If someone knew beforehand that I was writing a review of an exhibition by Armands Zelčs, they would probably expect me to examine the show from the point of view of his artistic practice as a whole, or as a context, with good reason, because the depths of my computer, and, presumably, the archives of the Art Academy of Latvia, still store my review of his MA thesis exhibition, a solo show at the kim? centre for contemporary art (at the time still housed in one of the Maskavas Forštate warehouses). I also once wrote a short text for an exhibition by Zelčs and Daria Melnikova in Sweden (and Zelčs found a mistake in the English translation, where Meyrink’s Golem had somehow transformed into Gollum from The Lord of the Rings). One of the numbered clay objects is still sitting on my desk, right next to Wittgenstein’s ‘fly-bottle’. And on the solitary occasion when I tried the role of curator, I invited Zelčs, of course. I am sure I must have said something about his linguistically sophisticated piece in the catalogue notes. To this, I could probably add that Zelčs was the author of the design and layout of my book, and that I am currently reading the freshly published Latvian translation of the Kalevipoeg epic, a book whose visual image was also created by Armands Zelčs. Furthermore, if I were a user of various social networks (which I am not), we could update each other regularly on our success, or lack thereof, in child rearing. But this is not really about any of that: feel free to disregard all of the above. I want to start as a random viewer, who, on his way back from a library (I am afraid this is an inevitable sine qua non of my approach), found himself in an exhibition entitled ‘When You Read This, Nothing Special Will Have Happened’. (Which also means that I am not going to ask the artist about his intention, and what the whole thing really means, only to present it, adorned with a handful of profound observations, as a key to the artistic message.) I will start with a quote instead. First, though, the title of the article:
‘First you see a knotty plank of faux wood in unpainted plaster leaning vertically against a wall, then two garbage cans, also in unpainted plaster, one set within the other. The cans are covered by a plywood sheet, on the top of which lie the folded shirt of a priest and a newspaper clipping (it shows a female delegate to the 2004 Republican Convention mocking the Democratic candidate John Kerry).’ At this point, we could close the inverted commas, although the description, complete with pictures, does go on for a couple of pages. It is the opening of Chapter Three of Hal Foster’s 2017 book (published by Verso), the title of which was partly borrowed from a well-known maxim by Bertolt Brecht: Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency. The artist whose work is described by Foster is Robert Gober. An article on Gober by Foster was first published in 2000 in October magazine, and republished in Latvian in the now non-existent visual arts magazine Studija in 2013. (The title of my article is part of the title of Foster’s article, ‘An Art of Missing Parts’, and, strictly speaking, should therefore be in inverted commas.)
The choice of the quote was dictated by a number of reasons. First of all, the then editor of the now non-existent magazine told me in a conversation that she had chosen the text about Gober precisely because of the affinity between his and Armands Zelčs’ work. My memory is not a very trustworthy source; however, several of Gober’s objects, such as Pitched Crib (1987) reproduced in October magazine, are based on a transformed version of an object that works as an absurd cancellation of its original function, making one’s imagination set off on a Kafkian trip. (I do not suppose anyone would actually put a child in Gober’s crib, just as no-one would use, say, Zelčs’ Maria’s Way  as a slide.)
Kafka is another author of a quote I considered for this article. However, writing these lines far away from my home library, somewhere in the middle of a snowy vastness, I was not able to browse my books to find a suitable passage: my respect for some authors is so great that I cannot bring myself to read them in digital format dug up somewhere on the Internet. That was also the reason why I gave up the idea to turn to Dino Buzzati’s ‘Seven Floors’ (Sette piani, 1937), his description of a weird yet quite ‘logically’ arranged hospital, where the patients are categorised by floors, from the least serious cases on the seventh to the terminal ones on the first floor. ‘Kafka’ and ‘hospital’, these references call for an explanation.
As we enter the second room of the kim? exhibition, something that looks like a smallish (triumphal?) arch evokes thoughts of a linear-driven narrative, and prompts the decision to start from the end, like leafing through a copy of a magazine from the end. Armed with a plan of the exhibition featuring the titles of the individual pieces, we read: Application for the Abolition of Baldness, Application, Repeated application, Formal application, etc. (There are, of course, several titles that do not contain the word ‘application’.) With their conspicuous fragmentariness, the little tiles used in the mostly horizontal objects conjure up an imaginary administrative, bureaucratically absurd system, very much like the hospital in Buzzati’s story, or in a nightmare. This impression is further enhanced by the fluorescent lamps used in the vertical elements of the display, and the blue boot swab filled with clay in the first room: was it left behind after a hospital visit by a giant with feet of clay? A one-legged Golem?
The ambiguity of the possible narrative-under-construction is underlined by the fact that the majority of the mysteriously titled objects are placed on little wheels, which makes them rearrangeable, if not physically (the timid Latvian exhibition-goer will not dare to do that), then at least in the imagination (clay, at least minimally present in almost every work, would ensure the continuity of these rearrangements). An excellent addition to this ambiguity is the notes on the exhibition by Kaspars Groševs; more like a poetic parallelism, or why not a perpendicular, to Zelčs’ works, the text does not ‘say’ anything about them, thus suspending the original function and ‘showing’ the ‘openness’ of interpretation (almost like in Wittgenstein or Eco …).
The list of ambiguities could go on, but that is also the difference with Gober’s art, be it his 16-piece installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in 2005, the opening of a description of which I quoted earlier, or, for instance, his earlier (1992/1993) installation at the Dia Center for the Arts, critiqued in Foster’s article ‘An Art of Missing Parts’ (incidentally, Zelčs’ Object No 9 is also entitled Thinking Part). The elements used by Gober, newspaper articles on specific subjects, boxes of rat poison, a crucified headless Christ, come with a well-defined and unmistakeable reference; they ask direct questions, while offering no answers; the installation as a whole leaves the viewer bewildered, and yet, I am going to emphasise this point again, the bewilderment is different to that experienced by someone viewing the exhibition by Armands Zelčs. If I was writing this article by hand, as I do on occasion, I would cross out Foster’s quote, but keep the words legible; as it is, I leave this up to the Echo Gone Wrong layout artist.
In his analysis of Gober, Foster speaks of the mimetic impulse, and in a sense, it is also present in Zelčs’ pieces, albeit in a more indirect form, hidden behind the metaphors, the absurd, the personal (poetic?) associations. It is like clay (I will take the liberty to offer a play on the little dishes with lumps of clay displayed on a table in the first room and suggestively entitled Choreography for an Ideal Society), chucked into moulds but not shaped yet, or perhaps deliberately left shapeless. The difference with Gober is a significant one, because it points to a methodological question: should not art, following postmodern impunity (or should I say ‘vagueness’?), return to asking direct questions? The abundance of various texts and theories (oh, the woe of the endless post-isms!) provokes an understandable desire to refrain from making a pointed and firm artist’s statement, and to retreat to the realm of the personal, the intellectually refined. Sometimes it even seems that it could be described as a style trend, where art, both in its form and in its intellectual labyrinths, becomes similar to a well-finished design object.
And yet, there is something else to Armands Zelčs’ exhibition. Its title is a reference and the reverse of an earlier provocation by Kristiāns Brekte, namely, a sentence that initially appeared as a banner for a show in Valmiera, and then as an inscription on the LNMA Arsenāls exhibition hall (‘The Naughty Ones / Artists As Challengers of Society’, 2012): ‘If you are reading this, you will die in one minute.’[i] Even if we disregard the question of whether Brekte’s ‘mischief’ constitutes a return to the real and the traumatic, or just a riff on postmodern stylistics, the title of the kim? exhibition and the writing on the wall at Arsenāls in its singular semantic literary redaction presents us with (reminds us of) the finale of Erich Maria Remarque’s most famous novel. During the First World War, that is, in October 1918, almost exactly a hundred years ago, the protagonist is killed. Meanwhile, the official dispatch from the front line contains a single sentence: ‘Im Westen sei nichts Neues zu melden’ (literally ‘Nothing new to report from the West’; the English translation traditionally renders the phrase to which the novel owes its title as ‘All quiet on the Western Front’). The similarity with either the Latvian or English title of Zelčs’ exhibition is not literal, and yet, within the network of Western culture, the association with the Lost Generation is an inevitable, although perhaps unintended, one. The other literary references I have made also date back to the interbellum period. Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, let us select the two best-known works, also the ones published in Latvian, were written in 1914/1915 and 1922 respectively, and published in 1925 and 1926, after Kafka’s death. Remarque’s novel was published in 1928. But Buzzati’s story first appeared in print in 1937.[ii]
In the case of Armands Zelčs, the historical and actual return, emphasised by Hal Foster in the opening of Bad New Days, is but one of the possible routes of interpretation, quite a narrow, and, as someone might point out, semantically dubious one, being based on the literary associations of an imaginary viewer on his way from a library (the National or a personal one). And yet, who else if not the viewer with their presence, both physical and intellectual, should extend the meaning of works of art, their Fortleben, as Benjamin would put it, by adding to them ‘missing parts’ rooted in their own historical reality?
[i] Thanks to Jana Kukaine for this reference to the work by Kristiāns Brekte.
[ii] Admittedly, Dino Buzzati was born in 1906, and does not quite belong to the classic Lost Generation. His story ‘Seven Floors’ is also better known, since it was republished in the ‘Sixty Stories’ collection (Sessanta racconti) in 1958, thus continuing to explore the absurd after the Second World War.