Venice 2024: Anna Jermolaewa’s refugee stories in the Austrian Pavilion
In the first of our reports from the 2024 Venice Biennale of Art we take a look at the Austrian entry, a minimalist but deep study of an immigrant’s experience of space & place by Anna Jermolaewa. In a carefully composed set piece of five installations, the artist explores memories & hopes of being a refugee through objects, performance & urban furniture.

Across four rooms and the courtyard of Austria’s pavilion, five stripped-back presentations from Anna Jermolaewa employ the breadth of contemporary art strategies: still life installation, found object sculpture, in-situ performance, and conceptual re-representation. Such works can sometimes be distant and ungraspable to a visitor, strategically remaining cold and impenetrable, but these five standalone pieces each speak to a deeply human and humanely understandable situation. Taken together, they present a poetic and reflective insight into an immigrant’s inhabitation of space, place, and memory.

Jermolaewa was born in Leningrad, then in the USSR, in 1970. In 1989 she fled political persecution and settled in Austria, though as with any refugee or emigrant under such circumstances it wasn’t an easy settling. One of the works on show, Research for Sleeping Positions (2006) is a single-view 17-minute video watching the artist re-enact trying to sleep on a bench in Vienna’s Westbahnhof. For the first week of her arrival in 1989, a bench in this station served as bed before she found her way to a refugee camp in Traiskirchen.


The video observes the artist try several ways to position her body on the bench which is in part performing Jermolaewa’s physical and mental memory, but also discussing how the urban situation had changed between 1989 and 2006. The bench in the video is now a piece of hostile architecture, the addition of armrests – as with benches and urban furniture across the West – now preventing anybody laying down, settling, or resting beyond a brief sit.

In the adjoining courtyard are a row of six Austrian telephone booths. Standing as a found sculpture, they carry a deep personal memory for Jermolaewa, as well as thousands of others. These are the phone booths that were installed in the Traiskirchen refugee camp, and from which the artist phoned her family in Leningrad to tell of her arrival and update on her situation. It was only upon the growth of the smartphone that they were decommissioned, but here in Biennale they return with new purpose and to communicate in new ways.

The entire surface, inside and out, is richly layered with scratched and drawn messages from refugees as they use the phone or wait their turn. In various languages these notations are beyond graffiti and speak to countless individual situations of anxiety, hope, dreaming, love, loss, and fear.


Two other rooms present works related to music in the artist’s childhood Russia. Ribs (2022/24) is a display of illegally produced and owned vinyl from the Soviet Union. Banned from owning record albums of popular music – especially pop, rock, and jazz from the West – sound engineers repurposed discarded hospital x-ray films to illegally press and distribute music. On wall-mounted lightboxes a selection of the spectral vinyl speaks to the individuals and their bodily experiences of the political situation, while once a day a record player spins one of the albums from a collection including The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Petula Clark, and The Tornados.

In times of political unrest, Soviet television would replace the planned and expected broadcast with a recording of Swan Lake, which might be played on repeat for days on end in some cases. It’s a memory that resonated with Jermolaewa, not only for the absurdity but because its very sound and broadcast came to become a code for change in power within Soviet cultural memory. Presented on TV as an act of censorship, it came to represent the sound of protest and in Venice the artist presents a long-duration film, Rehearsal for Swan Lake (2024) which represents those memories – and perhaps suggests hope for another Russian regime change. The 150-minute video, presented on a large screen, simply follows dancers rehearsing Swan Lake, but on occasions across the duration of Biennale, dancer Oksana Serheieva will perform live in the pavilion.

The final room – or first room, depending on the chosen route – contains Penultimate (2017), a still life of vases of flowers, each upon a simple chair or plinth. Each floral arrangement represents a popular revolution from different global citizens: Egypt’s 2006 Lotus Revolution; Tunisia’s 2010 Jasmine Revolution; Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution; Myanmar’s 2007 Saffron Revolution; and Belarus’ unsuccessful 2006 Cornflower Revolution. As with the ballerina, these could be acting as memorial and memory, or as reminder of what is possible and a suggestion for a future.

The way in which Jermolaewa uses memories and spaces of an immigrant experience, not to cast romantic light or dark shadows on her own and other experiences, but simply to document through careful conceptual statements creates a rich experience. Within the context of the overarching 2024 Venice Biennale theme of Foreigners Everywhere, the pavilion, curated by Gabriele Spindler, sings even more richly, asking visitors who have not personally lived such stories to see in everyday objects, sounds, and urban moments a glimpse into others’ lives, hopes, and memories.


Anna Jermolaewa is an Austrian conceptual artist born in Leningrad (USSR) in 1970. After being accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda as one of the original members of the first political opposition party and co-editor of one of its newspapers, she fled to Austria in 1989 and was granted political asylum.
Her artistic practice comprises a wide spectrum of media, ranging from video, installation, drawing, performance, and photography to sculpture. Since 2019, Anna Jermolaewa has been Professor of Experimental Art at the University of Arts Linz, Austria.
In addition to numerous solo exhibitions, she has taken part in various biennials (Biennale Arte 1999 in Venice, Berlin Biennale 2012, Gwangju Biennale 2014, Moscow Biennale 2015, Kyiv Biennale 2015).
Anna Jermolaewa's works are included in numerous collections. Along with many other honors, she was recently awarded the City of Vienna's Karl Renner Prize for her social commitment as a member of the association Ariadne - Wir Flüchtlinge für Österreich (We Refugees for Austria).

Gabriele Spindler is an art historian and currently heads the Department of Art and Cultural Studies at the OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH in Linz. She studied art history and Italian at the University of Salzburg and French at the University of Vienna. In 2000 she joined the Landesgalerie Linz, where she worked as senior custodian and curator for modern and contemporary art until 2012. Between 2012 and 2020 she held the position of director at the Landesgalerie, realising projects, exhibitions, and publications on art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the interwar period in Austria, photography, and contemporary art as her focal points.


The Austrian pavilion is located in the Giardini of the 2024 Venice Biennale of Art. Further details available at:


fig.i Anna Jermolaewa, Research for Sleeping Positions (2006/2024) Video Still © The Artist and Bildrecht
fig.ii Anna Jermolaewa, Research for Sleeping Positions (2006/2024) © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht
fig.iii Anna Jermolaewa, Untitled (Telephone Booths) (2024) © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht
fig.iv Anna Jermolaewa, Untitled (Telephone Booths) (2024) detail © Will Jennings
fig.v Anna Jermolaewa, Untitled (Telelphone Booths) (2024) transport © The Artist and Bildrecht Anna Jermolaewa, Ribs (2022/24) quer © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht
fig.vii Anna Jermolaewa and Oksana Serheieva, Rehearsal for Swan Lake (2024) © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht
fig.viii Anna Jermolaewa and Oksana Serheieva, Rehearsal for Swan Lake (2024) quer_kl © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht
fig.ix Anna Jermolaewa, The Penultimate (2017) © Markus Krottendorfer and Bildrecht

publication date
24 April 2024

Austria, Ballet, Venice Biennale, Flowers, Anna Jermolaewa, Homelessness, Hostile architecture, Leningrad, Music, Refugee, Revolution, Oksana Serheieva, Soviet Union, Gabriele Spindler, Swan Lake, Telephone, Telephone booth, Traiskirchen, Urban furniture, USSR, Vinyl, X-ray