After the End
Notes on the 2nd Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art,
an art guide for cemetery partisans
If one would have to pick a single word to describe the new Riga Biennial, then the word 'ghostly' will immediately come to mind. One feels indeed haunted when walking through the wastelands and hangars of Andrejsala, which this year has become the Biennial’s only exhibition area. This feeling is determined both by geography and scenography of the place: on the one hand, Andrejsala itself, with its grass breaking through the asphalt, the general remoteness from the city centre, the darkness of the waters of Daugava washing its shores, and the cold wind that is not restrained by anything at all, create the feeling of abandonment and desolation, and empty elevators and hangars filled with fundamentally unfinished works of art additionally place the viewer in a post-apocalyptic environment, so consonant with this year's spirit.
One of the most outstanding characteristics of this year's exposition is that everything there feels eerie natural like it appeared out of nowhere and was there eternally - growing old, covering in moss and dust, and being exposed to an uncountable number of hands and eyes sliding by the showpieces, leaving their marks. The first Riga Biennial was full of optimism and inspiration from the opening prospects, and finding its exhibitions in numerous locations around the city felt like a magical intervention. One would enter a factory on the outskirts, or a mansion in the centre and find himself in the otherworld of artistic flamboyance and creative endeavour. This one is different, and it is more honest, more concise. Rarely it is possible to see an art event that does not push itself over the surrounding nature but rather tries to form a symbiotic bond, giving the visitors a chance to peek into the future of mankind, the future to which we are swiftly accelerating.
A stranger takes your hand, you walk through the cemetery.
It is hard to tell how intentional are those post-human optics adopted by the Biennial, but there cannot be a better place to present it then Riga, the city that is extremely tired and whose people are tired together with it. Exhausted, they are slowly giving space to some other non-human forms of life. The best example of this principle is the project 'Currents' by Lapelytė Lina and Petraitis Mantas. These are just trees in the water, in fact, there are exactly two thousand trees floating in Daugava’s bank. The project also includes 'a sound work which is a combination of poetry and singing that flirts with traditional raftsmen's songs', as the official Biennial guide states. Although it is planned as a comment on the economy and history of Riga's timber industry, it is impossible to ignore the uncanny nature of this wooden island and sounds-song surrounding it. Think about it for a moment: two thousand cut-down trees floating in the water, both dead and alive, decomposing and feeding the bacteria and moss and insects inside and around themselves. They protrude music, some distant voice that is made to resemble songs of men who are long gone, gone together with their dangerous craft, and the whole mode of life surrounding it. This is the being of post-Anthropocene, the structure that resembles such collective forms of life unreachable to men like corral reefs or enormous herds of fish deep below oceans or fungi colonies still buried in black earth.
Another illustration. Bridget Polk, the artist who balances rocks and rubble from the Biennial site and other demolished Riga buildings. Of course, it naturally invokes the images of Zen-style rock gardens, of Stonehenge, of religious monuments of the tribes of the Far North: only here the balancing of rocks happens before the eyes of the audience, and standing close enough allows to witness the sweat and redness of the artist's skin when she creates those structures so seemingly light and elegant. Her creation requires great strength and efforts, this basic primal engineering of hers. Despite the Biennial guide's statements, 'Balancing Rocks and Rubble' does not resemble the myth of Sisyphus, not at all. This act is futuristic, not ancient or mythological. Belonging to that post-humanity narrative that haunts the whole Biennial, Polk's work predicts how those few survivors would attempt to rebuild the world after it is gone. They will be old just as she, they will not be professional and there won't even be the profession itself to master, no word for what they will be doing. From their arms, there will come no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit, only those primitive yet elevated structures of rubble that will resemble both grave marks and skyscrapers and altars and not one of those in particular.
Between those two projects lies Anastasia Sosunova's 'Habitaball', a large series of interventions inside of the former paintball field. Among the exhibits of the Biennial, this is the only one that may be labelled remotely nostalgic. Walking through those makeshift plywood walls and rooms with grass reaching my knees, land covered with rotten apples underneath my feet and bugs flying vigorously I immediately recalled that 90's- early 00's childhood when many would share the semi-documentary stories of obscure homegrown satanic communities that kids were both scared and mesmerised by. Yes, Sosunova's work would be the perfect home for some small group of such outcasts. From Lars von Trier "Antichrist" we learned that "Nature is satan's church", and now we see how this might look like in real life. We walk through an abandoned paintball field retaken by the biosphere and cannot escape the thought that the word 'abandoned' derives from the Biblical name of the angel of the abyss and the realm of the dead. On top of everything, the paintball field even had a church-like building. Now there are etchings of imaginary creatures everywhere, whispering and clinking curtains in the doorways, there are masks of deformed animal faces, mirrors and candles, there is also a knife somewhere and quite natural-looking hair on strings and bench covered in gelatine of the colour of blood. I wonder how this place looks at night, I would love to walk around it.
And finally, there is the hangar, the site of most of the exhibited projects. Needless to say, it is monstrous: a great structure of concrete, where ceilings disappear in darkness and every room is indistinguishably bleak, as some sort of spiritual cage for ghosts of the industrial age. Inside, there is a work 'Janis, Olga, Pénélope & Margot' by Berenice Olmedo. These are four motorised children's orthopaedic orthoses, each bearing a distinctive name, which already sounds quite disturbing. The artist removes human bodies, letting the electricity of the machines to make movements instead, letting the audience witness the ever-repeating attempt of becoming alive. Additional description is excessive in this case, everything else must be witnessed with your own eyes.
This year's Biennial is entitled 'and suddenly it all blossoms'. In her speech during the opening ceremony the chief curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel asked us to contemplate the nature of this 'all' that blossoms. What is it? She spoke of the re-enchantment of the world and an attempt to find alternative beautiful frameworks outside of the capitalist reality. However, if you think about it, that title phrase is really full of anxiety, because the only way in which every flower may grow is when they grow without spectators. And not only humans, animals as well. When all fauna will be wiped out by virus or neutron bomb, then on that enormous cemetery everything will blossom indeed. There on unknown trails will be footprints of unknown beasts, both mermaids and leshys.
This is exactly how this Biennale should be perceived: the panorama of the end of the world, old traces of creatures to come, a collection of forgotten drawings, and unimplemented plans — in other words, something fundamentally unfinished, but alluring exactly because of that. Do not forget that most of the things you will see at Andrejsala are not what they were intended to be, they are just shadow of the likeness. It must have been much bigger, something that could equivalently compete with the world-class art events, the rudimentary traces of which are the Biennial's rich online programme and inclusion of gastronomic section. Luckily it did not happen, because we do not need so much noise and power emanating throughout these ascetic Baltic realms. Speak softly, learn to imitate time and fossils and you will be heard.