The Battle of the Amazons: Literature in Latvian Contemporary Art

May 10, 2017
Author Jānis Taurens
Published in Review from Latvia
Krišs Salmanis, Anna Salmane, Kristaps Pētersons 'Song'. 2015. Photo: courtesy of Purvītis Prize

Krišs Salmanis, Anna Salmane, Kristaps Pētersons ‘Song’. 2015. Photo: courtesy of Purvītis Prize

… Ihr schatten,
Groß, wie ein Riese, in der Morgensonne,
Erschlägt ihn schon! …

(Kleist. Penthesilea)

To a certain extent, my essay has been written in the shadow of the Purvītis Prize and the exhibition featuring the artists who were nominated for this prize. The Purvītis Prize was awarded to Anna and Krišs Salmanis and their musical de-construction of the Latvian Song Festival myth which, just like composer Kristaps Pēterson’s re-construction, is titled Dziesma (Song). It therefore seems that music in art ought to be a more topical issue than literature. And yet – despite gazing upon a work of impressive size (almost the presence of the ocean itself) which looks like a sublime illustration or something that visually paraphrases Longinus’s well-known treatise on the sublime[1] – I wish to turn my attention to a frivolous little lollipop; except that, instead of a piece of candy, here we have a bust of the famous Latvian poet Rainis, which, if only it weren’t a work of art, children could lick as though it was any other kind of sweet snack on a stick; or another work of art – a bookshelf for a single book; or a feminist exhibition titled Red Room, which, according to the artist herself, includes a reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. One could ask what these works all have in common with each other and with literature, seeing as they contain no literary plot or representation of characters. Or how, actually, should one understand the concept of ‘literature in art’? One solution comes in the form of an explanation by a translator of Rosalind Krauss’s essay on photography that had been added following Krauss’s footnotes to her own essay.

Ingrīda Pičukāne 'Red room'. 2017. Photo; Ingrīda Pičukāne

Ingrīda Pičukāne ‘Red room’. 2017. Photo; Ingrīda Pičukāne

In her 1985 essay titled Corpus delicti, Krauss examines Raoul Ubac’s photomontage series from the late 1930s titled Le Combat des Penthésilées (whose other title variations are used in French and English, such as the singular form The Battle of Penthesilea or the plural form The Battle of the Amazons). Krauss describes the work as a ruthless destruction of matter in which, thanks to a complex technique that also includes solarisation, light eats away at the boundaries of the bodies, but the bodies themselves succumb to the pressure of the space. Penthesilea was a leader of the Amazons who took part in the Trojan War. Virgil writes in his epic poem that “her band of Amazons, with moon-shaped shields, Penthesilea led … a belt of gold beneath one bare, protruded breast she bound” (Aeneid, I, 489–492, translated by Theodore C. Williams), but in the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, it is briefly mentioned that Penthesilea was slain by the hand of Achilles, who had fallen in love with the Amazon after her death (Epitome V, 1). The plural form of this proper noun might thus be questioned; the singular is used more often, nevertheless. The retention of the plural form of the title of Ubac’s photos in the Russian translation of Krauss’s text is justified by a statement André Breton made in the 1939 May issue of the surrealist magazine Minotaure. Here, Breton is said to have referenced Heinrich von Kleist’s unique interpretation of the Greek myth – among other things, in his drama Penthesilea is in love with Achilles – where he wrote that Ubac’s women are the sisters of Kleist’s sullen Penthesilea. Kleist’s lines are written in the article’s epigraph and can be translated as “her (Penthesilea’s) shadow, as large as a giant, already screens him (Achilles) in the morning sun,” and I require the whole aforementioned labyrinth of literary references in order to define what I mean by ‘literature in art’. Obviously, it’s not simply the inclusion of a literary text or its characters in a work of visual art or its title. Breton’s phrase is an unexpected comparison – and I must say unexpected, not only of a Frenchman – that is based on the metaphor of kinship. Using Wittgenstein’s term, it could also be called “family resemblance”, which, in turn, was probably borrowed from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. This deciphering of the kinship metaphor, using examples from Latvian contemporary art, will be the theme of my essay.

Brigita Zelča-Aisupre, Aija Baumane, from the exhibition 'Pleasant Culture'. 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Brigita Zelča-Aisupre, Aija Baumane, from the exhibition ‘Pleasant Culture’. 2015. Photo: courtesy of the artist

…Then lonelier will you become year after year,
Friends will splinter off one by one,
The rare traveler will share your spirit,
And the rare flower will grow on your cliff.

Along with Rainis’s monument near the Art Academy of Latvia and the plays he wrote about national myths, these well-known lines from his poem Kalnā kāpējs (The Mountain Climber) create the image of a great national poet. And yet, all of that ‘boiled down’ into a little lollipop?

Additionally, there is a feminist aspect to Brigita Zelča-Aispure and Aija Baumane’s artwork. We might ask to what extent Rainis’s colleague Aspazija sacrificed her own poetry for the good of something greater (a man, her husband, the great poet himself, etc.), and the piece of candy is, of course, made of sugar, which both artists encounter “while spending days in the kitchen with the child”[2], and in this sugary form, Rainis would instantly dissolve in the great waves of the ocean (Johansons), while the metaphysical ‘large-format’ reflection about Dark Matter (Atis Jākobsons’s solo exhibition, which was also nominated for the Purvītis Prize) would never stoop to being as low as such kitchen frivolities.[3] Some admirers of Rainis might take offence, and, if the sugary bust were larger, it’s even possible that the work of art might evoke an act of vandalism, similarly to what happened in 1997 with the red velvet-covered bust of Rainis created by Ieva Rubeze at the Daile Theatre.[4] But enough about lollipops, that small work of art casts a significant shadow on our ideas and myths about Rainis, similarly to the way in which Penthesilea screens the great man in Kleist’s drama.

Literature appears in a seemingly minimalistic form – with a single word from Virginia Woolf’s title – in Ingrīda Pičukāne’s exhibition-performance that closed on the 2nd of February 2017 at the Office Gallery of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. Here, the literary is neither the visual image that was painted on the gallery’s walls and depicted a woman’s emotions during her menstrual cycle, nor the feminist magazine titled Samanta that was published at the closing of the exhibition and made an ironic reference to a popular so-called “women’s magazine” in Latvia (titled Santa). Instead, it was the short reference to Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own that gave the work of art a historical dimension. Namely, just like in England almost 90 years ago, today in Latvia art is fighting a battle against certain patriarchal notions – different ones, of course, but notions that are likewise entrenched. Literature enters Pičukāne’s exhibition as a “condensation” (to use Walter Benjamin’s term Verdichtung) of the work’s meaning presented in a historical dimension, which provides a new viewpoint of the fear that Latvian society still has for the word ‘feminism’ and the aggression that ensues from this fear,[5] which might be rooted in the rupture of the tradition of thought brought about by the Soviet occupation. (But neither is the situation ideal in the West. For example, a large exposition of German art took place at the Arsenāls Exhibition Hall in Riga in the summer of 2016, the title of which – Elective Affinities – also included a literary reference. In the exhibition catalogue, curator Mark Gibson cited a statement made in an interview with Der Spiegel by the famous Georg Baselitz (who, by the way, represented his paintings of impressive size in the 2015 Venice Biennale) quoting: “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact”. This statement makes me doubt the quality of Baselitz’s own painting, unless looking at it through the narrow frame of formalist aesthetics. But that’s a different story…).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandschaften (Elective Affinities), as well as Walter Benjamin’s vivid essay devoted to it, brings to mind a work of art by Krista Dzudzilo, made while she was still a student at the Art Academy of Latvia. In it, she turned the viewer’s attention to the reader and the act of reading itself. The motivation for Dzudzilo’s work Mechanical Reproduction (2013) might well have been a professor’s assignment to students to read Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but the visual solution has come from the artist’s own reflection on the text.[6] In this case, the possible references to the well-known Jeune fille lisant by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1874–1876) and possibly the lesser-known Remarks on Colour by Gary Hill (1994) give the work supplemental meaning that is linked to a purely iconographic similarity.[7] More importantly, by mechanically reproducing and layering itself, the image of the young reader of Benjamin’s essay – the artist herself – makes the video image into a single expanse of blue colour, similar to the way in which the exaggerated popularity of this essay overshadows Benjamin’s other works.[8]

The artists of all these three artworks, as well as the 19th to 21st century readers mentioned in the previous paragraph, are all women. This is not an essay about feminist art, but apparently patriarchal values – especially in Latvia – appear to dictate that it befits a man to drive a Jeep, smoke a cigar, be successful in business and art … and maybe collect art. But intellectually, artistic activities – which are, for some reason, paid less in our society – should remain the realm of women. After all, emancipation from the role of the housewife or mistress has already taken place…. I exaggerate, and that’s a legitimate, philosophical method for a thought experiment (I will address the exceptions to the patriarchal value systems in the continuation of the essay).

Rasa Jansone, a sketch for the project 'Shot of Strength', 2014.

Rasa Jansone, a sketch for the project ‘Shot of Strength’, 2014.

By no coincidence, the next artist I would also like to mention has work of art that also refers to Virginia Woolf, Rasa Jansone. Her work Anna Rozentāle un Virdžīnija Vulfa (Anna Rozentāle and Virginia Woolf, 2014) brings together the famous author and Jansone’s own grandmother, who was the mother of nine children (as we know, Woolf had no children). As seen in the working sketch of the artwork, portraits of the two women are located across from each other. Their facial features consist of Woolf’s texts from the Latvian translation of her collection of essays Moments of Being. The reader is both the artist herself (and, as far as I know, a passionate reader at that) and the potential viewer. But a short explanation is in order here. This work of art was created as a part of the Spēka pote (Shot of Strength) project in 2014 and was initially intended for the chapel at the Riga Christian High School. But, as Jansone explains on her website, the idea was declared unsuitable for the space, with one of the arguments being that God is a man. What more can be said? Other than that the school’s leadership probably, and fortunately, did not know that Woolf had committed suicide….

Literature with a truly Achillean note also enters the work of a few Don Quixotic male readers (please forgive my combining of these Ancient Greek and Cervantian heroes). In this case, unshadowed by children and the needs of a household, the ideal image of the library with book shelves reaching all the way from floor to ceiling and the practically impossible union of “closereading” and “distant reading” shines dimly in the background.[9] But let us not forget the reading habits of a couple of artists; Arturs Bērziņš and Ēriks Apaļais are two artists, theoreticians or other, whose works I would like to briefly examine at the conclusion of this essay.

Arturs Bērziņš 'Untitled (book)'. 2014. Photo: Didzis Grodzs

Arturs Bērziņš ‘Untitled (book)’. 2014. Photo: Didzis Grodzs

Taken from Bērziņš’s two solo exhibitions are small artworks combined under the title Attēldarbi (Imageworks, 2015), shown at the Purvītis Prize nominee exhibition. Together with their visual reflection of issues touched upon in philosophical texts, they create a light respite of clarity between the dark adulations of metaphysics and the sublime located next to them.[10] But ‘philosophy in art’ would be a separate theme if not connected to the themes explored in this article. Another work by Bērziņš corresponds to ‘literature in art’, namely, a piece created for the Artishok Biennale (2014) that is a bookshelf for one (sic) book. But in this case the artefact is only a trap for the careless viewer’s eyes; the real ‘subject’ of the work, as described by the artist himself, is the feeling connected to the buying of a book. Therefore, if you love books, all you need to do is look into your memory and you will get a work of art. In this sense, the work of art contains nothing of the depth of close reading, nor does it contain the breadth of distant reading, but it is nonetheless just as elitist as the time we dedicate to reading today and the value we associate with it.

Several works of art by Ēriks Apaļais in the Le Cygne exhibition, for their part, are united by a ‘letterist’ deconstruction and analysis of the read material, which, along with the artist’s self-reflection in reticent visual form, lead to thoughts about tranquillity, silence and cleanliness as the prerequisites for the creation and perception of art.[11] (One could ask: isn’t that already the case?) The use of Mallarmé’s poems in visual art is nothing new – let us remember Marcel Broodthaers’s work Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (the title of Mallarmé’s poem could be translated as “Casting the dice once will never abolish chance”). In Apaļais’ paintings, meaning is also conferred (or sought?) in the graphic form of the text, except that here it is individual letters, the curve of a swan’s neck referring to the poem title The Swan and the video work shown in the first darkened room of the exhibition in which a young girl’s face emerges from water and, in a barely audible voice, pronounces the word gulbis (the French le cygne is difficult for Latvian children to pronounce). In Kleist’s drama, the passion of the main heroes involves whole armies of Greeks and Amazons and the inclusion of literature in art creates an almost uncontrollable network of references and meanings. In this case we might begin with the Ancient Greek myth about Leda and the swan, the result of which gave birth to Helen and the fall of Troy (…the continuation is almost endless), ending with the “Inaesthetics” of French philosopher Alain Badiou, by which he means the turning of philosophical reflection towards art as the keeper of truth (however, Badiou analyses Mallarmé’s well-known poem about a faun, which in turn inspired Claude Debussy’s famous composition).[12] The girl’s face in Apaļais’ video work, for its part, reminded me of Ophelia (possibly because I was reading Claude Louis-Combet’s Ophelia at the time), but to others, it may remind them of Virginia Woolf’s fate or Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing

In closing, a few notes regarding method. ‘Elective affinities’ or ‘family resemblances’ are metaphors with literary philosophical references. In contemporary art, these metaphors describe a kind of reflection that, in place of including literary narrative, offers to activate the viewer-reader’s experience or at least serve as a reference to a potential field of reading experiences. Either that, or is simply (or partially) incomprehensible. The effect of such art, and literature, will be broad and impossible to conceive of with a single concept – from a suggestion to self-contemplate to the breaking of entrenched notions. That’s it.

Ēriks Apaļais 'Le Cygne'. Exhibition view, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Alma gallery

Ēriks Apaļais ‘Le Cygne’. Exhibition view, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Alma gallery

Ēriks Apaļais 'Le Cygne'. Exhibition view, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Alma gallery

Ēriks Apaļais ‘Le Cygne’. Exhibition view, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Alma gallery

[1]              Here I am referring to Voldemārs Johansons’ video work Slāpes (Thirst), in which the viewer sees and hears huge ocean waves. The work was seen until the 9th of April 2017 in the exibition Purvītis Prize 2017 at the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art.

[2]          A piece of candy in the form of a bust of Rainis was exhibited at the artist’s solo exhibition Tīkama kultūra (Agreeable Culture) at the Kaņepes Cultural Centre (August 20 – September 9, 2015).All of the other works in the exhibition were also made from sugar. Significantly, 2015 was officially declared the ‘Year of Rainis’.

[3]          In the Soviet era, metaphysical conversations took place at kitchen tables due to the small size of communal and standard-designed apartments. “Kitchen metaphysics” is also the only acceptable form of metaphysics, as long as it is not the goal of historically critical irony.

[4]          An actor (may his name remain unknown to future generations) tore the fabric off the bust of Rainis and scribbled something on the base of the sculpture in white chalk (a text including something about ‘true values’). Ieva Rubeze’s artwork was a part of the Opera exhibition organised by the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts – Riga (SMMC-Rīga).

[5]          Apparently in response to information about Samanta provided only by the press release, one Internet portal created a seemingly-innocent ‘masculine’ version of the magazine, which was, in fact, a visual gloating about violence towards women.

[6]          The short video work can be seen through the artist’s website:

[7]          The cover of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, the Latvian translation of which was read by Dzudzilo and which includes the above-mentioned essay, is bright blue, while the cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour is bright red (another work that is also read by a young girl in the video that is over 40 minutes long). The philosophical writing styles of both authors – Jews from Berlin and Vienna who are rooted in German culture – are quite different, a fact that is made even more interesting by their few similarities. This could be continued.

[8]          See, for example, Walter Benjamin and Art / Ed. by Andrew Benjamin. Continuum, 2005. All 13 essays in this collection are devoted to this one work by Benjamin (a good thing that there are three versions of it).

[9]          “Distant reading” is a term coined by Franco Moretti that allows us to speak about ‘world literature’ using quantitative analysis, created in opposition to the “close reading” of a narrow canon of ‘distinguished’ literature, which demands readers immerse themselves in each individual text (see Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. Verso, 2013). Moretti, however, enjoys impressing others with his thorough knowledge of individual texts.

[10]        ‘Light’ and ‘dark’ should be understood also literally here, in the sense of wall colours and lighting.

[11]        The exhibition took place at Alma Gallery from September 9 to October 14, 2016.

[12]        See: Badiou, Alain. Petit manuel d’inesthétique. Seuil, 1998; translated into English as Handbook of Inaesthetics, 2004.