Souls by the Sea
Fleeting scenes of Latvian contemporary art
Unhappy about some far off things
That are not my affair, wandering
Along the coast and up the lean ridges,
I saw in the evening
The stars go over the lonely ocean…
Robinson Jeffers, “The Stars Go Over The Lonely Ocean”
What do we want to discover when we go through the recent overview of our art? A roadmap may be traced rather easily, especially since we are speaking about a small nation and a collective of people who are mostly alive and active to the present day. What we have before us is a quiet community, in a region that is far away from the decision-makers of the world. If milestone creative accomplishments ever happen here, they will be known in a bigger world, but what about that routine life of the artistic process, the many individuals, organisations and projects that lay the foundations of things that from time to time flare up bright outside our forlorn country? To record them, we will sketch some scenes of what makes up the landscape of day-to-day Latvian art in recent years, treat them as poems in prose intertwined with factual material if you will, but first —
— Let us begin with a vision:
picture an imaginary landscape of what is Latvia. Here we are stranded between two vast infinities - in the West, we are floating on the waters of the Baltic sea, its cold grey skin protruding into perpetuity, a long appendix ending with glacier-cut labyrinths of Kattegat and Skagerrak, an escape towards the ocean where serpents and krakens hunt unlucky sailors. On the East, we wedge into the space even more infinite, a prehistoric, perennial land mass stretched out to the other side of the globe, stopped only at the Sea of Japan, a carnival of nearly all possible geographic habitats, Eurasia covered by the myriads of horse hoofs, boots, tank tracks, borders and secret passages. A small human collective, a nation between the rock and the hard place, we accept our lot and know the fix, the mix of aquatic and terrestrial spaces, the edge between them we call our home. We are either beached things or forest entities, creatures reaching the limit of our natural habitat, sitting on the shore, discovering the stars in the night sky, wondering. The wonder brings us together, and together we form networks, exchange natural observations and share beauty, fears and dreams, all of which, in the essence, produce the things we call art.
As you will see, the metaphors that come to mind when thinking about Latvian contemporary art are mostly aquatic: there are waves, streams, ebbs and flows, underwater currents and storms interchanging with stillness. It is not just the result of our geographical determinism, but rather a persistent impression that what we are dealing with is as ephemeral and potent as the Baltic sea, our supporter and undertaker, traced with familiar ship routes on the surface and hiding the namesake anomaly on its bottom. Today we calmly walk by its shore, looking into the turquoise and basaltic-coloured waters, noticing things.
Since the restoration of independence, Latvian art has been a matter of enthusiastic personalities. It is pretty evident at this point that our government’s cultural policy priorities lie elsewhere, making contemporary art a somewhat neglected child with brilliant potential (which makes the neglect even sadder). There is a never-ending drama caused by us being the only country in the region that lacks its own contemporary art museum, and this is not only a matter of pride — there is a world that is floating away without a firm foundation, a living history of art that is not being supported, documented, preserved and studied in the extent that it deserves. It is a disappointing blend of miscalculations, off-put priorities and economic factors that wounds us today and will have long-lasting effects in the future. Subsequently, this situation puts private art patrons in the spotlight — there are many kind words to be said about Janis Zuzans, the late Boris Teterev, companies like ALFOR and the now-defunct AB LV bank, and other non-governmental entities that ensure that Latvian art endures. Their help allowed us to organise many exhibitions, they founded art centres, supported galleries and our leading art nomination, Purvitis Prize. However, such a support model cannot be effective on its own, there is a need for a steady and persistent state aid policy. The private sponsorships are unknown waters, they come and go, waves volatile and unbound — which is an inspiring thing in itself, the awe of spirit, but it nevertheless is the most effective hand in hand with a steady, albeit modest, stream of governmental support, together creating a flourishing and inspiring ecosystem.
Therefore, the major concern, as always, is money. We can argue without end about political expediency, but even if it’s a dead-end talk, let’s repeat it once more: art makes nothing happen, but it survives and in this lies the exact source of its value: that budgets and reasons, respectability and accountability will all pass, but art will still be there, waiting.
In Latvia, we have far exceeded the point when bare enthusiasm and hope for change can fuel artistic activity, and with the cost of living rising so drastically in the past few years, it is evident that it is getting much harder for independent projects to survive in these circumstances. This is pure economics: in a country like ours, with its population and income, there is simply no market that could sustain galleries living from sales alone, and our state budget cannot support all cultural initiatives to the necessary extent. Hence most of the sales of high-end galleries are made during art fairs abroad, while the smaller ones somehow get by, mixing local sales, government grants and side activities like book publishing, event organising or other similar business. For example, among the galleries lost due to financial hardships caused by the pandemic is Careva Gallery, which in its time was one of the artistic landmarks of Riga. So, what is the solution? Obviously, we cannot sustain the whole industry, but we still can support many individuals. As it was mentioned earlier, contemporary art is not the cultural ministry’s top priority and the State Cultural Capital Foundation’s grants are already stretched thin. In the long run, it seems that educating a new generation of collectors and patrons seems to be one of the most crucial tasks that our gallerists and artists are facing. There always will be people who will make art, but we need to make sure that there will be those who will have a taste, incentive and discernment to reach out and buy it.
Right now, LOOK Gallery seems to do the job of selling original pieces by early-carrier artists the best, their shows carefully curated and participating works having (more often than not) just the right characteristics to end up in a collector’s hands. There is also an art centre Kim? annual Black Market, where art by more established contemporary personalities is sold, as well as Zuzeum’s Zandele fair, although that one features mostly historic art and objects from Zuzan’s collection. Aside from different ways of selling original artworks, another way to create a habit of buying art is to produce editions, prints, postcards, and other replicable memorabilia that has an artist’s touch — for instance, M/Gallery accompanies its shows with artists’ prints for sale and they seem to perfectly assist in instilling the habit of buying art even among those with modest income. That being said, even though for the art fair proper our closest destination would be Vilnius, Riga can still offer many ways to find and purchase art one loves. The opportunity is there, waiting for those to seize it. How long will it take until most Latvians will consider it a good taste to have at least one original artist piece in their collection? Probably forever, but the flow of a mighty river begins with a single drop, or so we are told.
Even though encountering at least a tiny piece of contemporary art in every Latvian’s home is still a matter of distant and hopeful future, now it is possible to encounter some kind of contemporary art initiative in almost every part of our country. Steadily the geography expands, which is one of the most promising recent developments in the field. There is now a successful art residency PAiR in Pavilosta, an exhibition centre Art Station Dubulti in Jurmala, a migratory Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art Summer School, residency and active exhibition programs in Kuldiga, Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils, Cesis Art Festival, Savvaļa exhibition area in Drustu parish — the list is not extensive, but the point of the matter is that now, one can travel in almost any corner of Latvia and find bold, exciting and passionately developing contemporary art projects.
In the capital, an inspiring phenomenon of recent years is the Riga Last Thursdays project, a monthly evening event which brings together the city’s many galleries — there are some core participants, namely M/Gallery, but the list is flexible and constantly expands, now featuring participants well beyond Riga’s centre. Every last Thursday of the month, these galleries stay open until 22.00, attracting visitors who otherwise missed their shows. After more than a year of the project, it is evident that it succeeded in raising gallery turnout and recognition beyond its core audience. At least on the Baltic level, this project is rather unique, adding some character to Riga’s art scene. There’s always a danger of falling into melancholic inertia when living here, it is spread in the landscape, in the scarce sunny days and long winters, but events like the RLT give us a regular shake-up, reminding us that art does not stop, reimagining itself month to month.
When it comes to personalities, we are no different from any other European country. Our artists are well integrated into the international art community, they study in the West, do residences abroad, and some, like a recent Latvian Venice Biennial representative Daiga Grantina, live there permanently. However, immigration doesn’t appear to be as much of a problem among our artists as it is in the general population. Maybe it is the power of the community? Even those artists who work outside Latvia still tend not to leave wholly, keeping a hand on the pulse of the local culture and actively taking part in it. There’s the above-mentioned Daiga Grantina, Evita Vasiljeva, and Evelina Deičmane. Regarding the artistic media that constitute the local colour, though a majority of Latvian Art Academy graduates know how to paint or draw rather well (a positive residue of classical education), there seem to be two routes that Latvian art takes. On one hand, there is the affection towards working with physical materials — clay, metal, and wood (for great use of metal in art, check Indriks Gelzis's work, for outstanding ceramics look at the art duo’s Skuja Braden project for the last Venice Biennial). Perhaps, it is a derivative of our still potent connection to the environment, a relationship we share with other Baltic nations. On the other hand, the appeal of traditional media is still strong and there are many Latvian painters whose work deserves admiration, such as Sandra Strēle or Sabīne Vernere — take a look at their art and notice how there is always something distinctively organic and alien present, a vision of the un-human world. The Latvian Russian-speaking community is best represented by the Orbita Group, a collective of poets and contemporary artists who have been an integral part of our creative community for more than 20 years now. With their practice ranging from texts to video art and performances, they surely have to be taken into consideration by anyone interested in multimedia art. Speaking of new media in general, it is evident that it is gaining increasingly more traction in the Latvian art landscape — for instance, many projects that get nominated for the prestigious Purvitis Prize are complex exhibitions that installations, sound and video art, work with text, photography and painting. In other words, Latvian artists, whatever media they prefer, still tend to experiment and not stick to only one way of expression — the works they create result in being highly conceptual, effectively engaging with exhibition spaces and expressing deep awareness of their context. Where does this ever-returning urge to go out of the shell of your preferred method comes from? In Latvia's case, it seems to be the result of the condensed space and interconnectedness of the artists. Despite the stereotypes, the people here are actually eager to open up, share ideas and cooperate, our atomised individualism is far exaggerated, you just need to find a key.
This interconnectedness of our art community also leads to the willingness to help those in need, and although most of the time such solidarity is expressed towards people within the community, last year it manifested itself in active help to those who came to Latvia seeking refuge from the war during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Just two examples: Web magazine Artterritory.com launched a virtual exhibition and auction Supportisimo, all funds being transferred to support Ukrainian people. An even larger initiative was started by the team of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, who launched Commonground centre aimed at the social and cultural support of Ukrainians in Riga. A rather unique place even considering the multitude of ways the people of the world came up with to support those affected by this terrible war, Commonground effectively integrated Latvian contemporary art in the aid work. In that centre, the walls were decorated with paintings by artists like Kaspars Groševs, Miķelis Fišers and Artūrs Virtmanis, there were creative workshops and poetry evenings, concerts and other similar cultural events that served to bring people together and overcome shock, fear and alienation by the means of sharing art. Even though this was not the sole feature of Commonground’s mission, its origin in the artistic environment and its connection to the creative network that exists in Latvia definitely added to its rather special spirit, being the beacon in the lighthouse that unified the scattered.
Placed in between our neighbouring countries, in the middle of the Baltics — meaning in the heart of the edge of Europe, we are bound to a degree of solitude. Estonians have Finland and Lithuanians have Poland, but it appears that we only have ourselves. Perhaps this is why Latvian contemporary art is truly a community, a network — of organisations, of patrons, of people making the process happen despite neglect, lack of funds, inner melancholy. There is no one large institution that would overarch above all else, and there is no single personality under whose shadow everybody would dwell — nothing prevails thorough, but everything connects and cooperates, a lovely sight for any egalitarian. While its exterior solitude and inner dispersion may paint a picture of an alienated phenomenon, that is luckily not the case, for Latvian art is dissolved in the Latvian landscape, and this is the best thing about it. It always finds the right way to put itself into the surrounding world to complement or subvert it, but never feels out of place. These great artists walk the same streets, on Friday night they DJ at a local bar and on Monday teach high school classes, those galleries exist next door to your favourite kebab shop or a hairdresser’s, these festivals take place in the building where once a restaurant was where you took your first love on a dinner date or the factory where your grandpa used to work. Sure, you can find the same grassroots intimacy and sentimental connection to art someplace else, but our piece of Baltic land is a promise of inspiring discovery precisely because of how often it is overlooked. Treat it as an invitation — join us, look at us, remember us, these souls by the sea, scattered yet unified by the same air, morning fog, a promise of fresh breeze.