The million-dollar question, or a priceless conversation with artist Ilmārs Blumbergs
Līga Marcinkeviča, Artist
The studio of Ilmārs Blumbergs
My initial pretext for arranging a meeting with Ilmārs Blumbergs was his solo exhibition Stikla pērlīšu spēles (‘Glass Bead Games’) at the Riga Gallery. The title will prompt every literature buff to seek parallels with the novel by Hermann Hesse that tells of people in a certain province engaged in lofty pursuits, and of their never-ending game. Blumbergs rang me to say that he did not wish to discuss the exhibition, how it had come about, or the works in it. As an artist, I completely understand this, since to my mind, there’s nothing worse than to be asked after presenting your work in public: what did you mean to say?

And so I was forced to reveal that my real wish was to talk about set design, about art and ideas. But why? Solely for personal interest, because I was thinking about what it’s like to create scenography – a setting for literature and music. What I find interesting is the process of creating a universe for a production. Maybe I want to create such a universe myself.

This kind of format for a conversation was deemed acceptable, and we arranged to meet on 11 February 2010 at 11 a.m. The conversation took place in Ilmārs Blumbergs’ studio-apartment. We made ourselves comfortable at a safe distance apart, by the great studio window, so that in the course of the conversation, while seeking the right formulation for expressing our ideas, we might allow our gaze to travel as far as possible. A few more waypoints to set the scene: during our conversation I’m looking at a group of three easels (when I’m not looking out the window, that is), while Ilmārs is looking at statuettes of the three wise men from Burvju flauta (‘The Magic Flute’), with the words NATUR, WEISHEIT, VERNUNFT (nature, knowledge, wisdom) written on their chests. And as we look out the window, we see three men clearing snow from the roof of the house opposite...

In order for a conversation to be called an interview, you have to be able to formulate a question, but I’m well aware that I cannot. I can describe or narrate my questions, or even turn them into objects, and I admitted as much to Blumbergs, who permitted me to “do whatever I want” with the text of our conversation. And, since it seemed to him that interviews with artists are all essentially the same, he suggested that it would be interesting to “construct” a conversation where it’s no longer really clear which is the beginning and which is the end, or who is asking questions and who is answering.
It seems to me that Ilmārs Blumbergs and I played out one round of the ‘glass bead game’... So, who won a point? Blumbergs, I suppose. But I can’t say that I lost, either. However, I never actually posed any of the questions I’d prepared in advance. After all, when you’re conversing with someone interesting, do you ask questions that you’ve “composed”?

Let’s pretend that we’re starting.
Ilmārs Blumbergs. Joan of Arc (Russian Drama Theatre). Model. 1972
Līga Marcinkeviča: Although it seems to me that I have seen something of the arts, I represent the generation that has not exper-i-enced your set designs for the theatre. I remember episodes from a TV recording of the production Jāzeps un viņa brāļi (‘Joseph and his Brothers’), but our TV was black and white, and so, too, are my memories of the production. Your comeback with Aīda (‘Aïda’) was for me the discovery of your scenography. ‘The Magic Flute’ was an emotional experience, and this continued with the video you created together with Viesturs Kairišs. Recently it came to my mind that those who are only just over the age of twenty now must have memories of your opera set designs that are like my black-and-white recollections of ‘Joseph’.

Where have you really, seriously expressed yourself: in scenography, graphic art or in paintings?

Ilmārs Blumbergs: The real expression is still to come. I’ve forgotten by now: sometimes it even seems like it’s not me. What’s real is that which is happening today. If you ask me about the past, then I can’t tell you which ones of the works were successes and which were failures.

L.M.: If you think it wasn’t actually you, then maybe you can tell me about that young artist who created the set design for Žanna D’Ark (‘Joan of Arc’)1. It’s an environment, a whole universe for a production that he created back then, rather than just scenery. What do you think: why did he do that?

I.B.: He had an idea. That’s why he did it. In those days he didn’t know much about world theatre, and wasn’t really aware of the rules that govern theatre, but there was an idea, and it was realised, albeit partially.

L.M.: So he didn’t realise it in full.

I.B.: Definitely not. But every idea needs to be as powerful as the one behind ‘Joan of Arc’. In the theatre, about a third of an idea is bound to be lost. It’s an inevitable loss, something you have to reckon with. The idea has to be powerful enough to compensate for this third or half, and that which is left over must still express the idea.

Actually, in all the arts at the very beginning the idea has to be much more powerful than it might seem to you. It has to be super-human, inhuman, so that in the end you’re left with a reasonably good idea. This inhumanity is the basis of any of the arts, and especially the theatre, because you see for yourself what happens when it’s implemented. Just as in life you see what happens to life – while you are living. Here, too, only a part of what you had envisaged actually remains. In order to realise an idea successfully, you need freedom. When you’re young, you’re much freer than other, older people. Youth gives you freedom. And freedom allows you to make mistakes. You don’t think about mistakes and fail-ure. We’re not free, and so we can’t accept failure.

If we were able to accept failure we’d be immortal. Everyone wants success, and an idea is the direct result of your freedom, your youth and freedom, mostly your freedom in fact. I assume that later on it’s still possible to realise ideas, but with less force. Of course, as with all things, there are exceptions. So, going back to your question, I have to say that the success of carrying out an idea depends on your inner freedom. And ‘Joan of Arc’ was the work of a young artist.
Ilmārs Blumbergs. Joan of Arc (Russian Drama Theatre). Model. 1972
L.M.: Any person’s inner freedom is burned up among the domestic rubbish... This creative period of yours, which I’m looking at in images, these sketches of ‘Joan of Arc’ make me think I would have very much liked to see this production, because the sketches – even without the actors, the lighting or the smells – say so much. I don’t find present-day theatre interesting, it doesn’t grab me and doesn’t let me forget that I’m in a theatre.

I.B.: You’re an artist, you perceive it as a visual artist. You can read it, but don’t forget that most people can’t. They need the help of text, of movement, music, colour, lighting. All of this accompaniment is like a helping hand. But, of course, the idea is still the main thing.

L.M.: And then there was Brands (‘Brand’)... But in theatre this is not the age of set designers: it’s a kind of season for decorators and stylists. The directors are the ones being talked about, the ones whose names are known. But the setting is not there, the creation of a universe for the production doesn’t happen. In my view, each production needs its own special universe in which it to live.

I.B.: Well, there you are. You too are a product of your time. You think in terms of these signs, you’re coded in such signs – if I can put it like that. In this case, we might talk about the sign of ‘Joan of Arc’, but something has changed, and theatre as such is the most changeable art form. It is always changing, and leaves behind very little. In order for the theatre to develop, it has to pass through these cycles of development. This is a time of realism, and realism as such is a creeping worm, as I like to say – ironically, because it’s so disgusting, and in scenography this kind of naturalistic realism has arrived. In my view, we have to pass through it in order to open up a new world. That’s not easy, it needs time. But I understand that these are cycles of development, and so I’m calm about it, believing that a time will come when it’ll be possible to do things the way I conceive them. I simply have to wait a bit.

L.M.: That’s similar to the way I feel in visual art and at exhibitions.

I.B.: But, you see, I consider that scenography as such is no more than an applied art. It always has been, and always will be, entirely dependent on visual art, literature and music. It’s not itself a fundamental art, it’s always feeding off, stealing, borrowing, re-making and being influenced by the pure fine arts. In this case, I have to ask why the new set designs aren’t borrowing from installations, why it’s taking so little from that which is current in visual art. When you walk into an exhibition, you’re essentially seeing very good scenography, in the works of young Latvian artists, too: the space has been mastered, objects have been placed in this space and illuminated. Take, for example, the most recent exhibition by Miks Mitrēvics and Kristīne Kursiša. You get all that when you enter... it seems like a finished, beautiful set, in which something could take place. And then you go to the theatre and you see that the visual space is more powerful. In my view, this comes from the naturalism enforced by the directing. In my view, scenography today should borrow more from visual art. But there’s another aspect. Money. Creating that kind of scenography is more expensive, certainly more ex-pensive. And in the present conditions of poverty, constructing realism – if I can call it that – is cheaper. As soon as you create your own universe, you have to work with space, and mastering space is more expensive, it needs more resources. That’s the case in opera, it’s the same in drama theatre. Have you seen any set designs recently that actually change?

L.M.: No.

I.B.: No. Usually they build the one structure on the stage and play out three acts with only minor alterations to this structure, with a bit of decoration. Even though the scene of the action may be completely, diametrically different, generally they devise some clever way of utilising this minimalism and maintaining it throughout the play. This, too, comes from poverty: not only are we incapable of creating that universe, we can’t change the space either.
Ilmārs Blumbergs. Joan of Arc (Russian Drama Theatre). Model. 1972
L.M.: Yes, but development, too, is generally possible only through change.

I.B.: And change is one aspect of collective experience. It’s through change that you can share the experience of what’s happening on stage. There’s no single answer to the question of why it’s happened this way. And, another thing, this most definitely is the age of the director. And if a director has the idea that something must take place in a room, then this will be maximally realised, and it’s natural that it shouldn’t be otherwise. There is another possible approach: a new space is created together with the director, as in the case of Zelta zirgs (‘The Golden Steed’) in Valmiera Theatre, for example. In my view, that was a successful stage design. So you can’t say that there’s nothing happening.

L.M.: It’s not all absolutely bad. The absolute isn’t possible in art. Everything is pulsating, it’s in a state of flux. I’m approaching an answer as to why I don’t go to the theatre. I sit down in my allotted seat and see that, as a member of the audience, I’m not being allowed to enter that universe they’ve created on stage. It’s evident that the actors are clear about their place and job, and the director is clear about what the product should be like, but there’s no role left for the presence of the audience. Collective experience is virtually impossible.

I.B.: You haven’t been to the right theatre. If you were to go and see a production by Lepage or Castellucci, then you’d be immersed in that world, and you’d be most surprised: how is it possible, where is it possible, why is it possible? I didn’t expect that. It’s so interesting. You can never answer such questions in realist, domestic theatre. At the moment we don’t have theatres like that, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s only for now.

L.M.: Then I’m doing the right thing by not going to the theatre. Why should I be disappointed, time after time? I choose to bide my time.

I.B.: It’s the same with costumes. Costumes “migrate” (and I’m guilty of it myself), from Wagner’s ‘Valkyries’ to Latvian domestic drama, via Shakespeare and Chekov. Take a look at a photograph from some production on the internet, you’ll see people in contemporary dress. And you can’t make out whether it’s Shakespeare or some Polish play, or even opera. And this also is a consequence of a lack of money: it’s simpler and cheaper to make contemporary clothing. It arises from directors’ demands that the audience should identify with the protagonist, seeing themselves on stage, as it were, by means of contemporary dress, but in visual terms such productions grow tiresome, because the slight nuances – the colour of the jacket or the shade of the undershirt; a dotted tie or a striped tie; a fedora or a flat cap – are so tiny and insignificant in the broader context. And it’s not just that they are minor changes: this approach has simply exhausted itself. But nowadays as soon as you want to take a different path, then you’re bound to come up against funding limitations. Because it does need a lot of resources. You might ask: why can’t we make poor man’s theatre? But we’ve experienced that already. What we created in Soviet times was poor man’s theatre, with absolutely minimal resources, and this approach, too, using second-hand clothes and just a few props, has its limits, which are reached and indeed reached quite soon. Thus, whichever way you look at it, we come to the conclusion that we will have to create our own world.

L.M.: If we assume that a good work of art is 100%, and if we spend 10% on the costumes, then perhaps a much greater part has to be invested into the idea, into the super-human generalisation. With those 10% we’re only going to decorate the idea.

I.B.: If you’re making an installation – for the Cēsis Brewery, for example, you’ll experience the same thing: you have to stay within a certain budget. And, for comparison, ten times more money is spent on the world’s finest productions. Or the sums of money spent on world-famous installations. But it’s not money that you rate me by, or that others rate you by. And then we come back to the initial question: how super-human, how powerful does your idea have to be in order to overcome the losses that occur when the idea meets with real life. Because, in every case, you have take into account losses. And these can’t be calculated, because at the outset you don’t even know if the idea will be viable. Yet it is! But the only thing I can say is: don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, I tell myself, don’t be afraid of the idea you’ve created. So often, I’ve caught myself doing it: I have an idea, but then, with typical Latvian modesty, caution or inability to sacrifice something, I retreat a little right at the start, and in the end that little step back puts me a whole kilometre off the mark. It’s easy to say, and difficult to do. Or hard to see through to the end.

For ‘The Magic Flute’ I had the idea of inviting various Latvian artists, such as Ieva Iltnere, for instance, to design one of the costumes in the style in which they paint their figures. Frančeska Kirke would design a costume EXACTLY as if the person had just emerged from one of her paintings. Sarmīte Māliņa would design it EXACTLY the way she makes her works. And the audience – at least the ones who are in the know – would recognise these images from prints, paintings or drawings. And I liked the idea, I was ready to hand over all the work on the costumes, but as soon as it came to putting it into practice... Well, it simply wasn’t possible. But just think how interesting it would be, if we were to bring alive figures from paintings. In opera it could be done, all kinds of things are possible there. And it’s possible to find a starting point for the main characters in paintings by Latvian artists. And there’d be a note about each character, indicating that the costume is from such and such a painting. And the audience would see the painting, how the figure had stepped out of the painting, had come alive and was singing. Wonderful, isn’t it. It all goes together with the music... I think that I will realise it. But there is that age-old law: never tell anyone your ideas...

L.M.: Never mind. We could agree that, if you’ve told it, that means you’re on your way to the next idea.

I.B.: I’d even calculated approximately how much it would cost, but it was too much.

L.M.: The idea and the price of the idea...

I.B.: In my view, every fine artist – painter, installation artist or graphic artist – should do stage design since, even today, scenography more or less means working with space and light. Space is very useful for any kind of work. Space kind of shoots your thinking into the Universe. You sit and watch the curtain open, you see the depth and forget the orchestra, the audience; you see the space as a limitless depth in which anything can happen. In my view, that’s very stimulating for any artist. It’s just like when you go into a room and you’re told: you have to create a production here. The visual arts involve the same kind of scenography as is presented on stage in a set design. It’s beneficial, and moreover you become familiar with literature. Of course, you have to read the literature, and if it’s opera then there’s music as well, which is an absolutely intangible world. In this respect opera is the best way to go, since it has literature and music as well as living human action. If you’re ever offered the chance, then on no account turn it down, no matter what. Tell them you’ll do everything.
Ilmārs Blumbergs. Joan of Arc (Russian Drama Theatre). Model. 1972
L.M.: Creating a universe. Scenography is something entirely different, because time is present in every production. Time is decisive, it has significance. A performance means continual change.

I.B.: Yes, and it’s impossible to predict or know in advance whether this evening’s performance will be a success or a failure. Funnily enough, if the production is a failure, the set designer will rarely be blamed. Usually it’s the actors who’ve played poorly, or most commonly it’s the director who’s failed, while the set designer is cushioned from it all, protected from criticism.

The success of a production is irrational: you can never calculate or work it out in advance, or predict it. Especially in opera, because music and the human voice together with light... altogether, it’s so changeable – it’s like life, you never know how it’ll turn out in the end. And that’s what makes it so attractive, what draws you in... It’s like when you’re sitting by the sea and looking, and you don’t want to paint it. You don’t really want to paint the sea, after all, who can paint it? Rubbish. But to sit and watch, and think that perhaps you might paint it after all...

L.M.: By that time, the light is no longer what it was.

I.B.: Yes, the light won’t be the same...

L.M.: All you can do is pack up your stuff and go, but you’ve been sitting by the sea all day.

And at this point I’ll intervene, because Blumbergs and I started laughing heartily. I know that what we were laughing about will be understandable only to those who’ve sat by the sea with brushes and paint box. But the rest of you: please bear with us because, after all, anyone can try it out for themselves.

L.M.: What do you think, where is there more drama: in line or colour?

I.B.: What kind of answer do you want? If you want a clever answer, then I’ll say both colour and line. Of course, that satisfies everyone. If you want a silly answer, then I’ll say neither colour nor line. If you want a personal answer, then I’ll say: line. And if you want a conditional answer, what I wish to achieve, then I’ll say: colour. Here it all depends on what you want to get from me today, on this white, snowy Thursday.

L.M.: A somewhat graphic day. But there are colours, too, in those roof areas. And those areas – white against black...

I.B.: On a serious level, it depends on what suits you. When we really have to face up to it, each of us is aware, and indeed quite well aware, of what we are and aren’t good at. And it’s only for correspondents or journalists that we think up a clever answer that satisfies the both of us on that occasion, or corresponds to the strategic context of Latvian art. Face to face with the universe, a person knows what they can do, but generally doesn’t want to reveal it and conceals it. And quite rightly so, because you shouldn’t reveal the movements of your soul in any other way than through form; you shouldn’t tell anyone about yourself, only do it through form. I myself know what I can achieve and what I can’t. This could be my answer to your interesting question.

L.M.: This interesting question came about because I see line in all your work: in the drawings, the paintings and the scenography. It’s pervaded by line, and the line contains tension and vibration that addresses the viewer. And, as a matter of fact, you’ve been great at constructing your own personal universe. You’ve even introduced your own kind of writing. You’ve got your own everything.

I.B.: Well, you see, it’s come about like that because I do it every day. That blank page is beneath my hand all the time. And if you’ve put some fuel in the machine, then the hand starts moving. That’s the way it has happened. It has compensated for some of the inadequacies of my work. As for the raw material – I’ve taken it, searched for it everywhere. From oil, from the air, from experiences, from feelings, from the sea... from everything. And if you have that page beneath your hand then it comes rather naturally. Fuel. You need fuel. To get it moving.

L.M.: I think the author meant more than just fuel in a literal sense.

I.B.: You surprised me, because I’d never thought of it that way, about having a free personal style. Because I suppose that drawing and line is what comes naturally. Or, it’s not mine, but given by nature.

L.M.: Yes, because you succeed naturally at turning words into signs.

I.B.: Yes, it comes from nature, but I can’t deny that I became conscious of it late. Actually, it’s not that I became aware, rather it has slowly opened up. And, as is always the case for a Latvian, it’s been accompanied by a sense of anxiety. How far can I go? Dare I do this or not? Latvians have strange control mechanisms in their brains. I say that about myself. And the question “to stay or not to stay”, “to do or not to do”, “to do more than you think”. This sets us apart from Russian artists. If they have an idea, they’re ready to sacrifice more than Latvian artists. This applies particularly to everyday life. Some are even willing to sacrifice their family life in order to achieve their artistic aims. A Latvian would never do that. In my view, that’s because we’re a small nation, and we have a deepseated instinct for self-preservation, one that cannot be weeded out. I was in Chicago with Pēteris Martinsons, we worked there for three months. A Russian artist was there as well, and he said: I’m staying. Right at the start – on the third day. But how can I stay over there when my father and mother, my family are in Latvia.

L.M.: I would like to hope and believe that the instinct for self-preservation still remains, even though it’s changing, transforming. Because people only a little younger than me are already different. As regards Latvians and others, who are willing to make greater sacrifices for an idea: you said that a Russian artist is willing to give up his family, but a Latvian won’t do that. They sacrifice others, but it seems to me that a Latvian will sacrifice themselves by progressively simplifying their idea. It’s an immeasurable sacrifice: you’re giving up something and thereby sacrificing yourself.

I.B.: The term ‘sacrifice’ really does carry the meaning of a sacrifice.

L.M.: Measure seven times and cut once, as they say. And by peeling away (i.e. measuring), you’re peeling away your ambitions and your self-esteem, and when you’ve “peeled” it away, then you look to see what you’ve found at the centre, whether it’s worth it and what’s left over.

I.B.: An artist should not say: I’m could make a mistake.

L.M.: But an artist must make mistakes.

I.B.: Yes, but that’s only for him to know. That’s how it is when the set is built on stage and you see that it’s turned out completely wrong, and you have all the leaders of the production team, stage hands, actors, director and labourers standing around you. And they’re waiting to see what you’ll say, because they don’t understand what it is, as it’s all being done for the first time, and you see that you’ve made a mistake. You see it, but you’re not allowed to say it. As soon as you say you’ve made a mistake, that’s it: it’s a failure. You must say: it’s great! It’s all fantastic! Now it’s just a matter of sawing off a bit here, raising it a little higher over there, hanging up this, putting different lights on that – and away we go! If you put it like that, then it’ll be fine. But as soon as you say: yes, something’s not quite... then that’s a loss.

L.M.: There are no mistakes in art. An artist has wished to create something, and then created it. You mustn’t tell someone else about the things that didn’t work out in a piece of art. That’s how YOU thought it up, and nobody needs to know what didn’t succeed, the things you haven’t realised. Then you could have done it differently. It had to be done the way YOU wanted. It’s real only if the experience has been personal.

I.B.: I completely agree with what you say about the personal, because that’s the only way to create something nowadays: only through personal feelings, through personal experience. There’s no route to the core of art other than through yourself.

L.M.: And that’s when something of value really comes into being. You can really make only that which you yourself feel and understand.

I.B.: Yes, and that’s also how form comes about. When you bring out your experience, that’s when the form emerges. However strange it may seem, at the beginning you don’t even know what it will look like, what it will be. But the form does arise, the experience really is true.

L.M.: I could go on. That’s when the form comes into being... and then it’s so self-evident and acceptable that you don’t see it as ugly.

I.B.: Yes! I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a precise observation, that it’s not horrid or ugly. No matter how much you might sometimes want to create something horrid, it will appear beautiful to you.

L.M.: What is it like to live with your works all the time?

I.B.: Is there anything unnatural about that?

L.M.: No! It’s simply never been like that for me.

I never actually got around to asking the million-dollar question, but Blumbergs suggested that we could chat like this every month for a year, and then “hone down” our conversation to 1800 characters. And call it ‘A conversation one year long’. So we really did play out one round of the ‘glass bead game’...

(1) “(..) in 1972 he graduated from the Art Academy of Latvia, presenting a highly commended diploma work (the stage set for a production of ‘Joan of Arc’ by A. Upītis in the Russian Drama Theatre) – a set in which an enclosure of white boards (a barn–battlefield–ideal space–cube) is gradually polluted and littered with all kinds of domestic rubbish, symbolising the ritual building of a bonfire, a pyre that burns the martyr. It is a set design that has become a classic of contemporary art in the 20th century history of Latvian art, and yes, in the history of art of the Soviet Union, once referred to, not without a note of irony, as the “brotherly family of republics” (..)” – Naumanis, Normunds. Ilmārs Blumbergs. Teātris. Rīga: Latvijas Laikmetīgās mākslas centrs, 2002, p.49.

/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/
go back