From Artist Crisis Centre to Withdrawal. Šelda Puķīte interviews the Latvian artist Elīna Vītola

July 24, 2021
Author Šelda Puķīte
Published in Interview from Latvia

Elīna Vītola (b. 1986) is an artist based in Riga whose conceptual yet visually vibrant work varies from paintings to complex communal installations involving several other artists and creative practitioners. Classically trained as a painter at the Art Academy of Latvia, Vītola has taken up this medium as a companion in her artistic journey to both disentangle some issues that are connected with her own identity as an artist and the art world in general, and to build new platforms for other artists.

Vītola approaches colour, painting and painted objects in a conceptual way, asking humorous questions about subject matter, technique and material. Her works are cheerful, curious, funny and visually challenging, and play with painting in the most diverse situations. Although she seems to work in the realm of abstraction, her works represent a distorted view of very concrete things. Works that she creates in long-term series analyse the complexities of seeing, as well as the way the art world operates and communicates.

In recent years, Vītola has had several solo and group shows, and founded the non-profit organisation Monumental Cafe, which, starting from 2019, has curated an exhibition series in the Riga Circus Elephant Stables. Since 2020, together with the artists Ieva Kraule-Kūna and Amanda Ziemele (calling themselves LOWERS), she has been running the artist-run gallery LOW (in Riga). Vītola has also received important public recognition as an artist. The most recent is being shortlisted together with Ieva Kraule-Kūna for the Purvitis Prize 2021, the most important art prize in Latvia.

Vītola has become a very clear example of the newly emerging, talented generation of Latvian artists, who are not afraid to change the rules in the art world, and take control of their artistic destiny, both creatively and institutionally. Being an artist, curator, gallery manager and driver with a van, as she ironically points out, she seems to be searching for a magnet to join together very different components of the art world. In order to do so, she has made projects that have become communal installations, involving many others.

Elīna Vītola and Ieva Kraule-Kūna. Artist Crisis Center II: Tact Gear. P/////AKT, Amsterdam, 2020. Photo by Charlott Markus.

Šelda Puķīte: This interview is taking place during the installation process of the exhibition of shortlisted artists for what is now the seventh Purvitis Prize in the Great Hall of the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art in the Riga Museum (LNMA). You and the artist Ieva Kraule-Kūna have been shortlisted for your project ‘Artist Crisis Centre’ over a period of two years at the LOW gallery and the Kim? Contemporary Art Centre. It seems that the time when you always came second in competitions, as you have said yourself in some interviews, is over. In 2018, you won the Grand Prix of the Nordic and Baltic Young Artist Award for your MA work. In 2019, you had a solo show at the Arsenāls Creative Studio exhibition hall of the Latvian National Museum of Art, and now, two years later, you are already on the list of finalists for the Purvitis Prize. What is your general opinion of these prizes, and what for you personally does nomination and participation in such a prestige event as the Purvitis Prize mean? 

Elīna Vītola: As success, the value of a work of art and the fate of the artist are important themes in all my works. The opportunity to experience personally such a component of life as a nomination for the Purvitis Prize provides additional motivation for the work. I totally agree, I no longer come second in competitions. At the moment, I often don’t even get to the point of creating any serial numbers. There is some acknowledgment that I have been fortunate enough to receive, such as the opportunity to participate in the first MABOCA festival (Madona, Latvia), and the recognition you mentioned, but even more, there are situations of longevity, failure and non-meetings. There are many different types of recognition in the art world, and it is possible that their sequence, type and quantity decide the artist’s destiny. In my imagination, success can be achieved through the recognition of opposite or distant corners of the art world, and thus bring these distances closer together, between artists, works of art and institutions. This is how the theme of the union of artists can also be seen in the ‘Artist Crisis Centre’.

ŠP: In your projects, you often use and transform exhibition spaces very purposefully. They become performative, where the people involved, the works exhibited, the activities created and the audience itself become part of the choreography and the troupe of actors. The viewer participates in the process of discussing a problem, possibly solving it, but the main thing is that any guest who allows it is put in these playful situations that question the structure of the art world.

Exhibitions of work by Purvītis Prize finalists are famous for the difficulties in exhibiting the works. The exhibition organisers who are not involved in the evaluation and nomination process have to put together projects by completely different artists in one big and several side rooms. In a recent interview published by Arterritory, you and Ieva Kraule-Kūna revealed that there was a desire to create a version of the project in the glazed repository of paintings in the lobby/corridor on the way to the Great Hall. Can you give us a short description of the process of adapting this project to the museum premises, and what solution was found? I imagine you could probably just hand out your portable artwork bags to each of the finalists.

EV: It is currently possible in the museum to see historical objects from the inventory of the first ‘Artist Crisis Centre’: couches, wheelchairs, coffee tables, and partly also art collections, but it is not possible to use them, because they clearly no longer meet modern security standards. Exhibited as such inanimate and cold objects, they provide an opportunity to compare different historical situations. The non-living exhibition does not directly serve as a crisis centre, it has no carpet, soothing lighting or cosy walls, visitors do not have to wear booties, the soup kitchen is closed, but it is possible to recall the time when we were all together. The idea to exhibit the first part of the centre in the museum collection arose by referring to the situation in which we submitted a request to the LNMA to accept the centre as a gift for the museum collection. After intense negotiations with a representative of the museum, we did not receive an answer from them, because we did not indicate a return address in the application. We have exhibited the second part of the Artist Crisis Centre, the backpack, quite similar to the original idea in P ///// AKT, Amsterdam, and we intend to give the bag not to each participant, but only to the winner.

ŠP: ‘Artist Crisis Centre’ is a joint project by two artists, also involving several other artists. You have also created several projects together with another Purvītis Prize finalist, Amanda Ziemele, as well as the artist and curator Marta Trektere, and the art theoretician Jānis Taurens. What motivates you to create regular collaborative projects with other artists? Is it an opportunity for an intense, creative exchange of ideas, a desire to work in a team, a coincidence, or something else?

EV: In other projects, I’ve gained experience by putting my own interests after the communities’ interests, and that, combined with a driver’s license and a medium-size truck, is likely to make me a desirable ally in low-budget projects. The solo exhibitions are emotionally very hard, but in the collaboration projects a third (or another number) identity is newly formed in the space between the artists, and none of the artists can take full responsibility for it, thus easing the heavy burden, which is not insignificant to me.

ŠP: How did the cooperation with Ieva Kraule-Kūna start, and is there an idea to create a new project together in the future?

EV: The artist Maija Kurševa invited Ieva to take part in a residency project, but Ieva felt that at the time she did not have enough resources for either a residence or a solo exhibition, so she invited me to create a joint project, and it quickly became the ‘Artist Crisis Centre’. We are currently working on a prototype of artists’ shoe soles, but we have no other, far-reaching plans at the moment.

View from group exhibition.Time to Dream or Fear. Kogo gallery, Tartu, 2020. Photo by Marje Eelma.

View from group exhibition.Time to Dream or Fear. Kogo gallery, Tartu, 2020. Photo by Marje Eelma.

ŠP: Continuing on collaborative projects, in addition to art projects, you have also created an exhibition programme in the Riga Circus, and now, together with Amanda Ziemele and Ieva Kraule-Kūna, or LOWERS, as you call yourself, you also run the non-commercial gallery LOW, created by the artist Maija Kurševa. LOW’s work has also resulted in the publication of the magazines Krīzes vēstnesis 001 and 002 (Herald of Crisis) and Mīlas vēstnesis 003 (Herald of Love). Can you tell us a bit about this area of your activity, and can it be perceived as an extension of your work as an artist?

EV: Just as in artistic activities, an administrative unit of several people like that forms a new, seemingly common, but in the end unidentified identity. In the gallery’s exhibition programme and other activities, in the magazine Krīzes vēstnesis and in the podcast ‘LOWkāsts’, it is possible to see thematic parallels with projects in the ‘Artist Crisis Centre’ and the Monumental Cafe. For example, the group’s exhibition ‘Low Moon’, which will be on show in the gallery for at least a year, directly addresses issues of the sustainability of art that are common to both projects. The idea for the magazine ‘Herald of Crisis’ came about while sitting on one of the couches in the Crisis Centre, talking about how artists lacked a platform in which to express opinions, publish manifestos, or otherwise express themselves in spoken and written form.

ŠP: The ‘Low Moon’ exhibition will be on show for over a year. At present, even the LNMA does not put on exhibitions that last so long. Does this mean that the exhibition is like the permanent exhibition of the LOW gallery, similar to the Kiasma Museum, where large collection exhibitions are shown on an annual basis? Or will it be an exhibition that will rather resemble a living organism, constantly changing and evolving from the inside?

EV: Yes, the comparison with a living organism is very accurate, and it is in line with the main task of the gallery’s 2021 programme, to create an art ecosystem.

ŠP: You are currently officially represented by the Kogo Gallery in Tartu, Estonia. The relationship between artists and the art market can be quite complicated, especially as it deals very directly with sales and money. How do you see this model of collaboration, and what do you expect from it?

EV: I have no direct experience of this type of complicated relationship, because the cooperation with Kogo is calm and friendly. I assume the gallery can play an important role in the artist’s destiny, but knowing that in this case both the artist and the gallery operate in an area where neither the art market nor the money are local, I expect the gallery to have an influence that can exist beyond these factors.

ŠP: From the very start, painting has been your main form of expression and your megaphone. You also graduated from the Painting Department of the Latvian Academy of Art. However, when creating your works, you are constantly trying to get out of the classic frames of painting, whether turning works into edible paintings, sewing a zipper into the canvas, or moving the canvas to soft sculptures, curtains and other installations. Painting is not an art form you are using, but rather a form of handwriting. What motivated you to become interested in and study painting? And how do you look at painting now that there are already several solo exhibitions and collaborative projects with other artists behind you?

EV: Is that how it looks from the outside? Painting is the most important thing for me, and my goal is to be able to paint every day from morning to evening. The installations you mentioned are made from already-made paintings, using them as material from which to create a reaction according to each specific exhibition situation. Although an infinite painting is just an idea that does not translate into material, it still determines my work process. My art studio has a device that allows me to paint very long paintings, which I store in rolls. For example, when painting a 30-metre-long painting, I can question some painting-related topic that is important to me. I can be in a saturated, inclusive field of ideas and materials, and this format allows me to work independently, even between exhibitions, or when they are not planned at all. Paintings are more independent and sustainable, but installations are created as reactions to specific situations on the timeline.

Elīna Vītola and Ieva Kraule-Kūna. Artist Crisis Center. Gallery LOW, Riga, 2019. Photo by Līga Spunde.

Elīna Vītola and Ieva Kraule-Kūna. Artist Crisis Center. Gallery LOW, Riga, 2019. Photo by Līga Spunde.

ŠP: You work a lot in series, dealing to a certain degree with the same question, and then ending the cycle. In our last conversation in April, you mentioned that maybe it was time to end the ‘Artist Crisis Centre’ project and focus on something else, and that this decision was influenced largely by the pandemic. You also mentioned in an interview with Arterritory that you are currently working on a painting diptych. Can you tell us how you, as an artist, have been affected by this turbulent time, and what your immediate plans for the future are?

EV: The cyclical nature can be seen both in the series of works, in the rolls of paintings, and on the visible surfaces of the painting, where the motifs are constantly repeating themselves. Although it has indeed been decided to close the ‘Artist Crisis Centre’ indefinitely, its echoes will certainly be noticeable both in my and other artists’ palettes. A pervasive theme that I have not yet concluded is related to abstraction. One of the meanings of the Latin word from which the word abstract comes is ‘withdrawal’. There are several ‘barrels’ in my workshop, where projects are in the fermentation stage, and one of the oldest is social abstraction, and this period in isolation acts as a sketch for much work in the future. However, not everything I try becomes a finished work: often when you open the barrel, you find only an empty space. I am currently busy with a diptych, although they are not paintings, and administrative activities, but as soon as the diptych is completed, I plan to try my hand at individual projects, where previous experience will be reversed. In both the collaborative and individual projects you refer to, there is another actor, the institutional background. I really miss the invitation to exhibit, the challenge, the frustration and the worry, and the new crushing feeling that comes from confronting a roll of painting with the context.

Purvītis Prize exhibition will be on view in the Great Hall of the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga, 2021. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

Purvītis Prize exhibition will be on view in the Great Hall of the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga, 2021. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

Elīna Vītola, Amanda Ziemele and Marta Trektere. Commission. The elephant stables of Riga Circus, Riga, 2020.

Elīna Vītola and Amanda Ziemele. MONUMENTAL CAFÉ. MABOCA art festival, Madona, 2019.

Elīna Vītola. Common Issues in Painting and Everyday Life: Crappstraction. Kogo gallery, Tartu, 2018. Photo by Diāna Tamane.