Undersong provides the most recent and contemporary engagement between art and ethnography in Northern Europe, contributing to an over a century and a half long scene. Looking to the south, you will see Poland’s development of the Zakopane style in the mid 19th century. To the north, you will meet the Kalevala movement headed by Axeli Gallen-Kallela in Finland around fin de siècle. In between, the Baltic lands were truly central to the national movements in the western periphery of the Russian Empire. One of the main tasks of young nationalists then was the discovery, conceptualisation and interpretation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Their conceptual processes went hand in hand with rapid social and economic developments, and the assumed heritage – ethnographic ornaments, local crafts, and folklore narratives – found expression in fine art as well as various forms of design. In Riga around 1904, the very city where Undersong took place, a nasty public row regarding whether ethnographic heritage could and should be modernised took place between the nation’s greatest designers Jūlijs Madernieks and Rihards Zariņš. Following World War II, ethnographic heritage—explored by Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians during the interwar period of independence—served as an important resource for national identities within their respective exiled Diasporas, equally becoming a source of national form for socialist content in so-called “brotherly republics” of the Soviet Union.
Similarly in the Baltic States, choral movements and singing culture became important symbolic resources for nation building in the same 19th century (and still is, as demonstrated by national song festivals). The main forms of expression marking the formative revolution of 1905 and the restoration of independence at the end of 1980s were songs, the latter event even acquiring the title of the ‘Singing revolution’. The singing nation has also become a popular form of Latvian self-identification in an international arena.
In light of this history, it must also be added that this Lithuanian show takes place during the centenary year when all three Baltic countries are celebrating 100 years since their independence was declared in 1918. Hedging their symbolic resources, Lithuanians love to refer to it as a re-instatement of their medieval kingdom as well. Still, the joint anniversary has intensified cultural exchange between the Baltic countries, injecting a large amount of financial support in systems of cultural production and representation. For the closest and immediate context one can refer to three tell-tale exhibitions parallel to Undersong in Riga. The first exhibition celebrates 100 years of Finnish design (100 Objects from Finland at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design from 16 February to 8 April). The second exhibition represents a century of Polish sculpture (Artistry at the Art Museum Riga Bourse from 27 January to 15 April), and the third exhibition (Cilme [Origin]: fabric as a conception and material for identity of Latvia, Riga Art Space, from 2 February to 18 March) displayed a broad range of constructions and deconstructions of Latvian ethnic/national identity related to uses of fabric, inevitably referring to the same ethnographic ornament as Indrė Šerpytytė does in her contribution to Undersong (From.Between.To, 2016-ongoing). A curatorial explanation, provided by Kim? [ Undersong exhibition was organised by the Vilnius-based art centre Rupert, curated by Juste Jonutyte – editor’s note], states that “Šerpytytė investigates how the making, exchange and ritual use of traditional woven sashes found across the Baltic States both inform and are informed by shifting cultural and political dynamics, examining how folk traditions are central to the formation of local and State identities.” Regarding the latter, one should clarify that instead of an ‘examination’, it is rather a direct contribution to ‘State identities’, taking into account the fact that the main aim of the show presents Lithuanian artists to Latvian audiences (see the same statement). If Undersong is defined and contextualised in terms of national identity, it must be mentioned that both artists currently work outside of their homelands, respectively, in London. Similar to significant state anniversaries, travel and exile equally intensify nostalgic longing for ‘national roots’ expressed within traditional representation. Already in April 1945, a joint Baltic ethnographic exhibition opened in Stockholm by Baltic refugees who just have fled to Sweden across the sea in fishermen’s boats. Of course, émigré nostalgia cannot be assumed as the main vehicle behind the artistic intentions of Undersong. Although it is present as a historical and, to some extent, biographical context, the very space of the white cube and contemporary art establishment greatly undermines it, foregrounding another set of relationships in the production of these respective artworks.
The latter is more visible (or better heard) at Lapelytė’s sound installation The Trouble With Time, another major contribution to the exhibition Undersong. Here, the link to traditional culture is represented only by a vague reference to Lithuanian polyphonic folk singing sutartinės, mentioned as a model often used for Lapelytė’s performances. Instead of turning cultural heritage into art as Šerpytytė does, Lapelytė is more likely to play with condensing contemporary art materials into a tradition-resembling form. This is recognised through the concept of Undersong: “The Trouble With Time … comprises … a complex layering of songs composed for texts written by a selection of artists, as well as songs recorded with Rhodi Davies at the French pavilion from the 2017 Venice biennale.” Here, the very reference to Venice again highlights the contemporary organisation of global art life as a representation of national assets in the international arena, allowing us to speak about the limited universality of art. Sometimes it just can’t be non-national! The very use of de/re-constructed polyphonic song in the Baltic contemporary art scene is notable due to a rare precedent. Only last year, the most prestigious art award in Latvia known as the Purvītis Prize was presented to a group of artists – Krišs Salmanis, Anna Salmane and Kristaps Pētersons – for their exhibition Dziesma (Song). In a nutshell, their exhibition was a critical deconstruction of Latvian song festival repertoire, creatively processing their conclusions of static analyses of song texts into an installation with a soundtrack central to it.
Undersong also featured several live performances by Lina Lapelytė: Pirouette at the opening of the show was followed by Mickey Tail, as well as live version of The Trouble With Time on April 30th. The latter provided visitors with an opportunity to hear Lapelytė singing texts by Jonas Mekas, Phil Niblock and Katherine Liberovskaya. Both of her other performances featured ballerinas – either at the very beginning or the end of their careers – with the purpose of illuminating the relationship between corporality and the formal discipline of representation. As such, they echo the highly repetitive facets of the folk ornament, explored in Šerpytytė’s piece. A view on tradition (ethnic and national heritage) from the perspectives of bodies, repetitive praxis and social practices invokes one of Pierre Bourdieu’s favourite terms ‘habitus’ – short, embodied dispositions or tendencies that organise how people perceive and respond to the world around them. Taken as a lens of interpretation, it frees Undersong from both national-ideological and aesthetic-formal connotations constituting the first impressions of the show that have dominated the long history of heritage interpretation in Baltic art.