RIGA, Latvia — Among the works in the inaugural Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art (or the catchy RIBOCA), in Latvia’s capital city, Riga, is an outdoor installation, Chain of Freedom (2018), by Amsterdam-based artist Eric Kessels. Chain of Freedom explores the extraordinary event that took place on August 23, 1989 that brought international attention to the Soviet occupation of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania: an estimated two million people held hands and formed a human chain across all the three Baltic countries. Within seven months of this peaceful demonstration, Lithuania declared itself an independent nation. Latvia and Estonia would soon follow.
For his work, Kessels found as many aerial photographs documenting the human chain as he could and blew them up on billboards of various sizes that were interconnected and installed outdoors. From afar, the horizontality of the work stands in for the chain and is powerfully striking; up-close, the individual billboards are surprisingly anti-monumental, as they are precariously perched on easels with wheels. Kessels manages to capture and makes palpable both the strength and vulnerability of the people who participated in the event.
RIBOCA was organized by the veteran curator Katerina Gregos. She writes in the catalogue that the rich history of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia) is “the underlying framework” of the biennial. Gregos is referring specifically to the Soviet occupation. The biennial’s title, Everything was forever until it was no more, nicely sums up the experience of the subjects of the former Soviet republics — to be free practically overnight from a level of oppression that seems unchangeable.
Gregos suggests the phrase could also characterize the rise of contemporary nationalism we are seeing around the world today, including in places that have long espoused a more inclusive national identity, such as the UK and US. This is a compelling if ambitious framework. Unfortunately, she also posits in the catalogue that this new biennial can be seen as being more broadly situated among “Baltic-Nordic post-Soviet dynamics.” This dangerous conflation of the genealogies of all of these countries is problematic to the say the least. Was this a way for RIBOCA to distinguish itself from the already extant Baltic Triennial of International Art?
Whatever the case, it might help explain why the works on the whole tend toward universalizing or grand themes, such as climate change and the trendy (though important) concept of the Anthropocene. While some works address a specific historical event — like Kessel’s — only a handful explore individual or personal stories. Given the broad swath of regions the biennial covers, though, doing so could have been overwhelming for a viewer, and highlight problems of the theme.
At the same time, a number of strong works are scattered across the biennial’s eight venues in the city (though most of the works are in two University of Latvia buildings), by artists who are not well known outside of the Baltic. Indeed, a third of the artists live, work, or were born in the Baltic states and a little less than three-quarters are from the larger Baltic region, which includes countries like Finland, Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. So, even if as a whole the biennial had fallen flat, it was not to be missed.
An understated but poignant work is Stockholm-based artist Kerstin Hamilton’s The “Science Question” in Feminism (2018). Hamilton focused on some of the few women who have received the Nobel Prize, in particular women who lived in the Nordic and Baltic regions, such as Lidija Liepina, the first Latvian woman to receive a PhD, as well as the first woman to become a professor in the USSR. Only 3 percent of the winners of the science categories in the Nobel Prize competitions have been women. Hamilton placed the photographs of these trailblazers in vitrines, underscoring the connection of these women to science and referencing their treatment in their fields, as specimens who are meant to be seen but not heard. Hamilton’s placement of her work throughout the building reinforces the notion that these women were present but not acknowledged by the world of science.
Tallinn, Estonia-based Liina Siib’s installation Tallinn-1967 is a nod to the fact that during the 1960s the Estonian capital was the epicenter of the jazz scene in the USSR. That year’s jazz festival included the Charles Lloyd Quartet from the United States. While the band was only allowed onstage on the festival’s final night — after a protracted struggle between the organizers of the festival and the Soviet authorities — a vinyl record came out of the visit. Siib displayed archival documents related to the festival and projected historical footage of the quartet playing at the festival on the back wall, where she had constructed a provisional stage. Fearful of the West, the Soviets began to curb the festival after 1967, yet the transnational connections it engendered suggest that a re-assessment of national boundaries that was already in play years before Estonia declared independence.
A particularly quirky and endearing work is “Driving Through the Past, With the Present Ahead, and the Future Behind My Back” (2018) by Nedo Solakov. He created a custom-made display case based on the shape of the route he took to drive from Sofia, Bulgaria, where he lives, to Riga. Within the exquisitely crafted vitrine are objects, photographs, and drawings he made during his week-plus journey. He used a black marker to write a stream-of-consciousness story with numerous moments of levity around the entire length of the case. In the end, the work tells us about Solakov, who writes he lives in the “most corrupt and poorest of the countries of the Eastern bloc.”
Berlin-based artist Tobias Zielony’s video and photo series Maskirovka (2017) concern the LGBTQ techno community in Kiev, Ukraine, specifically after the 2013 revolution. The word “maskirova” often describes a Russian military strategy in which misinformation is spread. Here, the title also refers to the common practice of wearing masks and dressing up to go clubbing. Indeed, masks can be about hiding as much as revealing one’s personality. The video alternates between two narratives — primarily news footage about the calamitous events in Kiev as well as photographs taken of the LGBTQ club scene — at the rate of five images per second. The stroboscopic effect mirrors that of the techno club, although the video has no sound. As the narratives begin to overlap in our mind, clubbing assumes a political dimension, clubbers inhabiting this space as acts of identity-affirmation. Conversely, soldiers begin to resemble clubbers. Several still photographic portraits of individual clubbers serve as a counterpoint to the frenetic video.
London-based Indrė Šerpyte commissioned a woodcarver to make miniature replicas of buildings once used by Soviet secret service for her ongoing series (1944-1991) Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings, begun in 2009. NKVD refers to the interior ministry (now known as the Ministry of Internal Affairs), responsible for the Great Purge (1936-38) among other horrific atrocities. Šerpyte has placed what seems like an endless number of these carved buildings onto metal shelves in a room that resembles a storage facility. One can peer into the room but not enter. By replicating the buildings in miniature, they lose their imposing power but on the inability to touch them prevents the objects from become mere toys. Šerpyte’s installation holds these two positions in tension. The experience of viewing it remains with me, and will for some time I suspect.
It is worth recognizing Gregos’s skillful curation, reflecting her experience. Artworks are given a generous amount of space and labeled with short, jargon-free texts in English, Latvian, and Russian. Labels do not overwhelm the work’s meaning. (In addition, the well-organized RIBOCA website, smart phone app, and catalogue include the same information.)
Of course, all of this is possible because the biennial is well-funded. The father of the biennial foundation’s founder is a wealthy Russian businessman. However, given that many works do not hide anti-Soviet sentiments this seems like a moot point. More significant and frankly embarrassing is the woeful lack of financial support from Latvia, something it would be nice for RIBOCA 2 to have — that and a more modest theme.
The RIBOCA biennial took place in Riga, Latvia, from June 2–October 28, 2018.
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