Preview: The First Riga Biennial Rises To Tell New Stories

BY Ayesha Shaikh / May 30 2018 / 20:27 PM

In the Latvian capital, the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art rises to the fore creating new and reimagining old narratives as the Baltic States celebrate 100 years since the restoration of independence

Preview: The First Riga Biennial Rises To Tell New Stories
Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Marco Montiel-Soto. Permanent storm for a tropical constellation. 2017. Three-channel video installation. Variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist, Carmen Araujo Arte, Caracas and Galería José de la Fuente

In Latvia, a new art biennial emerges in Riga just in time and with enough gravitas to ensure that the Baltic region’s artistic production is noticed in the increasingly crowded international art circuit. This is the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) that launched in June with a well-calibrated model and an impressive roster of 104 artists and 10 collectives, all associated with the Baltic region. “The biennial aims to take root in the place where it is situated. So, a significant proportion of the commissioned and selected artists either live, work or were born in the Baltic region, a territory which still remains relatively unexplored despite its prolific artistic production,” says art historian and RIBOCA1 curator Katerina Gregos, who brings with her a trove of curatorial experience.

How timely is it that RIBOCA surfaces when Latvia and its two sister Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania, are celebrating 100 years since the landmark restoration of their independence from the Soviet Union. But the biennial is here to tell new stories, not just to revisit old narratives. “Although the post-Soviet history of the Baltic States will not be ignored, it forms only a part of this broader narrative,” explains Gregos. This seems palpable as much of the thinking sublimated in the biennial will draw on anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More, from which the event also takes its name. The tome revisits the collapse of the Soviet Union, casting light on the idea that what may seem invincible can suddenly come to an end. According to Gregos, its title is a potent metaphor for our own era. “Unlike the book, however, the biennial does not focus on post-Soviet change, but explores the multiple dimensions of change that we experience in the present day,” she explains.

Riga Biennial

Michael Landy. Open for Business (preparatory drawing). 2018. Site-specific temporary installation. New commission for RIBOCA1, variable dimensions

With studied diversity, the first edition of RIBOCA will afford a generous viewing of each work by emerging and established artists, who will showcase both existing works and new commissions. On view will be a varied mix of art including an installation by British Michael Landy.  “I am really looking forward to seeing Landy’s Brexit kiosk, titled Open for Business (2018), which will trade in all-things British, since the UK will need new trading partners once it exits the European Union,” shares Gregos.

The biennial will also whet one’s appetite for art with works such as Latvian artists Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis’ outdoor installation The Nest (2018), a bucolic structure with a twist. Also on view will be a video installation by Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas, American artists Lynn Hershmann Leeson and Trevor Paglen’s mixed media artworks, Argentinian Adrián Villar Rojas’s sculptural art, and Bulgarian Nedko Solakov and Polish Robert Kuśmirowski’s multimedia works. RIBOCA is spread across nine venues, with each focusing on a specific theme.

These include the former Faculty of Biology at the University of Latvia, where the tilt is towards scientific and technological developments and questions of evolution and environmental concerns will be raised through works such as the immersive site-specific installation A Tour of the Dark Museum (2018) by American conceptual artist Mark Dion. Other locations include the former industrial port area Andrejsala, which will showcase works that meditate on the country’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, and the Sporta2 Square that will explore speed and acceleration. There is also the new Zuzeum Art Centre, where creatives will address existential and philosophical questions such as how the current social media overdrive and information overload affect individuals on a personal level.

Riga Biennial

Sputnik Photos. Lost Territories Archive, 2008-16 (detail). 2018. Site-specific installation. Photographs and torn wallpaper. New commission for RIBOCA1, variable dimensions. Courtesy of Sputnik Photos

There will be indirect references to questions of sovereignty as well as national and cultural identity, particularly in the chapter at Kristaps Morbergs’ (1844-1928) apartment, which will house works that echo Latvia’s historic and political changes. These include one of the two new commissions by international collective Sputnik Photos, founded by documentary photographers from Belarus, Poland and Slovakia. “The venue, symbolically, also has a direct view of the Freedom Square, one of Riga’s most iconic and historically significant locations,” notes Gregos.

Among other highlights are Alexis Blake’s performance Allegory of the Painted Woman (2012-18), a choreographic work focusing on the under-representation of women in the history of art, which will be performed at the National Gallery. “Almost half the works are new commissions, so there are many surprises,” shares Gregos. “There are also many live events in the public programme during the five-month duration of the exhibition— from performances and lectures to film screenings, artist’s talks and concerts.”

Riga Biennial

Mark Dion. A Tour of The Dark Museum (detail). 2018. Site-specific installation. Mixed media, flashlights. New commission for RIBOCA1, variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels

Additionally, the final chapter of RIBOCA1 will also feature ‘The Sensorium: A Laboratory for the Deceleration of the Body and for a New Politics of the Senses’, a programme curated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen, which offers explorations into smell, taste, sound and touch. And so RIBOCA contains a lot without feeling gruelling, with moments that will require a deeper look and thought, especially with Gregos leading the way, whose curatorial work lends great focus on themes of human rights and migration. “My exhibitions explore the relationship between art, society and politics with a particular view on questions of democracy, human rights, capitalism, crisis and changing global production circuits. Many of these issues recur in the biennial.”

What makes this young biennial so unique?  Gregos explains, “Where many recent biennials and large-scale exhibitions have been retrospective—anachronistic, even—harking back to lost political and social utopias, the first edition of RIBOCA sets its eyes firmly on the present and the near future of the human condition, as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century.” 

RIBOCA runs until 28 October 2018 and its public programme will continue until year-end.