Learn to talk while talking


“Bearing Petals”. Metal rod, C-print on fabric, oil painting (dimensions variable). Group show “Lily’s Pool” at Art in General, 2015, New York

Līga Marcinkeviča in conversation with Darja Meļņikova.

Līga Marcinkeviča: In my notes it says that we should talk about you, about the things that you do, about your thoughts, simply have a conversation. But all of that relates to art.

Darja Meļņikova: Yes! I understand. It is not going to be an interview for a women’s magazine.

But would that be interesting?

Yes! I often reflect on the idea. I would personally find it very interesting.

I cannot somehow help but wonder – how I might tailor my answers for an outlet that has a specific target audience.

You’d think of something.

I’d improvise!

Yes, improvise.

(Carmen’s Habanera lingers in the background while Daša leaves the room to admonish the cat, which has launched an array of tactics to demonstrate the indisputable importance of its present persona)

It is hard to begin an interview (in real life) with a purposeful question, but I believe the beginnings of conversations must be included as part of the interview, in order to avoid having to create a forced description of the interviewed person or a made up excuse for the interview. This conversation took place on request of the editorial office. Darja and I have known each other for about ten years now and usually I call her Daša. In a professional capacity – we studied at the same university (The Department of Visual Communication at The Art Academy of Latvia), although not at the same time. So it transpires that I have probably seen all of Daša’s work, certainly everything she has herself deemed as worthy of showing to the public, and I have witnessed the changes or transformation in her artistic signature. As for this conversation, instead of talking about what I see and think, I decided to listen to Daša.

Archives tend to have these cards that list and describe each work of art in great detail: a painting, brown background, yellow sun in the right-hand corner. Imagine that this interview will not be accompanied by any images and therefore I am asking you to come up with a description of your artwork. For example, Blending lines, arranging mounds, Bearing Petals and Room3. Follow Me. This time, rather than talking about your work, you should try to describe what it is like.

The way I approach forms in my work is based on observations. Forms derive from what surrounds me, the nature. I use line a lot in my work. I like line in itself. It comes from sketching, from the process of drawing, when initially I face a blank sheet of paper, and so now it is essentially the same process albeit in three dimensions. The next important entity in my work is material, endless combinations of different materials. Mainly my materials consist of contrasts – opposites: warm against cold, soft against hard, something formless against a very specific form. That’s a generic summary of my work. I guess now I should talk about a specific piece…

Yes. So which one are you going to choose to begin with? Bearing Petals, which was an exhibition at Lily’s Pool in New York or Room 3. Follow Me, which was on view here in Riga as part of the exhibition A Bigger Peace, Smaller Peace?

Bearing Petals consists of a painting and an object. Now, in reflection, I think I would create the part with the object slightly differently. If I had to exhibit Room 3. Follow Me again, I would not do it in the same way. It would be an autonomous, freestanding object that can be viewed from all angles and not just attached to one wall.

OK, that’s the overall description done. But now imagine that you have sat down to create the archival card for Room 3. Follow Me.

A construction of perpendicular aluminium pipes, supplemented with curved elements made from the same material. Viewed from above it follows the layout of a Christian church, especially the part that houses the altar or the apsidal. The aesthetics of this piece echo the interior observed inside some New Generation congregations. At the centre of this composition is a monitor, which serves as the altarpiece. It shows a video loop of a girl sitting down, breathing and blinking while a cover version of I Believe I Can Fly plays in the background but there is no dramatic action – it’s a kind of ironic contemporary icon. In the middle there is an altar table of sorts, made of fabric stretched across two pipes with hand made gluten free bread on top of it as a symbol of new beliefs. Monitor rests between palm leaves placed by its sides. The vertical aluminium constructions hold electric chandeliers. Delicate chains with pendants crisscross the construction like a spider’s web. The pendants are basic values – peace, love, faith and hope. The altar girl is also wearing a chain with a pendant around her neck, except with just one word – Believe, which is also the only verb here. Generally I chose these strong words because their meaning is becoming increasingly more banal. The pendant design has been borrowed from pop culture. And so, compositionally, all words hanging in the chain are striving to join together at the imagined centre – where the girl is wearing the word Believe around her neck. As a result, certain word combinations emerge – to believe in love, believe in peace… believe in something untainted that isn’t as material as a clean floor, but something innocent and good.

This piece is ironic because it mocks the new generation and its infatuation with the latest ideas, such as organic, gluten free food, nude make up etc. I am also being ironical about myself here, as last year I decided to start using gluten free products. Why? I don’t really know. Some people have to use gluten free food, perhaps because of health reasons, but in my case it was pure fancy, a challenge – why not, it’s worth a try! And there are so many people who do just that, there are these trends that suddenly appear and people start to follow them. I am by no means saying here that this is something bad.

Of course. We could concur that having an opinion about something does not imply condemnation.

I agree it’s an opinion. And I have tested it on myself. There is something about it though. You decide you are going to do something, it becomes a sort of ritual and you follow it, working hard at it. If you decide to give something up or – in contrary – to choose something new then it becomes a challenge to test how far you are actually prepared to go, how long you can keep it up.

Do your challenges somehow end up as art?

Yes! Turns out they do. I am not solving global problems in my art.

In your opinion, is it currently ‘in’ to solve global problems in art?

There are contemporary artists who explore serious issues, for example climate change, and some of them do it very well. But I know for sure, that’s something I could not do. For instance, I really like the work of artist Katja Novitskova – she focuses on subjects relating to nature, processes that can be widely debated. It is exhilarating to follow her work because each time she comes up with something new. I begin to think I know what her next move is going to be, but no way! She is full of surprises.

Are you excited about her subject matter or her work methods?

When I look at her work, I’m carried away by the subject matter and its artistic solution. The more I gaze at her work, the more interested I become in it and the underlying subject matter.

We have detoured from describing your work.

Well, you have given me quite a task – a brain tangle. Not sure anyone will understand.

Not that easy, is it?

Hard. If I had to write it all down and could read what I’ve written, following my thoughts in an orderly manner, then it would be much easier.

If I asked the same question again, you would probably pay more attention to minute details now, for example: the centre of construction is higher. You would probably emphasize the essence of centre and the centre-based idea.

Of course. But I can also state with confidence that for me it would be much easier to draw.

Your signature and the aesthetic of your work have changed over the past three years. Why is that?

I think it reflects the themes I have started to explore, as well as the choice of materials, which is simply fantastic. Although here in Riga the situation is poorer whereas in bigger cities the choice of available materials is inspiring – seeing it, holding a new material in my hands, ideas start to flow, a form emerges in my head. Often it is material that dictates how the theme of an artwork will develop.

I agree, the aesthetic of my work has changed in comparison to Blending lines, arranging mounds. That was my first piece when I had just about understood the basics of art.

Your attitude towards the material emerged in that exhibition. You were arranging building materials, creating a composition where layers and stratification generate a meaning, and you offset these formations of materials with well thought out, conceptually precise screen prints.

I still use screen-printing as a supplementary element in my installations. For example, there was a map of room layout in Room 2. Fool’s Gold that I could have easily printed, but I opted to screen print it instead in order to raise the value to it all.

The way of presenting my work has changed. When I show my early work to foreign curators they are a bit baffled about how I’ve managed to get from there to my current work.

Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say or at least tease out. Since it is hard to ‘track’ this route simply by looking at your work. Or is there something else in between that you are not showing?

No! For two years I did nothing at all.

Surfed the net?

Yes! Surfed the net, surveyed and reflected. Clearly, there are certain trends and approaches. Art, just like fashion, has seasonal collections. I am not advocating that trends should be followed blindly, however for artwork to be contemporary and in line with the current world, whilst staying within one’s comfort zone, the prevailing fashion should be acknowledged. Everything depends on what the artist is trying to say with the work. For example, if you want to be noticed and published on blogs then that can be easily achieved with just a few simple steps.

Now I no longer look at or search for art online, because the Internet, as well as the countless exhibitions, contains a lot of unnecessary information. I choose to visit just one, albeit inspiring, exhibition, instead of attending every single event. During my five months in Berlin, I only went to a few exhibitions. So many things happen there all the time that a sense of dissatisfaction sets in after going to each and every event.

Let’s return to your work. How would you like the viewer to discover your work? What is important – the first impressions? Or would you rather the viewer attempted to understand your story, following various leads and explanatory notes scattered around the exhibition?

I think my latest work is fairly accessible, it is somewhat narrated.

But how about the work in the Aspena- Ķemeri exhibition?

Yes, it’s possible that my work Splendour’s Dominance is not straightforwardly comprehensible. I could have said – let people see what I’m interested in, but, of course, people don’t know what it is that I’m interested in!

One of my sources of inspiration is architecture, architectonic forms, urban infrastructure, and human behaviour in public space. The exhibition Aspena- Ķemeri consists of two objects – doorframes. One frame is shaped like an arch but the other one is square. By association, Ķemeri is the arch while Aspen – the square.

The main ingredient that you worked with was the curator’s concept?

Yes. But, to be honest, I found it very hard to work with it, especially initially while the concept hadn’t become clear and I hadn’t fully understood it. I tried to find something that would interest me in order to create this work.  So the work turned out to be about lost values. Certain key elements indicate this: dry palm tree branches – witnesses of the past glory, the ‘setting sun’ incorporated in the arch, imprints of silhouettes left behind on white fabric.

It is absolutely certain that the viewer cannot see and immediately comprehend everything in this work. Even I notice something new each time I talk about it. But if you’d asked me this question during the exhibition launch, I would have not been able to answer. I have experienced on several occasions that the work needs to be exhibited first and then a few days must pass allowing for the ‘dust to settle’, before I can begin to talk about what it is.

Ability to discuss own work comes from talking about it. Our local tradition and education do not practice this approach. Only while talking about your work, do you arrive at a more precise description of ideas, discard redundant terms and find the right form to deliver this idea to your audience.

I agree. The first time I could calmly speak about my work was during the opening night of Room 2. Fool’s Gold at the Summer House. Whilst working on it in Berlin, I had to constantly talk about this piece during studio visits when everything was still a draft. And so after two months of talking, thinking and discussing this work with my studio visitors, I developed at a very clear idea, which I then supplemented with something new, something that had not even crossed my mind at first.

Tell me, which artists do you like?

I really like Neil Beloufa – we seem to resolve themes in a similar manner. I also like Anne de Vries. His pieces are not the sort of stuff that can be understood straight away but I like the way he works. He gets to the final result using experiments. He operates like a serious artist – joins things and then observes how they work, thus creating a new context. The work of both artists shows a high level of craftsmanship. As for the painters – I could highlight Louisa Gagliardi. Her work looks like it’s been created digitally and its additional value emerges once you realise that in fact it’s a painting,

What are you working on now?

I am preparing for my solo exhibition EX-UVIA at Konstanet gallery in Tallinn (opening on 13 May – L.M.). It is a virtual gallery, which also exists in physical space. The gallery’s layout has been recreated as a model on a 1:5 scale, five times smaller, so it is the size of a large box. The curators’ idea is as follows: artist puts on an exhibition inside this model gallery, and everything is photographed and if needed, manipulated further in Photoshop. In my case there will be no Photoshop. And then all photos are placed in virtual environment, adding new levels as required – such as text, video. The model is also exhibited and visitors can stick their head inside it and see the exhibition.

So that means that in both instances the viewer does not see the same exhibition. The model does not have the add-ons present in virtual environment, which has more elements than the physical space, even though both are essentially displaying the same artwork. That’s a very ‘Estonian’ concept.

I really enjoy working on this piece because I don’t have to worry too much about technical issues – the size is smaller. It gives me more freedom.


“Bearing Petals”, oil painting, 60 x 42 x 4 cm. Group show “Lily’s Pool” at Art in General, 2015, New York


“Dashing Lines and Forming Heaps”, 2010. C-print, 90 x 160 cm.  from exhibition “Dashing Lines and Forming Heaps”, kim? Contemporary Art Centre, 2011, Riga


Exhibition view, “Dashing Lines and Forming Heaps”, kim? Contemporary Art Centre, 2011, Riga


Ø=5mm, 2011. Paper, wood, concrete, metal, poleurethane, pasterboard, ruller, key, envelope, 100 x 60 x70 cm. “Dashing Lines and Forming Heaps”, kim? Contemporary Art Centre, 2011, Riga


“Room 3. Follow Me”. Installation, video loop with sound. From the group exibition “Bigger Peace, Smaller Peace” at Latvian Railway History museum, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 3. Follow Me”. Installation, video loop with sound. From the group exibition “Bigger Peace, Smaller Peace” at Latvian Railway History museum, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 3. Follow Me”. Installation, video loop with sound. From the group exibition “Bigger Peace, Smaller Peace” at Latvian Railway History museum, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 2. Fool’s Gold”. Installation. Solo exhibition at “Art Needs Space” summer house, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 2. Fool’s Gold”. Installation. Solo exhibition at “Art Needs Space” summer house, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 2. Fool’s Gold”. Installation. Solo exhibition at “Art Needs Space” summer house, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Room 2. Fool’s Gold”. Installation. Solo exhibition at “Art Needs Space” summer house, 2015, Riga. 2015


“Splendour’s Dominance”. Installation. From the group exhibition “Aspen-Kemmern” at kim? Contemporary Art Centre, 2014, Riga. 2014. Photo by Ansis Starks

More information about the artist:  http://dariamelnikova.com

May 17, 2016
Published in Interview from Latvia
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