|SO BEAUTIFUL IT HURTS. Laura Feldberga |
In the autumn of 2001, I was in Daugavpils, and at the invitation of my publishers, I took part in various official events in the frame of the Days of Poetry, in a hopeless attempt to promote my new novel of that time, "First prize: a trip for two" - about a science fiction writer, a Japanese gay, the insane editor of Rīgas Dzīve ("Riga Life") magazine and ultra-orthodox pagan partisans -
to a bunch of secondary school pupils herded into the museum and music school. This was followed by an evening social event at the theatre, with readings of classic Latvian poetry and songs performed by popular Riga actors. I couldn't fathom why the actors on stage were reading Čaks and really crying. That was on 11 September, and, strolling in an unfamiliar town, of course I hadn't yet heard the news.
The company from Riga went back to the writers' accommodation at Berķenele, switched on the TV and watched the latest reports from New York in a state of heightened emotion, calling up friends and relatives in Riga and abroad. The next morning, across my breakfast plate of pancakes, I noticed Ojārs Feldbergs busy in the ground floor hall next to the kitchen, arranging his stones for exhibition, and along with him a young girl with long, curly hair, who was hanging small prints. Evidently either his daughter or a pupil, I thought to myself. Outside it was raining, while inside the artists were engaged in their gentle and pleasant activities, and all this made such a soothing contrast with the pathos of last night's talk, cheap whiskey, the hysteric singing of a visiting French poetess and the general bewilderment. I soon forgot this episode, just as I forgot the novel of mine that never became a bestseller.
Now, in 2005, I know it was Ojārs Feldbergs' daughter Laura - an artist with an independent and surprising personal style. Laura Feldberga was born in 1975. In 2002, she obtained her master's degree at the Latvian Academy of Art, and since 1995 she has been participating in exhibitions of graphic art, painting and environmental objects, and in creative symposia and workshops in Latvia and abroad, and she works as curator and project manager at Pedvāle Open-Air Art Museum. A Roman Catholic. Together with her fellows at the publishing house Kala raksti, she puts together the monthly Catholic publication Mieram tuvu ("Close to Peace").
THE FIRST SECRET
Large, black vats with white splinters of glass strewn in them - "The Night Sky". A work that caught me unprepared at the 2004 "Autumn" exhibition. There was no trace of eloquent discourse: it was all very simple and laconic, right down to the basics, to the bone. In my view, this is one of the wonders of the contemporary world: how rough, ordinary, worthless materials are transformed by an artist's human touch into an unexpected, precise metaphor for things inexplicable in words, retaining a humble and gratifying sense of mystery. Beautiful and harsh. There's no tendentious propaganda, no wish to ingratiate oneself, no conceit or contrived mental structures. In physical terms, too, there's almost nothing here - two virtually unworked, primitive materials and a title. This is possibly why the work spoke to me - it served as a metaphor, a gateway to personal revelation, rather than simply an object to be marvelled at, described and analysed.
There's no point asking Laura Feldberga whether art has any meaning. She's not the person to fall for this kind of cheap provocation, and she knows her own answer. Doubt is foreign to her, and silly questions won't put her out. Everything she does is connected with art. For her, art is a self-explanatory and satisfying activity, and Laura believes in art. It seems that Laura has answered for herself many questions that I'd even be afraid to ask myself. She's grateful to her parents for the opportunity of being at Pedvāle and working there, and even Laura's sense of time is largely connected with Pedvāle. Thus, she says: "That must have been in the water season" or "That I did in the earth season".
Laura has created many of her works outdoors. Recently, I read that gardening is the oldest occupation, at least according to the Bible: God created Adam and Eve and gave them the Garden of Eden to tend and protect. In a sense, even today, tending a garden might be the most peaceful, most harmless and most highly regarded occupation, and moreover one that is meditative, anti-political and humane. A garden is a metaphor for culture, a promise of salvation, a symbol of harmony, and so forth. While, for Muslims, the desert is the garden of Allah. Broadening the interpretation of this term, we may describe as a garden any carefully tended, maintained, non-violent setting where people play a role. It seems that working outdoors is so beautiful and blessed that it's impossible to relate in words.
At first sight, certain of Laura's works may seem masculine: she uses earth, stones, wood, metal, broken glass and other unworked, primeval, untamed materials. Often, there's a lot of everything, and it's all heavy. At the same time, she imbues her works with a dreamy lightness and emotionality. How is this possible? "These are incompatible things," I say to Laura. "But it's only material! All my works are romantic, based on feelings," she explains. In the course of a conversation, a tingle goes down your spine when you unexpectedly hear one of the small paradoxes of life, and something similar can be experienced when regarding Laura's works: they're simple in terms of their material existence, and emotionally potent, profound and sometimes also touchingly gentle in their essence. Laura, trained as a graphic artist, has also worked a good deal in graphic art. But it's precisely with her environmental objects that she achieves the experience of that "small, quiet wonder" which is impossible to express in words. It may be that Laura has discovered the "golden mean" through the expression of her romantically harsh paradoxes in spatial language. Or in metaphors.
EARTH AND HEAVEN
Laura Feldberga: The earth represents a support for looking upwards. Heaven is the place that the soul comes from and the place it strives to reach, and earth is an aid in reaching it. To raise your eyes and look. To pull yourself upwards. This is the subject of my work "The Bed" at Pedvāle, made last year, when the theme of the season was earth. It was a theme about growing and the force of the earth. It was a work that came from feelings, from thinking about the earth - as if I were lying on the ground on my back, but looking up at the heavens. The earth is what's holding you when you do that, and the bed is that force of the earth, that feeling in which you lie - and look up to the heavens.
Alise Tīfentāle: Beautiful! But it's something of a mystery to me how you arrive at such an idea. How does it happen that you go and see this empty plot of land and decide - here I'll have an object precisely this high and this wide?
L.F.: As regards this particular work, I just saw it in front of my eyes - it just had to be that way. That's the best way - when the idea's so powerful that you simply see the work in its finished form. Then I knew I needed a large area with open sky around and the earth very horizontal, without relief, and it was only a matter of finding the right place. It can also be exactly the other way round - when I sense there's a place I can do something in. Thus it was, for example, with the work "With the Birds": the viewer has to climb onto it, stand at the very end and look: it gives you the feeling that you're higher than the rest of the landscape, and the birds seem to be flying below. This work was created during the air season at Pedvāle.
This year, the work "Horizons" was on display at the Nordic Information Centre. After that, I was invited to hold an exhibition in Copenhagen. There's sand, clay, gravel, stone and glass. Walking in the landscape, you chance to approach something and move away from something else. Thus, when you climb hills, they're initially higher than you, and when you climb up, then you're higher than the hills, and the horizons are continually changing.
A.T.: And how did "Night Sky" come about?
L.F.: This, too, is a work that arrived and presented itself in front of my eyes in finished form. It came from my feelings, because I really enjoy watching the sky at night. There's the idea that you're looking up at the sky, but in fact the sky is also under your feet, on the other side of the globe. Looking deep down is the same as looking up - it's the possibility of gazing into endlessness. The glass gives a somewhat painful feeling: glass can give the impression that something is so beautiful it hurts.
I also created a work on the subject of the sky for an exhibition in Tallinn [the "N" exhibition in Tallinn City Gallery in 2003 - A.T.] - a curtain sewn from plumber's pipes. A night sky that you can enter. You can go inside the night, and it closes behind you. This is an observation from nature: living on the left bank of the Daugava, I always have to cross the bridge, and at night people walking across the bridge seem to vanish into the city lights. The work turned out to be dreadfully heavy - it looks quite light, but passing through it is actually not very pleasant, since you can feel the weight.
A.T.: Would you yourself call this work, too, a romantic one?
L.F.: I don't know whether you can actually call it romance, but most of my works come about when I stop and look up - and see the starry sky. And that's why I have so many works on the subject of the sky and stars. These are the moments when a person understands that they're longing, waiting for something...
A.T.: You talk of romance, and all the while you're nailing planks and rolling barrels. For me, the word "romance" has associations more with pale moonlight and black lace...
L.F.: But it's only a material! Any material can give rise to a great variety of emotions. Stone, iron or any other material contains within itself all kinds of feelings. It all depends on what use you make of the material.
L.F.: People are the ones experiencing feelings. Those who experience everything. Man is not the commander or fighter. People can only go, look and submit. They take from nature and from everything around themselves, accumulate it within themselves and then set it out again. My faith has taught me that human physical expression is actually very limited when compared with the spiritual life that is constantly taking place within people - which is limitless.
It's important for me that people should participate in a work of art - climbing on it, swinging and so forth. Without people, a work of art cannot occur at all. Just recently, I experienced a special case of this kind at my exhibition in Copenhagen [Laura Feldberga's solo exhibition "Dust and Light" in Copenhagen, at the Nordic Council of Ministers' Gallery on 1-30 September - A.T.], where I also used sawdust. I've come to like the material, because it creates a special atmosphere by its aroma, and on the day of the opening I found out that a member of the gallery staff is allergic to sawdust. So I had to take it away.
The Copenhagen exhibition was also a big challenge: I went there with nothing at all, and in the space of a week I had to create something. I was in a glass factory, where I saw great, bright mountains of glass: white, light green and dark green, and I was allowed to collect bucketfuls for my work. But what remained there was so beautiful!
Preserved in photographs is one of my works in Pedvāle: "The Young Poetess's Room", dedicated to Gertrud von den Brincken. She's a German poetess who spent her childhood at Briņķpedvāle Manor and left together with her family when she was only 12. Later, in Germany, she became a poetess, and during her whole life she wrote poetry only on the subject of Briņķpedvāle. Evidently, she'd taken the place with her in her heart. Since I've spent a great deal of time here, I've imagined how Gertrud must have walked here as a young girl, and in my work I portrayed a notion of the poetry that she was to write in the future. Dad made a memorial to her - a stone heart split in two: on one side are lines of her poetry in German, and on the other side in Latvian.
A.T.: I have to pose the inevitable question about the degree to which your artistic thinking has been affected by your parents, since they themselves are artists.
L.F.: Art came very naturally. In my childhood, drawing was practically the only thing I was engaged in. I'm a typical artists' child, graduated from the Rozentāls School and then the academy, but my time at school and at the academy was a great struggle for me, because the fact that your parents are artists doesn't help you at all. You still have to find your art for yourself, completely from scratch, and nobody can help with that. It's a big struggle to create your own works, to attain your own feeling. When I was studying graphic art, it was very hard for me to find the most precise way of expressing something through my works. All the time, there was the feeling that the thoughts or emotions are much greater than the restricted area. They would not fit into the format of prints, and then the revelation came that this is much easier to do spatially. It's possible to express much more precisely what I think and feel, to pass it on much more completely to the viewer.
I came to understand that this had happened only because I'd the opportunity to spend all my time in an art setting and in Pedvāle, where I've taken part in all the art events, even the dance workshop. I've had the privilege of not leaving the art setting. I began to create environmental objects only thanks to Pedvāle. Only in Pedvāle, watching how other artists worked and contemplating this, I came to feel that I had to try it for myself.
A.T.: Isn't there a kind of healthy competition within a family of artists?
L.F.: Actually, there's mutual support. My Mum, Teiksma, was educated as a painter, but for many years now she hasn't been painting, and instead has been involved with Pedvāle. Dad and I are creative types, with ideas, and Mum is the person who can put it all together, preserve order in the archives and do things that Dad and I wouldn't have the patience for. Dad has greatly supported me. Of course, art comes first in our family, and whichever one of us has an idea or an exhibition at some particular time will be helped by all the rest, and that, too, happens as a matter of course. That's a wonderful and very beautiful opportunity - to work together with a dad who's an artist at Pedvāle - to become acquainted with one's parents not only as parents: they also become people together with whom you do something, and you develop a very different kind of relationship. It hasn't been easy to develop from a child into a colleague and accept that Dad is not only Dad, but also a fellow artist.
When I was writing about art and artists [in Literatüra un Māksla Latvijā, a supplement to the newspaper Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze in 2002-2003 - A.T.], I completely lost any sense of artistic envy concerning really good works created by other artists. I learned to get a feel for other artists' works, to enter into them. I still can't cease being surprised at where works of art come from, how they unfold from an initial state of non-existence, and, since I myself am pondering on this, I ask other artists about it, too. These conversations freed me, and I came to understand that there was nothing wrong with the process of "unfolding" of my own works. Then I noticed that artists in Latvia don't actually discuss art in private conversation. It's simply not the done thing. I was very surprised when I became acquainted with Estonian artists: they talk about art all the time, and not ironically, but seriously. They strive to establish the basic truths. Neither do the Estonians separate people from their art. They don't say: "Well, he's a good person, but his art is no good at all." A person is the same as their art.
L.F.: What is a garden? Coming to my mind first is my garden at Briņķpedvāle, which is actually all one big jungle, rather than a real garden. A very creative place, where I can think easily. All growing and developing. An unordered place, where anything can happen and emerge. When we came to Pedvāle, it was all overgrown, and somewhere behind the jungle and the brush was the house. Gradually, while we lived here, when the paths and some areas around were cleaned, the manor garden appeared, one small area after another. I never knew what I'd find that day. The ideal garden is something I don't really know. Something here is waiting for me. I can enter it and do something, and then I'll be surprised.
And, yes, my first environmental work was called "The Rose Garden" and was located on a site near Briņķpedvāle Manor, where there'd once actually been a rose garden. Formerly, there was a visitor trail here: they had to climb a very high hill, and when you climb to the top, you feel you have to sit down. The view is very beautiful. The work was created with the idea that you can sit here, eat your sandwiches and have a drink from the thermos, sitting at the top of the hill and regarding the landscape.
This summer, Dad and I took part in a symposium organised in Helsinki by Finnish artists. A work was created in a park in the centre of Helsinki. It's not really a park, rather a kind of rocky forest in the city centre. The work was called "A Sunny Afternoon". It consists of sawdust - lines of sawdust forming a pattern of light, like a sunlit area on the dark grey rock. I poured out the sawdust over a fairly large area, and it wasn't even possible to photograph it all in one picture.
There was another work with sawdust. It's connected with a very beautiful story about how I travelled to northern Sweden last autumn. Right at the border with Norway, high up in the mountains, in the village of Saxnäs, there's a centre for artists' residencies. There are virtually no people here, just the northern lights and reindeer. During the first days, there was no snow yet, and I created drawings out of sawdust in all these forests. I couldn't actually finish the last work, because it started snowing... This work survives only in photos: it was snowed under, and nobody actually saw it.
A.T.: So you travelled to the north, where you had a mountain before you, and then? How do you manage to do something on such a grand and immense scale without planning it beforehand?
L.F.: I'd brought some canvases, with the idea that I'd paint mountain landscapes on my own, but the natural setting, the beauty, the power and the wildness of it were so powerful and inspiring that I sought a way of doing something in the environment, too. It's clear that, in such a short time, it's not possible to create anything serious, and then I found a pile of sawdust and used it to create drawings on the rocks.
L.F.: For my graduation from the academy, I created a silkscreen as my diploma work, on the subject of sound waves. This was followed by the work "Sound Waves" at Pedvāle. It represents a wave of sound, rather than water, although the wave is an identical theme in relation to both sound and water.
A.T.: How did you think of creating a work of art about sound waves? Things like that are, after all, associated with something opposed to art - technology, science and radio hams?
L.F.: For a time, I was carried away with physics. Not with physics as such, because I don't understand it, but I liked reading about the stars. Maybe it sounds romantic - this idea of perceiving physics. I did understand that it all describes how the world is constructed. And as an artist, I too have to create such a construction. Be it emotion or thought, I have to know how to place it within the grand scheme. At that time, I was most intrigued by sound in particular. I studied what it looks like and how sound waves develop. When I finished the work, my interest came to an end, but some kind of impression remains.
I consider that every artist has a limited number of ideas, their favourite themes, which for some reason they cannot set aside. Fortunately, the realisation of a single idea in art can appear in very different ways. At times, it seems my own theme is clear to me. There are feelings that never leave a person's life. One of the things that's always surprised people is the experience of looking at the sky. As time goes by and experience is gained, it seems to me that I can show this feeling more and more precisely in my work. My works have little or no philosophical or conceptual content. They're works of pure feeling. What I strive to do, and what I sense I have to do, is to make the viewer experience each work. I very much wish to provoke this feeling. I want feelings, emotions or experience to be reduced to a simple geometric form, to a formula - and when this single formula has been obtained, then it can grow again into something broader, and this has to occur inside the viewer's head. It must all come down to a basic formula and then be developed again.
A.T.: Does this principle work in real life, too, or does it apply only to art?
L.F.: It may happen in real life, but our imagined basic formulae never work. However, they certainly do in art. Since art cannot literally copy life, art is always a search for formulae. In any art form, be it music, film or visual art, there's always a search for a formula, and when that's been found, it goes to work on the viewer. Real life is an endless source for art. Or else it is art - but that's putting it too simply. Of course, God is the basic formula, but this has very diverse expressions.
For example, when a person has just found faith, it's as if they're in love, overcome with it. You have the feeling that you have to paint the Mother of God. And, if you do this and nothing works, it all falls apart and there's nothing you can express, then you come to understand that you can do something entirely different: you can paint stars, the sea or a tractor, expressing in these things just as fully your feelings about God, the world and other people.
A.T.: How did you as a young artist arrive at an interest in physics?
L.F.: The only subject I failed in my school exams was physics. I simply didn't understand anything. Later, at some point, I started to understand what physics is about and that physics is actually the world's most important science, the main science, explaining the whole structure of the world. I started reading books, and even went back to my school textbooks, because I'd suddenly grasped what physics actually is. I still don't comprehend anything, but I never cease to be surprised by the things you can sense from time to time. How the world is built, how our activities occur only on the top layer, although we're involved in the whole structure. By discovering how it works, you can reveal a whole immense new world... Physics is not actually a dry science, it's the whole world. This went together with studies on music, because music is also explicable in physical terms, only in a different form. I sang in a choir, and through singing I had the opportunity to experience music and study how it works from the inside, to understand its structure. I studied what sound waves might look like. Our emotions are similar, acting like waves: something happens to me and then the wave spreads, reaching other people. A work of art works the same way: it's like the source of a wave. The wave spreads in all directions and provokes other phenomena.
I was carried away with Baroque music in particular. My route to it was actually somewhat fortuitous: my brother Kārlis is very much involved in music, and so I listened to Baroque music and sensed that it has inner geometry. I was surprised at what an emotional impression can be achieved through very precise geometric structure. I had the idea that if something is emotional, then it has to be somewhat blurred and expressionistic, with something splashed onto it. But if the real formula is discovered, then it has a much more powerful emotional effect than an expressive splash.
A.T.: You've spent a lot of time in the Nordic countries, and done a great deal of work there. Do you feel yourself a northerner?
L.F.: In the north, I feel free. It seems I understand the space, the nature, the landscape, the materials that can be used there. Wherever you end up, you have to get a feel for the place and make use of all the benefits offered by that place. That'd be a dream or a wonder - to work someday in a desert, in the mountains or in some other unfamiliar setting. I'd be very fortunate.
A.T.: Nature is self-sufficient, it's perfect. What can people do in nature - put it in order, embellish it, what else?
L.F.: An artist can interpret, enhancing the feelings that arise when you regard a landscape, enhance and bring out nuances and special moments, create a surprise or bring to the fore that which is not so readily noticeable. Through my works, I strive to place signs in the landscape - signs for feelings, emotions and thoughts, in such a way that from this work the viewer can reconstruct that original feeling... Displaying works of art in an exhibition room is much more gratifying, because nature very quickly consumes any object. Nature is stronger than people's works. However immense a work, it can only ever occupy a minute fraction of the landscape.
It's sad to see your work growing old and falling apart, and then having to take it down... With paintings, for example, this happens much less commonly. Only for a short time are works in a landscape the way they were intended, and then the process of collapse begins. That same work made of sawdust in a park in Helsinki: I know that by now it's already merged with the landscape, that there are fungi growing through it, that the hares have trampled it. There's beauty in that, too. And it means that something new has to come in its place!
A.T.: Do you have any work that's been created for eternity, or at least for several generations?
L.F.: It's theoretically possible to preserve shelves or barrels, but not when they're out in the landscape. "The bed" might remain in existence the longest in physical terms, but even this consists of bare masonry, which will collapse after some time. It's possible that the feelings the work creates in a viewer or in me will last longer. The preservation of momentary feelings, albeit for a short time, is what all my works are about.
A.T.: Do you describe your works as contemporary art?
L.F.: I think they are contemporary, because I'm seeking new approaches, I'm thinking about the present age and the people of this age, and using things used by contemporary people. It's about the present. The feelings are transcendental, but the materials relate more to the people of today. I'd like the works to tell of the age we live in.
A.T.: At the same time, you also use many "eternal", primitive materials. How does that tie up with the contemporariness you talk about? For example, couldn't your "Bed" have been created 2000 years ago?
L.F.: In terms of form, it would certainly have been entirely different. But motifs from ancient cultures are continually returning to our own life, even though we nowadays understand them quite differently. It all lives within us. At history museums, looking at ancient collections, you come to appreciate that the objects continue to live a life of their own. So, for me as an artist, it's hard to make a distinction between contemporary and ancient art. In my view, there's just art.