Construction projects for buildings serving the arts, once nurtured by the State Agency “Jaunie Trīs Brāļi” (The New Three Brothers), are gradually being revived, one after the other. These projects – Contemporary Art Museum, Acoustic Concert Hall and the Latvian National Library– are joined by new renovation projects for the Daugava Stadium and Riga Congress Centre. Early next year, the first of the “brothers”, dubbed the “Castle of Light”, will celebrate its opening. At the time when the final polishing is being done and the building site cleared, the public’s attention has already turned to questions related to the nascent Museum of Contemporary Art and its possible location. Time has brought some adjustments: an end to the dream of a museum designed by the famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the territory of Andrejsala. Also, the museum will probably not be established as an independent state institution, as it was planned initially, but a subsidiary of the Latvian National Museum of Art.
Thanks to the exhibition of the ABLV Bank art collection “For an occurrence to become an adventure…”, shown at the Rīga Art Space, the issues of the collection and social functions of the museum have been raised in public. On 23 September 2005 the Ministry of Culture signed a long-term collaboration with Aizkraukle Bank (now ABLV Bank), which became the first big supporter of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum. Although the exhibition, curated by Solvita Krese, director of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, was claimed to represent the collection of the museum, it should be stressed that this is only one part of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum collection assembled over a number of years. Besides the ABLV Bank collection, there is also a body of work which is years in the making, and held by the Latvian National Museum of Art, as well as a collection assembled by an international committee of experts and managed by Astrīda Rogule, manager of the contemporary art collection at the Latvian National Museum of Art. This fact needs to be brought up as the recent ABLV exhibition lacked information about the history of the collection resulting in a possibly false impression that the works on display were the total whole of artworks acquired by the museum. It is worth mentioning that this is not the first exhibition in which the public could see a selection from the collection of the nascent museum. For example, the works assembled by professional jury were displayed in the 2009 exhibition „Krājums I” (Collection I) and the 2010 exhibition „Krājums II” (Collection II) at KIM? Contemporary Art Centre, while in 2012 a part of the collection was included in the exhibition “Tests” (Test) curated by Helēna Demakova, displayed in the white hall of the Latvian National Museum of Art.
When thinking about the content of the new museum, an important question emerges, related to the chronological boundaries for the collection. For example, will the collections of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum represent only nonconformism, art of the 1990s and art created in the 21st century, or will the collection allow the viewer to gain an overview of the landscape of Latvian art post-1945? Now, that the construction of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum and the release of a multi-volume book of art history of Latvia are scheduled for 2018, the 100th anniversary of the republic, it is important to cogitate on how we wish to represent our art.
What does the exhibition tell us about the collection?
By exhibiting the purchased artworks, curator Solvita Krese succeeded in turning both halls of the Rīga Art Space into a simple and clear exhibition. The pieces were hung on grey walls arranged into a labyrinth of walkways, making the viewer wander through the space and encounter, for example, photographer Inta Ruka’s rural folk, Dmitry Gutov’s Virgin Mary of Tikhvin, Maija Kurševa’s Žanis, born from the root of evil, Oļegs Kuļiks’ photographic landscapes of human-animals, Aijas Zariņa’s Zeus embodied in a bull or the military police portrayed by the artists of the Blue Noses Group, embraced in a passionate kiss in the middle of a snowy birch grove. The feel of the space – toned down, as if frozen in time for a moment, is similar to the promotional image for the exhibition, the ascetic landscape created by Lithuanian master of photography Antanas Sutkus, in which a man in a black dust coat, blown by the wind is trudging through a desert-like, sandy landscape. Although this photograph speaks without textual explanation – with its colour contrasts, fields and composition – the value of things and places often increase when they have a story revealed. The wearer of the black, wind-rumpled coat is the famous French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and the desert is actually the Nida sand dunes in Lithuania. This added information undoubtedly expand the understanding and ability to interprete the artwork.
The ABLV Bank collection is dominated by two-dimensional art, particularly painting and photography, providing only a sketchy view of other artistic mediums. The art collection viewed in the exhibition can be imagined in offices and foyers, presented to visitors as a symbol of the good taste of the business. Although the collection represents talented artists, a lack of courage can be felt in the final selection. There is no information explaining the position, lines, process, or conditions that influence the bank to present these particular art pieces. Those responsible for assembling the collection of the new museum should also take into account that art is not quite aimed to be “convenient” and “good-looking” in terms of form and content. Apart from three video works – the content of which is both poetic and contemplative – acquired through the initiative of the curator, the collection does not contain any other work that represents new media or experimental forms. For example, installations, ready-mades and multidisciplinary pieces where art collaborates with science, as seen in the works of Voldemārs Johansons or Gints Gabrāns’ installations from various periods. Instead, as art historian Ieva Astahovska notes, Gabrāns is represented with his pretty photon landscapes.
If we return to the mediums that are represented in the exhibition, the question emerges: why does the collection not include, for example, watercolours by Kristiāns Brekte from the wonderful Rīga Madonna series, or his works encapsulated in formaldehyde. Sculpture is only represented by two works of Aigars Bikše. Out of the artworks created in the 20th century, outstanding Latvian painter Miervaldis Polis is represented by a kitsch doggy portrait, while the photographer Egons Spuris, who is included in our canon of Latvian visual art, cannot be found beside other Latvian photographers. I did not see any work from our neighbouring countries created by a luminary of the younger generation. I must add that I could myself rebut some of these critical notes, but only after finding out the other part of the museum collection and having a conversation with the curator herself.
The art of telling a tale
Stories were used as vehicles to widen artistic perception and to justify the selection of particular works. These were written by art historians Ieva Astahovska and Ieva Kalniņa, the art critic Vilnis Vējš as well as the curator herself. Solvita Krese’s aim and justification for such text format was avoiding boring curatorial labels. It should be noted that within the framework of the exhibition there was a discussion started in the portal Satori about boring texts by Latvian curators and critics, and here one was also subjected to the editor of Rīgas laiks (Riga Time) magazine, Uldis Tīrons, who claimed unable to gain just as great experience from the text of Latvian art descriptions as from a good artwork itself. As it is well known, artworks themselves are very good storytellers and often, depending on the experience, fantasies and knowledge of the viewer, they tend to reveal a completely different story from the one which the artist or curator have been trying to tell us.
I assume that the authors of the texts were chosen according to their professional experience and in one or another case because of their link to a particular work, its time of creation and artist. However, Vilnis Vējš is the only author who really succeeded in the role of storyteller, who managed to hold back from a direct analysis of the work and listing factual information. Instead, in his characteristically playful style, Vējš combined an informal writing style with a way of recounting everyday things and was able to precisely record the significant details of space-time which have played or play an important role in the world of art and artists.
In some cases the small stories allowed to sketch-in contexts, gave a view to the backstage of creation and understanding of the choices of a particular curator, combinations of different works in the sections of the exhibition. For example, the above-mentioned cute doggy by Polis is actually a story about a jar of jam, painted in an especially realistic manner. Painter Imants Lancmanis had a similar experience: for the artist, newly discovering this traditional form of expression marked a new path in his journey as an artist. The portrait of the little dog was one of the first conscious works in a new direction, which was dubbed hyperrealism. There is still things left out in the text, say, the collection contains practically no work from Miervaldis Polis because the works of the artist from the Soviet period have been bought out and are found in the ownership of both the Latvian National Museum of Art and various private collections.
The interest towards the nascent museum is surprisingly big and positive if we compare it to the society’s reaction lately to state’s costly investments into building the Latvian National Library or renovation of the Latvian National Museum of Art. This even led to creation of a social initiative titled “Mākslai vajag telpu” (Art needs space) whose head goal is to stimulate and fasten the processes of building the museum. The interest towards collection display was also huge and what is even better that the school groups were standing in line to for excursions and participate in the special educational programs.
Nevertheless, disatiffaction with the the decidions of the jury is still there, not only the ones of the museum collection committee but also ones of Purvīša prize (Latvian Contemporary Art prize) choices seem to be very conservative and „safe“. Maybe they have to take the more daring decisions like, for example, MOMA in 60s and 70s which collected art strongly criticised by apogees of modernism such as Clement Greenberg at that time and Turner Prize which brings discussions after every final. We have to remember that personal likes and dislikes have to vanish so that story could be told with all its turns.
For more information about the collection display see lcca.lv.