a playful ambiguity in their project — down to its total anonymity. Our source, who made no attempts at concealing their identity when speaking to ARTINFO, wished only to be characterized as a “participant,” and reluctantly agreed to be identified as an organizer of the project.

“‘#onvacation’ contains an active play with the modern world as I see it: social media and public engagement. The project doesn’t work if the public doesn’t engage with it, and the public has to ask questions,” the anonymous organizer said. “With an artwork that has a physical shape that you install in a pavilion or gallery, the audience members’ entry into it is already predetermined, because the work is completed when the audience approaches it — our project engages the audience so that the work will be created.” It’s hard to gauge the extent of the enthusiasm for the project, as the “#onvacation” hashtag is generic and draws up a lot of, well, vacation photographs, but the group seems to have garnered a solid response on social media, gaining over a thousand followers across Twitter and Instagram since launching last week.

As with other forms of artistic protest, the group’s aims are not easy to pin down. Instead, our source said, the goal is to articulate “this elusive idea that things should be better — but how? — and this inability of people to address how things need to change to get better.” In the meantime, Venice-goers will wear the hashtag-emblazoned uniforms and vie for a free vacation — at least until June 8, when the competition is set to close. The touted vacation must then be redeemed by the end of August. Vacations, unlike some military occupations, have fixed itineraries.

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Members of “#onvacation” occupy the Russian Pavilion on May 6th. Credit: Dima Sergeev.)