Notes on the first Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Thomas Stearns Eliot, “The Waste Land”
…Imagine that the apocalypse took the form of a cocktail party
David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son”
Ask those few people who can outspokenly claim to be my acquaintances, and they would surely tell you that I am a die-hard art lover (in addition to being fairly good art practitioner, a combination not-as-frequent as some may think). Cherishing my occasional studentesque financial instability and ever-present thriftiness of Ostsee aristocracy, I nevertheless try to visit as many Big Art Shows as I could reach, whether it’s Frieze London or Venice Biennial. Taking this into account, the moment I heard about a thing of the same calibre launching in my beloved fatherland I could not resist temptation to apply for a press-card and flee all that bothersome scholastic routine of the nearly-finished academic year to board a shiny new Bombardier CS300 headed to Riga.
Instead of the introduction
While flying, I kept thinking to myself, what do we know about Baltic art scene anyway? There is indeed Baltic Triennial, but in terms of international impact it is rather secondary event, besides, it never actually left Vilnius. Riga has Survival Kit festival, however this one is organised by Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, is much more compact than any biennial-like event and, despite presenting diverse and intriguing variety of artists, does not draw international attention. Many art fairs and underground events face the same challenge.
Considering this and slightly running forward to conclusion, Riga Biennial is a success, mainly because it makes the long-awaited statement. In contrast to many other local cultural festivals and initiatives, this one was not centripetal or aimed on our Great Eastern Neighbour, but brought together everyone who, in a good way, are mainstream contemporary art elite. RIBOCA has nonpareil scales, great selection of artists, Western gloss and something subtle that can only be attributed to Baltic Dasein: understanding that you exist on the frontier between men and world of nature and consequently between time and timeless. After all, this feeling is all around you, from pure horizontal lines and perspective of the sea to moss slowly taking over summerhouses.
Anatomy of uncertainty
On the other hand, large part biennials’ success, and especially for new ones, lies in the realms of poetics of space. The right choice of venues can say a lot about the whole festival. Say, Ural Industrial Biennial makes various factories its main venues, thus communicating its mission of comprehension of the phenomenon of this industrial region. In case of Riga, however, the set of places makes rather… uncertain and dispersal impression. Judge for yourself: abandoned textile factory in a working-class neighbourhood, former biology faculty building in a beautiful park surrounded by theatres, schools and ministries, brand new art centre-once-a-factory, private residence slowly falling apart, gentrified port area, type of waste-ground persistently presented as a cultural space, picturesque art-courtyard and finally Soviet modernist train station in a resort town 26 kilometres away from all the above mentioned venues. Your correspondent, for instance, spend over half an hour looking for the artworks in that above mentioned gentrified port area, managed to listen the whole new Kanye West release twice in the process, stumbled upon a paintball shooting range and something called Museum of Energetics and still did not find any trace of, for example, Maarten Vanden Eynde’s installation Pinpointing Progress, despite the view of this pyramid made out of Riga’s industrial products promised to be spectacular.
Fair enough, the spirit of uncertainty was haunting the whole Biennial — the city was filled with posters that played around the RIBOCA anagram, sometimes offering quite smile-raising decoding, like ART EXHIBITIONS OR YOUTUBE CATS (others were more like DOORS LOCKED EXIT IMPOSSIBLE OUR AUDIENCE ARE CAPTIVES, which is, as many will agree, very serious and awe-inspiring).
Not arguing a great job made regarding branding and advertisement, your correspond still feels obliged to share his feeling that such scattered range of moods only reflects the whole project’s uncertainty in whether it is daring, ironic, encouraging or revolutionising. Take a look: first, the biennial’s title “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More” is a straightforward link to Latvia’s Soviet past and its sad irony has univocal meaning for us here, but the phrase itself remains a sole direct indication of Soviet theme, since everything else has either parallel-to-politics socio-cultural context or is directed into the future. I mean, the fact that most of the biennial venues are build in the USSR era is a simple historical inevitability, despite its title RIBOCA is not retrospective at all.
Second, the extremely diverse range of locations, and consequently the nature of works presented there, makes it hard not only to see everything in a day or two, but to actually understand what’s that all about? Especially if the person looking is art world’s outsider, a regular Latvian who first ran around the central Riga, then boarded a tram to Bolshevichka factory, taking a look at Andrejsala site on the go, and finally retiring to the Central Station in order to get a train to Dubulti Art Station. Of course, no biennials are meant to be covered in the same day, they actually run so long in order to make our visit akin to slow food experience. It’s just that if we adopt this strategy of visitation it risks to break up into separate exhibitions.
Likely objection: Venice Biennial sites are located around the entire city and there’s much more of them, so one actually needs a week or so to cover all national pavilions and parallel programs.
Likely answer to the objection: while that’s true, Venice has consistency of a perfectly closed environment where everything becomes art matter. The very symbolism of that archipelago city surrounded by water makes it a perfect thing-in-itself, a luxury Riga does not posses.
In other words, the first RIBOCA is still in search of its face and nerve, so let’s wish all the best luck to it.
The day of opening: it’s hot as middle of July and these albatross family that nests on my rooftop are all woke up and crying. I got up early to be at the ceremony on time in order to receive my pass and have a chance to notice one or two familiar and famous faces. The ceremony was held in a cinema called Splendid Palace, and it is actually quite splendid with all its golden palm trees-decorated interior and other signs of the 1920’s First Republic chic.
After they handed me a really nice tote bag and bunch of thematic books, magazines and brochures, I was happy and eager to listen to whatever will be said on the stage - it appeared to be a relatively concise presentation of the biennial, the team and artist, followed by live music of exquisitely contemporary Latvian character. When this part was finished, we were asked to proceed to a lovely green room upstairs for the inevitable Q&A session, in which your correspondent found out that the biggest challenge for the organisers was a sceptic attitude of the locals and the necessity to work in a linguistically and politically complicated region. However, the team (70% Latvian) came here to give and not to take, so they did not claim any public or government’s money and supported some local exhibitions. A smart turn was to hold open lectures before the biennial started, since they helped to raise awareness and interest in the audience. The last but not least, there appear to be certain plans to launch a parallel program for young artists — let’s rejoice all of us who seek places for our wonderful emerging art projects!
A late encounter with a friend
Wandering through the empty corridors and stairways of the Former Biology Faculty, anyone predisposed to melancholy would feel the sadness its walls emanate, a specific type of sadness mixed with confusion that is omnipresent in the buildings that had a solid role, but were converted into something completely different, like an art site in this case.
A nation without diverse historical background is naturally predisposed to focus its own art on questions of environment and science - the total immanence on one hand and anxious futurism on the other. I believe that was the reason why most of the works here had this environmentalist-scientific connotations. Nota bene: Biology faculty’s transition from the place where problems of biology and chemistry are actually researched to the place where they are researched in the art-speak sense somehow mirrors both ascending Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards more and more metaphysical desires and Latvia’s contemporary transition from Soviet high-tech industry region to post-industrial service economy.
Among other things, here was a single work that would warm a heart of any Brit who suddenly found himself on Latvian soil: Michael Landy’s Brexit Kiosk. Politics aside, it is a work of perfect humour and real humanistic warmth, a place where any desperate HRM’s subject can buy Jaffa cakes or Marmite or HP sauce. The message is clear: without diluting force of other EU countries, Britain’s Britishness would reach such sort of concentrated level when it becomes absurd and unbearably iconic.
The two-day event ended with the official opening party in the Art Academy of Latvia, an eclectic building that still has that style of old German universities, with all their stained-glass windows and dimmed light in long corridors. Honestly, I never saw so many different people in Riga gathering in one place and (fully understanding the pathos behind this phrase) celebrating art. Such parties, in contrast with VIP receptions, are usually perfect examples of democratic spirit we all tend to achieve: no masks, everyone is equal in that awfully long line to the cocktail bar and the sound of music makes it impossible to hold decent intellectual conversations on art or culture, so the only option left is to feel good.
However, I was exhausted by my marathon around the biennial venues, but everyone else luckily seemed to be more than fine — only northern paleness of the predominant part of the visitors differed this party from some of the best scenes of Sorrentino’s Great Beauty. As a professional observer, I came there desperately alone and hence had to practice my small talk skill much more than usual, trying to over-scream Chicks on Speed and techno/ambient music filling the courtyard.
Hour after hour, the party was slowly getting to its end, and I finally found myself sitting on the steps of the Academy, with the night getting deeper and people around me getting sweeter, prettier and more sociable, passing by me almost as passing through me in their unreachable coolness and happiness, some young and some old.
It is that moment I realised a truth both elevating and disappointing, and without sharing it this true account won’t reach the pursued level of sincerity. The thing I discovered was a profoundly bitter-sweet border state between striking understanding and anxious guessing that in this sublime feast of art, science, nature and identity, this assembly of truly talented and established people of culture, in a beautiful city in surprisingly warm May, this is you who is, in fact, an outsider.
The (art) world will keep revolving.