Interesting Times For Riga’s Contemporary Art Scene
RIGA WAS RUSSIAN from 1710-1918 and again from 1944-90. Ethnic Russians still make up a quarter of Latvia’s population. You can hear as much Russian as Latvian when you stroll through the picturesque streets of the country’s capital. Yet many Latvians view Russians with suspicion and some, whenever war games rumble near the border, with dread.
You might think, or at least hope, that culture has the power to over-ride such nationalist rivalry and bring people together. Yet the major cultural initative in Latvia this year has so far promoted more controversy than harmony.
The début Riga Biennale, catchily styled RIBOCA as if sponsored by a British sport-shoe manufacturer, opened earlier this Summer. Founder: St Petersburg’s Agniya Mirgorodskaya. Funder: her father.
I first heard about the new biennale in September 2016 from its Executive Director, Anastasia Blokhina. I had met Anastasia three years before, when she was Head of PR at Erarta Galleries in her home city – St Petersburg. Soon after she was headhunted by Baku’s State-funded art conglomerate, Yarat. No surprise there: Anastasia is one of the most dynamic art administrators in the world today.
Now, after 24 months by the murky waters of the Caspian, she was swimming back to the Baltic to work for her childhood friend.
Two months later I was invited to spend a weekend with them in Latvia – possibly for my charming company, more probably because few other Western journalists pay much attention to the contemporary art scene in Eastern Europe. The weekend was charming but the new Biennale was not, bafflingly, something the duo seemed keen to discuss.
I sound found out why. In February 2017 Agniya told me she was lining up a Biennale Curator who insisted on ‘full artistic freedom’ – and had even inserted ‘a clause in her contract’ to that effect. ‘We cannot influence this’ stated Agniya wistfully.
It seems unusual, though not inconceivable, for a young woman who likes contemporary art, and has a very rich daddy, to launch her own biennale in a foreign city, just for fun, for a laugh, ha ha ha.
But while I cannot, à la Peter Sarstedt, claim to look inside Agniya’s head, it struck me as bizarre that she had no wish to influence the contents of an event to which she was preparing to devote the best years of her life.
The situation was uncomfortable. Riga has a reputation as a euro-heaven for dodgy Russian rubles. The ex nihilo appearance of a Russian-run mega-event in the Latvian capital would inevitably strike many people as dodgissimo.
I don’t suppose for one minute that the bottomless seabed of Arctic pesco-dollars generated by Mr Mirgorodsky’s Arkhangelsk-based North-West Fishing Consortium is anything other than Captain Birdseye but, having visited Riga annually since 2011, I was well aware of Russo-Latvian shenanigans and gently warned Agniya that the sailing might not all be plain.
‘We are under quite a lot of criticism on nationalistic matters’ she acknowledged.
Her total-control Curator turned out to be Katerina Gregos. I wondered how a Brussels-based Greek with no known affinity for Eastern Europe would wield Agniya’s carte blanche and, specifically, whether she would give the new event a regional feel or just serve up another of those could-be-anywhere biennales we are so used to these days.
The portentously meaningless title Gregos allocated to Agniya’s Biennale, Everything Was For Ever Until It Was No More, did not augur well. Nor did the essay Gregos published in the Biennale’s 832-page doorstop catalogue, summoning everyone from Heraclitus to Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi in support of her mind-numbing conclusion that ‘whether one defines the current era as the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene or the Chthulucene, it is certain that we have entered an era of epochal shifts.’
But Gregos is an eloquent orator and, at the opening ceremony, I listened attentively to her talk of attuning the Biennale to its Baltic context.
The evidence proved underwhelming. True, Soviet nostalgia was the main theme at a faded Tsarist-era apartment on the edge of Riga’s Old Town, where Liina Siib’s sound-and-light tribute to Estonian jazz rubbed shoulders with a half-concealed portrait of Vladimir Putin, but that was about it.
RUSSIAN OR NOT?
Most of the Biennale’s eight venues date from around 1900, although none are exemples of Riga’s hallmark Jugendstil. Breaking the mould is the idiosycrantic 1970s train station in the nearby beach resort of Dubulti, designed like a giant concrete wave. It hosts ‘artistic laboratories’ devoted to touch, taste and smell.
With slick, professional presentation reflecting its evident financial muscle, the Biennale has much for Riga art-lovers to enjoy. But airy curatorial talk about the importance of Baltic context is undermined by the absence of artists from the Baltic’s biggest city… St Petersburg. In fact, only four of this supranational Biennale’s 95 artists – from 30 countries – hail from Russia, and two of them refuse to admit it (the catalogue cites Aslan Gaisumov’s home country as Chechnya and Taus Makhacheva’s as Dagestan).
Yet the Biennale’s money and frontline staff are Russian, and its opening ceremony was swamped by the crème de la crème of the Moscow artworld – with Latvian bigwigs conspicuous by their absence.
Gregos reacted tetchily when this issue was raised in the local press. ‘RIBOCA is not only a Russian initiative!’ she retorted. ‘Agniya Mirgorodskaya is half-Lithuanian!’
Why, then, did she not launch her biennale in Vilnius?
The Biennale’s refusal to explain its raison-d’être, or disclose its budget, does it no favours.
Such is the sensitivity surrounding the Biennale’s communication that, when prominent Riga curator Inge Lāce asked her for an interview, Gregos only agreed on the proviso it be conducted in writing – the sort of circumspection you normally associate with a head of state.
The resulting 5,000 words revealed that Gregos had prepared for the Biennale by ‘reading a lot about science, biotechnology, transhumanism and acceleration theory.’
‘Your curatorial team consists of international curators’ noted Lāce. ‘The main management team is almost entirely foreign, too.’
‘Our team consists of 33 people – and more than half of them are Latvian!’ snorted Gregos.
‘Reactions ranging from anger to suspicion,’ declared Lāce, had been prompted by the lack of detail about the Biennale’s funding – giving rise to ‘fear of political manoeuvring or money-laundering.’
‘As soon as I found out that the money comes from a legitimate business (the North-West Fishing Consortium), without any restrictions on my curatorial or artistic freedom, it was clear to me that there were no strings attached’ snapped back Gregos.
I caught up with Inga Lāce in Riga on September 8, a couple of days after the opening of Survival Kit, the ‘largest annual contemporary art event in the Baltic’ (launched by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art back in 2009). Inga’s attitude to the Biennale had, she told me, evolved. ‘They seemed patronizing at the beginning, but now they’re learning. Their first statements were awkward, now they’re more polished.’
The Biennale, she added wrily, had ‘shaken up the local art scene.’ Survival Kit had itself been affected, morphing from an annual to biennial event as of 2019, to run in alternate years to the Biennale.
Relations between Survival Kit and the Biennale are about as warm as an Arctic winter, as I saw at first hand when asked to dinner by Survival Kit curators. Biennale top brass happened to be sitting at the next table. The two parties ignored each another.
Survival Kit has some reason to feel aggrieved. Three of the Biennale’s eight venues were ‘discovered’ by previous Survival Kits – something Biennale authorities omitted to acknowledge either in the catalogue or to the scores of foreign journalists they jetted in for their opening. Despite Gregos’ pious claim that the Biennale ‘is based on the principle of generosity,’ it seems reluctant to acknowledge Survival Kit’s existence – still less to explore possible synergy in pursuit of the Biennale’s stated goal of ‘contributing to the cultural landscape in Riga.’
SURVIVING IN THE OUTLANDS
With a budget about twenty times smaller than the Biennale’s, Survival Kit hardly constitutes a rival. It lacks money for PR and lurks under most international radars. However, with 2018 marking the centenary of Latvia independence, some promotional support was available from the government for this year’s event, hence my presence at the opening.
This took place at Riga Circus – built 1888, closed 2016 and, apart from the odd Survival Kit sign, untouched since. In fact, the Circus looks as if it hasn’t been touched since Lenin’s Latvian Riflemen bought second-row seats in 1917, give or take some high-flying Soviet frescoes along the corridors.
The former elephant stalls, horse’s stables and backyard have all been ingeniously pressed into artistic service for Survival Kit, showcasing works in a variety of media by a dozen artists from different countries.
The most outlandish is a kitschily chaotic, streamer-strewn ‘hotel room’ by Brazil’s Cibelle Cavali Bastos, whose towering presence lent the Thursday night opening a burlesque feel.
Outlands is the title of this year’s Survival Kit – and just as outlandish, in a Bulgakovian sense, is a 7-minute, part-cartoon video by Lithuania’s Anastasia Sosunova, entitled Demikhov Dog and inspired by two-headed canine experiments from the Soviet 1950s.
No animals remain in the circus ring, where a three-part Paper Trampoline by Algerian-born, Paris-based Nasr-Eddine Bennacer dangles from the roof, incorporating prints by the late Indian artist Krishna Reddy.
Aural panache comes courtesy of Bombay wordsmith Sumesh Sharma and Sudan’s Cassius Fadlabi – who combines running a gallery in Oslo with scholarly insight into Coptic Art and a night job as a DJ. He can also paint: his giant psychedelic mural brought welcome humour to the slow-moving Survival Kit bar area.
Fadlabi was at the centre of a disturbing incident during the Survival Kit opening, when a posse of policemen prowled into the circus courtyard at 1:20 in the morning and growled ‘Where’s the DJ?’
The evening’s professional DJ had clocked off, leaving Fadlabi behind the platters, with a ringful of happy dancers jiving beneath the Big Top to his funky desert brand of Afro-Arab techno. The police were not in dancing mood. Fadlabi was summoned to produce his ID. When he did so, they departed – only to return with reinforcements a few minutes later. This time they interrogated LCCA supremo Solvita Krese, combed through the contents of the Survival Kit bookstall, and requested proof that the bar had a licence. To say their heavy-handed presence put a damper on festivities is an understatement.
My first thought was that this was some sort of artistic performance – a KGB spoof, perhaps. My second thought was that someone, possibly not unconnected with RIBOCA, had tipped off the Law that an illegal alien was moonlighting inside Riga Circus.
It was bad luck for Survival Kit chiefs that a foreign journalist was on hand for a front-row view of proceedings. They were understandably keen to play down the incident’s importance. ‘Some neighbour complaining about the noise’ was the official line. (Inga later told me she found the police officers ‘very young’ and felt ‘they didn’t know what they were doing – they were acting weird.’)
I presumed Survival Kit had obtained the green light from city authorities to stage their opening party, with the police aware that loudish music might be involved. Should the decibel-level exceed the norms, a quiet warning could have been expected – not the Riga Night Patrol at full-strength.
In any case, I said to Inga, it was both incomprehensible and bad PR for Latvia (especially in its centenary year) for one State body (the police) to kaibosh the efforts of another State body (the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art).
‘The LCCA is not a State body’ replied Inga. ‘We’re an NGO.’
Loudish music was also involved at the Riga Biennale’s opening party, accompanied by spectacular lighting, but no neighbours complained – perhaps because it was a Saturday night, perhaps because the venue (the Latvian Art Academy) was out of residential earshot. The party, like the rest of the Biennale, was cool, professional and a little soulless: the polar opposite of Survival Kit, which is wacky, warm and rough round the edges. Riga is lucky to have two such contrasting and complementary events; the Biennale should encourage competition, not flatten it. Perhaps Agniya Mirgorodskaya’s next curator will be a bridge-builder with ties to the Baltic region, rather than a combative, big-name outsider, but I somehow doubt it.
Survival Kit curatorship is a team affair, with Catalonia’s Angels Miralda joining Inga Lāce and LCCA boss Solvita Krese this time out.
The start of Survival Kit overlapped with that of Homo Novus, Riga’s International Festival of Contemporary Theatre, inagurated by an extraordinary son-et-lumière ‘Tree Opera’ in the grounds of the city’s Physics Faculty.
This was not so much Theatrical as Performance Art at its most inventive – with a polyphonic battery of quirky percussionists offset by swivelling searchlights and droning singers perched high in the branches.
Yet there is no more synergy between Survival Kit and the Theatre Festival than there is between the Riga Biennale and Survival Kit – which closes September 30, before returning next May with a bigger show.
By then the Biennale will have had time to take stock of its first edition, maybe opting to exploit Agniya Mirgorodskaya’s soft-spoken diplomacy and engage in more constructive inter-action with the domestic art scene.
RIBOCA ends October 28. The Latvian leg of the Baltic Triennial runs in Riga through November 18. You can catch Inga Lace’s eight-artist Shared History at the elegantly restored Riga Borse until November 30. The 5th edition of Art Riga opens November 27.
A busy Autumn and, for Riga’s contemporary art scene, interesting times.
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