Krišs Salmanis

Maija Kurševa. My Friday. 2008. Installation, video.
Despite her youth, Kurševa is one of the most outstand­ing artists in Riga. In her case the adjective may be used in both its customary and literal meanings, which comple­ment each other. Kurševa stands out as vividly as her works. Bright colours and provocative details in a sauce of con­tempora­ry wit: this description fits the fruits of Maija's varied artistic labours - graphic art, drawings, sculpture, objects and performances - and is equally true of the artist herself. Žanis, the green street art antihero, will have been noticed by any Rigan who does not walk the streets of our city with their eyes closed. And many a fellow denizen pro­bably also wishes they hadn't noticed one of the many creatures who address the passers-by from building walls with friendly shouts along the lines of "Piss off, piss off!"

This summer Kurševa received her MFA degree from the Visual Communication Department of the Latvian Academy of Art, graduating with the installation "Mana piektdiena" (My Friday), which was accompanied by a theoretical paper on alcoholism and its depiction in art.

Krišs Salmanis: How's your Friday?

Maija Kurševa: Within reason, I think. But today I'm feeling a bit blah. You know what, though? I have to dash off an e-mail.

She puts on some Erik Satie and leaves. I look around the workshop. It looks alright, her works are dotted all around, there are books, mugs and bottles. She shares the studio with Armands Zelčs, but he hasn't been around as much since she moved into it. She says they hit it off well, because Armands is a direct and easy to understand person. A moment later Maija returns - the neighbours are out and the e-mail could not be sent.

K.S.: What did you do in France?

M.K.: There was a street theatre festival there. It was in a town called Aurillac, which, obviously, nobody knows any­thing about. Look, here I have all kinds of pictures from there - tra-la-la. The festival has been going for some twenty years, it is quite well-known apparently. And this year they had the First Nomadic University with people com­ing from all over Europe. Haven't I told you already? Represent­atives who have something to do with art in the public space, most­­ly street theatre managers and per­form­ers. Only two of those were artists - I and a guy from Romania. It was like, there is no street theatre in Latvia, but as I have done the set for Umka and have a vague connection to the outdoors, the New Theatre Institute sent me. But for me it was such a cool treat! Filled with all kinds of freakiness, with fantastic perfor­mances and circus. It was terribly, terribly cool, very well or­ganised. We travelled around pretty little villages for three days, everyone had to tell something about their country and what was going on there. I think I failed miserably. Just like now - I got flustered, lost my tongue, I couldn't speak at all.

K.S.: That does not sound right, you're never short of things to say. But do artists have to talk at all?

M.K.: Of course they do. Or someone else has to do the talking for you.

K.S.: I always worry that to an outsider an artist speaking might sound as silly as athletes when they're interviewed after a game. They'll be asked something and they'll always say the same thing: "The outcome is good, but I could have done better. The second set was difficult, but I rallied. I am happy with the result."

M.K.: Sports is funny, though. Incomprehensible. Further, stronger, higher?

K.S.: I sometimes think it's time to stop giving sports any serious financing, because it is the people from the arts - opera singers, musicians - who have made it further into the world than the athletes. Let them give all the money to artists.

M.K.: Yeah! I'd say thanks.

K.S.: You've spent quite a lot of time abroad, you studied in Berlin, you take part in exhibitions.

M.K.: Yes, this year I've gone to a lot of places. Flensburg, Moscow, Berlin, now France, and in a week's time I'm going to Brussels with that drunkard Žanis. And then to Berlin again - to the ZEBRA Poetry Festival. They'll be showing my animations that I did for them last year.

K.S.: Is there any sense in all this travelling?

M.K.: Of course there is. For example, the France trip was a good wakeup kick for me. I met people who do their thing at full throttle; now I am thinking about what I am doing and what I should do. I thought that I needed to be like that, too. That I would do everything at full tilt. I'll think about this, and go see that, and do this other thing for good measure. And then I came home and all of that just vanished. I don't know why.

K.S.: What's the problem? You are not stuck in a paid job, you do a lot of creative work.

M.K.: Oh, Krišs, I don't know. I've decided I need to go live in Berlin a little. To sell my last painting and do some thinking. To read some books, see some exhibitions. To think and make up my mind. And then to come back and do it.

K.S.: But why do you have to go to Berlin, why can't you do that here?

M.K.: First of all, because you get fresh emotions if you change your environment. Secondly, there are things go­ing on there. Things to see. And all that is happening there comes easily, with joie de vivre. Many obstacles simply fall away, you don't know a lot of it, don't hear the spam, and it cannot affect you. I love all that trash, everybody's keep­ing busy and there's no glamour, no showing off. Here it all seems laboured. Something like this: hhhrhhhkkkhhh... It is alright, but one does need some fresh air.

Maija Kurševa. Root of Evil. 2007. Installation
K.S.: I recall you mentioning German tutors and comic artists who left a permanent impression. What has been your deepest influence?

M.K.: The people I met. The fact that I made it to Berlin University of the Arts was pure luck. Back when I started studying at our Academy I was your regular dweeb. In my second year I unexpectedly got to go to Berlin. I had just broken up with a boyfriend who was much too much into drugs. The rest of my friends at the time also somehow slipp­ed away. I was all alone, and in Berlin I met two guys from Hungary and Holland, and also Tālis and Džimijs. We had a cool little group going. So the professors were not all that important any more, the university was just a stepping stone. It was then that I started drawing in this manner. The Hungarian guy was always lecturing me, telling me off for procrastination and making me draw. He was an exchange student himself, but he set me tasks. We drank, fought, went clubbing, and I drew.


In her MFA thesis Maija writes: "I always carried a sketch pad in which I drew various everyday situations, fragments of friends' and strangers' conversations, and my own mus­ings. These sketchbooks and drawing without any definite purpose are a good way to train your hand and your mind, and such activities are aptly described in a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle (although it refers to speak­ing, not drawing, some reasonable parallels may be drawn between these things): ‘People have to [..] keep their voice boxes in working order, so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say.'"


K.S.: Do you need external pressure in order to do something? You probably do your sketchbook drawing without any coercion?

M.K.: That sketchbook thing is weird, actually. For whom am I drawing? A case of "Dear Diary"? Right now I'm think­ing I could make a travelling exhibition out of these draw­ings. Tack it to one wall today, another wall tomorrow. Ex­cept that they are each by themselves, I have to find a way to link them together. But I'm crazy about that sketchbook.

K.S.: That is a very good reason for doing something. Does there have to be another one?

M.K.: Yes. Otherwise you can do stuff in your room, for your own amusement. If you want to show something to somebody else, it implies a certain amount of responsibility. But I am in no way bellyaching over the questionOh, why am I doing this at all; maybe I should pack it all in? That's just the way it has turned out. And, do you know where the breaking point was? When my old man decided he want­ed to be a farmer, my parents bought some land. Ho-­ho-ho. We, small children that we were, were made to do an awful lot of hard work, and I ruined my back. My sister was al­ready attending Eleja Secondary School in the neighbouring country district, a horrible country school with both Russian and Latvian languages of tuition. I would have had to take the same path. But what would have come of it... well, I don't know. Anyway, I was sent to a boarding school in Jelgava, where my back was treated. It is there that I started to draw, because I was so terribly lonely. And then I knew I wanted to go to the Academy. Why visual communication in particular, I do not know. I guess it seemed trendy.

K.S.: Do your creatures hail from Jelgava?

M.K.: No, my drawings were very different there. Trees without leaves, eyes - teenager stuff.

K.S.: Do you still have those drawings?

M.K.: Not from that era, but I do have the ones I did at the crafts school. I did a lot of drawing and wrote all kinds of horrific poetry there.

Maija Kurševa. Valley of Trouble. 2008. Object, animation, drawings.
K.S.: What do you like to read?

M.K.: Not poetry. But my favourite poet is Žebers.

And this is an absolute hit. Daniil Kharms. Succinct, absurd, great. Much better in Russian, of course. Samuel Beckett's Murphy is way out there. You read and you have to laugh, but at the same time there are such brainteasers in there! I can lend it to you if you want. It's all about losers.

K.S.: Excellent, that's just perfect, thanks.

M.K.: I have started to read again. I'll never again get involved with a man who doesn't read books. Not seriously, in any case.

K.S.: You use many different techniques in your work - you've done paintings, prints, videos, installations. What would you never do?

M.K.: I'd never work as a salesperson in a shop.

K.S.: But what do you live on?

M.K.: I do some little gigs. I did the cover for the Poetry Days disc. Once I had to do a poster for a music club. I did it, but then of course I was told that this messed-up image of Elvis didn't really look right, and some other bits should be changed... Well fuck it, I'm not gonna do it then! It's a total ordeal. Sometimes my friends help me out, and the Culture Capital Foundation. I could, of course, marry a rich suitor from the higher shelves, but I'm more interested in the naughtier kind of boy.

Not long ago I got a little concertina, I had a whack at playing it on Thursday at the exhibition opening. We got drunk and then we just had to walk down the street with that concertina and we couldn't part. Then I was given twenty lats to make me go away. So I did, I went to a club in Old Riga and drank all that money away.

I haven't paid for the studio in who knows how many months.

And I'm not all that diligent about making pictures, so there's nothing to sell.

K.S.: You do street art, non-commercial works that criticise the consumer culture, but at the same time you also participate in exhibitions representing our country, you have worked in graphic design for big manufacturers and designed an exclusive wallpaper collection. How do all these things mesh?

M.K.: They coexist in the same way that beggars and bankers coexist in a city. There are many things that seem incompatible, but they do exist side by side. It is great to go walking somewhere in the middle of the night and glue things on walls. Many people may not like the result, but the event itself is good. I have no unshakeable convictions or attitudes. My situation is full of doubt.

That crazy classification, street art versus commerce. My works are not critical of the consumer society - rather, they are funny. They are not intellectual enough to make some­one stand in front of them at an art gallery and think for hours, and then go home and... Anyone can view them. No need for any knowledge of art history.

K.S.: You mentioned that crazy classification. Do you think it still exists? Street art versus gallery art, "high" and "low" art?

M.K.: I think it does. You think it doesn't? Oh yes, right, Warhol mixed it all up. Find five differences between these pictures: either you leave your work of art in the city and all you can get back is disciplinary penalty or a fine, or the state gives you money so you can put one of your ideas to use and display it at an art gallery.

K.S.: The average person probably does not spend much time looking at your creatures on the walls in the city. But you're quite good at merging these aspects together, adapting street works for exhibition halls, creating interplay.

M.K.: Sometimes I fear I may be starting to speculate in this. I don't really spend all that much time in the streets.

K.S.: But that's the image people have of you.

M.K.: Sometimes I feel very uncomfortable about it. Perhaps the main thing is that I'm interested in this, that I read and I look at pictures. That I'm interested in anything at all! The merging of different fields is a normal process of development. Both for images and for thought. Indoor spaces have many technical and practical advantages.

K.S.: Do you work continuously, or just with particular projects in mind?

M.K.: Both. I can keep doing all that nonsense all the time, but sometimes an exhibition will be coming up, and there'll be a particular date when things have to be ready. And then that's the way I do it - like a task. If that Ojārs [Ojārs Pētersons - K.S.] wouldn't tighten the stranglehold, there probably wouldn't be anything to show. What I like, and also hate, about him is the fact that he never lets you get too smug. There, aren't I the clever artist now. He puts you down all the time! But that's a bit masochistic of me. Yes, Ojārs is a true phenomenon. At times I wish I were a bit smarter and settled on one particular thing to work on. But - no joy, I can't. So I just have to do what I'm good at.
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