It’s been 27 years since Latvia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. In that time change has polished the country in a myriad of ways. Curated by chief curator Katerina Gregos, the title of the first Riga Biennial is Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, a name borrowed from the 2005 book of the same name by Alexei Yurchak. In it the author discusses the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as one particular characteristic that defined it: the sense that although the Soviet system was felt to be permanent and unchangeable, its collapse was viewed as natural. The poignant title of Yurchak’s book resonates across the entire post-Soviet sphere. It also, as Gregos and the artists of the biennial demonstrate, is a metaphor for our own times. Rather than strictly focusing on a post-Soviet discourse, the biennial looks at the various dimensions of change. The wandering and meandering exhibition makes its way through nine venues in Riga, including a former Bolshevik textile factory, a modernist railway station built in 1977 based on the designs of Soviet architect Igor Jawein and the residence of Kristaps Morbergs, an influence national figure during the 19th century.
Rife with discovery and philosophical inquiry, featured are the works of 104 artists, the majority of which hail from the Baltic region with the remainder pivotal international names. Such a ratio underlines the aims of the founding director of the privately-funded Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) Agniya Mirgorodskaya: to introduce art from the Baltic region to a global audience. “We must look into the future rather than the past,” she said.
RIBOCA1 is revolutionary in its vision—not just for Riga and Baltic artists, but also in how the concept of a biennial is approached. “In a sense a biennial is just a word […] But what one does with it and how is what gives it meaning,” said Gregos during the press conference. “There needs to be a very clear reason why a biennial takes place. RIBOCA is not born out of city-marketing ambitions or an underlying gentrification agenda but out of a genuine interest in serving artists well and trying to give back to the place where it is situated.” And that it did. The artworks displayed in the varying agendas across the enchanting Latvian capital were done with much heart. While there were melancholic undertones in many of the works, relating largely to the fleeting nature of change—something we humans strive to accept and also so easily repel—there was also enthusiasm for the future, a sense of freedom propelled from genuine creativity.
“Contemporary art in the Baltic states is a relatively new phenomenon because you have to understand that in the times of Soviet occupation the artistic dogma was socialist realism,” said Gregos. “It was been one of our top priorities to reach out to a wider public and not just the contemporary art interested public.” The biennial will continue through a rich public programming running until the end of the year, including an emphasis on education and mediation through art.
A highlight is Finnish artist Teemu Korpela’s Deposition 1 that takes over an entire room at the Former Faculty of Biology. His site-specific installation is made entirely of white acrylic paint and pigment on Fabiano paper. The paper is folded multiple times covering the walls of the room and transforming it into a cocoon-like space. One window allows light to enter endowing the space and the artwork with a sense of spirituality. Look closely on the white protruding folds and you will find intricate flower and plant specimens emphasising their own individual being. “There is something melancholic about them,” says the artist. “The starting point for my work, however, is not apathy, but a stage of productive melancholy, where I seek to visually articulate the mood I experienced in the university building.”
A few rooms away at the Former Faculty of Biology is a room entirely lined with books and a lone wooden staircase. Greek artist Nikos Navridis’s All of old, Nothing else ever… is an installation comprising books and sound, which makes use of the library of the now defunct university. Yet rather than simply put them back on their former shelves, he has created a duplicate bookshelf as well as placed each book with their spines affixed so that the pages spring open before us. “Read!” they seem to say. “Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity,” says the artist.
Another highlight is Latvian artist Andris Eglitis’s RNP2S at the Former Bolshevichka Textile Factory,
comprising a series of installations and paintings. Participating in RIBOCA1 with his wife artist Katrina Neiburga, the piece was noteworthy in that part of the work took place in the artist’s studio, which was built as a shoe factory in the early 20th century. Mixed with industrial debris and paintings, the space held an edgy sort of elegance, one that was strangely grounding and mystical. The artist describes it as such: “A space in which its coordinate axes are formed by notions of reality and abstraction; the natural and artificial. Imagination and observation.”
Teemu Korpela. Deposition I. 2018. A site-specific installation the Former Faculty of Biology in Riga
And there was British artist Michael Landy’s Open for Business, a site-specific work located in the courtyard of the Former Faculty of Biology offering a humorous critique on Britain’s exit of the EU. The “brexit kiosk” offers “100% British Products”, including Marmite, scones, shortbreads and soft drinks and is manned by a tall blond British man with dressed to match the red, blue and white stripes of the kiosk. You’ll find Landy there, laughing with visitors about the ridiculousness of the Brexiteers.
There’s a revolutionary feel surrounding RIBOCA1, and one that encompasses much of Gregos’s work. The artworks are determined in nature to transcend current philosophical and political limitations. The nature of change prompts us to question whether art can really change or have any real say in contemporary politics. “Of course art can change the world,” responds Gregos. “Sometimes people even in power can’t change the world and sometimes even politics can’t change the world or they do change it but maybe in the wrong way. I think the real value of art is that it can change the way people think and that is very important. It might appear a micro change but every person it touches in this way will already change the world in some way or another”
From the Autumn 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia Art
Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More is on until 28 October. rigabiennial.com
Photography by Vladimir Svetlov