Obsessed with Change. Reflections on the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art

August 23, 2018
Author Maija Rudovska
Published in Review from Latvia


6“Drastic change calls for extreme measures. Are we sure that we really want to change anything? (sic)” asks a good-looking young woman featuring in the video work Impotence (2017) by Belgian artist Ariane Loze, on view at the Zuzeum Art Centre, one of the venues of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA). Change is an easy subject to discuss in the 21st century: to a lesser or greater degree, change ‒ be it technological, climatic or political ‒ affects everyone. And change is what the internationally-esteemed chief curator of the first edition of RIBOCA, Katerina Gregos, has chosen as its central theme. Depending on their place of residence and origins, change today means different things to different individuals; change experienced by someone living in the city is not the same from that of a rural dweller; the twists and turns of an immigrant’s life cannot be compared to anything familiar to a person who has never known war and been forced to flee their native country. Change is a subject so sweeping that it offers to speak about everything and nothing, seemingly addressing everyone while not saying anything in specific.

What does the Biennial want?

As the first event of its kind in the Baltic states focusing on such a vast and contemporary subject, RIBOCA is definitely a noteworthy affair, raising a lot of questions: What is this biennial? Why has it been mounted? For whom has it been mounted? What does it comprise, and what exactly are the changes it is, or will be, bringing? Having landed in Riga unexpectedly and put together in a relatively short time (over the course of approximately 1.5‒2 years) thanks to generous private funding, the Biennial has stimulated every possible “body” of the local art world ‒ attempting to forge cooperation with art institutions and individual figures but also eliciting a dual response. Not scared of taking on the role of an outsider and a stranger, RIBOCA has, from the outset, positioned itself as an actor on the international art scene, promising to raise the profile of regional art globally. This promise might seem like a godsend to the Latvian art milieu, currently quite marginal and internally competitive; what it has also done, however, is relegate the long-time local art-scene shapers, who have been fighting for visibility in the Western art world for some years, to a secondary role.

The biennial is a format that has been analysed and dissected by art professionals for many years, with most attention being paid to its structural problems. The number of art biennials have grown exponentially over the recent years. According to On Curating Magazine, there are currently 320 biennials globally[1]. However, the main question remains ‒ is mounting a biennial and “anchoring” it in a specific location a well-considered and responsible decision? And is there even a need for a biennial? To quote Pérez-Barreiro, the chief curator of the upcoming 33rd edition of the São Paulo Art Biennial: “There’s been a huge proliferation of biennials, for all kinds of strange reasons: the market, the desire to make spectacles, create visibility for a region. (…) I think very few [new biennials] came from people committed to advancing the conversation on contemporary art.”[2] A debate on the format ‒ is there or isn’t there a need for a biennial ‒ would have also been important during the preparatory stage of the first RIBOCA; nevertheless, no such public discourse has taken place or has been encouraged by its organisers, a fact that could, to an extent, explain the critical response by the local professional art circles.

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The strong points of RIBOCA definitely include its outstanding execution, the effort invested in building the team (not least in encouraging mutual trust between the organisers and the artists), publicity and communication strategies (which can, admittedly, become overwhelming at times) and the focus on promoting the image of the Biennial internationally. The amount of work put in the communication and mediation of art has also been significant: the brick-sized guidebook can serve as an educational source to any viewer. And yet, despite the positive aspects listed above, the question remains of the mission of RIBOCA: its focus being higher visibility for Baltic art (definitely a patronising approach in my book), to what extent does it actually deal with the contemporary art of the region and its specific language? While RIBOCA has made sure that the majority of names in the participating artist list hail from the Baltic countries, it is still unclear in what way exactly these artists are contributing to the main subject being the discourse of change? What is the change that has affected them? What are the topical questions of the here and now? How does the Biennial address the current political tensions and the complicated traumatic history of the region, the upsurge in nationalism, the acute social problems like poverty, emigration, corruption, homophobia, racism, women’s and LGBT+ rights, etc? What are the debates initiated, advanced and supported by the Biennial; what does it take a stand for and against? Finally, how is the funding, that “ordinary” art institutions can only dream about, being spent? And to what end? Sadly, in the context of the perfect execution, these and other questions have been left unattended ‒ or perhaps their significance has been overshadowed by other, ostensibly more important aspects.

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Local art patronage and its spheres of influence

The initiative of mounting a biennial usually belongs to the relevant local municipality, which sees its presence in the city as a vehicle for foregrounding various infrastructural matters, including the promotion of tourism and enhancing the profile of the city. It is different with RIBOCA, the launching of which, as the organisers point out, has been a completely private initiative with most of its funding coming from the Russia-based North West Fishing Consortium, owned by Gennady Mirgorodsky, the father of the founder of the Biennial Agniya Mirgorodskaya. Its co-founders alongside Mirgorodskaya are Yemelyan Zakharov, Director of the Triumph Gallery (Moscow), and Alexander Gafin, board member of Rietumu Banka and Vice President of Alfa Banka ‒ people who do not get a frequent mention in the biennial’s publicity materials.

RIBOCA has chosen to associate itself with local art patronage, making rounds through the pages of history. Part of the exhibition, for instance, is housed in the residence of Kristaps Morbergs, a Latvian architect and art patron. Morbergs accumulated considerable wealth through real-estate deals during the interwar period, leaving his property to the University of Latvia after his death. The Zuzeum Art Centre is another significant venue; the premises of what used to be known to the residents of Riga as Sapņu fabrika ‒ the Dream Factory ‒ for many years are now home to a museum/centre for art conceived and founded by the local art collector and patron Jānis Zuzāns. It should be noted that Zuzāns’ contribution to the Latvian art scene and the influence he exerts on many of the local art events far exceeds the above, not least through his support of the Purvītis Prize, the principal national art award, and representation of Latvian art at the Venice Biennale.

A colleague from one of the Baltic countries recently told me in a private conversation that they were coming to Riga for funding. If, on the other hand, you were to ask any of the local Latvian artists or curators and art producers, they would say that there is insufficient funding in this country. Why is there this situation in Riga (Latvia) and what does it really mean? The Latvian art scene is shaped by several instances of private art patronage. A more detailed look into these cases and an analysis of their spheres of interest would be extremely worthwhile; it is, however, a subject for another article. To date, sadly, there has been no purposeful attempt to build and sustain a discursive critique of art funding, which frequently involves ethical questions; that is why representatives of the art milieu themselves lack a clear understanding of ways in which certain funding finds the right time for exercising its influence and what it means for art producers. With the arrival of RIBOCA in Latvia and the Baltic region, it seems that the time has finally come to start this conversation. While private funding is not a bad thing at all and not a threat (with some exceptions), it should be noted that it is not just the financial capital that is shaped by private funding and investments but also the symbolic one, influencing taste in art and aesthetic principles and maybe serving as an ideological driving force for the whole domain. It would be advisable to pay more attention to in-depth analyses of funding in art, asking relevant questions like: How does patronage influence the art world processes? What are the conditions it creates for institutions and people working in Latvia? What are its future objectives?

Although money sources are difficult to subject to analysis (particularly funding from repressive countries like Russia), it should be noted that the use and spheres of influence of private funding cannot be separated from wider social and politic (even nation-wide) processes. The art scene, one of the most liberal-thinking among the areas of human activity, is particularly often used to legitimise future political processes, serving as a stepping stone for channelling tax money to benefit the big corporations. The significance of this question with regard to RIBOCA was pointed out in an informal Facebook discussion[3] by the Estonian art historian Heie Marie Treier. Citing the contemporary art museum Kiasma in Helsinki as an example, she drew attention to the old truth that is important for an art institution not to rely on a single source of funding, working with a number of donors instead, so that no single one of them could gain complete power over the art and the artists. It is important for the Latvian art circles too, particularly the artists, to open their eyes and question the money sources instead of blindly relying on the funding flowing in. Institutions, including RIBOCA, which, it would seem, have not connected themselves to any weird sources of money, should not take offence at being asked these questions; they should see it as healthy criticism offering an opportunity to share information and contribute to a discussion of the influence of funding today.

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Exhibition as the main format of  the biennial: how to read it and what to do with it

In reiterating that biennials play an influential role in shaping the current climate in contemporary art, due importance should be attached to the way in which a biennial proposes viewers to view its works of art or what the patterns of perception are that it places in the spotlight. The 21st-century biennial largely defines the way contemporary art is to be perceived; like the museum, it is a medium through which the public finds access to art. According to the art theorist Boris Groys, if a work of art is not exhibited (in a museum, a biennial, in the public space or elsewhere), it essentially does not exist.[4] With the arrival of RIBOCA in the region, certain standards of exhibition mounting, experiencing art and presenting it to an audience are also being established. While previously the local non-profit organisations tended to base their idea of exhibitions and the process of making them on various approaches, each according to their own aesthetic criteria, RIBOCA now possibly joins the scene as an actor that could write the rule book on the art-exhibiting practice. I just hope that the format will also evoke some counterreactions and alternative solutions enriching the art scene through diversity.

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RIBOCA offers its visitors a selection of eight main venues, drawing a psycho-geographical map of interest starting from Andrejsala district and Ganību dambis street (the former Bolshevichka textile factory) to Jūrmala, where the Art Station gallery housed in the building of Dubulti railway station opened just a couple of years ago. Judging from the choice of access and location, this experience has been created for the benefit of international art audience ‒ not the local exhibition-goers, and yet the diverse character of the biennial’s various venues appeals to all. The most colourful and spacious of the biennial venues are the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia; the Residence of Kristaps Morbergs; the Sporta2 Art and Technology Quarter, and the Zuzeum Art Centre. The foremost designed show of the Biennial, and also the one that seems best at communicating through its selection of works, in my opinion, is the exhibition on view at the Zuzeum. It opens with a sizeable installation by Jevgeni Zolotko Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (2018), a wall bas-relief featuring “ruins” of newspapers, magazines and books. Further inside the dark rooms, the exhibition continues with Impotence (2017), the piece by Ariane Loze mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article, which, alongside Inner Landscape (2018), the artists other work, created especially for the biennial, speaks of doubt, confusion and internal quests. A psychologically scary dialogue, an almost spine-chilling encounter with yourself ‒ the viewer ‒ is offered by Hans Rosenström’s sound installation Mikado (2009/2018). Some special attention should be paid to Sven Johne’s photo and text installation Anomalies of the Early 21st Century/ Some Case Studies (2015), which deals with outcasts ‒ both individuals who, for some reason or another, have decided to distance themselves from society, cutting themselves off, and people who are literally considered pariahs ‒ the homeless, the unemployed or simply good-for-nothings. In the anxiety-ridden society of western world today, when fear of an uncertain future seems to have consumed everyone, this work with its excellent humour and irony is right on point, making us realise that there is only one alternative to neo-liberal dreams – a reality steeped in cynicism.

Likewise, the former Faculty of Biology is not a bad example of the biennial experience; however, as repeatedly pointed out in other reviews, it has slipped the biennial’s mind to mention that about a year ago the same building already hosted the latest edition of the Survival Kit festival, an art forum exploring pretty much the same subject range ‒ the development of science and technologies, their relationship with society and people. Several of the works on view at the Faculty of Biology are interactive and entertaining adventures, for instance Mark Dion’s A Tour of The Dark Museum (2018) works as a metaphor on the blinkered state of man, who is still feeling his way through the world like a darkroom, seeing obscure shapes instead of the real outlines of things ‒ or Sissel Tolaas’ Chemistry Lab Display (2018), shown among the exhibits of the Chemistry Museum, thus becoming part of a “cabinet of curiosities” and almost comically competing with the non-art objects stored there. It occurred to me that, had this show been communicated in a different way, it could have engaged in a unique dialogue with its predecessors in time and space, creating conversation both institutionally and conceptually ‒ namely, the very thing that RIBOCA lacks today, and something it should definitely focus on in the future.

While RIBOCA offers a wide range of material and opportunities for art experience (particularly with the help of the abundant public programme), the general format of the exhibition leaves a somewhat flat and repetitive impression, the works of art mostly serving as illustrative examples to the concept chosen by the curator. It comes in a sort of typical “global packaging”, as it were: a work of art becomes accessible to anyone; it is explained in a simple and clear manner; its mediation is adapted to a certain format; it looks pretty and appropriate. This is a language that migrates from one exhibition to another these days, without any special need for putting down roots or finding a specific addressee. I would have wanted to experience some more exciting conversations, squabbles, challenges, dialogues, interplay, games and particularly lots of thematically risky solutions and appeals that would encourage some reflection on the contemporary world.

RIBOCA stirs up lots of questions to which there are no straightforward answers. However, questions can also be a way of building a conversation, and a conversation can eventually lead to some answers in the long term. The Biennial has made waves on the local ‒ Latvian ‒ art scene, which possibly indicates that change is indeed in order. The question is ‒ what kind of change is it going to be? And what will it bring? I personally found RIBOCA to be yet another reminder of the fact that the power of art lies in a diverse and subversive language. Art is at its most exciting when it challenges the present and offers an opportunity to be in opposition ‒ when it is not afraid of asking inconvenient questions and be inconvenient itself. Time will show how RIBOCA is going to position itself in the long run, but one thing is clear ‒ it has most definitely opened up new space for a variety of mutually competitive events and processes.

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[1] ‘Draft: Global Biennial Survey 2018’, On Curating, Issue 39, June 2018, p. 2

[2] Jane Morris, ‘Is the biennial model busted?’, The Art Newspaper, June 12, 2018   https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/is-the-biennial-model-busted

[3] The discussion took place next to a Facebook post by Estonian curator and art critic Rebeka Põldsam. Her essay on RIBOCA, dismissed as a ‘gossip article’, was originally published by Estonian online magazine Sirp on 1 June 2018, coinciding with the RIBOCA opening events http://www.sirp.ee/s1-artiklid/c6-kunst/roosa-muts-ebaoigluse-puhad-riias/

[4] Boris Groys, ‘Art and Money’, e-flux Journal #24 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/24/67836/art-and-money/