Speed, Apathy and Nationalism: The 1st Riga International Biennale

Diana Lelenek, Center for Living Things, 2016-18 (detail). Installation, mixed media

Dimensions variable
. Courtesy of the artist, lokal_30 Gallery, Warsaw and Centre of Contemporary Art, Toruń. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Stine Marie Jacobsen, Pidgin Tongue, 2018. Sculpture, publication and workshop project, 200 × 320 × 100 cm
. Commissioned by RIBOCA1. Book design by Modem Studio and published by Broken Dimanche Press. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Stine Marie Jacobsen. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Eli Cortiñas, The Most Given of Givens, 2016. (installation view) Three-channel video installation, colour / black and white, sound,
10’ 15”
. Courtesy of the artist and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Ariane Loze, Impotence, 2017 and Inner Landscape, 2018 (installation view). Single-channel HD video, colour, sound, 18’ 11”
 and 7’. Commissioned by RIBOCA1. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.
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The future is anchored in the past, as the 1st Riga International Biennale reminds us. Whereas many recent Biennials and large-scale exhibitions have been retrospective – anachronistic, even – harking back to lost political and social utopias, the 1st edition of the Riga Biennial sets its eyes firmly on the present and the near future of the human condition as we approach the second quarter of the twenty first century.

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the Riga International Biennale

Diana Lelenek, Center for Living Things, 2016-18 (detail). Installation, mixed media

Dimensions variable
. Courtesy of the artist, lokal_30 Gallery, Warsaw and Centre of Contemporary Art, Toruń. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

 

There are perhaps few cities more suitable than Riga to host a show about change. On one hand, Latvia is, alongside Estonia and Lithuania, one of the more confident and stable economies from the post-USSR cluster. On the other, the country is still contending with its conflicts-riddled history, encapsulated most recently perhaps, by Raimonds Vējonis’ decision to phase in Latvian-language teaching in secondary schools, and the subsequent opposition by Russian MPs.

These two sentiments are palpable at the 1st Riga International Biennale.

Take for example, Stine Marie Jacobsen’s Pidgin Tongue, where local children were invited to create a new dictionary for a future language that all Latvians could claim to be their own. While reminding that there is no such thing as an unchanging mother tongue, it also raises questions about the preservation of languages, and will strike a chord in the hearts of many Hongkongers. Elsewhere, Marina Pinsky’s Second-Hand Time super-imposes images of the Soviet parachute squad on photographs of contemporary Riga – a reminder that the Soviet shadow still lurks in the minds of this generation of Latvians. But it’s the location that the piece is in – the former residence of the Latvian entrepreneur Kristaps Morbergs – that provided the poignant moment. From certain windows, you can see the tip of Riga’s Freedom Monument.

 

Stine Marie Jacobsen, Pidgin Tongue, 2018. Sculpture, publication and workshop project, 200 × 320 × 100 cm
. Commissioned by RIBOCA1. Book design by Modem Studio and published by Broken Dimanche Press. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Stine Marie Jacobsen. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

 

On August 23, 1989, two million people from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania formed a human chain across 3 Baltic states in protest of continued Soviet occupation. That moment is now crystallised in Erik Kessels’ massive installation, Chain of Freedom, at Sporta2. Simple but effective, it’s a highlight at the show. But the biennale, while titled Everything was Forever, Until it was No More, after Alexei Yurchak’s book of the same name, isn’t just about the Baltics, as Chief Curator Katerina Gregos reminds in her curatorial statement. And indeed, the strength of the biennale lies in its ability to interweave the region’s politics with more general issues, including the rise of AI and bio-engineering, pollution, and nebulous concept of national borders

One such work is Eli Cortinas’s The Most Given of Givens. Serving up scenes from Chris Marker’s and Alain Resnais’ Les Statues Meurent Aussi, film stills of a white cast acting in front of ethnographic projects, and images of Greco-Roman ruins and the ‘untamed’ nature, it hits home the idea that history is always the tale of the winner. The unreliability of history also anchors Aslan Gaisumov’ People of No Consequence, where 119 survivors of the Chechen and Ingush deportations in 1994 are gathered in a Grozny community house. Their impenetrable faces, the deadening silence – when is horror so horrific that it becomes unspeakable?

 

Eli Cortiñas, The Most Given of Givens, 2016. (installation view) Three-channel video installation, colour / black and white, sound,
10’ 15”
. Courtesy of the artist and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

 

Away from the politically oriented art, the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Riga gathers together art with specific bio-chemical slant. Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Infinity Engine fills an entire room at the Former Faculty of Biology with images of new species, the result of DNA engineering. There is Freedom Zucchini, created in 1995, and Jellyfish Feline, created in 2011. In the next room, a facial recognition software captures your image and adds your DNA info to an evolving composite archetype. Here, the focus not as much about Big Brother, but rather, what exactly is it that makes us human? Is it nothing more than a string of codes and numbers? Meanwhile, Diana Lelonek’s Center for Living Things takes a decidedly anti-anthropocentric view. Moss, fungi and other ‘undesirables’ thrive on human waste including electronic components and stained clothing. Rather than being an ‘object’ on which humans impose their will, nature is reacting to every little change in their surroundings, and playing an active part in transforming our ecology.

In many ways, accelerationism goes hand in hand with helplessness, the idea that things are spinning at such rate that human beings, rather than being in control, have become mere subjects to speed. In the dim surrounds of Art Centre Zuzeum, Ariana Loze’ Impotence tells of the difficulty of finding meaning, especially amongst the younger generation, in the contemporary world, where struggle between ideals long given way to general apathy and pessimism. Elegant in construct, yet also deeply disturbing, Julijonas Urbonas’ Euthanasia Coaster at Sporta2 is a hypothetical suicide machine.

 

Ariane Loze, Impotence, 2017 and Inner Landscape, 2018 (installation view). Single-channel HD video, colour, sound, 18’ 11”
 and 7’. Commissioned by RIBOCA1. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

 

At Andrejsala, a former industrial port poised to be transformed into an arts district, Zolotko Jevgeni’s The Sacrifice is installed on the edge of a destitute field. Formerly used for the transportation of cattle, there are stimulated kicks and punches that causes the trailer to shake, and is an eerie reminder of the claustrophobic living spaces closer to home.

At Dulbuti Art Station, thirty minutes away by train from Riga, we stand on tip toes to smell the compendium of scents that Sissel Tolaas has collected in beyond SE(A)nse. There are smells of seas and shores – which smells like wet salt – but also that of ‘body’ and garbage (we can’t decide which one is worse). Lured by the sound of crashing waves, we arrive at a busy stretch of the 32 kilometre Jurmala beach, where children were making sand castles, and their parents sipping on Roses and beer. As we munch on black garlic bread, a golden glow breaks apart the clouds in the distance, providing the illusion that here, the idea of change doesn’t apply.

 

 

1st Riga International Biennale
EVERYTHING WAS FOREVER UNTIL IT WAS NO MORE
Chief curator – Katerina Gregos
In view until 28 October 2018
Riga & Jurmala
Latvia

 

 



Christie Lee
 is a Hong Kong-based arts journalist, her articles have been published in Art + Auction, Artsy Editorial, Art in Asia, Baccarat magazine and Yishu. She has a degree in English literature and political science from McGill University.

 

 
 
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