The Return of the Torn Out Pages
Alise Tīfentāle, Art Critic
Urban Stories, The X Baltic Triennial of International Art
25.09.–22.11. 2009. Contemporary Art Centre. Vilnius

The Triennial was included in the national programme of “Vilnius – European Capital of Culture 2009” as the central event for contemporary art, and for this reason it was even moved forward one year (according to mathematical calculation the 10th triennial was to have taken place in 2008). In line with present day ideas regarding large scale displays of contemporary art, the exhibition was created by an international team of curators who likewise invited artists on the same international scale. The Triennial comprises of two principal exhibitions: Black Swans, True Tales and Private Truths in the Contemporary Art Centre and Vilnius COOP: Gaps, Fictions, and Practices in an abandoned building on the main promenade of the city, at 27 Gediminas Prospect. Separate performances and projects also have been taking place elsewhere in Vilnius.
Kevin van Braak. Books for Burning? Object. 2009. Photo: Alise Tīfentāle
Format and direction
The majority of Urban Stories are, of course, about Vilnius: artists from various countries have lived and worked here and given shape to this collection of “stories”. These works, however, show no trace of the pearls of Baroque architecture, for example, the ones that Vilnius is associated with in the first place. The result is not a flattering advertisement for the city. The artists have researched and sought out historical facts, legends, anecdotes and parables referring to the hidden, unknown, forgotten, forbidden and marginal. Such interest, for its part, has emerged as one of the leading motifs in present day art, at a time when all tried and trusted practices have already been contested, the history to date of “popular” art and culture has been disowned, and the time has come to seek new points of reference. That is: new, previously unknown, concealed or forgotten words, works, phenomena, facts and processes.

Those have been sought in almost all the major art events of recent years, in art biennials and exhibitions by influential galleries. A broadly similar trend can be detected in the current art processes in Latvia – research as well as a review of history is being carried out, seeking new loci as the basis for a new grid, a frame of reference. Ādolfs Zārdiņš, the genius discovered a little prematurely, has already been forgotten, he is not “news” any more. But the Contemporary Art Centre, for instance, has already been working for quite some time on a massive project …un citi (‘...and Others’) about the manifestations of nonconformist art, in the broadest sense of the word, for almost the entire second half of the 20th century; the project promises to fundamentally change and augment the percepts on art in Latvia which until now have held sway. Visvaldis Ziediņš is gradually taking up his place in the history of Latvian art – in the spring his works were displayed for the wider public in the Ilona Veiherte Art Gallery, but more recently the artist’s paintings and an authentic fragment of the interior of his studio became an integral part of the exhibition Wonderful Journey, curated by Ieva Kulakova (12–30 September, Block 7 at VEF). This autumn, an exposition devoted to the theoretical writings of Hardijs Lediņš (Laika gars un vietas atmosfēra, or ‘Zeitgeist and the Atmosphere of Place’, 11 September–6 October, Riga Art Space) revealed and highlighted those aspects of Lediņš’ creative activity that so far had been left in the shadows.

The team of curators for the X Baltic Triennial of International Art Urban Stories had opted for a similar strategy. Black Swans, True Tales and Private Truths was created by Kestutis Kuizinas, Director of the Contemporary Art Centre, together with Ann Demeester, Director of de Appel Arts Centre and Head of the Curatorial Programme in Amsterdam. The black swans of the title are a poetic metaphor for something unexpected, unconventional, interfering with the traditional flow of events and sequence of phenomena. The other exhibition of the Triennial, Vilnius COOP was directed by Vera Lauf from Leipzig and Ula Tornau from Vilnius, who have been cooperating with the Contemporary Art Centre on a long-term basis: both curators, for example, participated in the previous triennial, which turned out to be a surprising and programmatic event BMW in 2005.

To create Urban Stories, the curators invited cutting-edge artists of international renown (who, for their part, were able to attract to the Triennial wider audiences of professionals and followers). To give some idea, a few examples: a group of Turkish artists, Ha Za Vu Zu, who are taking part this autumn in the Lyon Biennial of Contemporary Art (showing until January 2010), and Polish artist Paulina Olowska, who took part in the Berlin Biennial of 2008. We were able to see the works by German artist Sven Johne here in Riga, at the mobile Ars Baltica photography triennial Don’t Worry Be Happy (2008), but at the Venice Biennial, their respective countries were represented by Russian artist Irina Korina, Estonian artist Kristina Norman (actually with the same work!) and Austrian artist Dorit Margreiter.

A number of the Lithuanian artists present at the Triennial are also well-known beyond the borders of their country. For instance Darius Mikšys took part in the Sydney Biennial (2008), while Deimantas Narkevičius has taken part in the Venice Biennale (2001) and at the sculpture exhibition Skulptur Projekte Münster (2007), as well as in other notable art events. Mindaugas Navakas has displayed his sculptures at the Venice Biennale (1999) and in other exhibitions. For the Triennial to qualify as a truly “modern and international” top-class art event the only person missing was theoretician Hans Ulrich Obrist, but that is only logical, as he today represents a currently declining “fashion” in art.

Ha Za Vu Zu. Bread Way. Installation. 2009. Photo: Alise Tīfentāle
In quest of the black swans
The format having been established, we may turn to the contents. History is being constantly written and rewritten, and in the process, all things unpleasant and unwelcome are easily erased, and everything that is necessary is underlined, and after some time the same chapter in history will look different again. Quite recently, Lithuanian artists Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas made use of intentionally forgotten pages in history, presenting at the Venice Biennale (2007) an impressive multimedia piece Villa Lituania, with its principal feature – a building in Rome, which once housed the former Lithuanian Embassy in Italy (1918–1940). Nostalgia, the sense of historical justice etc. – why are these coming to the fore right now? The Triennial curators mentioned “times of crisis” and two opposing strong impulses that shape the reaction of the public to crisis: escapism into nostalgia and escapism into science fiction, and both were present in the works of the exhibition.

A significant “black swan” is iconoclasm and similar purposefully destructive actions, as one of well tested and frequently applied means of rewriting history and of censorship. Dutch artist Kevin van Braak in his work Books for burning? demonstrated a functional sculpture: a book-burning furnace, with a stack of “unnecessary” books next to it. Van Braak refers to the rich and resplendent history of book burning in Europe, when a book was regarded as a threat to the existing (ruling, repressive) order and the destruction of books was widely practiced. The underlying idea was that the burning of print-covered paper will destroy or at least neutralise the idea expressed in the book (or the language in which it is written, etc.).

The author quotes Ray Bradbury’s anti-utopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and the film of the same title by Francois Truffaut (1966) – the “escapism into science fiction” played out there points to an indefinite moment in the future when reading will be forbidden. The artist has found several cases in Lithuanian history also when books were being destroyed, both during the 19th century and today: as it turns out, the Vilnius University library is divesting itself of books in Russian, thus dealing with testimonies of an unwelcome (unpleasant) past.

The work by Estonian artist Kristina Norman about the displaced monument in Tallinn was exhibited in the Estonian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The destruction or relocation of monuments is also to be regarded as one of the manifestations of iconoclasm, which we know especially well: by dismantling monuments to Lenin, the former Soviet republics symbolically freed themselves of Lenin himself, i.e. made corrections to their history. Norman’s work contains video coverage of heated emotions at the scene of events, and amidst it all basks a shiny and impressive maquette of the monument. Its presence had marked out a territory in the urban environment, and now this area is being symbolically re-divided. The monument itself plays the role of an accused and the inhabitants of the town are taking part in public court proceedings, where one party wishes to defend the innocent, but the other – to exact vengeance against the enemy. An objective view is not possible, for here at least two different histories are being written.

The exposition also features works by Algimantas Kunčius, a classic of Lithuanian photographic art. In keeping with the atmosphere of the exhibition as a whole, they are displayed not as the traditional silver gelatin copies, but as digital printouts pasted directly onto the walls. Several of his series of photographs, which the author himself called “riddles”, have been selected (created both in 1960–70, and in 2006–2007). They consist of several snapshots featuring a sequence of events: for instance, the reaction of passers-by to a miniature Christmas tree displayed in a shop-window, and similar. The black-and-white photographs, leaving things half-said, tell a story of the city and the people who “use” and “shape” it. The works by a group of Japanese artists, Chim Pom, speak of marginal relations with the surrounding environment: in the work Black of Death, we see members of the group roaming the streets of Vilnius with a stuffed raven and playing a recording of a raven’s cry, thus gathering around themselves flocks of ravens and interfering with the rhythm of the city and the urban landscape. Meanwhile in their installation Kuru Kuru Party, Chim Pom have recon-structed a living room, vandalised and ravaged during a wild party – a memento of an event perhaps better to be forgotten and censored.

Also taking part in the Triennial was a Latvian author, film director Edmunds Jansons with his animation Čiža acīm (‘Through the Eyes of Chizh’) (2007). In this work, the curators have glimpsed “a black swan”, namely, a marginal, alternative perspective of history – a period in the 20th century history viewed through drawings in the private diary of the main character, a striking personality.

Indre Klimaite and Isabella Roozendaal. Research on revival of altered culture. 2009. Photo: Alise Tīfentāle
A Reminder of the Forgotten
Ula Tornau and Vera Lauf installed the Vilnius COOP project in former public social security offices on Gediminas Prospect – a functionalist style house built in 1938, but left abandoned for the last 15 years. The house itself had also fallen into oblivion: as the curators inform, it was ousted from the history of Lithuanian nationally-oriented architecture due to having been designed by Polish architects Jerzy Soltan and Stanisław Murczynski.

The curators refer to the reflective nostalgia mentioned by Svetlana Boym and offer a nostalgic view on the forgotten, discarded and disowned aspects of the city history. The curators and artists ask us: “What is selected from the multitude of voices and which stories remain “unim-portant”? Which pasts-and-presents do we prefer? And which of them, that have been bypassed, could be usefully remembered again?”

Research on revival of altered culture, a joint project by Indrė Klimaitė and Isabella Roozendaal, examined a rich and insufficiently researched seam of cultural history – canteens. The artists had created a collection of colour photographs, presented as a slideshow, and also offered an excursion to the canteens of Vilnius, which the Triennial visitor could experience as a guided tour or individually, guided by a map and a list of addresses.

These were, for the most part, canteens in institutions, factories, schools, libaries, and universities. Judging by the photographs, time is standing still in these dining facilities, preserved the same as they were 20–30 years ago, yet this anachronism is still a legitimate component of contemporary lifestyle. For those who have experienced the Soviet “canteen culture”, the work by Klimaitė and Rozendaal could stir up very intimate memories: the daily visit to the canteen in school, university or at work associates with a definite set of aromas and flavours, with the pattern of the tablecloth, the design of dishes and furniture, the colour or composition of a meal, with a background of sounds not heard anywhere else, etc. One more page almost completely torn out of history; a page that could even have tourism potential, because, after all, one could get tired of all the socalled star chefs and experiments of contemporary cuisine, and a person could begin to hanker after a decent genuine canteen meatball or borscht. Interestingly enough, at the same time a similar study was presented in Latvia as well: in October, an eatery in Turaida called Tūrists (‘Tourist’) held an exhibition under the title The Sigulda Schnitzel. Public catering in the Sigulda district during the Soviet era. It is a paradox how quickly something so self-evident could be intentionally lost to oblivion, and turns into a legend materialised only in oral history and random artefacts!

An Architektur, a magazine started up by a group of Berlin architects gave an insight into utopian projects for a happy life in a commune. The earliest examples: the Paris Commune of 1871 and an enormous complex of hotel-type apartments for 60 million people, designed in 1894, by King Camp Gillette, an American inventor. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, German feminist Lily Braun came with an proposal for a “one-kitchen house” (Einküchenhaus) – apartment buildings with a canteen and other domestic services, thus realizing the idea of women’s emancipation and relieving a married woman of her duties as a housewife and cook. The idea of the commune became topical again in the 1960–70s, when building projects for living in common households were designed and implemented in many places in the world. All the projects found by An Architektur – at least by their description – seem to be rationally and logically founded, taking into account residents’ comfort, economic advantages, ergonomic and ecological considerations, etc. and utilising state-of-the-art technologies of the time. However, surprisingly the fruits of those efforts did not enjoy widespread and long standing popularity. Constantly living in a closeknit community did not seem particularly tempting even for those who need constant socializing, a sense of togetherness and being in a collective. One’s own establishment, how- ever small, is much better, isn’t it?

The works by the young Lithuanian artist, Žilvinas Landzbergas were displayed at both venues of the Triennial, and in both places they attracted attention already from a distance. The work 00-24 was made up of spruce trees, brought into the inner yard of the Contemporary Art Centre and fenced in with cardboard walls on which a wallpaper mural had been pasted. On the ground floor of Vilnius COOP, on the other hand, a “nostalgia kiosk” was created on the first floor – that is, a work entitled 5 min of air-time (2008), offering an opportunity to listen to disco songs of 1970s–80s.

When talking to viewers at contemporary art exhibitions, as often as not one may hear that art today is “something horrible”, an uncontrollable anarchistic process without any framework, without any sense or meaning. The process, however, can be interpreted quite contrariwise –- the art of today does nothing else but takes forward what was begun during the previous decades and centuries, it returns to pages of history, torn out earlier or forgotten, and reiterates its belonging to a definite tradition.

The X Baltic Triennial of International Art Urban Stories, by its concern for the forgotten, the denied and sometimes even unpleasant facts and tales of history presented itself as their advocate, who, through the language of art, invites us to take a detached, objective look at the apparently self-evident, and to re-evaluate our categorical position.

/Translator into English: Sarmīte Lietuviete/

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