The international contemporary art exhibition "The Dream Island" was shown at the Noass Gallery from 2 June to 25 September. Represented were: Bill Viola, Jenny Holzer, João Penalva, Alicia Framis, Laura Kikauka, Ene-Liis Semper, Jaan Toomik, Kaido Ole, Marko Maetamm, Arunas Gudaitis, Egle Rakauskaite, Ilmārs Blumbergs, Ēriks Božis, Monika Pormale and Kristaps Epners.
An educational programme providing the opportunity in the space of a couple of hours to learn the crucial things about contemporary art - that would be a brief definition of "The Dream Island". In spite of the romantic, otherworldly title, the viewer attending this basic course does not by any means end up in some dreamt-of wonderland or sphere of fantastic inventions. As is often the case in contemporary art, close contact is perceptible with real life, and vivisection of the soul of the artists themselves is one of the main sources of inspiration. However, dreams, of course, are present in real life, and the title of the exhibition confirms that the event has been dreamt up by the promising and motivated curator Andris Brinkmanis (who organised the "Adaptation" exhibition of new Latvian art in Tallinn in 2003). To show Latvia the best of contemporary art: this might be a generalisation of the curator's aim, and he has succeeded in this venture, much better even than a couple of generously financed, internationally organised "major" projects with whole organising committees and brigades scattered throughout the world. Perhaps this is why the result is so commendable and serious: because one person, rather than a plethora of bureaucratic organisations, has taken on the main responsibility for "The Dream Island". Perhaps it is simply a matter of good luck and the fact that the surrounding local vacuum of experience of contemporary art makes all the reviewers and enthusiasts go into raptures at the chrestomathy of contemporary art put together by Andris Brinkmanis. But in any case, "The Dream Island", even after it has closed, remains as a good example for its potential successors.
The curator's collaboration with artist Ilmārs Blumbergs, who installed "The Dream Island" seems to me to have been a success mainly because, quite surprisingly, the meaning, "story" and essence of each particular work have not been lost. Curator-made exhibitions around the world are famous for utilising the artists' works for illustrating some imagined introductory text. That's not the case here. There's no demagogical introduction, no joint position that needs to be forcibly applied in reading each particular work. The viewer is taken to the "island" and has available only that which he or she sees there. As well as information about the "orders" or "medals" that virtually every author of the works here has received: information about the participation of almost all the authors in very prestigious international art projects serves as a self-explanatory mark of quality and essentially precludes the possibility of criticism of the content. Likewise, for example, it is doubtful whether the compiler of yet another version of the textbook of "contemporary Latvian literature for 8th grade" can expect disputes among literary critics about the value of the excerpts from classic works included in the volume. At most, one can discuss the choice of the authors and their works, and in my view this also applies to "The Dream Island".
Lithuanian artist Egle Rakauskaite represented her country at the 48th Venice Biennale. Shown in "The Dream Island" is her most recent work, partly created here on the spot: the video and photo series "Year of the Monkey", which, in my view, is quite a silly reflection on the idea that humans do after all somewhat resemble monkeys. She has produced better work.
The master of discretion and delicate irony Ēriks Božis presents five photo posters that were displayed for many years for promotional and motivation purposes in the corridors of Riga Film Studio, calling them "The Film Studio of Riga Presents...".
Estonian artist Ene-Liis Semper is also well known in the international context, having represented her country at the 49th Venice Biennale. Seen at the Noass Gallery was her video "Into New Home": comparatively harmless and even boring to those familiar with the characteristic features of Semper's individual approach. The author has come to attention with her provocative and even shocking video performances, which have a "physiological" slant (the mildest example, not so easily forgotten, being one where the artist pours sand into her mouth and plants a flower there). She has produced better work than that shown here.
Spanish artist Alicia Framis is also internationally known, having taken part in the Berlin Biennial in 2002 and other prestigious events. Shown here was her video "The Secret Strike": a variety of everyday settings filmed in the urbanised Japanese milieu, where the participants are frozen in action, thus "creating disharmony with the dynamic setting of the city that surrounds them", as described in the text. Frozen for some seconds is a laundry attendant, a dishwasher, a group of young people smoking on the street, a group of people crossing the road, etc. In truth, this visual technique from early-nineties big budget video clips for pop music rapidly entered cult action films - "Matrix" foremost among them - and now elicits regret and perhaps a little compassion, since the conscientious and trembling schoolgirl shots do testify to an overpowering wish to put across a message.
John Smith is a mystification by two Estonian artists, Kaido Ole and Marko Maetamm, represented Estonia at the 50th Venice Biennale. A small corner of John Smith's life could be seen in "The Dream Island" as well.
American artist Jenny Holzer represented her country at the 44th Venice Biennale. She may be regarded as one of the mothers of contemporary art, since her works are known already from the seventies, when Holzer exhibited in the form of sliding projections works from the series "Truisms" in various urban settings. A very simply and even primitively constructed work, but precise, effective and direct: a verbal attack on the stable and self-satisfied identity of members of consumer society. Her truisms are in a way true, but at the same time empty and slogan-like assertions of the kind that in reality fill a great section of the mass media. These create a kind of system of concepts of the contemporary urban cosmopolite and, when abstracted from life, give rise to indignation at this absurd superstition, obscurantism and ignorance, equivalent to our reaction to the conviction of a medieval peasant as to why the beautiful woman next door is a witch and should be reported so she might be burned. Assertions such as "Being happy is more important than anything else", "Children are the hope of the future", "Keep something in reserve for emergencies", "It's not good to operate on credit", "Money creates taste", etc., are arranged in alphabetical order on a large poster, the application of these being shown only on video.
Similar in terms of effect - verbal and direct - was Monika Pormale's work - the phrase "Give me fresh air, let me breathe! There is no air", created of letters in the top floor windows of the Soviet-era office block opposite Noass, right next to the Radisson SAS Hotel. In just the same manner as one would create in an urban setting the sign "For sale. Tel. xxxxxxx".
Working seriously and with existential masochism is Ilmārs Blumbergs. His collage of photographs and texts entitled "People don't Change, They Die" is yet another revelation which would be very inadequately perceived and experienced by the kind of passing, careless glance that usually suffices to take in the average work of contemporary art. And in fact it's not "contemporary art": this is one of those works by Blumbergs that could be displayed in some temple of self-cleansing as an object of meditation.
Useful for contrast was the video "Tree of Wisdom" by Lithuanian artist Arunas Gudaitis: a still camera has recorded a conversation between two girls on a park bench. The comment explains that we are watching a girl from Ukraine practicing English with a girl from Taiwan in a park in Vienna. Of course, the characteristic desire in a multicultural setting to gain access to "higher" culture brings a smile, as does the two girls' diligence, striving with exaggerated seriousness to exchange official views, for example on how tourism differs from travel, but that's about all there is to it.
What did "The Dream Island" ask? To me at least it posed, yet again, the question of whether a work of contemporary art is possible at all that would be more or less adequately comprehensible without its accompanying text. The usual model of behaviour at a contemporary art exhibition is as follows: to read with a furrowed brow the A4 page of text and then throw a passing glance at the work itself: "Oh, that's what it looks like. All right. Let's move on". One of the exceptions in this regard was the hour-long video "The Passing" (1991) by American artist Bill Viola, regarded as a living classic, and likewise the work "Camp Insomnia" by Latvian-Canadian artist Laura Kikauka, who lives in Berlin. Whether this is good and proper, whether this possibility of uncommented perception is at all permissible in contemporary art, is a question that should be addressed to the specialists. I at least, as an interested viewer, am simply happy gladdened by this possibility.
So, what did "The Dream Island" have to say? In the first place, there's no need to go to Venice. The works shown over there can be seen right here, just across the Daugava. Secondly, if an artist has been entrusted with representing his or her country at the Venice Biennale, for example, then he or she must be a good artist. Thirdly, the secret of good art often lies in the popularity of the artist's name, rather than in the work itself. Fourthly, it's no secret to anyone that virtually all contemporary art exhibitions in all cities look almost the same. So there's no need to go anywhere (returning to "in the first place") - so long as there's someone offering the opportunity to see all the goodies here on the spot