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If last year was considered a Superkunstjahr with the overlapping events of Venice Biennial, Documenta, and Münster Skulpturprojekte, a new word deserves to denominate a similarly stacked planetary alignment in the Baltic Region. This year marks the centenary of independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for which each country has produced its own series of research-based national exhibitions. Simultaneously, the thirteenth edition of the Baltic Triennial curated by Vincent Honoré spans all three capital cities of the region for the first time and the Riga Biennial inaugurated its first edition under the curatorship of Katerina Gregos.
The ambitious projects share the invitation of foreign curators from two of Western Europe’s art capitals, London and Brussels respectively. Appointing curators from these regions reveals the persistent Baltic desire to affiliate themselves with Western Europe rather than the Eurasian mass of Russia, and the financial and cultural influence of the West over the former East in the current-day European Union. As a strategy of internationalising the two events, inviting curators from Western Europe’s art centres creates needed opportunities for Baltic artists abroad but also enforces the existing power relations between former East and West. If the Baltic region is still turning to the established centres of Western Europe as a canon, the conflagration of the two biennials during the centennial year is a reflection on the position of Baltic artists in a contemporary relation of geopolitical power and financial centralisation, unable to self-identify on their own.
Riga Biennial, or RIBOCA 1 runs from the 2nd of June until the 28th of October bringing together 104 International artists. Centred around the old Biology Faculty of the University of Riga, the theme tackled is “change” in multiple definitions of the word. While this year’s biennials and major exhibitions have tended towards vague curatorial texts reticent of any generous clarity or demands, RIBOCA successfully materialised site-specificity through its focus on matching artworks with significant sites in Riga. The course of the exhibition creates its own logical narrative to follow through the city’s various venues. Categorised by themes such as ecology, industry, and local history, the biennial convincingly presents groups of works that dialogue with each other about specific changes we face in the world. As a whole, the biennial exposes the interlaced position of all disciplines constrained to a single planetary reality.
The biennial splits itself across several venues with two standing out as the most relevant and cohesive – the faculty of biology and the residence of Kristaps Morbergs. The old biology faculty of the Riga University is the central venue of the exhibition. Inside is conserved the university classrooms, museums, and storage facilities sometimes nearly undisturbed which provide an apt environment for contemporary reflections on ecology in the outdated educational facility. Kristaps Morbergs, a 19th century Latvian patron, donated his house to the University where the traditional pre-war interiors were preserved. Focusing on Latvian history and contemporary life, this venue interacts directly with Riga and showcases mainly Baltic artists.
The Biology faculty includes works that deal generally with the catastrophic environmental condition of the planet. Julian Rosefeldt’s 45-minute film In the Land of Drought visualises ruined locations both in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains and the destroyed brownfields of the industrial Ruhr Valley in Germany whose skeletal industrial remains create a haunting scenery for the futuristic rendition of a post-apocalyptic earth. Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė’s Mirror Matter similarly creates a non-human vision of events by taking images and information from neutrino observatories and particle accelerators to de-center humanity in an earth which will survive long after civilisation as we know it. The scientific renditions of scientific events suggest that change is taking the future of the planet out of our control.
On a more human level, the biological relationship between the body and nature emerges in Sasha Huber & Petri Saarikko’s whose Dziedināšanas Remedies is a project meant to compile traditional medicinal knowledge in compact volumes. Directly related to Latvian culture, the book records the purification methods for mind and body which have survived through generations by way of oral traditions. The body’s inevitable connection to nature is also featured in Katrīna Neiburga’s two-channel film installation Pickled Long Cucumbers. Reflecting on the desire of a simple life when faced with the frenetic pace of urban life, the two characters in the film return to a symbolic Garden of Eden. The freedom of nature is put into question when the characters uneasily fit into the forest scenery.
Eli Cortiñas’ The Most Given of Givens does not directly relate to the Baltic context, but interpreted in the context of the biology faculty in Riga takes on a new meaning to politically connect to the reality outside. Working with Western interpretations of Africa and cinematic tropes such as the Tarzan myth, Cortiñas’ film placed in the strictly academic context of a biology classroom reflected the continuous categorisation of human beings and the migrant situation in Europe. Latvia and the other Baltic countries have extremely low levels of immigration and asylum seekers report poor integration and leave once granted documents. This emphasises the awkwardness of the film screened in an overtly white context.
The biology faculty is itself a visually enticing location, full of old teaching materials and a retro-scientific flair. Contrasting forms of knowledge of the past with contemporary works sets up a relation between past present and future. Katarzyna Przezwańska’s Early Polishness sets up the absurdity of natural identity connected to territory in the Triassic period and Johannes Heldén & Håkan Jonson’s Encyclopedia creates a fictional card archive from the future which catalogues the extinction dates of animals eliminated by humanity. This retro-future relation carries on into historical venues throughout the biennial emphasising the role of time in the process of global change.
The residence of Kristaps Morbergs brings this collapse of time directly in relation to the Baltic context. In the context of an old-style Latvian house, mainly Baltic artists present works directly related to the historical scars of the city and the intense periods of change that have affected the region even in one lifespan of experience. Jonas Mekas’ Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR situates the location in the post-soviet context from the experience of a Lithuanian exile. Made almost 20 years after collapse of the USSR, the film includes footage that was shot at the time on Mekas’ Sony video camera of the news reports on his TV screen. These monumental historical moments are echoed in reflections on sculpture and architecture in two works by Indre Serpytyte. Pedestal uses monuments to Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin and their changing meaning through time in photographic assemblages that question the linearity of history. In 1944-1991 Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings, she creates models of buildings formerly used by KGB operators which today have returned to domestic or private functions. In the context of these stark changes, contemporary Latvian society is presented by the Russian Poet’s Circle Orbita whose Video Poems collect works from the 90’s and 2000’s. The works are collaborations between poets, animators, and musicians who vitalised the Russian-language artistic community against the onset of 90’s consumer culture and MTV.
The Baltic Triennial under Honoré’s leadership also tackles notions of the body’s relation to the inevitable apocalyptic planetary collapse that increases around us. Strikingly different than the solemnity of Rosefeldt’s futuristic portrait of earth or Sven Johne’s melancholic and solitary character in A Sense of Warmth, Honoré’s vision is a poetic fleshy carnival imbued with an element of camp. The main exhibition in Vilnius CAC opened on the 11th of May and continues until the 12th of August. The Tallinn edition continues through 2 September and the third chapterof the triennial is due to open in Riga on the 21st of September.
The exhibition in Vilnius included highlights such as Laure Prouvost’s A Way to Leak, Lick, Leek a Ballardian encounter between pollution-licking teens at the end of the world. Set in LA, the crew dreams up surreal desires to confound nature and machine leading to the eventual meltdown of the human body into its toxified environment. The continuation of Korakrit Arunanondchai’s history in a room filled with people with funny names takes shape in its 4th rendition continuing the surrealistic narrative of giant rats in a context of global capitalism and spirituality. While the exhibition itself appeared chaotic and labyrinthine, the real forte of Honoré’s work was in the performance programmes organised at the opening of each edition.
Powerful acts by Liv Wynter and Adam Christensen invigorated the entranceway and a packed audience. The punk and anti-system elements of identity subcultures arose from the eloquent DIY dress and throaty song of Christensen, and Wynter’s forceful lyric verses. The performances exploded into the space hijacking the narrative of objects. On the following day, an impressive and zany performance by Lithuanian artist Žygimantas Kudirka started out with a jab at the triennial itself with the piece Welcome to Lithuania which used marketing slogans and absurdist magical claims playing on stereotypes of the country romanticised by visitors with references to dark moments of local literature. In Tallinn, performances by the radical dance act Young Boy Dancing Group included non-conventional dance and lasers emitted from various genitalia. The strength of these performances compared to the exhibition was in the direct references to contemporary societal conflicts in Baltic society, particularly to do with the persistent homophobia present in the three countries. The opening performance programme acts as a political resistance against the conservative traces of a society mired in its tradition and past.
Both exhibitions have provided opportunities to activate the Baltic art scene. Bringing in new audiences to a context on the periphery of the EU and with a striking history is important to understanding the diversity that exists within Europe itself and decentralising cultural focus. The choice of both events to play it safe with the choice of curator, choosing established voices from London and Brussels however created gaps in representation from many corners of the world and reinforces the influence of cultural capitals. Southern Europe remains virtually invisible, and while many Baltic artists are participants in the exhibitions, they are still maintained in the grasp of the Western European perspective. Other major events in Europe have begun to turn to alternative voices and narratives (Berlin Biennial, Manifesta, Documenta) but in the Baltics that position has not yet arrived.
*Cover image: Katarzyna Przezwańska, Early Polishness (detail), 2017. Diorama made of paper, wood, tree branches, floral wires, jute string, external wall board, Mod Podge glue, acrylic paint, coconut stakes, resin, nail polish, 130 × 159 × 318 cm. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia (RIBOCA).