Perhaps a Smack in the Face would not go Amiss?...
Jānis Borgs, Art Critic
A flow of thoughts at Kristīne Kursiša’s solo exhibition
Kristīne Kursiša. Out of Control
28.09.–22.10.2009. Alma Gallery
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp, later universally recognised as a master Dadaist, submitted a urinal to the exhibition of the Society of Inde-pendent Artists; it was one of the first ever pieces of found or ready-made art, and bore the poetic title of Fountain. Duchamp was a board member of the Society, so, to camouflage his anticipated participation in the exhibition, he signed this trivial object from the gentlemen’s WC with the pseudonym – R. Mutt. However, the show’s committee – unaware of their colleague’s creative effort – after lengthy discussion rejected the provocative piece (after all, the author had not created anything himself!).

The famous urinal was photographed (and immortalised in its original version) by someone no less famous – American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who simply threw it out as rubbish after the photo shoot. A similar path to the dump was the fate of almost all of Duchamp’s early readymades. This time, however, the worst did not happen: the dump did not turn out to be the scrap heap of history. 87 years later, in December 2004, five hundred art experts and historians voted Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain the most influential work of art of the 20th century. In the 1960s Duchamp produced several authorized replicas of the urinal to replace the lost original. One of these reproductions was sold at Sotheby’s for $1.7 million in 1999.

The Dadaists directed their provocative activities as a form of protest against bourgeois and traditional culture, the bankruptcy of which was best evidenced by the senselessness of the First World War. But, however radical the manifestations of any kind of avantgarde, sooner or later, as history shows, its further development leads to being “pinned down” next to the butterfly collection in the salons and bedrooms of the citizenry. As subversive as Duchamp once may have been, he has now become an indisputable fixture on the shelves and files devoted to the classics of world art history. Even if a modern-day citizen, who has undoubtedly seen worse and experienced a good deal of “crap art”, is still ready to pull a few faces in feigned indignation. This very same citizen will go to the Dada Bar of the Centrs shopping gallery in Riga, take a look at Marcel’s bicycle wheel stool (a replica of Duchamp’s readymade, procured by interior designer Alvis Zemzars) and see just an amusing detail of the interior. It no longer disturbs our digestive processes, and the barbecued prawns vanish into diners’ tummies without a hiccup.

Kristīne Kursiša.Out of Controll II (Deadly Trick). Installation. 2009. Photo: Martins Vizbulis
This kind of overture of thoughts is also brought on by Ārpus kontroles (‘Out of Control’), the solo exhibition by the promising young Latvian installation and multimedia artist Kristīne Kursiša (who has already shown in dozens of international exhibitions, to much critical acclaim) at the elite Alma Gallery, in the embassy district of Riga. A reference to Duchamp here is not inappropriate: Kursiša’s creative language is made up of means of expression not yet considered conventional – installations, assemblages, readymades, all under a rich sauce of thoughtful conceptualism. Admittedly, fate has not granted Kursiša the role of being the Latvian pioneer in this area: the field has long been populated by a mighty generation of “dinosaurs” (Oļegs Tillbergs, Kristaps Ģelzis, Aija Zariņa, Ojārs Pētersons, Andris Breže et al.) and their truly monumental works, many of which have gone the way of that Duchamp urinal. But Kursiša has managed to perfect such fine crystal facets of her art that one would almost be inclined to invoke the brilliance of the production of the Swarovski company – were it not so closely associated with the world of kitsch and glamour, which has nothing at all in common with this artist’s work (at least not in the bourgeois sense of these saccharine concepts). She has managed to bring into the Wagnerian choir of Latvian installation art a delicate Mozartesque champagne-like lightness and elegance.

As has become common with such shows, the exhibit at Alma Gallery is also governed by aristocratic restraint in the way that the works of art are spaced out, and a couple of rooms hold just some four installations. The press release explains that this is “a visual production with a clearly formulated message, in which Kristīne Kursiša, through multimedia installations and mechanical objects, intimately and wittily expresses her take on the human desire to control the uncontrollable – of the essentially different male and female models of perception, which often produce uncontrollable situations; of social norms; about that incessant controlling of one’s own emotions and thoughts that is called tolerance; about the fact that the expression of all honest thoughts and emotions would be something of a ‘death leap’ and would eventually end in social suicide.”

The artist has an impressive baggage of education – two degrees from the Latvian Academy of Art, and film direction skills acquired at the Latvian Academy of Culture. At the very start of the exhibit this is indirectly manifested in the two-screen video installation Ārpus kontroles I (Viņš, Viņa) (‘Out of Control I (He, She)’), in which the mute facial expression dialogue of a young couple revolves in a finely crafted sequence of images, seemingly concentrated on and around a large installation vase. The message is one of dramatic conflict and tension. In her annotation the artist explains: “If [..] the relationship between a woman and a man had to be classified, it would undoubtedly be as a drama. One of the most touching examples of male controlling behaviour is the persuasion of the woman through use of logic, as well as attempts at predicting or constructing the patterns of her behaviour. Meanwhile, female efforts at fighting male pragmatism and rationalisation have long become a genre classic. The moment when both sexes understand and accept the fact that the differences they so assiduously fight against are actually the golden mean of the equilibrium sought, control will finally be restored.” This revelation of the “problem” does provoke a bit of a wry smile, because it’s a bit like trying to force an open door.

Is it really, unequivocally, always quite such a “drama”? Are women really strangers to logic? And are men always so pragmatic? Haven’t we observed ladies experiencing an orgasmic thrill when walking past a safe or a jewellery shop? And are the two sexes constantly fighting and battling each other like that, so that some kind of mystical control should need to be regained? And, lastly – is there any problem at all? Why should all the completely natural differences between the sexes be levelled out? This profusion of “problems” could perhaps only be justified by the artist’s own particularly and uniquely bitter experience with the opposite sex. This seems unlikely, therefore one has to assume the problem is purely intellectual. Like with the more sophisticated drunks – finding a reason to have a drink. In this case – finding the motivation for rather elegant artistic concept. This is yet another reason why you shouldn’t ever read annotations. Instead, tune in to your own sensations and develop your own interpretation of the work of art.

Kristīne Kursiša. Out of Controll I (He, She). Installation with video projection. 2009. Photo: Martins Vizbulis
The other installations are likewise accompanied by similar slightly irritating comments by the author; the thought and construction of these flimsy notes almost lead one to doubt women’s power of logic as referred to by the artist. Armed with a firm resolution not to give in to such provocations, the viewer may concentrate his attention on the paradoxes of the exhibited objects. See, for example, Ārpus kontroles IV (‘Out of Control IV’) – a suspended broomstick poses a challenging threat to the opposing glass sheet. At the end of the stick there is an invitingly positioned drum pedal. But it’s just the tiniest bit askew. And the adrenalin of aggression is already pumping.

The viewer, at least if it happens to be a man, lines up the pedal with the end of the broomstick and stamps on it, hard. The broom swings out, but not quite as far as the glass. You have to stomp harder, and your visit to the exhibition becomes a kind of sports event… Was that the intention? Once again, we may consult the annotation, which informs: “A work stimulating the imagination. Provokes an irrepressible urge to push the pedal. However, this piece is dedicated to restraint in the face of uncontrollable urges and emotions, and that is exactly why it is forbidden to operate the installation!” Oh! Too late. The viewer has already tasted the ecstasy of transgression and is… out of control. Kursiša has proven her concept. It is here that you experience the didactic force of a clear-cut annotation, which sweeps away the seriousness of all the preceding comments, and burst into raucous laughter that is completely inappropriate for the solemnity of Alma Gallery. Look, mate, you got yourself caught out anyway!

I was charmed by the elegance and quite feminist sophistication of two more Out of Control objects, created from pieces of a percussion set. This effect was produced by the gleam of the hightech construction of these readymades, and by the carefully crafted additions provided by the artist. As the viewer moves past the drum installation, a sensor activates a mechanical drummer, as if knocking on the unguarded gates of your consciousness and conscience. This interactive effect is reinforced by an almost erotically pulsating element or miniconstruction: a couple of red, impotently drooping rubber balloons attached to a white plastic clothes hanger. Here is a wealth of material for various streams of associations. But there is present also a special kind of surplus value, which is not all that common in installation art. This is the heightened aestheticism of Kursiša’s works. Certain Greenaway-like intonations can be heard and seen in the language of her art. Any contemporary intellectual would be proud to boast of such kinship. It also brings her art closer to the salon-like atmosphere of Alma Gallery, and reveals that immense distance of time that avantgarde has travelled since the Dadaistically rough and ready, delinquent escapades of Marcel Duchamp and his contemporaries. Perhaps to some extent it is also testament to the way various artistic periods tend to develop from “Pre-Raphaelite” purity into mannerist virtuosity. But let’s not measure the artist by such global criterions, even if the exhibition does encourage some sort of generalisation.

In one of her video interviews Kristīne Kursiša rather naïvely complains that installation art is still not understood by the wider public. An avantgardist would consider it the highest badge of honour to remain in the elite zone. Two or three knowledgeable, interested viewers a day are qualitatively better than two or three hundred knownothings whose opinions may be of no value at all. It would take something completely petitbourgeois to bring a fancied up queue of art lovers to the door of, say, Alma Gallery. I mean, something like the exhibition of Salvador Dali lithographs, which took place in Riga in the 1990s and attracted its public not so much by the promise of the delights of Surrealism, as by the whiff of a dusty tabloid-style scandal. This problem is deserving of a separate study. With regard to Kursiša, however, we could exclaim – what an unhooligan-like artist! Approximately meaning: what a civilised hooligan! And in this sense a benchmark of one woman’s contribution would be the example of Laurie Anderson’s phenomenal art, in which subtlety, aestheticism, emotionality and intellectualism are pulled together into the righteous fist of radicalism. Kursiša and her art seem to have a generous amount of all these qualities; all that is lacking is a good punch of that fist.

It wouldn’t be proper to demand it of this artist quite like that, because a creative individual should be totally respected in all their unique manifestations, even if on the level of gentle fluctuations. However, the viewer also can have a hissy fit – like a child in a sweet shop suddenly hankering after a pickled cucumber. Every now and then art needs to stage a kind of a “9/11” – in the metaphorical sense of that grave event. Something like an art earthquake… Because, for so many, and in so many different ways, a smack in the face would not go amiss...And ever more so.

/Translator into English: Līva Ozola/
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