Poems, things and ‘risky normality’. Conversation with Krišs Salmanis

September 22, 2016
Author Alberta Vengrytė

Landscape. The right strokes in the wrong place, 2014, acrylic, 6,5 x 2 x 2,3 cm. Photo: Arturas Valiauga

Alberta Vengrytė: Your exhibition, which recently opened at Vartai gallery in Vilnius, is titled Poems and Things. The very concept of a ‘thing’, partly used to name this particular art event and its ideological whole, or which possibly includes constituent elements of the exhibition too, insensibly transposes my thinking towards the Heideggerian controversy regarding the origin of the work of art, the specific being of things and their materiality. As a conceptual artist, is it important for you to research and question ‘form’ and ‘material’, both inherent to objects, within the materiality of your artworks? Or, in this case, is materiality being cleverly replaced by poetry and conceptual humour?

Krišs Salmanis: In a recent project with my sister, Anna Salmane, we collaborated with the composer Kristaps Pētersons, attempting to write a contemporary choral song. Already a year ago, we had identified that the use of ‘old’ words was a major obstacle in the way of us achieving our goal. So we decided to interview a dozen researchers from various fundamental sciences, hoping to extract lyrics that would apply and appeal to the listener nowadays. Among other things, each scientist was asked a vaguely formed question regarding the role of creativity in their work. To our surprise, they placed greater emphasis on inspiration than we had initially anticipated, with one quantum physicist even replying: “Inspiration is simply non-formal thinking processes”, before adding that “this is where the real thinking takes place”. In art, the general framework within which we must operate is much looser than in science. Material considerations are among the few issues we still have to consider. Even the use of a non-documented non-event is a decision on material. Whether it happens rigorously or through the aforementioned ‘non-formal thinking’ is another matter. For me, material often comes first followed by form, and then, sometimes even years later, the meaning. Though the actual work may have changed very little, it has nonetheless acquired a reason to be produced or exhibited.

Some critics highlight the masterful completeness of your works which, in spite of a chosen technique, must be essential for fully implementing your artistic ideas. It is fascinating to see how your objects balance between being visually romantic, sometimes even clean and naïve, and purely reductive aesthetic forms which playfully, and often ironically, reflect notional hints. However, what interests me the most is the method which you apply in exploring subjects like identity, material properties and the role of the artist as a creator in our contemporary culture. At a glimpse, your visual language declares simplicity and straightforwardness, somehow allowing the viewer to suspect that behind this finite look, there is, none the less, an exciting and significant process of creation, during which all paradoxes and subtle jokes take their assigned roles, towards becoming conceptually charged artworks. Would you tell us, how you developed this ‘visual reduction’, and what it takes for you to turn your ideas into things?

Sometimes, it is bewildering to be called a conceptualist. For in my mind it borders on a superpower. I suspect my work only pretends to be conceptual. An emotional idea comes to mind and then moulds itself into a form akin to conceptualism. One of the funniest reviews I ever received was put in three words: “The normal view”. It sounds boring, but it was incredibly apt. The age in which eccentricity was the privilege or even the duty of an artist has long since gone. While it still took considerable time and resources to publicise information, only biographies about people who had contributed greatly to society were printed. Thus, in the popular mind, idiosyncrasies were associated with artists, scientists etc. With the advent of public media, we find ourselves in a much stranger world than we have been previously. Any oddity can be immediately published, regardless of the perpetrator’s prominence. As such, we learn that an ordinary person does things that the famed bohemian of the past could not even conceive of. Since the news and entertainment machinery thrives on ever increasing shock value, maybe it is quite right for art today to be levelling and normal, among other things, — a kind of resistance. The normal view implies no extremes on either end. Rejecting them might be one answer to your question about visual reduction. You are right in saying it is a tricky balance that can slip from the reduced to the simple, from the romantic to the sentimental — ‘risky normality’.

Turning ideas into things has two reasons. Firstly, I like it. It simply feels better to make something than to not make it. Secondly, showing things sometimes brings unexpected feedback. It no longer worries me whether there is depth in every artwork I have made, and if anyone will appreciate it or not. But it is still very moving when visitors dedicate their time and effort to look at artworks and come up with their own interpretations. Because art is often difficult to understand and appreciate, it is very promising when people try to get it, as they will probably try harder also at being accepting of other people.

Tree in Venice, installation process, 2013

Installation process, Venice, 2013

 Savā nodabā, birch, vinyl LP, record player, needle, lashing belt. Installation view, Vartai gallery, 2016. Photo: Arturas Valiauga

Savā nodabā, birch, vinyl LP, record player, needle, lashing belt. Installation view, Vartai gallery, 2016. Photo: Arturas Valiauga

In 2013, you represented Latvia in 55th Venice Biennale together with Kaspars Podnieks in a project called North by Northeast. The works of the exhibition were created especially for the Venice Biennale Arsenale space and reminded us about a situation that has already existed before, when the land becomes transparent, branches turn into roots and the sky appears much nearer… It seemed to me that your choice in portraying and questioning the tensions between location and dislocation, ideological implications of a constantly shifting political geography, as well as intimate relationships to nature, labour and patriarchal worldviews common to the traditional-rural lifestyle, occurred as a really poetic and universal way to access the theme. I could hardly imagine more open interpretation and symbolically affluent form of this, than through a tree pendulum, rhythmically swaying! Was it important for you to remain visually concentrated, or did the concept of the exhibition itself dictate your means of expression? Although some time has passed, perhaps you could you evaluate this artistic experience in a wider context of your career and creative identity.

It was the first time Latvia was exhibiting within the Arsenale, and the space demanded either a spectacularly large-scale piece, or a convincingly nonchalant exhibit completely ignoring its imposing surroundings. Kaspars Podnieks is known for his ongoing investigations into country life, so I knew that doing something alongside would most probably exclude the more urban aspects of my work. I had used trees and country landscape earlier, which could have been why kim? and Art in General decided to place us together. I pulled the idea of the swinging tree from my “Later, when I am old and wealthy” folder when the Venice proposition came. It still seems like it was the perfect fit for the occasion.

Back in 2012, you entered the Lithuanian contemporary art scene with Light, exhibited in Contemporary Art Centre Vilnius (Krišs Salmanis, Light 2012.IX.27 – X.28, CAC). At that time, you talked about perpetual acceleration which has become the norm nowadays, with our only fear of falling occurring when we stop. To develop this idea again, you have chosen a very picturesque, yet determined allusion to the age of rapid progress and to passengers of the first trains, who are said to have fainted due to information overload when seeing scenes outside the carriage windows change too quickly. What peculiar circumstances inspired you to bring out Light? Was 2012 the year of acceleration? And if so, how far would we find ourselves today?

Light (2012) was a typical pretend-to-be-conceptual piece. Initially, I wanted to make a billboard which spun so fast, that its colours would blend into one, i. e. white. While working on it, I had to think about it more until I came about an interpretation. I remembered reading that Goethe had devised the term ‘veloziferisch’ to describe the age of rapid progress, which was an amalgam of ‘velocitas’ (from Latin meaning ‘speed’) and ‘Lucifer’. That Lucifer literally means “the bringer of light” is probably not meant to be taken as a compliment. Nowadays, trains travel ten times faster than in Goethe’s day meaning information already travels with the speed of light. In general, Goethe’s relationship with progress is said to have been problematic. Goethe viewed daily papers and ideas of social equality as a curse.  While experimenting with prisms, he came to the persuasion that Newton had been mistaken in his colour theory. Goethe would continue describing colour perception and interaction, and must clearly have enjoyed himself enough for another German poet to recall him saying “As to what I have done as a poet… I take no pride in it… But that in my century, I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours”. Despite having similar observations, their conclusions differed. Goethe thought that white light was indivisible and that all colours consisted of various mixtures of blue, yellow and darkness. Nowadays Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours) , published in 1810, is viewed as a poet’s work, while Newton’s theory, which survived vicious attacks from his contemporaries and rigorous contesting, has since become a common scientific practice.

By the way, during the plague of 1665, Newton played with prisms in his countryside retreat carrying out physical experiments on himself in the field of opticks. Having made a thin blunt needle known as a ‘bodkine’, he would place it “betwixt [his] eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of [his] eye as [he] could”, using it as a lever to change the shape of his eye. Through this, he was able to see a range of changing colourful rings – green, blue, purple, dark purple, blue then green again, and so on. If repeated in bright light, the experiment would produce a blue circle with a lighter middle. His exercises could be seen as the oddball behaviour of a gentleman of leisure, but I prefer to view them as early examples of body art. The border between art and science is still being blurred further every day.


Landscape. The right strokes in the wrong place, 2014. Installation view, Vartai gallery, 2016. Photo: Arturas Valiauga

Coming to the end of our conversation, if you don’t mind, I would like our reader to sharpen their portrait of you, Krišs Salmanis, with some of your everyday details. What inspires you the most at the moment? Are there any particular cultural and life spheres or individuals, greatly influencing your work right now?  Do you have any concomitant habits or personal rituals in your creative life? And when can we next expect to see you in Vilnius? 

I get inspiration from Latvian Radio 3 ‘Klasika’. The discussions they have about recent performances or comparing recent recordings are like spectator sports; using their fine-tuned intuitions, who can be more precise in translating the most intangible forms of art into words, using a limited number of these building blocks available. It is amazing how the same old  twenty to thirty-thousand words one normally uses, can still be combined into sequences to describe completely new things, which have never been described before. Likewise, I am quite addicted to BBC radio — their drama and comedy stations, in particular. I have heard that the Lithuanian stand-up comedy scene is gradually developing, as is ours. For many centuries, the British have practised their wordplay skills thanks to the aristocracy having to find ways to pass time while others worked for them. I find the resultant mastery astonishing.

Regarding Vilnius, I try to visit every year, there are so many balconies there!

Thank you for your time and thoughts!

Photo reportage from the exhibition ‘Poems and things’ by Krišs Salmanis at Vartai gallery, 2016