This year Latvia is represented at the Venice Biennale by Skuja Braden, an artist duo born in 1999 when Ingūna Skuja (b. 1965) from Latvia and Melissa Braden (b. 1968) from California joined forces. Since then, they have put on over 40 solo exhibitions, moved between Latvia and the United States, and developed a distinctly recognisable practice, which mixes feminism, political commentary, pop culture and a grain of Zen Buddhism with porcelain craftsmanship.
Their installation for the Biennale Selling Water by the River references the anatomy of the domestic environment, and is formed from countless lushly painted pieces of porcelain, varying in size from an eyeball to a bed which weighs half a ton. The grotesque, bodily and often sexually explicit works are arranged on tables, peek out from the walls, and are scattered across the floor, drawing the viewer in a saturated experience of a nightmarish reality where the watcher becomes the watched.
Evita Goze: First of all, congratulations with your success at the Venice Biennale. The Latvian pavilion was recognised by several prominent media as one of the best, including Art in America, Sculpture Magazine, ARTNews and Artsy. With both of you being female artists from what, one might argue, is an overlooked region, merging reality with grotesque fantasies of morphing bodies, and working with such a complex material as porcelain, which requires highly skilled craftsmanship, I thought it fitted in very well with the context of this year’s Biennale and its main exhibition ‘The Milk of Dreams’ curated by Cecilia Alemani. Were you conscious of these parallels?
Melissa Braden: At the beginning, no. We weren’t told the theme when we applied. What I think happens, and it has happened with Ingūna and me again and again, is that if you are really paying attention to what’s going on in the world, rather than thinking of how to make your mark, you are going to find moments when everyone is doing the same thing. Like we all are plugging into this hive of a mind and grooving on the same energy. I don’t think it is a happy accident. I think it’s from diligence, hard work and really paying attention to what’s going on. When we discovered what the main theme of the Biennale was, we were already half-way through everything.
Ingūna Skuja: We had already made The Charity Collection.
MB: The Charity Collection and the bed were part of the original design. When we found out that the name of the show was going to be ‘The Milk of Dreams’, we were like, how did we know, OK, that’s cool, because we got our bed and all these tits.
IS: Before we thought the puddles of water would be blue, but then we changed them to puddles of milk instead.
MB: The Charity Collection came from the idea of seven sins and seven virtues from the ‘Samsara’ show. One of the seven virtues was charity, basically boobs in bottle form. I have a friend who is a really famous artist in America, and he said that our boob bottle was an absolutely genius piece. We thought, let’s just think about milk and what can be milked, and go on a deep dive into what milk is about. We were concentrating on milk before we found out that the show would be called ‘The Milk of Dreams’. That was one of those moments when you are plugged in.
The most expensive milk in the world is donkey’s milk from Serbia. They make cheese from it that costs around seven hundred euros a kilo. Everything that can be milked can be harvested, and we are milking all kinds of things. Then it goes into taking away women’s rights in America. We are going back to having no personal autonomy, with no possibility to have an abortion if you need one. Women’s bodies are more regulated than guns in America. It is a right-wing takeover by the Christian fundamentalists, and it is scary.
We made goats and cows because they get milked, we did tattoos on breasts to show all the different things that are being milked right now, and it is also about being harvested and colonised. Who is a slave and who is not a slave. And then it goes right back to what women are paid, what are they worth, how we all are being commodified and colonised.
EG: Can you expand on your collaboration with the pavilion’s curators Solvita Krese and Andra Silapētere? Did they suggest how to shape your work?
IS: We always do everything ourselves, we never had a curator before, so we thought maybe there will be problems, but that was not an issue. We were working in our country studio, seeing them by Zoom.
MB: We had discussions the whole time. The idea to build a reference to the Womanhouse from California in the 1970s was Andra’s. I’m fully informed by the California scene, and there is that influence, so it was really smart of Andra to look into where I’m from and to bring those two things together.
Līva Kreislere, the architect of the pavilion, had a huge impact on how the show eventually ended up looking. It was wonderful to have a team of all different kinds of professionals working on one thing together, which wasn’t the first time we have done that. We did a huge project for the White Memorial Medical Center back in 2004, where we had to work with the hospital, the managers, flying back and forth; that was a team effort. In 2012 we did a collaboration with a Buddhist monastery in England that was probably more difficult to deal with than the Venice Biennale. Zen monasteries are organised through pure anarchy, because every single person has to agree. People think that monks are these easy-going get-along people, but they are not. They are there because they couldn’t handle the reality of living in everyday society like most of us. That collaboration ended up becoming the main altar in their main meditation hall. There was one monk who said: ‘I don’t think you should make the vases go either side of Buddha,’ because she was concerned that our vases would be too beautiful and would take away from the beauty of Buddha. I said: ‘I don’t think you can take away beauty, you can only add to it.’ If you put beautiful blue flowers in the garden next to beautiful orange flowers, it is not going to take away from the orange flowers, it’s going to enhance them. I think if your intentions are pure, you can’t really go wrong.
My biggest concern with the Latvian pavilion was that I’m American, and how can I be true and pure and say something that’s truly about Latvia? It’s a big responsibility and a huge honour. What if I mess it up?
EG: One of the pieces exhibited is a vase with Putin’s face on it lying on the floor. While you were preparing the show, Russia invaded Ukraine. Did that influence or change your approach to how to show your work within the context of the Biennale?
IS: We couldn’t work for three days, we just didn’t see a reason. Then we realised that if we do nothing it’s even worse, and so we continued working. We had a flag and blue and yellow ties. We were invited to make something.
MB: I didn’t want to make anything specific. I said, no, it is already there, we had the Putin vase.
IS: The video where we are burning our couch is included, which is also a kind of reference to Ukraine. We usually make a Midsummer fire in our garden, piling up branches and wood the whole year. And we burn furniture which we don’t need any more. This time we burnt a desk and a couch and filmed the couch; upside-down it looked like a horse carriage.
EG: The reason I asked about the war in Ukraine is that politics seems to be a continuous subject in your work.
MB: Well, it is there, as well as the Oligarch Vase and the Corona Vase. The original Oligarch Vase had dictators from all around the world, everyone who is a player in this show right now. Lukashenko is there, and Viktor Orban. It is always something we are thinking about and working on, but it was so difficult to finish the work for the pavilion because we had so much time stolen from us. We could only get started in October. Who can make a massive half-ton porcelain bed in three months? It’s outrageous. Latvia is doing the competition very late. We wonder what we could have made if we had had real support. Maybe we would have won the Golden Lion.
EG: Have you ever thought about your work in relation to Surrealism? Certain characteristics associated with it like bizarre assemblages of ordinary objects, unexpected juxtapositions, distorted figures, biomorphic shapes, dream-like scenes and capacious symbols appear in your practice as well.
MB: For years, I didn’t really like Surrealism, because it was embracing the whole realm of psychology. But there is an aspect to it I find fascinating. Salvador Dali would take a nap every day and hold something in his hand, because he believed that the first five to ten seconds after you have fallen asleep is when you have visions. So he devised ways to wake himself up to write them down.
As far as the dream part of it goes, that is ever-present. Maybe it’s easier for women to be connected to their dreams because we are connected to the watery realm of the potential of our own baby-making abilities. The moon has a huge influence not only on the tides, but also on the menstrual cycle of women. But I don’t particularly like the word ‘Surrealism’ and all those misogynistic dudes. Frida Kahlo renounced them. She went to Europe, hung out with them for a while, and then said: ‘I’m not a Surrealist, everything I paint is from my real life.’
EG: True, the women in the Surrealist movement were highly underrated, by being seen as muses, lovers and companions, rather than as artists themselves. However, history has been rewritten by recognising them as amazing artists in their own right, which is also what Cecilia Alemani does in ‘The Milk of Dreams’.
MB: I really like the focus Alemani took with this exhibition, showing eighty per cent women, a lot of dead ones, many of whom have never been shown on such a scale. I think the show was ground-breaking. One woman came to our show, and she said: ‘I have been to every Venice Biennale for the past twenty-five years and this is the best one I’ve ever seen.’ I said: ‘Yeah, because it is mostly women; we have to be ten times better than men to even be considered the same level.’
I just had some issues with the prizes. I really don’t think they should have the tiny countries that can barely get their budgets together just to show up and participate, competing with the colonial houses and their enormous budgets of millions. There should be two separate awards.
EG: How are the attributes of the domestic space tied to the water that the title of the show refers to?
IS: At the beginning, it was going to be a garden; domestic space was the curator’s idea. We liked it very much.
MB: We were really working off each other’s ideas. The water was really easy, since it is everything right now. The symbol for woman and the symbol for water is the same. Seventy-eight per cent of our bodies is water. The water that’s on the planet now is the same water that has always been here, it’s just more polluted. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood in the Bible, Atlantis: all these references to flooding. Our over-reliance on carbon fuels is causing global climate change. We are heating up, the polar caps are melting, the oceans are dying, cities that are part of our reality now will be gone in fifty years if we don’t get our shit together. We are out of time. We need to radically change our current systems, stop using carbon-based fuels, make food where we live, buy locally. But we are all just cruising along like it’s no big deal, caught up in our own individual realities.
IS: When we were at a symposium in China, everything in the hotel was free except for water: small bottles in the refrigerator for four euros. That just says how water is used and abused for money.
MB: And it’s especially disgusting when you get it on the plane, because you can’t bring or buy water outside and bring it in. They jack the price up so you have to pay five bucks for water, but they’ve just dumped your water at the security gate.
EG: There are so many eyeballs in the pavilion that the creepy feeling arises that the art is not only being watched, but also watching the viewer.
MB: Totally. We have all experienced it in our dreams, where you are the watcher and the watched at the same time. And sometimes when you realise that it is not going the way you want it to, you just change it to a different dream. For a long time, I had horrible nightmares about serial killers. California produces more serial killers than any state in the nation, and my hometown Sacramento has produced a lot of them.
EG: You mentioned dreams several times. Do you dream your work sometimes?
MB: Absolutely. I’ve drawn images that are directly from my dreams, and then they end up in the work. Also, Ingūna tells me about her dreams, and we put them in the work.
IS: The big painting which is in our living room … When I was in pre-school, I constantly had this dream of a big ball rolling down the hill and becoming bigger and scarier. Sometimes you are in the ball, sometimes the ball is coming at you.
MB: It’s so crazy, because I had the same nightmare. The same scary ball chasing me in my dreams. When my Dad was interviewed for a documentary about us, he said: ‘Well, you guys are together because you are the same.’ That’s probably true. As a kid, Ingūna was playing all the time and directing everyone how to play, and I was doing the same thing. The creative little kid who the older ones tell to stop bossing everyone around, but you are actually getting everyone to play really cool games. There has to be a similarity of some sort, because we understand each other so well. When we first met, it was almost scary. I never felt that way about anybody, not my parents, not my siblings, no one.
EG: Melissa, before you met Ingūna, you didn’t work with porcelain, right?
MB: Not at all. Everything I know about porcelain I learned from Ingūna.
IS: Melissa is very funny, she says: ‘Let’s make it like this.’ And I say: ‘No, it’s impossible,’ because I know the material. She just says: ‘Let’s try, let’s experiment.’ Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Now she understands me. Before, she sometimes got angry: ‘You just always say “No”.’
MB: Porcelain is a hard material to work with.
EG: What excites you about it?
M.B: I like how it feels when it’s cold. I had a similar feeling working on lithography stones. Something in it feels so alive. And with wax. As soon as it was cast in bronze, I just felt this deep loss. But who cares whether it is porcelain or bronze or whatever? I’ve seen really cool things in lots of different kinds of materials. But the way I feel working with it makes more sense than anything else.
EG: How about you, Ingūna?
IS: I was through it when I was seventeen. I was also a good painter at school, but painting is different, you have to know before what you are going to paint. I feel it’s more difficult.
MB: I don’t feel it’s more difficult.
IS: She says we must paint, and the curators from London said we should paint, but Latvian curators say: ‘Don’t paint, everyone paints.’
MB: A curator from London came to visit us because he wants to work with us. He said he loves this painting (on our living room wall), can we paint more? Sure, we can, it’s easier than porcelain.
EG: Are you planning to concentrate more on painting now?
MB: Yes, I really want to. I started out in painting, and painted for years. I stopped when I started working with Ingūna, but you still end up painting on porcelain instead of canvas. But I like the way canvas feels, it’s squishy, quick and easy: boom, it’s done. You don’t have to put it in the kiln and find that all the colours are messed up when you get it out, which happens with porcelain.
EG: I watched a video where you were talking about a piece you made when your dog died. When you talked about the materials, how tactile the process is seemed very important to you, it almost looked as if you were seeing with your hands.
MB: It feels that way at times. Also, for years I thought it would be really fun to work with wax and colour on canvas, because I had such a feeling for wax when I was working in bronze, and I still haven’t done it. I like the chewiness of it, the physical feel of it, it looks like a sculpted painting, you can see through the layers. Like automatic writing. When you lose yourself in any process, you tap into that which is everything. That’s how you can end up with a show like ‘The Milk of Dreams’, where so many artists were plugged in at the same time. It’s that Zen moment that meditators strive for. Those moments when you lose yourself, and you are no longer there, just the thing that’s happening is happening, and you are at one with the process. It is a tremendous relief and a wonderful feeling afterwards that you were able to touch it, even for a second. The process of continuously working begins to change you, you become liquid and realise how much you’ve changed through the process. Not only is the work changing, but it’s changing you. Every form is going to bring new problems and mistakes, and new technological fall-outs, you don’t know if it is going to hold together. You pull it out and it’s all broken. That happens.
EG: What are you working on at the moment as the Biennale approaches its final days?
MB: We’ve just finished working on a performance for the Patriarha Rudens festival called Normal Cake, Please, where we were playing celestial priestesses who marry a gay couple. It was our first performance, and we had to write our own parts and design our characters. Now we are working on a hundred and eighteen-piece porcelain installation Apple of My Eye for the Guangzhou Triennial in Guangdong in China. We are also going to start to work on a solo show in Zagreb in Croatia called ‘Pop-Porn’, which is due to open in the fall of 2023. Next month we are heading to Venice to dismantle the show and pack our work, and we have appointments in Milan during that time which might lead to more projects in the future. You will have to interview us again to find out.