VENICE – What do you call a person who shows up in a neighboring nation wearing camouflage and fighting an undeclared war?
Why – on vacation. That’s the excuse the Russian government has used several times when its soldiers were caught in the bitter conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin claims that some of its soldiers have gone to Ukraine as volunteers, on leave from their regiments.
So an international group of artists has decided to stage a vacation intervention of their own at the Venice Biennale, the international art exhibition that opened last month and runs until November. The artists have been roaming Biennale’s halls, handing out camouflage parkas that say #onvacation on their back. Visitors are urged to wear the parkas and take a selfie in national pavilions of countries that are occupying other countries.
Participants can upload their pictures to Twitter or Instagram for a chance to win a trip to Balaklava, a naval city on the Black Sea coast of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last year. The drawing will take place Tuesday.
“Excuse me, are you on vacation?” Belgian artist Griet Menschaert asked one recent vacationer at the Biennale. The vacationer happened to be the Moscow bureau chief of this newspaper, unsuccessfully trying to dodge the Ukraine conflict.
Menschaert offered the reporter a camo #onvacation tote bag and the parka. (No parkas for Post reporters.) Not long after, a Spanish tourist came up to ask for one for herself. She planned to occupy both the Russian and the U.S. pavilions, she said.
Menschaert said the #onvacation effort was an artistic project in its own right, one that she appreciated as a way to make art “even without putting pictures on the walls.”
Another organizer said that vacationers were left to make their own decisions about what to do with their low-key camouflage gear.
“You can occupy any pavilion you want. But the idea is to think about occupation in different ways,” said Clemens Poole, a New York artist who spends much of his time in Kiev, Ukraine, working with artists who have fled the fighting in the east of their country.
“This anonymity is also a nod to a situation where you can do something and then say, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Poole said.
The Kremlin denies that Russian troops are in Ukraine.
“I’m just someone who loves vacation,” Poole said.
On a recent drizzly afternoon, camouflaged vacationers could be seen not only in the crenellated, Czarist-era Russian pavilion but also around Venice, extending their occupation to Italian piazzas.
The conceptualist artist who designed the installation at the Russian Pavilion, Irina Nakhova, was suppressed during the Soviet era, and one of her assistants at the pavilion said she was taking it with good humor.
Other Russian visitors to the pavilion on a recent afternoon were wearing the parkas – but perhaps somewhat ironically.
“We started counting the countries here that are occupying other countries,” said one of the visitors, who said he feared the consequences of being quoted by name in a Western newspaper. Crimea “is an acute issue for us,” he said. “Because Russians and Ukrainians are very close peoples and having a military conflict between the two is terrible.”
The most recent Russian sojourners in eastern Ukraine have been causing a stir since they were captured on May 16. In custody in Kiev, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev firmly maintain that they are active-duty members of the Russian special services; they were caught in an ambush near the eastern Ukrainian town of Schastya. But the Kremlin says that the two men resigned from the military in December.
The two men, in other words, were in eastern Ukraine on vacation.