A bird in the hand...
Jānis Borgs, Art Critic
The ABLV Bank Collection for the nascent Contemporary Art Museum
“...for an occurrence to become an adventure...”
20.09.–27.10.2013. Riga Art Space
The rephrasing of this particular popular saying sprang to mind of its own accord while viewing the exhibition of the ABLV Bank Collection at the Riga Art Space. This has been carefully gathered here so that at some time in the distant future it will find a home in the long and painfully yearned-for Contemporary Art Museum. That is to say, one valuable little bird in the form of a compilation of art works has arrived, but the desired birds in the bush, namely, the museum itself, haven’t been noticed in the tree, nor even has the tree itself grown. Although it has been seriously planned, hoped for, and brooded on – like a shimmering vision in the clouds of fantasy.

...but the two in the bush aren’t even here yet

The idea of a Latvian contemporary art museum had been germinating for a long, long time, until it sprouted in the heady days of plenty in 2004. The greatest credit for its nurturing, it seems, belongs to our “Tālava trumpeter” of modern art, the Minister for Culture at the time Helēna Demakova. And once upon a time, at the very bottom of the home page of this institution it was written: “The Latvian Contemporary Art Museum’s mission for the future is to create the opportunity for evaluating the diversity of contemporary art and its dialectic, creating a contemporary art institution of international significance, the collection of which would comprise high class works of art, to be preserved, exhibited and interpreted according to the highest criteria, with the greatest access and in mutually interested dialogue with various groups in society (life-long learning, special and general education school programmes, minority integration projects etc.).”

At that time, nine years ago, the Ministry of Culture and the Riga City Council convened a seminar for international architects, during which a potential site for the museum was determined – in the former Andrejsala TEC building. To promote the advancement of modern cultural ideas, a state agency called “Jaunie “Trīs brāļi”” [The New Three Brothers] was formed, which formulated the specific requirements for this project also. The planning of the museum project from the architectural office of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The world-famous master demonstrated a truly non-Latvian tempo, and the presentation of the project, lauded by everyone, took place as early as 2006. But “life is not a bed of roses”. After such a quick running start, the project dramatically stumbled. This was brought about both by the widely-lamented major financial crisis, as well as all sorts of political convolutions and, moreover, the organizers suddenly realized that the grand plans were significantly constrained by “the state’s disputes and legal proceedings with the owner of the Andrejsala territory”. Ah, but who would have thought! What a laugh, an “unexpected” revelation such as this... And once again one had to recall Laimonis Vāczemnieks’ wise insight from the good old Maestro’s popular little song: “everything comes and goes off into the distance, and starts all over again from the beginning”. And, it seems, for a long time yet we’ll be whining the mournful refrain that “Riga is the only European capital without a contemporary art museum...”. Though that’s not entirely true – there still isn’t one, let’s say, in Kishinev, Tirana and San Marino, and many other places.

Now it is looking increasingly more likely that the new museum “bird” could appear in some completely different place and different “tree”. In the discussions that have started up again, the Triangula Bastion on the banks of the Daugava has been mooted, but the most radical proposition suggested the utilisation of the still existent construction elements of the former Zemgale Bridge, alongside the imposing Railway Bridge. We should remember that the bridge was blown up during the Second World War, and only the old stone supports, which loom from the depths of the Daugava like a string of knocked out teeth, have remained as reminders of its former glory. The idea of placing the museum as a “bridge” on top of these pillars has fired up burning enthusiasm, as this, so it seems, would best correspond with avant-garde art. Such a construction would be unique even at global level, and would greatly add to the quite radical “tsunami wave” of the National Library. A “little family” of architecture, worthy of the centre of a city of culture, would take shape.

The ABLV Bank's million

But all of this “what if” is merely a kind of “astral” background to further, and already quite tangible, joyful developments. Because as the museum issue dies down, in a wave-like way, it reactivates again, like our Imanta, who hasn’t died, but is slumbering... And now we are on a new rise again. A suitable vessel for storing the valuable items hasn’t been found yet, but in the meanwhile a respectable core for the hypothetical museum’s collection of exhibits has already been formed. Here at “fault” is the ABLV Bank’s admirable initiative and determination. Eight years ago, it officially promised (a 2005 cooperation agreement between Latvia’s Ministry of Culture and the Aizkraukles banka, as it was the time) to invest a million lats in the period up to 2016, to promote the creation of a contemporary art and museum foundation. This means, mainly, the purchase of quite concrete works of art. By virtue of the agreement mentioned, the bank became the main sponsor of this project of national, and hopefully also international, significance. The term has already been extended to 2021. This is where, as an observer of the process, a sunny association with another programme emerges from the depths of my memory: “...our generation will live under Communism!” (Some one-and-only party once promised to us all, solemnly and rashly, that this would be the case by 1980). But, commenting in the words of the poet, “it will be forgiven if you couldn’t”.

So, in order to ensure that there would be something to “forgive”, a mixed committee of local and foreign experts, comprising the “mother” of the idea Helēna Demakova, art historians Astrīda Rogule, Ieva Astahovska and Māra Lāce, artist Leonards Laganovskis, Raitis Šmits, the catalyzing force of RIXC Centre for New Media Culture Raitis Šmits, the Chairman of the Board of ABLV Bank Ernests Bernis and others, as well as art historians from neighbouring countries – Raminta Jurenaite (Lithuania), Kumu museum director Sirje Helme (Estonia), Maaretta Jaukkuri (Finland), Norbert Weber (Germany) and Leonid Bazanov (Russia), met quite successfully at a whole 17 meetings over this flow of years. An altogether authoritative team of competent personalities, although in one or another art-related sphere there is bound to be no shortage of different viewpoints and “countergrumblers” regarding the matter. But that’s always the way in these kinds of situations – someone will say that the mafia, a treacherous conspiracy and or even the “sorosists” are behind everything... One way or another, on the advice of this “mafia”, through the generosity of the ABLV Bank and with the participation of the Latvian National Museum of Art, a couple of hundred works by more than thirty artists have been gathered together in a concrete and real collection. An extensive compilation of contemporary art documentation has also been gathered. And the collection in question could be viewed in the basement of Riga Art Space. This exhibition definitely wasn’t a run-of-the-mill cultural event. Rather, it was an account of the resources invested and a vote of faith in the whole contemporary art museum project, firm and definite steps in the long marathon towards the lofty goal.

I should hasten to say that this time in the presentation of the exhibition one could truly feel the presence and effect of the financial support worthy of a large bank. No scrimping. An almost ideal standard of exposition was created, “an absolute exhibition”, about which previously people would have said – “just like abroad”. This applies both to the elegantly perfect and laconic layout of the exhibition, with sophisticated extras (for example, all of the commentary texts on glass tablets!), as well as to the exhibition’s mighty accompanying publication – a catalogue with the title ‘Without walls’, which was commendably created by Laima Slava herself, and her famous Neputns. So to say – Geld spielt keine Rolle, as Bavaria’s Ludwig II once declared while building his Neuschwanstein dream castle. For him, however, the entire romantic undertaking turned into a dramatic national “black hole”, whereas here, the signs of the evident capital investment indicate a true “forces of good” energy and power in promoting Latvia’s culture. And Ernests Bernis, Chairman of the Board of ABLV Bank, wisely stated in the publication mentioned above that “in creating a contemporary art collection, we are helping our contemporaries, the artists, to leave a collective legacy about our times. This, possibly, is the most precise answer to the question: “why are you doing this?”. (..) The sharing of values – that is our most valuable participation in the process of creating community values!”

Nigerian "birds in the bush"

This noble collection and contemporary art museum project made me recall a tragicomic experience in the mid 1990s, when I was still fulfilling the duties of director at the Riga branch of the Soros Contemporary Art Centre. Influenced by the globally triumphant financial achievements of my boss, I let myself get involved in a financial adventure. A quite unbelievable event suddenly left me with a huge pile of money. I was already eyeing up my spot on the magazine Klubs ratings, somewhere between Andris and Aivars. Only, unlike them, I hoped to invest the greater part of my capital not in business, but in the creation of a contemporary art museum and centre, and in this way “to steal the thunder” from Uncle George Soros himself. In my visions I saw something like a mix of Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum, which was built in the shadows of Washington’s Capitol. Here a reminder is apposite, that Joseph Herman Hirshhorn was born in Jelgava in 1899, and like Mark Rothko – Rothkowitz – was, already in his childhood, taken by his wise mother to the New World in America, far away from unsound Europe. There, just like my boss, he became a highly successful financier who could then afford to collect expensive art, and finally, to build a world famous museum for his collection in the very epicentre of the state. Within about ten days, a quite detailed plan for my museum was developed, as well as a programme of activities and a list of contemporary artists from whom I planned to make quick, generous and impressive purchases of works. However, the rejoicing in my great good luck ended just as unexpectedly as it began, because, without even looking for any “birds in the hand”, I’d started “chasing the birds in the bush”. Meanwhile, the sought after “birds” turned out to be a “Nigerian stuffed dummy” and “phoney phantom”. Dreams dissipated like the morning mist, enlightenment came, and I suddenly “fell out of the tree” to return to the ranks of the “ordinary person”, hungover. Luckily, without any losses and with my hide intact. As justification for my great blessed naivety I can, however, mention my associate, a consultant who was departmental chief for a major Riga bank (here I should add that that bank went bust with a bang in the end, though not due to our little transaction), as well as a couple of well-known German businessmen who headed off to Nigeria in the hunt for the “birds” and were properly fleeced. It should be added that Nigerian scams were completely novel here at that time and the belief in “all that is good within a person” still hadn’t been so undermined, which even explains the unbelievable naiveté on the part of the experienced financiers. But my initial statements about the existence of the so-called funds as fact was based on absolute conviction. You are what you believe. But the post-illusion “dry residue” was, and is, tucked away deep in my heart, the Contemporary Art Museum project for which I had planned to contribute precisely ten times the amount of funding (and over a ten times shorter period of time) than the perfectly realistic and constructive ABLV Bank has done today. Because one real million is quite something more than my imagined ten.
Maija Kurševa. Valley of Sorrow. Video installation. Foam plastic, animation. 130x205x66 cm. 2008
Publicity photo
Courtesy of the ABLV Bank
However, I came to this exhibition with a particular interest - to compare my once private fantasies with this already completed, concrete achievement. With perhaps a few exceptions, I certainly didn’t find any great differences in the choice of artists here, of course. Because I regard the existing group of selectors as like-minded people, moving along the only logical path in the right direction. But it pains me – how can it be? Where is Oļegs Tillbergs or Ivars Drulle? And Blumbergs? And how can the Estonians be without Leonhard Lapin and Tõnis Vint? And the artists from Moscow without Francisco Infante or Vyacheslav Koleichuk? However, it is incontrovertibly clear – have patience, patience, as everything has its time.

Following Sartre

The collection exhibited at this stage is sufficiently protected from the sharp barbs of critique, as any objections can be easily deflected with the explanatory information that we are seeing here only the core of the coming museum, something fragmentary, a new formation, which doesn’t claim to be a multifaceted, complete and objective reflection of the state of contemporary art. And it’s not correct to start stomping on newly-sprouting shoots. But certain tendencies and the character of the prospective art centre are appearing quite clearly, however, although only “embryonically”, with broken lines and ellipses. Well, even the wide panoramic view, where in the multi-media “fan” of selecting art works a place will be found for every type and form of art. Also, a clear indication: the museum, alongside the dominant notes of national art, will have a certain international extension, with the focus on treasures created by our regional, nearer neighbours. This means that alongside the works of Latvian artists, contemporary artists from Estonia, Lithuania and Russia (I wonder how it will be with the Belarusians?) will also be represented in the museum. This kind of internationalisation of a new cultural node will definitely raise the value of the museum and its significance, at least at European Union level, if not also in transcontinental dimensions. In any case, “the spark will light up a flame” and a new domino process and chain of consequences will be set off, which can only bring Latvia increasing dividends, both in a direct as well as a symbolic sense. And this could substantially “heat up” contemporary art processes. The museum as a process catalyst, or yeast in the pot of art.

The exhibition was given a title full of meanings: “...for an occurrence to become an adventure...”. This is a derivation from a phrase by the great French thinker Jean Paul Sartre: “for an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it”. And, for emphasis, the masterpiece and deeply philosophical image of Jean Paul Sartre at Nida by outstanding Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus was selected as the exhibition’s “logotype”. A person carrying the burden of existential thoughts in his head, walking in the wide white nothingness and headwind of the desert. The rather audacious selection of such a code, it seems, is exhibition curator Solvita Krese’s greatest achievement, which in many ways also determined the successful outcome of the overall image of the exhibition itself, too. Sartre – like a lighthouse! A reference point as serious and fundamental as this, of course, as if imposed on all exhibition participants the responsibility for an improvement in quality. Noblesse oblige! And only in this way, by raising the bar to the highest level and aiming for the stars, can one hope to achieve exceptional and global success. To rise from the swamp of mediocrity.

We won’t declare that this would mean that many approached the heights of Sartre in this exhibition. Maybe only some. But still – even just a few steps higher... And perhaps it’s been merely the curator’s own idealistic mental construction. Yet also, a powerful driving force. Maybe not to the level of Sartre, but in the “wake” of his spirit... Where, if not quite knowingly, but rather in Krese’s mind, the chosen art highflyers were heading, guided by the framework of the exhibition. From Latvia: Ēriks Apaļais, Jānis Avotiņš, Aigars Bikše, Juris Boiko, Evelīna Deičmane, Andris Eglītis, Gints Gabrāns, Barbara Gaile, Kristaps Ģelzis, Ieva Iltnere, Maija Kurševa, Leonards Laganovskis, Imants Lancmanis, Paulis Liepa, Katrīna Neiburga, Miervaldis Polis, Krišs Salmanis, Alnis Stakle, Aija Zariņa, and among them also photo classics Arnis Balčus, Māra Brašmane, Andrejs Grants and Inta Ruka, plus the immortalizer of Sartre, Lithuanian Antans Sutkus. And, in addition, some (seven in total) regional foreigners: Vigantas Paukste (also from Lithuania), Juri Arrak, Andres Tolts, Kaido Ole (all from Estonia), as well as Dmitry Gutov, Oleg Kulik and the Blue Noses Group (all from Russia). All of the works by these very diverse artistic individuals and personalities were structured into four thematic parts in the exposition: the human being, landscape, the social environment, feelings.

The Russians are coming!

Extracting from the whole exposition “bun” only some of my most fancied “raisins”, initially one could stop at Moscow’s Dmitry Gutov’s hammered metal work, Mother of God from Tihvinsk, from the E’IK’ΩN series. Both physically as well as symbolically, this turned out to be the central object of the exhibition. A tangle of robust metal strips (a metaphor for the “chaos” of modern life and civilisation or – quite the opposite – the pre-civilization condition) suddenly transforms into the iconic image of Mother of God, but only from one angle. A symbol which confirms the attainment of a state of the highest spirituality and understanding. A step to one side or the other, and this optical illusion disappears again, in seemingly disconnected scrambled loops. How fragile and illusory this civilisation has turned out to be! Nothing has been, nothing has happened, everything is just a semblance. It must be admitted that among the many rebuses of contemporary art, something so simple, conceptually concentrated and focussed rarely appears. Such a clear and deep message. And also a challenge, especially in societies where fanatical religiousness is present. There, “blasphemy” awakens blood lust, inquisitions and a desire to "drive out Satan" – as happened last year in relation to the Pussy Riot escapade.

The fury and brute force of Russian avant-garde traditions is also affirmed by a second hooligan-master Oleg Kulik, who has created scandals far and wide around the world. He built up his fame with man-dog biting stunts. Here, in the exhibition of contemporary art, the artist just lightly and in ghostly manner flashes a hint of the beast in a colourful series of photographs Museum of Nature - New Paradise series, with the presence of a bright and romantic humanoid (in the person of Kulik himself) among the idyll of the animal world. There is almost a kind of Darwinian reference to our bestial origins, from which we’ve arisen, as we still have, and where we may, perhaps, once more end up. Not necessarily to straighten out his animalism and “dog” reputation, but also to reaffirm himself as a homo sapiens, Oleg Kulik in the person of a cultivated intellectual presented a few public events in Riga which grew into politically provocative performances, and frightened not just a few virtuous Latvian countrymen – appreciators of beauty.
Ieva Iltnere. Nuclear Model. Oil and charcoal on canvas 190x200 cm. 2004
Publicity photo
Courtesy of the ABLV Bank
The unrelenting ability of Russian contemporary artists to move the ploughshare of art to the deepest furrow, and to upturn the largest sod, elicits respect and even envy. Without particularly seeking to avoid the possible tag of Russophile, a few more words here about the third Russian representation at the exhibition in the shape of the Blue Noses Group. The scandalous work by Vyacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov, Militiamen Kissing, has now ended up at the core of the ABLV Bank collection. The masters of epatage and clownery aren’t reluctant to tread – and even shamelessly jump around – on the toes of official and Putin-patriotic Russia. In this case, we are shown a curious, apparently gay relationship between representatives of the harsh ruling power – necking and kissing in a Levitan-style birch grove, which is one of the Great Fatherland’s sacred symbols (well, for us, too, the dear little birches get interpreted in a sentimentally folksy way). Without even mentioning the disrespectful attitude towards the “structures and organs of power” which is revealed in this kitschy depiction, let us remember that, for a large section of Russian society, gayism arouses boiling rage and fits of hostility. The state, the parties, the nation and the church have all joined in a united front against gay/lesbian and rainbow culture, all sorts of prides and “moral degeneration”. And this here “bluenose” suggestive hint also gets a dramatic reception – with fascistoid reactions and “blame it on the Jews” investigations.

The Letts, who will call for Imanta

In this sort of social “thundering furore” the Balts, and thus Latvian artists, too, are considerably quieter. More well-behaved and also more aesthetically inclined. Is obeying the law an ethnic characteristic? Perhaps this brings us closer to Western Europeans? Ideas that require more airing, research and discussion. But the twenty three fellow countrymen in the exhibition demonstrate a sufficiently broad palette of expression. Let’s mention just a few of these as an example, a one-line sketch. This in no way means that the others are less worthy of such attention...

Behold, Imants Lancmanis – a complete outsider, and one who ignores the avant-garde “mainstream”. It could even seem – an “enemy of this class”. As if he lived in a different era, and had fallen into our “contemporary” milieu with the help of some sort of time machine. In the atmosphere of academic culture, the lightning bolts of animosity could even strike here. But now, precisely because of this continued faith in the traditions of classical art, he is, it seems, one of the most visible. And an inversion takes place: the seemingly orthodox transforms into the avant-garde. His monumental historical pictorial narratives about events in the First World War have a substantial scientific dimension and are imbued with a concentration of information. Similarly as in the art of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, every square centimetre is filled with symbolic images and codes which, like the works of Leonardo, are revealed only to those of equal intellect. Not a single purely decorative element. Pathos and mysticism. Passion and emotional experiences. Very few people can transform this type of traditional and classical painting skill (which could quite easily find its place on the walls of Baroque palaces) in such a purposeful, appropriate and even alchemical way, into the gold of contemporary art and a cultural event.

And another quite regional common feature among our contemporary artists. For many, the contemporaneity of themes is somewhat relative, even without any link to our capitalistic reality. Because many artists in their works, in one form or another, muse over or provide mainly historical evidence about and around Sovietism, and reveal the experience of Soviet times. This has turned out to be so magnetic and “fascinating”, bitter and comical. In Arnis Balčus’ Amnesia series, people move about in the long ago vanished environment of the USSR, which we now observe with the interest of Mars explorers. In Māra Brašmane’s works, too, the “ordinary folk” – as in a black and white classic photo by Vilis Rīdzenieks or Cartier Bresson – live among the throng of the Central Market the very much non-pathetic daily life of an ordinary Soviet person. Andrejs Grants’ “ordinary people’s” lives are also Soviet-like in his photographic survey moving Around Latvia. The Our Country Folk from our Fellini-esque Inta Ruka, who has always been above compare in photographic art, are sort of timeless – coming from neither the early 20th century, nor barely making ends meet somewhere during the “Russian times”, yet can be encountered today as well. Real, still depressing and existing now, without ever having seen any internets or Porsches. The textures of poverty and wrinkles in high relief which so attracts those living in Western prosperity, and causes them to shake themselves delightfully about the compassion of destiny which has allowed such bitter chalices of life to bypass them. The hiccups of totalitarian culture reverberate from Leonards Laganovskis’ visions of paradoxical subjects. The refined scholar of history Imants Lancmanis, in his work The Kalēti Granary III. From the series “The Kalēti Granary”, has awakened his memories of Soviet times with an almost socialrealism-type seriousness. The “romanticism” of Soviet life alongside the images of Sartre is revealed in the masterpieces of Antanas Sutkus.

Clearly – we began to calculate the established chronology of contemporaneity starting with the events following the Second World War. A lot of the many photo-documents were created mainly in the Soviet 1960s–80s. And overall, this trend in the contemporary art collection is and will be for a long time like a kind of specific dominating theme, which makes us significantly different from everything that we find elsewhere in the world. Our historical experience is not just drama and tragedy, or prose and poetry, it is also a unique thing of value and an enrichment which has earned manifold revelations in art.

This “historically documental” flank is proportionately balanced with the achievements of the “aristocrats” of form and metaphor. One of these, always surprising and forever evolving in art but at the same time a personality of integrity, is Ieva Iltnere. Here she has plunged into the world of strange signs, shadows, mist and twilight, and whispered insinuation. Her paintings are covered with a patina of hypnotic secrets, a hyper-refined aesthetic hidden behind some sort of mask of infantilism which constantly nears a mystical and sensitive maximum, a zero point, behind which lies an invisible alter- native reality, a world of refined matter, magical aromas wafting...

Here too, Aija Zariņa, who has known how to dress up her outstanding intellect and talent in a “child’s frock”, and has provoked more than one beauty lover to call out: “My child can do that too!” Kristaps Ģelzis also, who once upset the public with virtuoso installation paradoxes, but now “excites” no less, with “horrible” water colours and their unique development in Gulliver-like dimensions. The rumblings of scandal break forth from Maija Kurševa’s sadistic “scribble” graphic silk-screen prints and “Valley of Sorrow” Pop Art sculptures.

Post-modern marginalism, bastardisation, exaggerated insignificance, backyard revelations and nihilism – a well-worn art path for us as well, which nevertheless tells us a lot about the drama of modern people’s existence, like blood analyses in an AIDS consulting room. In its sweeping diversity, the core of the museum-to-be collection truly shows a cross section of our society, with all of its delights, hopes, problems and disorders...

The exposition was wonderfully enhanced by theatrical shows, performances, and interactive events. For example, an audio-guide doll’s excursion with viewers around the exhibition hall, parodying art critique. Or Acoustic “Fata Morgana” performed by musician Rihards Zaļupe – a soundless piece played on a marimba. The magical act of creation and whirlpool of change in the Dynamic Painting episodes, with the interaction of overhead projectors and water colours projected on the wall and the actors’ pantomime.

The exhibition unfolded like a captivating journey. This again brings to mind the words of Andrejs Pumpurs’ legend: “And the daughters of the Sun will come / And will drive the mist away, / And the voices of the age of light will summon Imanta from his slumber.” And we will have a Contemporary Art Museum.

And yet another PS swarm of thoughts, as I was leaving

Good lord, how time flies! The things about which we once rampaged with fervour have been neatly put into order. Everything now has something like a classical patina, things we’re used to, standing stiffly in museum spaces. Nobody is really maddened by them anymore. Even elderly ladies observe everything serenely and without anger. Yes, it continues to be interesting, seductive, amusing, even exciting. Like looking at an Egyptian mummy? Previously we thought that the avant-garde was like a splinter in the bum, like a fishbone in the throat. Unrest and rebellion. Can it be placed into the “conserve tin” of a museum? Or in a chapel? And what will it be like tomorrow? Avant-garde, contemporary art... Will museums have a place in it all? Perhaps only the street and the crowds, and the murmuring of strangers.

Translator into English: Uldis Brūns
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