Stepping over slushy puddles of melting snow is a prerequisite of visiting Latvia’s capital city of Riga in early April. During this period, the Vilnius-based art center RUPERT curated the exhibition “Undersong” at Kim?, beginning the snowballing series of cultural happenings in the Baltic region this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the independence of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Kim? is Riga’s intimate Kunsthalle, occupying an unassuming, grey building on the corner of intersecting gridded streets found at the edge of Riga’s Old Town — a historical center of labyrinthine cobbled roads, churches and cultural monuments that was given UNESCO World Heritage status in the late 1990s.
Its name is an abbreviation of “what is art?” (“kas ir maksla?” in Latvian), and the organization supports emerging artists, curators and thinkers as an open platform for collaboration. “Undersong” brought together the works of two young Lithuanian artists, Lina Lapelyte and Indre Serpytyte, which sat in two separate but interconnected rooms. Working with performance and sound, Lapelyte’s installation “The Trouble with Time,” 2017, enveloped the listener in a composition influenced by sutartines, traditional Lithuanian multi-part songs. Serpytyte also explores tradition, though often with political undertones. Her presentation surrounded the viewer with ornamental patterns from the Baltic States’ customary woven sashes, individual panels set against a vast wall installation of interlocking gray geometric shapes. The exhibition’s curator Juste Jonutyte, who is the director of RUPERT, sees an affinity between RUPERT and Kim?, and believes “collaboration and finding common ground are certainly incredibly important at this time of rising nationalism.”
Both Lapelyte and Serpytyte will also feature in the numerous events taking place in the Baltics this year, including the 13th Baltic Triennial curated by Vincent Honore, which takes place in Vilnius from May to August, Tallinn from June to September, and Riga (at Kim?) from September to November; and the Riga International Biennial for Contemporary Art (RIBOCA1) curated by Katerina Gregos, which opens in June. Titled “GIVE UP THE GHOST” and “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More,” respectively, both engage with the current political climate in which artists are working, choosing not to shy away from issues of rising nationalism in Eastern Europe and beyond.
Honore places the notion of belonging at the center of his exhibition and recalls that he was approached to curate the Triennial “at a time when Brexit and more generally populist movements were (and still are) jeopardizing the European Union,” he said. “I was approached when Donald Trump was running for the American presidential elections. All these factors, and others including debates on gender, race, and socio-economical ruptures to do with class, encouraged me not to think of this anniversary in a nostalgic manner, but as a chance to rethink our presence within the world.” Intending the 13th Baltic Triennial to be a place of “disorder,” he said he believes that this “disorder is now more vital than ever,” allowing “us to think in a fluid way, outside of fixed, straight, binary norms.” He continued: “We need to disrupt — not necessarily the way others think — but the way we personally think, and to question our norms so they migrate, they evolve, they change, they mutate.”
To avoid the exhibition becoming sprawling, the iterations (chapters) of the Triennial will take place in just one venue in each city, and will include new commissions, performances and live events. Rooted in three main themes, the groupings have been organized so that Vilnius will focus on “notions of belonging to a (geographical, ecological or cultural) territory, with Sanya Kantarovsky, Rachel Rose, Augustas Serapinas, Laure Prouvost and Dora Budor being some examples,” Honore said, while “Tallinn will focus more on the body (the moving body, the fragmented body, the expressive body, the political body) with Paul Maheke, Kris Lemsalu, Nina Beier, Hannah Black, Jesse Darling and a group of extraordinary historical works by Ulo Sooster, Pierre Molinier and Derek Jarman.” Finally, he said, “Riga will address more directly citizenship and our relation to the public sphere and social structures with an active public program, a major commission by Ben Burgis and Ksenia Pedan, as well as works by Pierre Huyghe, Sandra Jogeva and others.”
Beyond the role of reflecting on our current socio-political environment, what agency can art have in enabling change? For Gregos, the curator of the Riga biennial, “while art cannot change the world, per se, it has the power to influence and change the way people think, and through changing people, it can change the world. Art cannot tell you what to do, but art can connect one to the world (indeed, multiple worlds) through one’s senses and through the power of the imagination. Art can influence one’s ideas about the world, it can stimulate one’s interest in other cultures and values. Art can turn prejudice and intolerance into curiosity and comprehension.”
Taking place in 10 venues throughout Riga, RIBOCA1 coincides with the final leg of the 13th Baltic Triennial. While Gregos cites the increasing acceleration in our lives and the importance of pausing to reflect, deceleration seems far from this city’s reach. Regardless, Gregos promises “it will be possible to see everything in two days, at a human pace and without rushing. I’ve also taken care not to have too many hours-long videos, which make enormous demands on the viewer. I’ve spaced the work and the media in such a way that one will get a chance to breathe inside the spaces and between them. The result will not be overload.”
With a list that includes Latvian artists such as Vladimir Svetlov, Paulis Liepa, Kristaps Epners, Katrina Neiburga and Ieva Epnere, as well as a broad range of international voices from Sissel Tolaas (Norway/Germany), Nabil Boutros (Egypt/ France), Michael Landy (UK) and Mark Dion (USA) to Marina Pinsky (Russia/Belgium), Kerstin Hamilton (Sweden) and Marco Montiel-Soto (Venezuela/Germany), the grouping is certainly innovative.
Gregos recognizes the hyperactive growth of the art industry, underlining how in the “last decades art has turned into a commodity, a luxury good even, and it has become a toy or trophy prize in the hands of the very affluent.” Arguably, the slew of recent biennales, triennials and exhibitions feeds into this. In the curator’s view, art has become “a tool for city marketing and an incentive for the enlargement of prestige and reputation of people and organizations,” she said. However, for Gregos, “art also needs attention in quietude, which is hard to expect with hundreds of people around you in a crowded museum. It is a question of pluses and minuses, and checks and balances, with, for the moment, uncertain results.”