Bomb Shelter Posters in Venice Evoke the Reality of War in Ukraine

VENICE — Beyond the Giardini’s national pavilions and the central exhibition at the Venice Biennale, visual culture abounds throughout the streets and walls of the city, which is covered in layers of history, graffiti, and inscriptions that go back centuries. This week, visitors to the contemporary art event and longtime residents alike are stopping at the sight of ubiquitous posters that read “NEAREST BOMB SHELTER” in all caps. They show the Ukrainian Pavilion’s location on a map along with a red dot, indicating the closest bomb shelter in the area.

Passerby will immediately recognize a metaphorical reference to the full-scale invasion launched by Russia two years ago and its relentless and worsening bombing campaign in Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv and the city of Kharkiv, so close to Russian launching sites that missiles often strike before air defense systems can pick them up to sound the alarms.

Yet the QR code printed on the posters brings up a map indicating sites of real bunkers or air-raid shelters in Venice from a time not so long ago, when Italy was targeted by bombers during World War II. The project, developed by the Ukrainian creative agency Bickerstaff.101, confronts viewers with “the sobering reminder that even the most beautiful places can be forced to consider the unthinkable,” a statement says.

While some elderly Venetians do remember bombings in the mainland, both by Allies and then by Germans after the liberation of Italy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess that most residents of the city will be surprised to learn of the dormant existence of the drab structures of concrete, long forgotten. Often covered in weeds, they are slowly being taken over by nature, like the one in Cavallino Treporti, with its distant echoes of Mayan pyramids long swallowed by the jungle.

The posters evoke the air-raid alert visuals that come up on mobile phones in Ukraine when the Russians attack from the skies, which are becoming more frequent as Ukraine is running out of desperately needed air defenses. 

They are also eerie because they pop up on the walls of a city that is reputed to have been targeted by bombs from the air, albeit in a way that appears poignantly quixotic in this era of extreme violence. One summer morning of July 1849, as the Venetians were celebrating the Feast of the Madonna della Salute, the Austrians did something unprecedented in the history of warfare: They launched some 200 incendiary balloons each equipped with bombs over the city as Italians were waging their first war of independence. It was the beginning of aerial warfare.

“Every time we toast outdoors, we say: I wish our life was also as peaceful as in Venice,” said Ivanka Kozachenko, editor of Solomiya Art magazine, a Ukrainian artist-run magazine launched in April 2022 in response to Russia’s invasion. 

She looked up at the Canal Grande waterfront and saw a plane descending, and she waved her hand, as if sweeping the clouds. “See that — planes in the sky,” Kozachenko mused. She didn’t say it, but it’s clear what she meant: passenger planes, not fighters and bombers.

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