Art in Cēsis. Without a Title, but with Quotations
Helēna Demakova, Art Critic
The exhibition Mūslaiku varoņi (‘Heroes of Our Time’), which was shown in Cēsis in the summer of 2009, can be used as a good reason to take a look at the landscape of our contemporary art in general. The big picture is necessary insofar there is a need for reflection on culture in public life and aspects of art within it. Witnessing the markedly anti-intellectual activities of the past few years, with contemporary art exhibitions mostly promoted as events, a supplement or backdrop for public entertainment – as well-mastered by advertising professionals – such reflection on the overall picture is the duty of any thinking intellectual. Disregard it, and you may as well go and dig ditches, or go back to swanning about in an advertising agency or some state institution, or else seek more impressive diversions abroad.

I am in total agreement with the sentiments expressed by Vilnis Vējš over the past few years – that chasing after the (tarnished) golden calf of the creative industries is not the same as serving the arts selflessly and thoughtfully (!). However, the abstract creativity cited by Vējš as an alternative to the inevitable “evils” of capitalism (the only evil, however, is the failure to make a clear distinction between commercial and non-commercial activities in our country) would greatly benefit from a more concrete definition. This can be achieved, not by “replacing unrealized creative work with empty drivel”, to borrow an ancient expression from Viktors Avotiņš, but by showing, through intense application of thought, the distinction between art and a commodity for public entertainment. And what, exactly, constitutes “aesthetic of resistance”, to quote the title of a book by Theodor Adorno, who has become so popular here this autumn. (With regard to all of the above, I am looking forward to Vilnis Vējš’ monograph on the nonconformist expressions of art in the Soviet era. The Centre for Contemporary Art and Astrīda Rogule have accomplished a gargantuan task by aggregating tens of interviews; now it is time to reflect!)

Heroes of Our Time, the Cēsis Festival contemporary art exhibition, is one of very few professional contemporary art group exhibitions of 2009. (Here we disregard those curatorial efforts that are to do with our representation abroad – as in the case of the photography exhibition Private, the Venice Biennale or the Moscow Fine Art Fair.) All other group shows (the exhibition in the old VEF factory buildings, Survival Kit and others), despite presenting a pleasant conceptual statement (and, in the case of Survival Kit, true scope, uncharacteristic of our art scene), neither pinpoint any artwork coordinates in the field of art as a profession, nor extend the boundaries of some indefinable existence by means and techniques that are available to art exclusively. They are very fragile, very sensitive steps in the direction of a yet undiscovered truth. Finding this truth, if one were to remain within the comfortable and sterile zone of familiarity, is by no means a certainty. Here I would like to add that I do not subscribe to the nonsensical notion which classifies the development of art according to genre characteristics – that is: there’s minimalism, then comes performance art, then installations etc. Regardless of the fact that technologies do affect style, the conceptual traits of art have little to do with genres – just as the “value” of group exhibitions cannot be measured by weighing up and comparing their transience or longevity, processuality or artefact etc.

Heroes of Our Time stood out as an unbelievably seriously conceived and executed exhibition which helped shape new meaning, new sense and new insight in the way art is viewed by imparting a definite, well-considered visual angle. I was not at all dismayed to find that my interpretation significantly differs from curator Daiga Rudzāte’s slant on both contemporary life and the phenomenon of heroism. Where there is an opposing view that is born not of mindless partying, but comes from a perspective that has been carefully nurtured in the quiet of the office, such difference of opinion is most productive. It could be said that Rudzāte’s conceptual premise has been in a way “post-modern” in its emphasis on the context of heroism, the possibility of its deconstruction and the dominant note of mass culture. However, even if a person is obliged by their circumstances to play out mass society roles in their everyday life or at work, such a dose of collectivism is not an a priori dominant element in the individual mind: being free of it is a matter of will, upbringing and education. (A classic example in our Latvian setting would be the achievements of Imants Lancmanis in renovating Rundāle Palace – an accomplishment that seems incomprehensible to common sense, both Soviet era and contemporary.) But there can also be other opinions and different inner voices.

Heroes of Our Time was presented in “a setting of ruin aesthetics”, which could perhaps inspire some unusual emotions in a newcomer to art appreciation, but I have to agree with the view that for now the so-called bourgeois manner of exhibiting remains the only rational option for some non-contextual (in the sense of location) works. The old brewery in Cēsis has to be adapted for use as an exhibition space, and the people of Cēsis seem inclined to support the project at the upcoming local election. As it is now, the “beneficial darkness” is an short-coming of the exposition, instead of a way of creating Hitchcockian tension. This is the practical side of the exhibition, where Rudzāte has been impressively successful – especially in the large room allocated to the old works of Ojārs Pētersons and the new works of Kaspars Podnieks. The fact that Latvian and Estonian works are mixed together in the exhibition is completely immaterial: what makes Kristīne Plūksna’s “cool”, slightly ironic, somewhat poster-like painting and object devoted to Voltaire’s nose particularly Latvian, and Kaido Ole’s “cool”, slightly ironic, somewhat poster-like paintings specifically Estonian?

Although some of the works (pieces by Sarmīte Māliņa and Kristaps Kalns, Pētersons, two of Podnieks’ photographs) are not new, they all, alongside the freshly created ones, help the viewer see the world from the possible vantage point of interpretation which is, in terms of content, inhabited by heroes of our time in inverted commas. Both Monika Pormale’s staged photographs and Jānis Garančs’ spatial digital projection almost look like an illustration to the proposition set by the curator : the alienated world, ruled by some mass system or systems, in which the individual is lost among roles and networks. I apologise for the use of such an unprofessional term, but this time all the works shown in Cēsis were good (something that cannot be said of previous Cēsis exhibitions).

Kaspars Podnieks. Photo from the series "Untitled". 140x200cm. 2008-2009
Kaspars Podnieks. Photo from the series "Untitled". 140x200cm. 2008-2009
Kaspars Podnieks. Photo from the series "Untitled". 140x200cm. 2008-2009
However, my goal here was neither a contextual description of the show nor an analysis of all the works of art. This time, as we go into the particulars of the Cēsis exhibition, the subject of heroism seems to slip away from the town, across the hills of Vidzeme, to settle in nearby Drusti. One artist has finally accomplished something I had personally been waiting for, over so many years, following some excellent old paintings by Bruno Vasiļevskis and some excellent old installations by Oļegs Tillbergs, Sarmīte Māliņa, Kristaps Ģelzis and Ojārs Pētersons. To refer to the title and essence of the content of an 1995 outdoor work created by Kristaps Ģelzis in Finland, the long wait for Crazy Dauka has, to some extent, has come to an end. I’ll be honest: years of experience prevent me from complete belief in this artist, Kaspars Podnieks; as is usual in our country, a serious attitude to art is once again being – incomprehensibly to me – squandered on trivialities. But, as I mentioned, at last there is some hope there may be something that would completely triumph over routine, sterility, mindlessness, talentlessness, epigonism, entertainment, anecdotism and simplification. So, to reiterate, the artist’s name is Kaspars Podnieks, he lives and works – in art and otherwise – in Drusti. To me, his art cannot be viewed within any kind of context of Latvian art. It could be considered as a brilliant, potentially lasting step into the inter-national arena – provided it continues along this path.

I have to admit I find it difficult to give a comprehensive review of this newly-created art within the confines of a short article. I guess my somewhat blunted intellectual faculties need sharpening up, again and again. So I fall back on quotations, because there is another author who, as a creator (not a performer), in our country currently bears the mantle of international renown. He has put into words precisely that which I would have formulated far less well. So I am quoting from an interview with theatre director Alvis Hermanis, taken from the October 2009 issue of the Rīgas Laiks magazine (1), and adding my own reflections on Kaspars Podnieks’ untitled series of photographs from this year’s Cēsis exhibition.

A.H.: “Every person can become the motive for a drama.”

Podnieks photographs himself. Himself, alone, non-digitally lifted above his native Drusti and its landscapes. It is not a manipulation, there’s no particular way of processing the image: the artist/worker/local politician stands on a small gangway, as if soaring above the land of his birth. You don’t see the plank, just a person in the air. Everything is real, but this reality is staged through tension which should be understood by the thinking viewer. This time it is not important to know “what the artist meant by this”, what matters is that the idea – given a viewer who is willing to think – becomes extraordinarily precise and capacious.

A.H.: “Every person’s story, should you take it and put it onto the stage, will be a sad one, because it forms a kind of link with – I don’t know – some sort of universal sadness. Yes, the story of any human being will be sad, it’s the strangest thing.”

Sadness permeates the departing world, which is filled with evidence of natural and cultural treasures – meadows, schools, churches; all of it is doomed to extinction, as this human world is meant to do one day. Only the dullest of creatures ignore this fact. Man is thrown into this world alone, he dies alone, he carries his world alone – the world he is born into, experiences, imagines. But despite the sadness, man still continues to exist, albeit situationally: it is not just an obligation, it is also the wistfulness of memories, it is this one and only life. And amongst it all, there’s the particularly sad and poignant story of Latvianness.

A.H.: “Unlike journalists, we do not immediately grab everything we find on the street to place it onto the stage. There is a selection process. From these stories we pick out episodes which, in our opinion, transmute into a poetic dimension. An episode of your life becomes a poetic image. Perhaps the word ‘poetic’ itself elicits sadness. This is no documentary realism. [..] It does, after all, involve acting. Even if we happen to use a reallife prototype, the audience will see a third entity on the stage – not the actor, not the prototype, but a matrix in which the two are superimposed. Actually it is an illusory image.”

Podnieks’ image is likewise illusory. Poetic. This isn’t documentary realism, either. However, unlike Hermanis’ outstanding stage productions, it is analytical. It very clearly defines the coordinates of possible reflections and emotions. Hermanis precisely delineates the “big picture” and the details, Podnieks fills everything with meaningful angles. It is strikingly innovative – this possibility of one synthetic, indivisible image, anticipating, as if in parentheses, its reduction into factors. I do not recall anything being created in this manner over the past several decades.

A.H.: “It could, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that the changes that have taken place in Western society over the past 20 years have been so rapid, that times have changed extraordinarily suddenly. Now there is the feeling… Shukshin used to say of life in the country and life in the city, that he felt he had one foot in a boat on the water’s edge. And his other foot on the riverbank. The boat then slowly starts to float away, and it is increasingly more difficult to remain standing and keeping his balance. I have very similar feelings about it myself.”

Of course, one of Podnieks’ analytical factors could easily be Archimedes’ pronouncement, “Give me a point of support, and I will move the Earth!” Podnieks’ work is (also) about the search for equilibrium. Searching alone is not enough, though – all this insipid, primitive rhetoric about contemporary art helping us to ask questions and challenge established values is tiresome and silly. Great art manifests discoveries. Be it Vermeer, Cézanne, Hermanis or anyone else – naïve chatter about the quest of their art will not do. Contemporary art is a city-born phenomenon, but thematically all of Podnieks’ works are about the countryside. Podnieks’ photographic image is highly concentrated, he does indeed have trouble “standing up and keeping his balance”. However, balance has been found.

A.H.: “The way that we live – we carry out functions, each of us has several of them, we switch from one function to another, just like a computer, which has enter and exit, and delete. That’s exactly the way we live – as if communicating with our friends, relatives, acquaintances.”

Podnieks’ work (as a series of photographs) denies the naked post-modern functionality of the human being. His subject is not given to playful, ironical quotations (even though alienation is one of the possible factors). His photographs depict a fragile possibility of stability, using the material world as a medium. This is weighty art. I remember the Nietzsche quote my grandfather had inscribed on my great-grandmother’s gravestone in Jūdaži cemetery: “Do I ask for happiness? I ask for my work.”

A.H.: “If the jaunlatvieši (‘new Latvians’), who were educated people, had not defined this whole Latvian thing, there would never have been a Latvian state.”

One must know and understand something of contemporary art, however, to move towards discovery. In my opinion, Podnieks is professional and educated enough to inspire hope. And “our thing” has to be defined, just like it was back in the days of the jaunlatvieši. Art takes thought. Art – at least in Podnieks’ view, it seems – is not just an optional extra, it is not just another point of reference in a diversion-filled CV, in which everything else is of the same importance. I very much hope I will be proved right.

In conclusion, another quote from Alvis Hermanis:
“To me Latvia is people, the Latvian landscape, classical Latvian culture. Nowhere else in the world is art so romantic, so translucently sensitive; there is no other place where you’d find the gossamer-like quality of Fricis Bārda, Skalbe, that extremely sensitive touch which is also present in Latvian painting. It is not something that is convertible. [..] It is a totality that makes me glad that I am Latvian. [..] For me it’s not “Latvians are all losers” and I’m off.”

(1) ‘Ciemos 21. gadsimtā: Jaunā Rīgas teātra galveno režisoru intervē Gints Grūbe’. Rīgas Laiks. October, 2009, p. 21–27.

/Translator into English: Līva Ozola/

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