Winter, but it was raining. I wondered whether the pure subject of cognition and aesthetic intuition, “a head without the body of a winged angel” – as I have read somewhere, might also catch a cold, and without solving this question I ordered a hot tea with honey in the office space at gallery “Alma”. While sipping my tea, I leafed through an interview with Ojārs Petersons. Simply known as O. P., some time ago for the exhibition “Opera”, he had created a work where he played with the phrase “I love OPERA”, highlighting his initials in orange which I will use as an abbreviation for him hereinafter. Having already read some familiar insights into his work — in another interview dedicated to the art of the 90s — some things resonated. The interview mentioned Latvia as a railway station ‘where the art world’s “wanderers, above the sea of fog” do not wish to get off,’ or the truth as essential to art. Last thought, especially coming from an uncommunicative O. P. who is often ambiguous (at least when talking about his own art), can inevitably lead to opening up a lecture on Hegel’s or Adorno’s aesthetic theories. Full of other jokes in his interview, it is worth noting for anyone who did not know O. P. before, he is one of the wittiest Latvian artists out there. But artists in general, at least in Latvia, are often the wittiest of cultural stepchildren.
All these characteristics — serious, witty and simple — came together in the work of O. P. which might have caused amusement to the viewer when noticing where wit had been contrasted with seriousness; a combination I consider to be fairly complicated. His additional use of the golden ratio, one might think, is tied more to the work of an architect than an artist; every architect looking at the facades of Le Corbusier’s Villa Garches will notice the golden ratio as a key-compositional principle. And yet here it was, seen in the art gallery in a formula on the wall, not drawn by O.P. himself, but by the artist Maija Kurševa. Did O. P. forget how to draw himself, being the master or “teacher” whose name is bound under the so-called “VKN School”?(VKN is a Latvian abbreviation for the “Department of Visual Communication” which despite there being no such department at the Latvian Art Academy, the abbreviation VKN is probably more powerful than the three initials of Academy, as it indicates a new generation of artists working and thinking in variety of media and have gained international recognition.)
My question regarding O.P.’s drawing is of course rhetorical. The exhibition was all that a post-conceptual art lover, anointed in the history of contemporary art or as Goethe would say “der Kenner” (see his 1774 poem An Kenner und Liebhaber), might desire. I will list the main obvious allusion to the tendency called by Hal Foster “an archival impulse” (how in contemporary art, one could get along without showcases, glass cabinets, shelves and so on – the majority of them were seen both at the last documenta, and at many local exhibitions). The delegated performance of the work should have been named something like: John Baldessari Commissioned Paintings, although instead of amateur painters, O. P. chose to use some virtuoso graphic image creator (that the “dry” formula could not manifest). Of course, there was also a critique of consumerism where some works were unfinished, though the rights to them were available for purchase then and there; others were completed and exhibited in the gallery but were not available for purchase because their components consisted of objects reflected in the work – a five-story residential building on the opposite side of the street from Gallery “Alma”, for example, located in the so-called “silent center” which would be quite expensive.
Someone could ask whether such exact thoughts had glided through the artist’s consciousness while he conceived and shaped his works. In this form, the question is nonsensical. Neither a work of art nor a word spoken or written down could acquire meaning by any processes in the human mind. Besides, O. P. teaches young artists what could be called artistic thinking, although thinking about art is the task of a theoretician. In both cases, various kinds of information about contemporary art apper in the background of consciousness, but in different statuses. To paraphrase Kant (B 75), art theory without facts will be empty, but practical action will be blind without notions and conceptions. Of course, the conception may be deliberate appropriation, but this was not the case in O. P.’s exhibition. Here, I started to wonder as to the title of the exhibition. The gallery website only revealed the exhibition dates (as for the Seth Siegelaub’s famous exhibition January 5–31, 1969), but in the invitation sent via e-mail, the golden ratio formula was revealed, which could just as well have been a different picture usually accompanying such invitations.
Here is another “grammatical” joke. Contemporary or postconceptual art, as Peter Osborne named it, (hand strives to write P. O.) is generally regarded as a grammatical investigation; namely, it is the study of grammatical elements or the use of certain media. A grammatical joke mixes various uses of linguistic expression — most people will be able to recall their own anecdotes — drawing attention to the different meanings of the expression, specific to different uses. When inverting and extending the saying “laughter through tears” to contemporary art, one could later read this as “meaning through laughter”. Thus, indirect wit can be considered one of the best artistic criteria, though it is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition.
Did O. P.’s works make anyone laugh? I cannot give you an empirically grounded answer to that question having not been present at his exhibition opening, and since the “crowd” of contemporary art lovers and die Kenner are a small group who attended the opening, there are few viewers left in the gallery during its opening hours. My thought, however, is that nobody laughed because their laughter might be misunderstood. Nevertheless, there was much to laugh about there. Imagine large, plastic bottles of drinking water — like the kind used in offices — enveloped or wrapped in plastic, on which photographic imagery of wooden radiator louvers and the facade of the house seen through the window on the opposite side of the street from the gallery can be recognised. The work titled reflection in the water had in its short description, (two leaflets in two languages on the windowsill above the radiator grill previously mentioned), the words: water has flowed away, reflection remains.
I asked the gallery owner whether the water from plastic bottles (20, 50 litres?) was poured out or drunk, to which she replied that it was poured out… Establishing the answer seemed important to me because “poured out” corresponds to “flowed away” in its description, but an important truth of the artwork also exists in its “undisguised” meaning.
The leaflet on the windowsill with names and short descriptions showed me a reasonable, and acceptable version explaining the relationship between the artwork and its description — “finally, after so many exhibitions!” I’d like to exclaim. These, in contrast to the curator and/or artist’s “explanation”, without which a work seems incomprehensible, is why in the big biennials like Manifesta and documenta I saw the audience with hard catalogues ready to hand. Here, on the other hand, were brief, seemingly sketchy texts that were more consistent with O. P.’s dislike for talking about art. His descriptions were witty, and clearly not composed by the curator or gallery staff. They were well thought out with names and first sentences of the descriptions beginning with a lowercase letter. In response to a question that often arises in the case of postconceptual art — is the text part of the artwork or not? — O. P.’s short replicas or equivalent analogs could be figured out on their own, provided one had a sense of humour.
The only difficulties arising here with interpretation and comprehension were because humour was woven into the wider fabric of life and for two people it would never coincide completely. Of course, this mismatch created new meanings that the artist had not foreseen, and could not foresee. However, I would like to put a little more focus on another aspect of his humourous mismatch, namely the difficulties I experienced examining two portraits on the opposite walls of the gallery, where the glance of the eye and vertical median line of the face should have divided the gallery wall into golden mean ratio. In my view, it meant that the photos in the exhibition could not be located directly opposite each other. However, my sense of humour was involved in the world of books and scrupulous text references (which I skipped in this review), whereas O. P.’s was in the visual world where sizes are not related to our adopted direction of writing left to right. For me the values of a and b in the golden ratio formula indicate that a is measured to the left from the facial midline in the image, thus, in one case – on one wall – this principle did not work, but not following it destroyed the work, as O. P. had written: “if these portraits are exhibited otherwise – it is not the authentic work of art anymore… ”. A gallery employee, also worried about my observations hastily sent O.P. an email, and as pertaining to a visual communication professional, he immediately answered that recounting from my memory, it did not matter which part of the seemingly divided wall one considered larger or smaller, because one could start with either one or the other.
Having resolved my question regarding the works being displayed in or not in “the strict form” I was able to grant them their status again. I was able to continue carefully and leisurely enjoying the art, taking a few shots for my “archive” before I was disturbed by a visitor, who wandered accidentally into the gallery. Looking through the camera lens, I noticed he was wearing orange trousers. I was forced to admit that the visitor’s trousers were perfectly compatible with the characteristic colour of O. P.’s works he has consistently used for many years which served only to be an ironic reminder of the former artistic handwriting’s “identification certificate”.
A reader expecting “serious criticism” could sum up my writing and say that there is too much of the personal (denoted with a “P”), and too little objectivity (denoted with an “O”). Indeed, how could such a fragmented experience constituting a visit to the gallery, several series of disparate newspaper clippings, conversations, jokes, and retold emails, serve as an empathetic review and thorough criticism? I will answer only that the fragmented viewing experience of O.P.’s exhibition is isomorphic to the fragmented postconceptual artistic expression and to our fragmented lives, but the objective moment is not opposite to the personal point of view by terms used here, it even creates the subject of this article: P. O.
Photography: all images copyright and courtesy of Ojārs Pētersons and “Alma”gallery.