The Sculpture Quadrennial Riga has been running since 1972. At first, its goal was to display the latest works by sculptors from the Baltic soviet republics. Since 2004, the quadrennial has been organised by the Centre for Art Management and Information, an NGO under the Art Academy of Latvia. The geographical distribution of the artists invited has changed (with the addition of the European Union’s states) and so have the goals of the event: to continue searching for new perspectives on contemporary art (sculpture) processes and to highlight developing trends in contemporary art (sculpture) throughout Europe.
In recent years, the organisers’ themes have focused less on art (sculpture) than they have on political events such as European Space (2004), Dictatorship of the Majority (2008) and Anatomy of Integration (2012). This year is no exception. The quadrennial’s primary theme focuses on two different (political) ideologies – conservatism and liberalism. The goal of the theme’s creator, Latvian sculptor Aigars Bikše, is to rethink the polarity of the concepts of conservatism and liberalism to draw attention to the ways in which these two different political ideologies coexist, and to explore how they position themselves in the face of competition, and react to globalisation and migration among other issues.
When taken at face value, the event’s format, on the one hand, is rather conservative in terms of its continuity of the traditions surrounding the quadrennial’s preparation, whereas on the other hand, liberalism values individuality (one of the ideas it supports) which is an important value for creative individuals and artists. Besides, the fundamental principles of liberalism (as a political force) have already been implemented in developed countries (meaning, in this specific case, those in the European Union). Therefore, the issues surrounding these (political) ideologies lose their relevance in the quadrennial’s context.
The main exhibition, Being Good, was erected in the city’s centre and in the Wagner Hall by three curators – two of whom are also artists, Aigars Bikše (Latvia) and Kirke Kangro (Estonia), and an art critic, Elona Lubytė (Lithuania). Of course, in terms of the works presented, the name of the exhibition was more accurate and specific than the quadrennial’s theme.
When a curated exhibition focuses on a certain theme or discourse, it forces both its participants (artists) and the audience (viewers) into certain frames. One begins to wonder, naturally, in what context the artist will try to be good (better), be it in terms of form, material, content, or simply in the artistic sense. Those who ‘answer’ the theme of conservatism or liberalism, however, are labelled as politically motivated artists.
The exhibition Being Good presents the work of 24 artists. Their attempts to respond to the theme are characterised by the use of polemics, two-facedness and ambiguity (in a direct or figurative sense). For example, in his installation Un-future Danish artist Jacob Jessen cuts a number of objects from various professions in half and hung them on a white wall. In his piece Untitled, artist Kaspar Müller also uses various objects placed on tables to criticise capitalist economics and their influence on our social lives. The objects were chosen in an attempt to illustrate the modern human consciousness. In her installation Kafkaesque sensitivity. Tasks, repetitions and leftovers, Latvian artist Ieva Saulīte covered spaces with recognisable product symbols from mass culture (like the British luxury brand Burberry’s iconic decorations, or the easily recognisable symbol from the packaging of After Eight chocolate mints) to highlight our relationship with the consumerist environment that surrounds us along with integrated video screens showing our inner (individual) relationships.
In his installation Untitled, Markus Kåhre constructs a new spatial experience, filling it with self-reflection. The interior created in the two rooms is ‘reflected’ – not by a mirror but with the help of a hole. This illusion ‘erases’ the observer and forces them to consider the meaning of self-identification.
The quadrennial also included theatrical installations touching on existential and everyday questions of a political nature. Many of these were displayed in public spaces. On a decaying roof in Riga’s Old Town, artists Krista and Reinis Dzudzilo installed a Latin phrase – “RESPICE POST TE. HOMINEM TE MEMENTO” (an ancient Roman saying: “Look around. Remember that you are (only) a human”). This is dramaturgy in a natural urban environment oriented towards the classical memento mori theme. In her piece Trespasser, Swedish artist Hanna Stahle brought the refugee topic to relevance. She installed an amorphous sculptural object emerging from the city’s defensive wall (!). Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen also conditionally questions this topic in her installation Ups and Downs. The artist primarily uses recycled objects in her pieces; this time, jackets from a used clothing store. Kaikkonen hung the interconnected jackets above the audience between two buildings in the Old Town and within the former Wagner Hall cafe.
Located near the Art Academy is artist Jaanus Samma’s Nettles, which evokes several different interpretations. Planted in the same shape as a baroque ornament used in the gardens of Versaille, a flower garden features nettles instead of flowers. It combines cultural extravagance with an uncultured plant that many consider to be a fast-spreading weed that strangles more cultured plants.
Elona Lubytė, who curated the Lithuanian portion of the exhibition, emphasised new opportunities and possibilities for the expression of traditional sculpture – materiality, three-dimensionality and spatiality. In her opinion, three Lithuanian artists best embody these elements – Juozas Laivys, Žilvinas Landzbergas and Mindaugas Navakas.
Though artist Juozas Laivys suspended his artistic activities in 2015, he still operates inventively using his earlier works. The artist’s initial idea was to find an appropriate location and method to present the piece Nuclear power plant (2011, from the Mobile sculptures cycle) in a creative workshop with students from the Latvian Academy of Art. During the workshop, it became clear that the town of Seda is located not just in Lithuania (Nuclear power plant was presented for the first time in Seda in 2011) but in Latvia as well. As such, the documentation of the sculptural object that was performed in the Latvian Seda complemented that from the Lithuanian Seda during the quadrennial.
When returning to the idea of mobile sculptures, it is the artistic action as a method of communication, rather than the object itself, that becomes important. Therefore, the display of the object itself at the exhibition becomes meaningless.
Laivys’ photo documentation, SEDA (LT, 2011) = SEDA (LV, 2016), made in responds to the bipolarity of the quadrennial’s topic, and the equal sign used emphasises the artist’s apoliticality. In the documentation, neighbouring countries’ similarities equalise their linguistic or governmental differences while competition between these or other states is reduced by their need for energy resources.
Though Žilvinas Landzbergas’ piece Crown Off (2015) has little to do with the quadrennial’s theme, the exhibition space chosen for it – the main concert hall in the Wagner building – leaves no less of an impression than the fact that the composer Richard Wagner conducted there from 1837 to 1839.
The ‘physical sculptural body’, an imitation of an elk’s antlers which have been enlarged to be ten times their original size (not a hunting trophy), reflects a concrete ‘was/is’ situation. With the help of the sculptural object, the artist creates spatial and chronological narratives by placing the viewer face-to-face with themselves. However, he does this not by using stage design or clichéd phrases, but provokes us by enlarging the piece’s scale. Today, self-reflection is more meaningful than flows of information, and Landzbergas helps the audience understand this.
Mindaugas Navakas’ two sculptural objects Swimmers. I–II (2015–2016), were the only two pieces by a Lithuanian artist that were located in public spaces. They were submerged in the city’s canal. The artist, undoubtedly a master of content, space, cultural meanings and form, displays hand-made floats whose restrained forms create a dissonance with their lively environment, filled as it is with colourful boats and noisy rowers.
Needless to say, despite the quadrennial’s topic with its main exhibition’s names being complicated (in terms of many of the pieces), the event drew the public’s attention, especially to younger artists, whose work and names are worth keeping track of in the future.
Photograpgy: Lauris Aizupietis