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The metaphorical extinction of Latvia

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

Review of the exhibition ‘To My Homeland’ by Ivars Drulle

Gallery Alma, 30.11.2016.-20.01.2017.

Ivars Drulle’s exhibition To My Homeland invites his countrymen and foreigners alike to take a look at a theme no one really wants to discuss, think about or analyse. In joyous, characteristically naive, yet also painfully self-ironic ways, the very first works in his exhibition already invite us to lean in closer and take a magnifying glass towards certain things we try to avoid in our everyday lives. Isn’t it amazing how we’re able to disregard dilapidated or ruined buildings and things from our field of vision?

So we lean in. Ck-ck-ck-ck-ck! The camera lens attached to the light box glides gently and mechanically past hundreds of slides. To move the lens along is a tactile pleasure, kind of like pressing the shutter button on a camera. The lens lingers over each image for just a moment, until we catch sight of it. Abandoned houses with their sad empty windows, situated in lush rural settings, look back at us from the slides. The name of each homestead is written on its slide – reminders of a family’s roots and pride. The light box with its illuminated images resembles the enticing window displays of real estate offices, except that the houses shown here are no longer alive. They have died along with the dreams that real estate agents try to conjure up about life inside in order to sell them.

In the first space, in the slide installation Abandoned Homes in a 15-Kilometre Radius around My Home (2013 – ongoing), Drulle uses the places where people’s lives and personalities once began. Many of these places define ‘Latvianness’, like single farmsteads; homes that have become one with their inhabitants; individual, non-standard, beloved homes, memorialised in folk songs, that had been fought over and reclaimed following Latvia’s independence and are now deserted or neglected – not without feelings of guilt – as the population grows more concentrated in the cities. Drulle has put these images together like a comic strip, each framed next to each other. He thereby achieves a paradoxical metaphor that explains the relationship between the individual and the system and, at least, the way it takes place at this latitude.

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

In some ways, Drulle is continuing to explore the discourse in this millennium’s contemporary architecture about the concept of ‘home’. Often considered in the context of urbanisation and the urban, here, he relates it instead to a rural and local situation, and looks at the issue through the contemporary media. The architectural photograph as a medium that contemplates the role of architecture once provided extensive opportunities to discuss the synthesis of art and science, the society of the future, politics and the vision of futuristic globalisation. But there is no countryside in this vision. It does contain homes without boundaries that merge with the landscape, organic farms and eco-aesthetic bioclimatic projects, but it does not contain abandoned rural Latvian homes – without offering any advice on how to make up with one’s past or how to begin living in those places we no longer know how to live in.

Architecture is an answer to demand. Architecture is democratic, in this sense; it will always look the way that society wants it to look. Architecture is a mirror of civilisation. And that’s also what Drulle’s rural home landscapes are like. They tell us about the local community. The artist’s chosen media precisely describes the identity crisis experienced by the contemporary Latvian, a crisis that has been facilitated by various twists and turns in history and economics.

Drulle is not only a sculptor, but also a narrator and an animator, who enlivens his objects with light, mechanics and audiovisual techniques. His installation Latvia (2016) consists of an electronically operated cyclist made out of wire, behind which a Latvian landscape slowly slides by on large rollers. The rhythmic clicks and monotonous winding of the rolls quite authentically recreate the meditative feeling of riding a bicycle and the feeling of the world rolling open in front of you like a carpet. Pedalling along a highway can be slow enough for a cyclist to be able to presently observe. Even though the energy used up in the unrelenting battle with the headwind does not change anything in the world, it is an opportunity, nevertheless, to take a look at oneself from the side, to see oneself as a part of the landscape and to unchain one’s thoughts from oneself in the silence of solitude. Perhaps such a process like this allowed Drulle to arrive at the ideas for these works in this exhibition. The eternal cyclist speaks to the rest of the works in the exhibition both through the sound of the bike’s metal tick, and as a constant work in progress that is characterised by freedom and openness.

In some ways, the Latvia installation is childish and overly explanatory, but this seems to have been a conscious decision on the part of the artist. Drulle likes to emphasise innocence and simple-mindedness as an integral part of the Latvian human character. He is not a criticiser who feels superior to others; instead, he fully attributes himself to being simple-minded as well. Yes, his works are clever and ironic, but that’s not all. They are direct, also pressing and urgent, in other ways. At a time when the news brings us threats of war every day, when all the clairvoyants and statisticians predicting that Latvians are dying out have been repeatedly heard, that Latvians are all migrating elsewhere and will forget their language within the next 50 years, we naturally live in fear and uncertainty about what will happen to us. How exactly will we lose what we are? If any clairvoyants from outer space were to land in rural Latvia this year, they could conclude based on such fears that the apocalypse has already taken place and Latvians no longer exist.

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

Drulle, however, is not a pessimist. He is a person of action. He lives in the countryside from where he can observe, think and create. He plants a garden inside the foundations of an abandoned house, adding black soil and plants, peonies, marigolds, and whatnot. The foundation’s walls stand strong and indestructible, with the sun rising above them every morning. This has led to making the installation 30 Sunrises (since 2016). What does Drulle’s metaphor mean? Why does the garden need stone walls? There is still a ’keep out’ sign by the entrance of the farmstead; is it to protect the garden from an outsider’s view – from the evil eye? Is this work the gentle, flowering inner world of the simple-minded Latvian that hides behind a cool, grey outer shell? Or is it the well-tended grave of a long-lost dream? Perhaps it is everything all together. It seems that the garden inside the shell of a former home best characterises the attitude “I love this land, but I do not love this state”, which is mentioned in the exhibition’s description.

Drulle’s large-format rust paintings are exhibited in the second space of the exhibition. Dedicated to abandoned properties, they embody the heaviness of fatalistic Latvian thinking. The rusted panels bear the shapes of houses resembling gravestones. They are so dramatically pessimistic they’re almost funny. We are a culture of mourners, we’re nostalgic for ourselves (just look at the souvenirs in our markets – they are very sentimental, they seem to come from some distant, long-lost land instead of a new and dynamic European country).

In contrast to this, a small group of colourful human figures stand along a wall looking towards a dismal reality. These are the unusual Latvians, the ’forest sprites’. At least that’s how we often heart-warmingly speak about ourselves. They’re our inside jokes, our fashionable expressions, our popular culture, our unique, powerful celebrities, with whom we are slightly too obsessed by. And that’s how we stand there in Drulle’s installation entitled In the Morning, Waiting for the School Bus (2016), like a handful of colourful hipsters amongst the turns of time and the fates. In this space of the exhibition, the relationship between sizes is very meaningful – how small the human figures are compared to the corroded panels of reality, but not necessarily diminutive. As the Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis wrote: “What a huge piece of dust am I… and made of gold.” In these proportions and like an anthropologist, Drulle has calculated the balance between criticism and true tragedy.

Sculpture is one of the oldest forms of art, and the understanding of sculpture is closely linked with the surrounding space and time in which the work of art is made or is relevant. Sculpture is interactive art, and it takes place in the object’s zone of intimacy, where we can feel the material and its realness. Space is the sculptor’s form of expression. In this exhibition, Drulle contemplates space through the concept of home, and home is, in the most direct sense, an experience of the body. It is created for a human, and it is measured to fit a human physically (the human was originally also the unit of measure for its proportions), ideologically and aesthetically. “The taste of the apple […] lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way […] poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book” (Jorge Luis Borges). Similarly, home is where a person spends their life. A house contains the imprints and codes of the person living in it: the path that’s been worn from the stove to the table; the tea kettle encrusted with calcium deposits; the timeworn steps; the tarnished door handles, etc. Drulle’s rust paintings show how time erodes a house through a process that is just as sad to witness as the fading of a dear face. And this sorrow is genuine.

The exhibition is tectonically harmonious, the works comprehensively supplement each other. The ticking, slidable lens rhythmically speaks to the mechanical cyclist, and the glints of light are also the thirty video sunrises. Drulle captures us in his precise metaphors, which have come straight from his emotions, which overlap and combine with the individual experiences of each of us. At the conclusion of the exhibition we finally see a real map, showing the locations of all the abandoned houses, and real rust, which testifies to our presence at these events.

Drulle’s exhibition is not only about Latvia and ‘Latvianness’, but has many layers of interpretation. It also contemplates the human–world relationship within a much greater context as well as the artist’s possibility to understand it. What is home and homeland to Drulle himself? What is his base and foundation in this fickle, modern world? Perhaps it is the calmness or freedom of movement one has on a bicycle? None of the exhibited works are affirmations; Drulle’s work and study is in the process itself. After all, this collecting, studying and defining will only expand in radius. It is definitely not just socially-active art. It is art.

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins

Ivars Drulle, To My Homeland, exhibition view, ALMA gallery, 2016. Photo: Vents Aboltins