Purvītis’s regrown moustache
In the summer of 2014, British art critic Jonathan Jones informed readers of The Guardian that “Vincent van Gogh’s ear has returned from the grave.” Using genetic material from the great-great-grandson of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, with a modified “gene from the artist” and bio-printing techniques, the famous Dutch artist’s ear was grown repeatedly. And now, thanks to a microphone system and a connection to data processing software through which nerve impulses are generated, this fragment of living flesh and symbolic relic of the martyr is even ready to listen to us all. However, though we’d like to think that the Van Gogh ear project is the newest in a line of attempts to create human immortality, it is actually a work of procedural art called Sugababe (2014) by Diemut Strebe – a work of art through which Strebe tries to demystify the status of artist as genius.
Two-thousand-and-fourteen was a significant year in terms of 3D-printing technology, especially in the field of medicine. Namely, scientists developed the first model of a heart made using a 3D printer which helped doctors in the United States save the life of a 14-month-old baby boy. In Latvia, work with 3D heart models only began at the end of last year. In the 2014 documentary, The Next Black, various innovators in the fashion industry – among them Suzanne Lee, who grows her own line of clothing in a special bacteria-containing fluid – have talked about numerous rapid technological changes that are increasingly touching our lives (e.g. step counter wristbands, ‘smart’ sports clothing, etc.). 3D printing has even permeated the music world; French engineer and musician Laurent Bernadac used a 24-hour 3D-printing process to make a violin named 3Dvarius. This year, the instrument has already been presented on the market in Las Vegas.
One can also find enthusiasts for growing live and artificial structures in Latvia – artists, restorers, art schools and publishers already work with 3D printers to create small, sculptural models or data sculptures, including artists Rasa Šmite and Raitis Šmits, the directors of the RIXC centre for new media culture in Riga, who who are publishers of children’s literature in Braille with 3D-printed illustrations. Now all we are waiting for is the moment someone uses genetic material to 3D print the iconic moustache of the Latvian master painter Vilhelms Purvītis.
As we contemplate these new machines, we can surely say that art is entering the next era of technical reproduction. Whilst the results of this move are still unclear, what is certain is that it will undeniably influence the development of art, including understanding the possibilities for the reconstruction of art.
The museum as a hospital
The symposium Fixing what isn’t broken. What is reconstruction in contemporary art? organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA) at the Latvian National Museum of Art on December 3, 2016, was dedicated to the restoration and reconstruction of contemporary artworks and exhibitions. However, the symposium devoted little time towards conveying the potential influence of 3D printing on the art world, including the reconstruction of artworks. Instead, it focused more on issues of preservation for kinetic artworks, reconstruction of conceptual art and continuity in processual art. That said, Louise Lawson from Tate Modern tried to approach the theme by referring to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and its philosophical question about “a ghost in the machine” and its human features. When Strebe, as she worked on the Van Gogh ear project, was preoccupied by the cult of “artist as genius”, Lawson’s interest, as an expert in the reconstruction of artwork, is directed towards issues of the authentic form of the art work. By bringing the inherent status of reproductions to the fore, she also demystifies the very work of art itself.
To speak about issues of the restoration of contemporary art also means to draw attention to its rebellious history, to various luminaries which, if we were to take the 1960s and 1970s as a reference, were in conscious opposition to institutions, museums and galleries that tried to literally and figuratively frame their artworks in a specific format and modify them into zombie-like pieces. Engrossed with the idea of emptiness, the American land artist Robert Smithson compared museum objects with exhausted memories – empty things that deprived the viewer the opportunity to fully experience feelings provided by their sensory organs. He referred to museums as cemeteries and frames for paintings as unreal windows into emptiness. The reformatting of art museums into active cultural centres was addressed by another American artist, Allan Kaprow, who compared this new ‘life’ to making love in a cemetery. Ironically, both Smithson and Kaprow’s artworks quickly found their way into galleries and also into museums later on. No break in the collecting, conserving and re-presenting of art was achieved. However, as long as the cult of the original exists, contemporary art will continue to cause headaches.
Today, when thinking about the particularities of contemporary art museums, the words hospital or sanatorium come to mind – places where works of art with various different characters and ages stand in line before a surgeon or therapist in the hope of getting a delicate surgical nip and tuck, organ transplant or a completely new/reconstructed body. A hospital consists of various departments, operating rooms, laboratories, libraries, patient rooms, offices, shops, cafeterias and public spaces. The only thing its dense structure lacks is a morgue. The issue of death is barred from the dictionary of contemporary art, because the authenticity of a work of art no longer pertains to its physical body. Instead, researchers, restorers, scientists, engineers and, yes, sometimes even the creator of an artwork itself all stand around the operating table in order to reconstruct the artwork’s substance. On the other hand, the curator does exactly the opposite by applying specific exhibition strategies, attempting to fill in or consciously uncover Smithson’s emptiness, for example, by presenting the work of art as a spatial visualisation of history.
Maybe this new system has developed the best compromise, because the art world can continue to contemplate history and, at the same time, work on producing new creations by offering countless formal variations of the original work of art in conditions determined by a specific time and place. A number of speakers at the symposium also addressed the existence of several versions of a single piece of artwork – for example, curator Stephanie Weber gave a lecture which took the audience on a visual tour of the history of one artwork as it was re-exhibited over the course of several decades. Another was Ieva Astahovska, an art scholar and curator as well as the director of research at the LCCA, who curated the exhibition Visionary Structures: From Johansons to Johansons at the National Library of Latvia in Riga in 2014, and at Bozar in Brussels in 2015 in which she showed several reconstructed versions of the design dummy for the Riga Central Railway Station clock made by Jānis Krievs, a Latvian master of kinetic art. An important factor in this last example was, of course, the presence and initiative of the artist himself, who gave detailed explanations of his concept, discussed the significance of the choices he had made and provided various potential interpretations. At such moments, the problems associated with reconstructing his work in a new situation and with new participants of installations or performances that were defined by specific places and spaces no longer seemed so great and overwhelming. Additionally, by not hiding the presence of interpretation, a re-presentation of a historical project was also able to take place.
A patient named ‘Positron’
The international symposium was planned to coincide with two exhibitions organised by the LCCA which were described in the event programme as two well-designed examples of exhibitions dedicated to the restoration/reconstruction of contemporary art and historical retrospection. The first exhibition, Archaeology of Kinetics (November 12 – December 11, 2016) in the Intro Hall of the Riga Art Space, featured Valdis Celms, the Latvian kinetic artist and researcher of ancient signs and symbols, along with art restorer Ieva Alksne. The format of the exhibition, developed by Astahovska and the Rijada design studio (Rihards Funts and Toms Lucāns), could be compared to an anatomy institute, a cabinet of curiosities and an op-art laboratory all in one. Even though Astahovska had a completely different group of designers for this project, parallels could immediately be drawn with an older LCCA project, Parallel Chronologies: The Unknown History of East European Exhibitions (May 17 – April 18, 2011), which took place in the same underground Kunsthalle exhibition space. Such an impression arose thanks to the curator’s natural desire to work with the exhibition as a researcher, turning the collected material inside out like a piece of clothing, and structurally grouping each model, drawing, photography and detail of a kinetic piece, thereby creating something like a vivisection of the artwork as an organism. Of course, such a method of presentation, which imitates an archive, is still popular in the international art arena, just as the use of the term ‘archaeology’ is in projects that deal with the history of contemporary art and its interpretation.
The heavyweights in the exhibition – or its two patients, to continue the analogy with a hospital – were works of art by Celms that had been restored by Alksne. The painting Greece (Grieķija, 1968/1969) and the kinetic object The Fourth Stage (Ceturtā pakāpe, 1978) were displayed at either end of the space, while the rest of the exhibition elements were set up in its centre. Such a set-up is, of course, by no means accidental; on a purely chronological level, each work of art marks a very significant decade in Celms’s career. Greece was made while he was still a student of design at the Art Academy of Latvia. Created in the style of American pop artist Jasper Johns, the painting of the Greek flag includes the head of an antique sculpture and served as the artist’s socio-political commentary on the 1967 coup d’etat in Greece. By drawing the blue stripes of the flag across the sculptural model, Celms created a simple but poignant metaphor of the prison in which cultural and artistic activities in Greece had been placed due to censorship and limitations imposed by the dictatorship. In the exhibition, the painting was supplemented by light projected onto the viewers in a pattern which imitated prison bars – a visually entertaining but grim situation, ideologically. Celms has always been interested in raster and structures that contain the potential for movement, and he has used this motif both as an element of op art – which uses visual techniques to affect the viewer’s psyche – and as an ideologically charged unit, like in ‘the case of Greece’.
Like pop-art spirals, spectroscopes and Greece, the spheres made of intertwined metal panels that hung from the ceiling at the other end of the space continued to underscore the artist’s interest in structures, the effects of light and shade, colours and movement. And yet, for this work of art it is important to recall its prototype, the kinetic sculpture Positron (Pozitrons, 1976), which, as a model, has passed through a great variety of the artist’s projects. This almost platonic proto-form has been a sculpture, a balloon, a meditative ball of light and even a space station in Celms’s various visionary projects. It was important for him to place the positron in a public space, where it would serve as a shimmering aesthetic object as well as an instrument for meditation. Today, only one of Celms’s objects remains in the urban public space – or rather, in multiple copies by thoroughfares on the edges of the capital city – and that is the ‘RĪGA’ sign, which has now also been effectively marketed by the Miesai design company on t-shirts.
What the exhibition did not say, but could be learned from speaking with the project’s organisers, was the fact that, in addition to various modern materials (which, as opposed to the originals, are more durable and generally of better quality), 3D-printed details were also used in the restoration of The Fourth Stage. Similarly, if a viewer did not attend the symposium, then he or she might not have realised some of the problems these projects raise regarding the restorer’s qualifications. Currently, one can obtain an education as a restorer at the Art Academy of Latvia, where the programme still accents the classical art media. However, both exhibition restorers mentioned in this article have studied or practised contemporary art restoration abroad. This is an important issue for the team developing the future Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art, because the demand for such specialists will only grow. One positive example is the Kumu museum in Tallinn, which teaches and involves upcoming restorers to work with collections of contemporary art. The establishment of a new school for art restorers is most likely to be a question about demand, a demand that will hopefully be stimulated by the future museum in Riga.
A patient named Saltblower
While Astahovska’s curated project resembled a laboratory, an exhibition by Māra Žeikare, another LCCA curator and researcher of the Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations (Nebijušu sajūtu restaurēšanas darbnīca, NSRD), does not reveal the steps involved in its research and restoration. That exhibition is Juris Boiko’s (1954–2002) Salt Crystals, on show in the Cupola Hall of the newly reconstructed Latvian National Museum of Art from December 3, 2016, until February 5, 2017. The exhibition consists of five individual projects made by Boiko in the 1990s after the Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations had ceased its activities, with salt being a significant component in all of the artworks. Whereas in Archaeology of Kinetics we could speak about an exposition containing restored and partially reconstructed works of art, in the Boiko exhibition it is an almost entirely reconstructed project in which a team of researchers, scientists and the art restorer Evita Melbārde worked together to put on a properly ‘salted (that is, well-preserved) retrospective of installations that have previously never been shown together.
The exhibition is located in the upper space of the museum’s attic, which has now been divided into two storeys. It is a complicated space for any project and, therefore, demands a very well-thought-out design. In the case of the Boiko exhibition, however, the white Cupola Hall successfully enhances the idea of salt. The wooden beams resemble salt’s crystalline structure, while the sterile, clean and white environment brings to mind both the colour and purifying properties of salt. By collaborating with the SAALS architectural office (the name of which alone serves as a conceptual gesture on the part of the exhibition organisers, being as ‘sāls’ is the Latvian word for salt), the space and adjoining staircase have also become a spatial installation. The exhibition has taken into account the position of ley lines and water lines under the museum, with installation groups situated at specific points on the network of lines to serve either as purifying elements or ‘corks’ to block the flow of negative energies. Whereas in the past Boiko had positioned the original works in various exhibition spaces by feeling for and sensing these lines with his hands thereby becoming the ‘saltblower’ for his own projects, this time the locating of these mythic streams of earth-energy was performed by Dr. Lija Bērziņa, an expert in ecological science.
Like the exhibition of Celms’ works, the people involved in this project were confronted with problems linked to old technology, such as analogue televisions, and the use of more modern materials in the reconstruction of a work of art. But, unlike the exhibition at the Riga Art Space, the artist of this exhibition was deceased, and therefore responsibility for the results had to be borne out, in large part, by the researchers, restorers and curators. However, the absence of the artist did not hamper the construction of a conceived, yet never realised, work of art – and this is a case in which we can speak about the above-mentioned contribution of new creative work spurred by the reconstruction process. In this exhibition, this specifically relates to Saltblower – 2 (2017), a work made in conjunction with sound artist Mārtiņš Roķis, who added an improvised soundtrack to the expanse of salt and projection of moving clouds.
On the whole, the exhibition is well-planned, both technically and in terms of design so that viewers are able to fully appreciate photo negatives of transparent and painterly expanses of salt, as well as clouds and sky projected onto salt-screens on the floor. Televisions tuned to Latvian TV channels have been arranged on the biggest salt pile in a mandala-like pattern, portraying Boiko’s poetic yet analytical and technical manner of thinking, which he also expressed through writing and translating poetry, art criticism, curating exhibitions and working with computer graphics. The photographic landscapes and self-portraits protected by a fine layer of salt, as well as the salt installations, are perhaps even too beautiful and polished in their new circumstances, so a heretical thought comes to mind: I almost feel like diving into these piles of salt and messing up their seemingly perfect order.
Unfortunately, there are no plans of turning these so-called ‘demonstrations-of-restoration exhibitions’- as I would like to call these projects of the LCCA – into an official series of exhibitions that would allow viewers to repeatedly enter the laboratory and become acquainted with works of art from the inside out. However, considering that both curators are continuing their study of the artists and themes presented in these exhibitions, – Astahovska is preparing a dissertation on the heritage of Latvian kinetic art and Žeikare is continuing her work with the Boiko archive – it is hoped that the next updates on their work will be shown publicly in the relatively near future. I believe that Boiko has earned a separate publication that would not only introduce audiences to his work and the work of the NSRD, but also to his in-depth analytical texts about the artist-as-poet, translator, curator and critic. Looking back on the work that has been put into research, publications and interpretations in exhibitions, symposia, events, schools and other formats, as well as the popularising beyond Latvia’s borders of already realised projects, we must conclude that the LCCA’s work can be considered an illustrative example of a positive and intense model of activity that will hopefully be handed down to, and continued by, the future Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art.
Smitsons, Roberts. Dažas tukšas domas par muzejiem (1967) // Roberts Smitsons. Rakstu krājums. Rīga: Latvijas Mākslas akadēmija, VKN sadarbībā ar biedrību „Biennāle – 2005”, 2009. – 41. lpp.
Ibid., 42. lpp.
Alana Keprova un Roberta Smitsona dialogs. Kas ir muzejs? (1967) // Roberts Smitsons. Rakstu krājums. Rīga: Latvijas Mākslas akadēmija, VKN sadarbībā ar biedrību „Biennāle – 2005”, 2009. –44.lpp.