Doubts of a Post-Modernist Dilettante

Māra Ķimele, Hardijs Lediņš "Farewell to the Empire"; 1991. Photo by Valts Kleins

Māra Ķimele, Hardijs Lediņš “Farewell to the Empire”, 1991. Photo by Valts Kleins

Post-Modernism is pure dilettantism, says the Latvian musician Ingus Baušķenieks in a documentary directed by Kristīne Želve, dedicated to the Latvian interdisciplinary artist Hardijs Lediņš (1955–2004). This film was shown at the exhibition Lediņš. Between This and the Other (curated by Līga Lindenbauma) organised to commemorate 2015 as the Year of Hardijs Lediņš, and exhibited at the National Library of Latvia in 2015 from the 13th of November to the 30th of December. Lediņš’ diverse output spanned from music recordings and samizdat magazines to architectural proposals and performance documentations put together with a shifting circle of friends and associates, confirming the assumption that anyone can do anything. Theoreticians can argue that Post-Modernism does not simply mean “anything goes”, but in Lediņš’ case, his interest in this phenomenon was not accidental, as seen through the publication What Does it Mean: Post-Modernism? (Ko tas nozīmē: Postmodernisms?). This publication contained abridged translations of Charles Jencks’ and Ihab Hassans’ works by Lediņš and his close friend and associate Juris Boiko. This typographically modest brochure was issued by the Agency of Approximate Art in Riga in 1989. Lediņš practice, indeed existed somewhere between several established fields of activity; on the one hand professional musicians could not identify his work as music, and on the other hand artists could not consider his activities to be art either. In addition, Lediņš was an architect by profession who never actually designed any buildings. And yet music, performance and architectural theory coexisted and merged within his projects, often verging on the absurd whilst utilising the concrete socio-political conditions of the late Soviet period. It is likely that Baušķenieks’ remark was not meant to be read as a particularly disparaging comment. From a wider perspective, accusations of not being “professional” have been aimed at innovators throughout the duration of art’s modernisation process, causing one to question when did professionalism end exactly — perhaps already when 19th Century Impressionists failed to toe the line under the conservative teachings of their academic schools. The Soviet regime established its own fossilised system for the arts appropriating what it deemed to be the “best” heritage from the art world, making clear divisions between “high” art, such as painting, sculpture and graphics, with that of decorative arts which it viewed as ideologically less-charged. Music as such, was confined only to concert halls and architecture only served the purpose of creating buildings for the working people. Although no space for other genres like performance art were officially allocated, that did not mean they never existed. Recent explorations into Latvia’s history of non-conformism have unveiled numerous phenomena at odds with the status quo within Latvian art at the time. In an exhibition and accompanying CD issued by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2005, Lediņš’ contribution to this non-conformist field inscribed him as one of a generation of “trespassers”, a term used to label this counter-cultural movement of art from the 1980s.

The task of exhibiting such a diverse output of media must have presented a real challenge as the majority of his works still available exist only in photographic or filmic documentation, with only a few real objects preserved – in some instances. That said, the exhibition was one of the most comprehensive presentations of his less-studied oeuvre so far. Whilst not wanting to only confine Lediņš’ art to the past, the exhibition also featured other contemporary artists’ and their works which had been created along similar lines with their activities largely processual, collective and/or related to the living environment.

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Installation view, “Lediņš. Between This and the Other”, National Library of Latvia, 2015. Photo by Ansis Starks

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Installation view, “Lediņš. Between This and the Other”, National Library of Latvia, 2015. Photo by Ansis Starks

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Installation view, “Lediņš. Between This and the Other”, National Library of Latvia, 2015. Photo by Ansis Starks

Music and samizdat

Lediņš was born into the family of a Scandinavian language translator and a physics teacher. Working as a post boy in his teenage years, he saved enough money to buy his first tape-recorder. In 1975, he founded his own sound studio from home called Seque, and began recording experimental music inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In the late 1970s, he was organising discotheques which was a new kind of entertainment for Soviet space. In order to get permission from the authorities, his events had to contain educational elements. Lediņš discotheques were therefore often complemented with lectures and presentations on various musical themes. In 1982, his Workshop of the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations (known in Latvian as NSRD) was launched at the discotheque Cosmos. This exhibition provided its audience with a chance to listen to Lediņš’ musical output and assess how his “not really” music fitted into the wider musical developments of the 20th Century avant-garde; his minimal music would become a particular trend to keep in mind.

Another kind of dissident activity Lediņš became heavily involved in while still at school was creating samizdat magazines. In the USSR, any publication that was made had to be approved by an officially imposed censorship and even certain typewriters were not meant for everyone. The magazine Zirgābols (Horse Dung) made by Lediņš and his classmate Boiko got them both into trouble with the KGB. Other similar hand-made publications presented at the exhibition—WCZLS, Seque, the novel Zun, and other poetry—sometimes resembled medieval manuscripts combining witty texts with caricature-like illustrations, playing on this wide-spread Soviet phenomena. Examples of seemingly actual but really amusing advertisements appeared in them, like Riga Champaign and Wine Factory’s announcement of a game “Who can drink more?” which offered free drink degustation for collectors of empty alcohol bottles — only those emptied by the participants themselves would be accepted. A warning was added that varnish, brake fluid and eau-de-cologne bottles were not counted — these “drinks” were only consumed by hardened, penniless alcoholics.

Architectural theories and explorations

In 1979–1989 Lediņš worked at the Latvian State Building Institute of Scientific Research and Experimental Technology. He has published a number of articles in local magazines, reflecting on the home theory. This has potentially been influenced by Cristian Norberg-Shultz’s ideas, as Maija Rudovska and Iliana Veinberga pointed out in their article “Architectonic Structures and Social Ecology: Studies into the Creative Legacy of Hardijs Lediņš” (Acoustic Space No. 9, 2011, pp. 233–240). Along with some other works presented at young architects’ exhibitions, the present show featured the interdisciplinary film titled Man in a Living Environment (1987) commissioned by Lediņš as part of a research project. In the film, interviews were conducted with the inhabitants of Riga’s new residential districts. Interviews were then synthesised with various performative activities like dancing, acting out theatrical scenes, etc. All in all, Lediņš’ contribution to architectural theory consists more in the form of poetic visions than in pragmatic suggestions for how to seriously improve the standardised block housing. However, his stance clearly coincides with Post-Modernist reactions towards the utilitarian, rigid Modernist principles, degraded even further by the poorer construction qualities within the USSR.

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“Wind in the Willows”, 1986. Part of Art Days ’86 in Architects’ House, Rīga. Installation-interior by Juris Boiko, Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Aigars Sparāns, Dace Šēnberga, Imants Žodžiks. Photo by Imants Žodžiks

Poetic performances

As stated in the exhibition, Lediņš became a major figure in Latvia’s performance art scene of the 1980s. His poetic improvisations and attractive visual images—often involving numerous participants—were born out of spontaneous reactions to concrete situations, though their complexity and level of planning increased over time. Annual walks to Bolderāja and along the railway tracks of this rather run-down district on the outskirts of Riga became a series of legendary actions with a ritualistic flavour. Video documentation of the action Spring Grindstone (1987) revealed an epic spring landscape with melting snow and floating ice, somewhat reminiscent of early 20th Century Latvian paintings. A group of participants in an old farmstead performed seemingly senseless actions: a wheelbarrow being pushed, various manipulations using a grindstone and different tools, smashing ice, playing music, etc. Some scenes directly pointed to motifs of liberation such as the untangling of a tied-up woman, or the success in overcoming a fence after several failed attempts. Nature’s awakening after the winter frost was of primary context, though political allusions were also possible to be made, even if only in the spectator’s mind. The show allowed one to also delve into videos of other performances involving various actions in either natural or urban settings with a certain meditative flavour (Doctor Eneser’s Binocular Dance Courses I–III, 1986–1987; Iceberg Yearnings, Volcano Dreams, 1987; The Sequences of Spring, 1988; Apple-Blossoms, 1989; The Binocular Dance of Paris, 1990; etc.). Many other recorded events have only survived through photographs. Line in Kurzeme (1983) draws comparisons to Land Art activities elsewhere, featuring a line drawn with a rolled-up piece of paper in the landscape. From 1987 onwards, Lediņš began using the notion of Approximate Art. The First Approximate Art Exhibition involved a series of performances realised over several days, and also included video installations. This was followed by the second Approximate Art exhibition titled A Mole in the Hole (1988), as well as other events. The participation of NSRD in the landmark exhibition Riga – Lettische Avantgarde (1988), which saw Latvian art travel abroad to several German cities, brought an international recognition and contextualisation to this phenomenon. However, this peak of attention also signalled the end of the group who ceased their activities soon after. Several sporadic undertakings by Lediņš were noted in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the new arrival of capitalism and Latvia’s restored independence brought with it the necessity to either get a “real job” or find a way to join the international art scene. As neither was a real option for Lediņš, who never seemed to truly find his place and transform his artistic life, this most-likely contributed to his passing in 2004.

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“Line in Kurzeme”, 1983, Action by Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Imants Žodžiks. Photo by Imants Žodžiks

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“Line in Kurzeme”, 1983, Action by Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Imants Žodžiks. Photo by Imants Žodžiks

Research and canonisation

The activities of NSRD have recently obtained certain scholarly attention. For example, Māra Traumane has interpreted their “Doubts on Art” as a constructive project and prerequisite of the Post-Modern turn (The KUMU Art Museum’s Fall Conference: Shared Practices: The Intertwinement of the Arts in the Culture of Socialist Eastern Europe [Abstracts], Tallinn: KUMU, 2015). Comparisons might be drawn, for example, with Collective Actions Group in Moscow who were active in the 1970s and realised their events in countryside locations. Another intriguing comparison that seems not to have been drawn yet would be with the Estonian artist Leonhard Lapin who was also an architect with a Post-Modernist mind-set involved with a diverse range of creativity as well. However, his Constructivist, Pop Art and Conceptualist leanings might be among the differences to explore.

The aim of the whole series of events in connection with the Year of Hardijs Lediņš was to celebrate his personality within the umbrella of the Latvian Cultural Canon, as “a treasure trove that contains the most important cultural achievements of all times” (http://www.kulturaskanons.lv/en/1/). It is quite possible to argue the contrary, that his activities were essentially at odds with such an initiative. Lediņš did not aim to create great art. He aimed simply to live and experience the concrete moment as fully as possible, to have fun and celebrate the transient, processual aspects of being with the possibility to capture deeper meanings along the way. There could be some danger of turning his legacy into an ossified dogma. The only reason why such a move can be justified is that the ‘canon’ is something to be studied, learned from and understood, and by getting to know Lediņš legacy the possibility that its message(s) will live on in work of future generations will increase. In this light, perhaps the restless dilettante—who doubted everything except the fact that Post-Modernism has brought possibilities of liberation—deserves to be remembered as one of the forefathers of Latvian contemporary art.

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“Mies van der Roe 102 years”. Action and exhibition. Part of Art Days ’88 in Architects’ House, Rīga, 1988. Participants Inguna Černova, Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Daiga Mazvērsīte, Rita Piešiņa, Rūdolfs Pīpkalējs, Aigars Sparāns, Imants Žodžiks and others. Photo by Imants Žodžiks

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“Mies van der Roe 102 years”. Action and exhibition. Part of Art Days ’88 in Architects’ House, Rīga, 1988. Participants Inguna Černova, Leonards Laganovskis, Hardijs Lediņš, Daiga Mazvērsīte, Rita Piešiņa, Rūdolfs Pīpkalējs, Aigars Sparāns, Imants Žodžiks and others. Photo by Imants Žodžiks

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NSRD performance “Dr. Eneser’s Binocular Dance Classes”, 1987

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NSRD performance “Dr. Eneser’s Binocular Dance Classes”, 1987

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NSRD “A Walk to Bolderāja”, 1987

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NSRD “A Walk to Bolderāja”, 1987

Stella Pelše
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February 23, 2016
Published in Detour
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