An Odyssey in our Heads
Jānis Taurens, Philosopher
Mārtiņš Ratniks. Land
12.09.–02.10.2009. kim? / VKN Gallery
... occasionally as soft as little mice, skittish and restless, occasionally dazzling, brimming with sun and liveliness; others flowing like gentle and tranquil streams, light and nimble as the foam on the tips of the waves. (Boris Vian, L’herbe rouge)

The great variety of means of expression for art in the 21st century seems to throw the confused viewer back to the state of a simple “I like” or “I dislike”. However, certain criteria do exist in contemporary art, just that they have become more complex and cannot be limited to the formal features of the work. In a similar way that the semantic theories of the second half of the 20th century have been forced to reject the notion of language as a closed system, so too the understanding of a work of art and the critical examination of this process these days demands consideration of a wider context.

This somewhat didactic introduction to the review is intended to ensure that the text that follows, with which I wanted to start this article, should not be taken as a subjective game with the associations that the work of art has elicited, but rather as an outline for the semantic space which is required in the formation of a potential interpretation of the video installation Zeme (‘Land’) by Mārtiņš Ratniks. The term ‘semantic space’ in this instance works partially as a metaphor, because its construction depends, to a large extent, on preconceptions about art and it cannot be completely objectively or ‘geometrically’ defined. In the first and simplest approach, this space would encompass the elements or parameters of Ratniks’ work, which would not affect the meaning of the work or even – as he himself concedes – could be considered as some kind of work in its ideal form. Therefore let us assume that we are in a room with dark walls, with triangular-shaped portholes or screens in each of the four corners. Gazing at them in silence, we see above our heads the continuous image of the changing surface of a heavenly body sliding past.(1)

This description does not, of course, correspond to Ratniks’ work as it was displayed in the VKN gallery in Spīķeri. The walls of the gallery were white, in one corner a smallish partitioning wall hiding the entrance to the other rooms, thus preventing the video projections from being directed to all four corners of the room. The three-channel video projection has only the one image, in the shape of a triangle, in the corner of the room; the other two form the usual rectangle. And also any associations with the porthole through which we view the heavenly body – in this case, Earth – may not necessarily be vital, because possibly for someone the projections may bring to mind a childhood window, which opens to a view of ‘segments of times long since gone’, which can resemble ‘foam at the tips of the waves’(2). The visual images are combined with a sound recording which creates a technologically-alienated audio element, preventing the street noises of the surrounding market area from breaking into the consciousness of the viewer.

Mārtiņš Ratniks. Land. Sinhronizēts 3-channel synchronized video. 12'13''. 2009. Photo: Mārtiņš Ratniks
Mārtiņš Ratniks. Land. Sinhronizēts 3-channel synchronized video. 12'13''. 2009. Photo: Mārtiņš Ratniks
Mārtiņš Ratniks. Trajectory. Video 24'37''. 2009. Photo: Mārtiņš Ratniks
Mārtiņš Ratniks. Trajectory. Video 24'37''. 2009. Photo: Mārtiņš Ratniks
In relation to American art of the 1960s, Robert Smithson wrote: “Some artists see an infinite number of movies,”(3) and the visual material of Ratniks’ work also calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ (1968), or scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Solaris’ (1972). As regards sound, Tarkovsky used in his film a slightly modified version of J. S. Bach’s organ prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639), but Kubrick, in addition to Also sprach Zarathustra, the well-known tone poem by Richard Strauss, used in his soundtrack – without permission from the composer – fragments of at least four György Ligeti avantgarde pieces from the 1960s. Moreover, one of the works Aventures, composed in 1962 for 3 singers and 7 instrumentalists,(4) was electronically distorted. As if continuing along this line of sound distortion, the audio element of Ratniks’ work has been put together more simply, and without the pathos – which may be necessary in cinema, and obtained by electronically modifying the sounds recorded by a microphone placed outside the window of the car on the road from Bolderāja to Riga.

The possible visual likeness or associations are not to be regarded here as derivation. Even if there were to be some borrowings in Ratniks’ video installation, then these have been as a part of the strategy in the creation of the work, which is a characteristic of visual art in the period following the emergence of coneptualism in the 1960s, that is, the usage and remixing of data that is publicly available – text, photography, visual images and other forms of information. Similarly, the possible variations in the realisation of the work, as mentioned, are related to the practices common to 1960’s minimalism and conceptualism, which allowed that the idea of the work could be realised in numerous and different forms, or even in the absence of such, with the idea itself functioning as the work of art. As Sol LeWitt radically asserted in his ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ of 1967: “What the work of art looks like isn’t too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea.”(5) These changes, that began to take place in the arena of art almost half a century ago, shape that “expanded field of art”(6) which provides a point of reference for understanding contemporary art – and also present-day Latvian art.

The material that Ratniks has used in his video installation Zeme is data from the NASA programme Earth Observing System, which is freely available on the internet and which consists of satellite-observed information about the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, biosphere, oceans etc. The data is divided up into three frequencies; the images are ‘collated together’, to form a kind of sliding, continuous scanned image of the Earth’s surface, correcting it in order to achieve a visual effect that makes the viewer feel as if they were gliding across the surface of the planet, or that Earth – as often seen in sci-fi films – is hanging above. The continuous image has been divided into 10-second intervals, which permits the data obtained from one particular angle to be changed, and thus a visualisation of the information gathered some years ago can be seen in the video projection by the viewer. Seriality is not a new technique in art, as a structural principle in works of art this too was a feature in American minimalist works of the 1960s. But in his installation Ratniks alters this 10-second period, out of consideration for the visual effect – and the end result is quite convincing.

In this work meanwhile, in contrast to the relationship with real time processes, interactivity and online as often emphasised in digital or new media art, the time when the data was obtained has no relevance. It is not a scientific study of Earth, and the technological options are not merely a formal means. It is just as the visual and perfectly finished appearance of a work cannot be subjected to an analysis of formalism, which calls to mind a number of almost ‘aesthetically beautiful’ – if one is permitted to use such an antiquated term – works in the last Venice Biennale.(7) The concept behind Ratniks’ work can be discerned by referring back to the unusual geometric form of the video projection previously mentioned – in the actual version it is a triangle in the corner of the gallery space, in contrast to the usual rectangular area created by the other two projections on another wall. It not only makes us feel as if we are in the cabin of some sort of flying machine, but it is also a reminder of the odd geometric shapes that today can be found in fantasies on the Web.(8) Another reference is to the limitless expanse of the road which vanishes into the heat haze of the warmed-up motorway air, and thus is transformed into the visual images of a flight in space, and ... At this point we should notice that we have moved into the realm of our preconceptions, and are no longer speaking of the relation between the image and the object depicted (the ‘projective’ relation, the ‘reference’ – or however else it would be described in philosphy), but rather about the images produced by a powerful processor – our brain.

On the right hand side of the gallery there is a smallish screen showing white lines being drawn, with hypnotic monotony, on a black background. They could represent the trajectories of the satellite, as transferred to a plane surface. The network of lines becomes more and more congested, turning the dark background into an ever lighter field. Another variation of Ratniks’ work could be obtained by turning this small screen in its dark frame into the largest and dominating element of the video installation, at the same time reducing the video projections to a small and unobstrusive scale. Perhaps in this way the basic conception of the work would become too obvious for some people, but on the other hand – more easily picked up for others.

Yet, speaking of Ratniks’ conception of Zeme, there is one more step to be taken. It’s not some kind of “Professor Dowell’s Head” that is creating the images. In the gallery space the projectors have been placed slightly above floor level, and when crossing the ray of light, we as viewers leave our shadow on the surface of the projected surface of the heavenly body, which could just as well be the Moon. The authenticity of the photographic image of the shadow left on its surface by humans has been the subject of many a debate. Our interference in the image of the video installation indirectly points to the fact that we are the ones who, quite possibly, don’t know what we are looking at. In 1892 Gottlob Frege, seeking an eloquent image which would encapsulate the objective sense of words, proposed the image of the Moon which is formed by the lens on the inside of a telescope, as something different to the image in the retina of the human eye, which he considered to be completely subjective.(9) Outside Frege’s range of attention, however, remained the preconceptions, the learning and established practice, which teach us to understand various images in a particular way. This further step, relinquishing the autonomy of the artistic work – in this case, utilising and re-mixing scientific data, but meanwhile also not remaining at the stage of dematerialised linguistic conceptualism – is one that contemporary art continues to take.(10)

(1) Materials obtained through conversations with Mārtiņs Ratniks (at the VKN Gallery, 30 September 2009) have been used in the preparation of this article. Responsibility for any possible misunderstandings, misstatements and fabrications is, of course, carried by the author.

(2) Vians, Boriss. Sarkanā zāle. Translated from the French by Inta Šmite. Rīga: Omnia mea, 2002. – p. 45

(3) In an article of 1996 “Entropy and the New Monuments” – Robert Smithson. The Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. University of California Press, 1996. – p. 16.

(4) Notwithstanding this piratical action, Ligeti later admitted that he had liked the film and that artistically he had accepted the way in which it had used the music. See Alex Ross. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. – pp. 468–469. Norman Lebrecht. The Life and Death of Classical Music. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. – pp. 274–275.

(5) Sol LeWitt. Paragraphs on Conceptual Art // Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Ed. by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, (MS), London: MIT Press, 1999. – p. 13.

(6) The term “the expanded field of art” is derived on the basis of Rosalind Kraus’ approach to land art, which she examined as “sculpture in the expanded field” in an article of the same title in the magazine October. – Rosalind Kraus. Sculpture in the Expanded Field // October, No. 8 (Spring 1979). – pp. 31–44.

(7) For example, the two-channel video work Orbite Rosse (‘Red Orbits’) by the Italian artist Grazia Toderi, which can be seen at the Arsenāls exhibition hall.

(8) The geometrisation of form similar to that of flight paths is found, for example, in Smithson’s article “Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site” (1967): “Already certain passenger aircraft resemble pyramidal slabs, and flying obelisks. Perhaps aircraft will someday be named after crystals. ... At any rate, here are some names for possible crystalline aircraft: Rhombohedral T.2; Orthorombic 60; Tetragonal Terror; Hexagonal Star Dust 49; etc.” – Robert Smithson. The Collected Writings. – p. 58.

(9) Gottlob Frege. Über Sinn und Bedeutung // Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, NF 100, 1892. – S. 30.

(10) In fairness it must be added – as present day philosphy continues to do by its own means.

/Translator into English: Terēze Svilane/

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