Prevailing Winds
Elīna Dūce, Visual Art Theorist

Two-part conversation with the co-curators of Latvian pavilion exhibition at 55th Venice Biennale Anne Barlow and Courtenay Finn from Art in General, and one of the project’s commissioners, kim? Contemporary Art Centre Programme director Zane Onckule.

Elīna Dūce: What did you know about the art and the art scene in the Baltic states before you came to Riga?

Anne Barlow:
I was aware of the general art scene in the Baltic states through the programmes of organizations such as the CAC in Vilnius, Lithuania; Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia; the Tulips & Roses gallery in Brussels, and recent editions of the Baltic Triennial and numerous international exhibitions showing the work of artists from those countries. Through Zane Čulkstena, I had more specific knowledge of kim? Contemporary Art Centre in Riga and the artists it had shown, as well as of contemporary art practice in Lithuania as a result of an extensive artist research process for the fifth Bucharest Biennale that I curated in Bucharest, Romania in May, 2012.

Courtenay Finn: While in San Francisco I worked closely with Raimundas Malašauskas and was exposed to a variety of different artists and spaces in the Baltics through his projects. Also, Anne and I intentionally scheduled our first research trip to the area to coincide with the most recent Baltic Triennial, so that we could get a larger sense of the region’s art scene. Like Anne, the spaces that were on my radar before our trip were the CAC in Vilnius, Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn and Tulips&Roses in Brussels. I only learned about kim? Contemporary Art Centre from Zane Čulkstēna, but became quite interested in how the space operated in both the city and the region.

E.D.: How could it be characterized from your point of view? And could we say that Baltic art has its own identity?

A.B. and C.F.:
As practices within and across each country differ, it would be unfair to categorize all “Baltic art” with one overall description. Each has its own history of various art practices that continue to evolve with each generation of artists, so to say, for example, that contemporary Lithuanian art can only be characterized by the recent wave of conceptual art practices would not be entirely accurate, given the emergence of a younger generation and the participation of other artistic voices within that scene.

It has been really interesting to travel back and forth to Riga, to meet with artists, explore the city, and get a sense of the contemporary art scene both within Latvia and the wider Baltic region. We recently hosted a talk at Art in General with our Venice Biennale pavilion co-curator Alise Tīfentāle, who discussed what makes Latvian art “so Latvian”. Without having spent more time in the region and not having her expertise on the subject, it would be hard to describe a singular Baltic identity, suffice to say that there seem to be some key contexts being explored that are often shared by countries that have experienced shifts in how they are perceived geographically and culturally, as their relationship to the larger framework of “Europe” and surrounding countries has also changed in recent decades.

E.D.: Since 2001, Art in General has a two­way exchange programme, the Eastern European Residency Exchange. You have collaborated with organizations in Romania and Croatia. How did you find the way to Latvian institutions?

A.B. and C.F.:
Through our association with Zane Čulkstēna, we became very interested in the work of kim? Contemporary Art Centre, particularly as it is a relatively new institution that is ambitious in its scope and intention – supporting local Latvi- an artists in great depth, while also wishing to expand its programmes with an international partner such as Art in General. The trip to the Baltics in 2012 allowed us to meet with a variety of different institutions and to get a better sense of the contem- porary art scene in the region, not to mention which organization might be the best fit for a partnership moving ahead. This new collaboration with kim? in Latvia coincides with a year-long collaboration with The Gardens in Vilnius, Lithuania, and both build on the previous partnerships Art in General has had with arts partners in Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and the Czech Republic since the programme began in 2001.
E.D.: You have selected the representatives for the Latvian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Why did you choose the duo of Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis?

A.B. and C.F.:
We were interested in the work of Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis for their individual strength of vision, and for the potential of showing their work together in a way that would create a powerful dialogue and set of relation- ships. Both Podnieks and Salmanis tackle pertinent issues of identity in the face of globalism, unpacking and questioning cultural history and its role in creating an individual identity. Such notions of transience, according to the writer Miwon Kwon, speak to the modern condition of place, and its effect on not just an individual, but also a larger concept of cultural iden- tity that is explored within both Podnieks’ and Salmanis’ practices. These concepts are especially timely, and the ways in which the artists explore them allow for multiple read- ings and interpretations.

E.D.: How do you see your role and your institution’s role in managing the Latvian pavilion?

A.B. and C.F.:
Art in General and kim? Contemporary Art Centre were involved together from the first stage of talks with the artists, and both institutions are collaborat- ing fully on the development of the pavilion and the programmes around it, from the development of the artists’ projects to the opening receptions and events, and Art in General’s participation in the Baltic School. We have had meetings and presentations in both Riga and New York about the Venice project, and additionally were able to profile the work of both artists in a special preview exhibition at Art in General. In addition to working together on joint announcements, each institution has also promoted the Venice project through numerous media and journals.

E.D.: What is your interest in taking a part in the North by Northeast project and in promoting the art of Latvia?

A.B. and C.F.:
While North by Northeast marks the beginning of a more long-term collaboration with kim? Contemporary Art Centre, the Venice project provides a wonderful opportunity to profile the work of two Latvian artists within one of the most im- portant international art contexts. Prior to the Venice Biennale itself, as part of our collaboration with kim?, we were delighted to co-curate with Alise Tīfentāle a pre-Biennale exhibition of the artists’ work and host a press conference at Art in General in New York in March 2013. This brought greater attention to their work by New York audiences as well as those visiting New York during The Armory Show week. In the next few years, as Art in General and kim? embark upon a series of exchanges and projects involving both Latvian and New York-based artists, awareness of these art scenes across the partnership will only build.

In addition to being the first component of a broader col- laboration between the two countries and institutions, we were excited to be take part in the North by Northeast exhibition and pavilion presentation because we were really interested in the artists. Meeting Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis was the beginning of an interesting dialogue, not only about the role of the artist within Latvian history, but how their practices relate to the broader contemporary art scene.

E.D.: And, in your view, how will artists from Latvia and their artworks be written into the art scene of the world?

A.B. and C.F.:
We feel that the Venice Biennale project will give an increased profile to two artists whose practice we find compelling and thought-provoking. The pavilion exhibition, North by Northeast, showcases strong and beautiful work that speaks to larger concepts and ideas that are being explored within contemporary art across the globe. As an institution with such a strong presence in Eastern Europe, we are excited to highlight work coming from the Baltic region, and to begin a longer term relationship with kim? Contemporary Art Centre and with Latvian artists. We have met many great artists on our visits and are eager to work closely with kim? to create a greater presence for them within the larger contemporary art scene.

Elīna Dūce: Never before has Latvia’s participation in the Venice Biennale had such a large number of organizers: three curators, two commissioners, a project manager, a project co­ ordinator in Italy, and others involved in the management of the event. In your opinion, what will the contribution to this particular exposition be when compared to Latvia’s represen­ tation at the Venice Biennale in previous years?

Zane Onckule:
We are obviously looking at the two parts of this question – about the large team and its anticipated contribution to the exposition – in close connection with each other. Refering to what Hannah Wilke said in the 1970s – “if women have failed to make “universal” art because we’re trapped within the “personal”, why not universalize the “personal” and make it the subject of our art?” This is exactly what the organizing team has been working on over the last six to twelve months in its full and international line-up, within the framework of North by Northeast. I’ll use this opportunity and this response to say, on behalf of the commissioners, thank you to all of those involved, those who shared our idea, and our sup- porters.

E.D.: Bearing in mind that this time there are two organi­ zations working on the creation of the Latvian pavilion, what do you see as the role of each one? What are the tasks of each party in this event?

The national pavilions, their creation, the parties involved and the end result, as well as the way that this is externally communicated, is a very interesting process which not only demonstrates the level of the organizers’ ability, but also to a large degree reflects what is happening in a particular country. What the mood is like, the climate, what the cultural policy is like... This year’s Latvian pavilion in Venice which is being developed by the kim? Contemporary Art Centre in collaboration with New York’s internationally known Art in General organization is, in essence, the result of a confluence of fortuitous conditions.

The first step was a deliberate and focused collaboration which, in thinking about the development of the idea for the Latvian pavilion tender, was initiated by the Latvian side. The next part was a natural and rapid establishment of friendship, research, gathering of materials and working with the artists etc. Recovering from the shock of winning the competition and in commencing the real work of creating the Latvian pavilion, the specific character and parameters of the project itself helped to define the boundaries of responsibility and competence, to which both institutions have tried to adhere in the course of the process. If one party has taken more responsibility for the organization of technical issues, the coordination of the team of artists and curators, then the other party has at the same time provided invaluable support in promoting commu- nication, the explanation of the context and the visibility of the event.

E.D.: Will the Latvian pavilion win a Golden Lion this year?

In the words of Nils Sakss (borrowing from his essay Drusku virs zemes (‘Just Above the Earth’) written especially for the Venice catalogue, about Kaspars Podnieks’ works and the process of their creation) – Kaspars has won the competition.

Translation into English: Uldis Brūns
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