More Than Just Man – RIBOCA 2 in Riga

Due to the pandemic, the second edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) opened months later than planned, and only for a short time. Covid-19 became co-author of the biennial, it says in the introductory text written by curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, because works had to be adapted, but also because the perspective on art has changed. Since the onset of the virus, the world is no longer the same. The curator designed a storyline about the end of the world – or rather, about the end of worlds, or eras. In doing so, she taps into the history of the host country, Latvia, which has experienced many end times due to occupation and crisis. But also in a broader sense, the curator was looking for artists who convey a sense of the end times, or who feel the pulse of our remarkable time. The title, and suddenly it all blossoms, came out of the blue. RIBOCA 2 is a restrained, carefully composed exhibition that has beautiful moments, but cheerful is not the right word to characterize the show. It is rather grim and seldom reminds us of spring or blossoms; rather, it excels in depicting change and in exposing connections.

The biennial takes place in Andrejsala, a former harbor area of Riga. Entering a hangar, you see in big colorful letters the words “LIFE TIME.” It is probably the most frivolous moment of the biennial. It is one of Ugo Rondinone’s Rainbow Poems that, as Lamarche-Vadel points out, “urges you to enjoy the moment, but at the same time asks what you do with the time you have been given.” In the next room, the American artist Bridget Polk is busy stacking sculptures made from pieces of stone. They are vertical, balancing works, which sometimes only remain upright for a short time. Nor are they made to last. Polk is a former drug and alcohol addict who, she says, found a healthy addiction in “rock balancing” and who, by being invited to participate in RIBOCA, suddenly entered the international art scene.

With this prelude, the curator sets the tone when it comes to the question of what art is. She likes to incorporate work that has not yet existed in an art context. Aesthetically (or also: anti-aesthetically), Polk’s work fits into the post-industrial landscape of debris, abandoned buildings, and concrete overgrown with plants. The curator sees Polk’s Sisyphian attitude as the epitome of what being an artist means: the stone is lifted up again and again, and then falls back, starting over.

More than 2000 tree trunks float in one of the harbor basins. The work Currents, by Lina Lapelyté and Mantas Petraitis, is a reminder that we are in Latvia, a country that consists more than half of forest, and where logging has been important since the Middle Ages. In the old days, logs were transported on the flow of the river. This came to an end in 1974, when a dam was built near Riga for a new hydropower plant. It is not the only work in this biennial that refers to the history of Latvia and the strong connection that the Latvians have with nature, which is also reflected in songs and poetry. Every Latvian has a home somewhere in the countryside to retire to, and in the recent lockdown, this was appreciated even more. “Latvians know the forest like no other,” says Lamarche-Vadel. “They know every plant and its workings.” The taste and medicinal effects of plants are also discussed in the biennial.

The main location is a former harbor building, a concrete colossus where hardly any daylight penetrates. Pigeons crawl in through broken windows, and the interventions required for RIBOCA have deliberately been kept visible: the rubble from the knocked-out walls is still on the floor next to the doorways. Lamarche-Vadel does not want the exhibition to be a closed castle, but seeks a porous model that is open to society. The inhabitants of Riga appreciate that this building and this part of the city can now be re-entered; it attracts the curious, but there are also critical voices who find the post-industrial Tarkovsky atmosphere of the site depressing, and serving the cliché of the post-Soviet landscape too much.

Andrejsala is also the location where a new contemporary art museum had been planned. Rem Koolhaas’s design from 2006 had been approved by the Riga city council, but then the financial crisis came, and it remained a dream. In Koolhaas’s design, the white-cube needs of the museum were balanced with the presence of history on this location. RIBOCA mainly focuses on the latter. The harbor building is a black box where works of art become visible in theatrical lighting. The setting recalls the ninth edition of Manifesta, which played on the post-industrial landscape in the Belgian city of Genk in 2012, and at the same time thematized it as an end time.

In terms of theory, Lamarche-Vadel was inspired by Les trois écologies of the French thinker Félix Guattari, a 1989 text that paints a dark picture of the current state of capitalism that rules us, and in which old binary contradictions, such as those between the first and third world, have given way to multipolar, difficult-to-fathom networks. “Nothing can happen before the mental ecology happens,” says Lamarche-Vadel. “First we have to understand our situation, where we place ourselves as humans.” She thereby also sketches the framework of her exhibition, and the potential that she sees in art. Change, she pictures, can only come from art.

The fact that Covid-19 presented itself as co-author of the exhibition takes revenge at times. To view the artifacts that Tomás Saraceno would have used for fossil-free travel from Berlin to Riga is informative, but does not make an exciting work of art. The dialogue that Pawel Althamer had foreseen with the audience does not show in the corona version consisting of some photocopies on the floor. Disappointingly, the sculptural installations that are unaffected by Covid-19 are also not able to steal the show, with a few exceptions, such as the gigantic kinetic sculpture Positron by Valdis Celms. Originally designed in 1976, it was intended for a factory in Ukraine, to strengthen workers’ morale. However, it only ended up being produced now, for this biennial. 

The fact that the exhibition in the main building nevertheless gains in concentration and depth is mainly due to the films. First, there is a dark and slow film by Pierre Huyghe, which microscopically zooms in on a piece of amber (abundant in Latvia) and which contains information about ancient plants and animals. Moments later, a video by Brussels-based Eva L’Hoest, The Inmost Cell, takes the viewer on a journey beneath the surface of the Western Daugava River, past underwater ruins. Here, an archeology of “an end time” is conducted with a virtual camera, in which transformations such as between waving water and grass run smoothly. Everything flows and is part of an enchanting continuum. The film Présage – SiO2, by Hicham Berrada, brings us underwater again, and we see how natural and chemical materials collect on the bottom of a glass tank, and how they react with each other. While looking at it, you get the feeling that the beauty is caused by the pollution.

In the film contributions to this biennial, you can feel how artists become fascinated and enchanted by material, and how the material world is full of life and connections – full of beauty, but also connected with politics and corruption. People play a role in this, but they certainly do not play the leading role. An interesting aspect of the exhibition is how humans are put into perspective, and how other forms of life are put in the spotlight instead.

A cinematic highlight is Eglé Budvytyté’s Songs from the Compost: Mutating Bodies, Imploding Stars, in which a group of teenagers move like insects (or are they cyborgs?) through a landscape of forest and beach. In the choreography of moving bodies, the youngsters are one moment draped limply like dishcloths, while the next moment moving on all fours through the sand, with optimal body tension, like a scorpion on the beach. In previous performances, the artist had already shown her eye for the finer points of body language, and how it can tell something about politics, beliefs, and identity. And how strength and fragility are linked. In this case, man appears as one of several variants of life; you could also see the suggestion of a post-human time.

A succession of cinematic works with overlapping themes creates, throughout the biennial, the feeling of looking at a film of life, with a corresponding soundtrack. Even though they are made by different artists, the films share muted colors and subdued sounds, but each in its own way is refined, attentive, and precise. In the choice of cinematic works, an aesthetic vision unfolds, and an ode to the object and to the material world. Curiously enough, this does not not primarily happen through sculpture, but rather through this detour of film and video. 

The film Atomic by the artist collective Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen tells the story of a jewel made of tritium, a material that was created as a by-product of nuclear tests. A nicely dressed, somewhat bored woman walks around with the jewel, taking in the admiration, and amused by the fact that people do not know what deadly beauty they are attracted to. 

When it became clear that the coronavirus would prevent the planned summer-long biennial, the curator decided to make a film of the whole project. This choice surprised me at first, as it seems difficult, if not impossible, to convey in film the experience of visiting such a large-scale exhibition. Yet, considering that within the biennial, the cinematic works make the biggest impression, it could work out as a nice surprise. Lamarche-Vadel herself calls the (still to be presented) RIBOCA film an additional work – it should not be seen as a documentary that can replace the exhibition. However, it may help the survival of  an event that many eyes have missed due to Covid19.

This text was first published in Dutch in HART magazine (Belgium) Nr. 207, 7 October 2020, Image: still from Eglé Budvytyté, Song from Compost.

Exhibition on Mourning in Stockholm

The exhibition ‘Sorgearbete’ in Stockholm gathers works that are created through grief. One of the seven participating artists, Jonas Dahlberg, made a monumental film about a small object, a music box that he found in the estate of his deceased father. There is no real storyline in his work, but the camera speaks in slow movement, offering a close look at an interior mechanism. The title of the exhibition points to the fact that there is work involved in the act of mourning. Some of the artists address the theme directly, for instance through filmed conversations with women reflecting on their mother’s death, in the case of Nadine Byrne’s work. Others, like Dahlberg make a symbolic detour. Looking at his contribution you could think about a certain pace and attention that is required, if you want to deal with personal loss. And about the importance of artefacts that people leave behind.

At Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm

‘A Matter of Touch’ at Torstrasse 111 in Berlin

Touch is an important aspect of painting. The temperaments of the artists in this exhibition can be felt through the way they have worked and touched the canvas, be it with a firm, decisive brushstroke, a light touch to create transparency, or the sanding off of layers to create flatness or roughness. A whole range of sensibilities can be stored in a painting, speaking to us even before we identify what is actually depicted.

Though keeping distance has become the norm in public life, in the realm of paintings, we can be reminded of physical encounters and intimacy, and enjoy a close perspective. The artists in this exhibition embrace the tactile and are interested in paintings as physical matter. Yet their focus is also on less tangible aspects of the artworks, such as luminosity, wonder, or absence. The importance of light can be felt throughout a range of different motifs and vocabularies.

The works have been collected from studios on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to the pandemic, not all artists are able to be present for the opening, yet their works offer us an artistic dialogue across borders. The paintings find a temporary home in the ruinous beauty of the Kunst- und Projekthaus Torstrasse 111. Located in the center of Berlin, the space evokes the time when the city offered itself as an artistic Freiraum.

Participating artists: Nikos Aslanidis, Thessaloniki; Thomas Brüggemann, Berlin; Michelle Jezierski, Berlin; Joseph Kameen, Aiken, South Carolina; Kiki Kolympari, Athens; Adrienne Elyse Meyers, Chicago; Grit Richter, Hamburg; Rubica von Streng, Berlin         

Curated by Jurriaan Benschop for Kunst- und Projekthaus Torstrasse 111, 10119 Berlin. Project management: Ulrike Seyboth & Ingo Fröhlich, www.torstrasse111.de

Exhibtion from 16 July till 30 August 2020.

Image: installation view with works by Rubica von Streng and Nikos Aslanidis.

Daniel Richter in Salzburg

For his new series of paintings, presented in the exhibition So Long, Daddy, Daniel Richter has plugged into a timeless motif in painting: the figure. Yet this description immediately comes with questions. Who or what are the beings that appear in these colorful and dynamic paintings? And how would we label the environment in which they appear? Both the figures and the spaces around them are ambiguous and impossible to identify in one single way.

If we follow the complex play of lines within the paintings, enforced by marks of color, we get a sense of the complexity of the figures. Their outlines and gestures seem familiar enough to interpret them as fellow human beings. Yet within them, there is also the suggestion of something animalistic, an instinctive energy. Maybe humans are crossed here with their natural roots, the paintings bringing out the monkey inside us, or the bird that screams and wants to fly. (….)

I spoke with Daniel Richter in his studio in Berlin about the paintings for this exhibition .You can see a short video clip here

Restless by Nature. Anna Tuori in Paris

The first word that comes to mind when I look at the works of Anna Tuori is restless. There are restless “walkers” populating her paintings, ready to go but also wanting to stay. A restless hand made the paintings, moving over the surface, adding scribbles and patches in different places. And the resulting works never rest; they appear active, vibrant, and alive.

The Walkers is a series of paintings that Tuori started in 2017. Having seen them in different situations, I started wondering why they work so well. At first, they look quite simple in composition and casual in execution. There is a human figure whose head has been chopped, cut by the frame of the painting. Yet the figure is not entirely headless: a face turns up at another, rather unexpected place, for instance between the legs, or on the jacket of the walker. This series makes me think about movement, about having or lacking direction as a human being, and about grace and speed. But these works also evoke contrasts between burden and lightness, roughness and delicacy. They are open figures rather than specific characters, which enables us to identify with them. The longer I look, the more details appear on the surface and the more sophisticated the paintings become, in terms of having nuance of expression and balance in composition. The individual paintings cannot be grasped all at once, each as an overall image. Only through time, through putting together the pieces that are spread over the painting, does the scene become a whole in the mind of the beholder.

Painting is, among other things, about looking and seeing. For that reason, it seems quite relevant that the walking figures are not looking at us. We don’t meet their gaze; we are looking at a moving person from an outsider’s perspective. For Tuori, reflections on the impact of seeing have a special place in the works she made for her Paris exhibition. This goes for the Walkers, but also for the different portraits of women that are on display in the show. In Dissociation (2019), there is a face with many eyes, or actually multiple faces within one figure. In Off on an Adventure (2019), the facial expression usually accentuated through eyes, mouth, and nose is almost absent, hidden under light paint. In the details of the figures, a lot can be noticed, about eyes for example, but also about how hair falls, how an arm is lifted. Just like in daily life, in the way people look and move, a lot is happening and can be read as an indication of somebody’s well-being. A gaze can be unpleasant, experienced as offensive or even as an act of aggression, while looking can also transmit love or care. In the dense traffic of looks, flirts, or meaningful gazes, Tuori seems very alert and redirects the sight lines to where she thinks it is necessary. The women in her works are certainly not just there to be pretty and admired. They are complicated, hard to read, or hiding behind smoke. They seem independent from what beholders might want to see in them.

The way Tuori paints the portraits looks like drawing with the brush – sketch-like, with energetic lines. Despite the restlessness of the figures, or even their neuroses or anxieties, there is generally an upbeat quality to the work. There is pleasure in the drama that unfolds. The artist seems to enjoy the whole range of expression that is possible in painting, as well as the ability to loosen things up through lines. She doesn’t feel like an expressionist, though, instead mixing an expressive gesture with other things. “In the painting, emotional or intuitive and conscious or intellectual approaches do not exclude each other. Just like expressive or conceptual ways do not exclude each other,” the artist commented.

During a dinner in Helsinki with the artist and some friends, we spoke about the fact that Finland was listed as the happiest country in the world for two years in a row, according to a United Nations study. How do you measure happiness? Apart from economic indicators such as gross domestic product, aspects like life expectancy, corruption in government, and the ways communities interact with each other were included. The locals at the dinner table made jokes about Finnish happiness, knowing that the long, dark winters do not exactly bring out the cheer in people. Yet I could also detect joy in the ironic self-reflections. Similarly, in Tuori’s paintings, there is a mocking, light touch, while at the same time nothing less than the struggle of life is what we are looking at. And this light note comes not just from being Finnish, but also from painting, from the transformative power that painting has over life.

Tuori’s mentality behind painting is not one that gets too comfortable with itself. The artist has changed and developed her approach over the years. It started from a dialogue with a romantic conception of art. The figures in some older paintings create their own imaginary world as a hideout. Tuori was shaped by modern ideals as well, by belief in progress, and the confidence that we can design our own lives. In the recent works, I sense a reluctance to tell too much of a story, and the artist also doesn’t lead us to wander around in an imagined, painted world. There is a rougher edge to the work, and less usage of effect to impress. Painting now seems to spring from the wish to balance believing and being skeptical, being empathetic and not caring so much what others might think. You just need to be alert, open, and flexible. Tuori’s figures appear to be in a permanent process of loosening up. They are as restless as I could hope for.

This text was published in the catalog of the exhibition Anna Tuori ‘Never seen a Bag Exploding,’ scheduled to be on view till 2 May 2020 (but currently closed because of covid19 restrictions). For information and obtaining the catalog contact Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery in Paris

Book Launch at ‘Publics’ Helsinki

On March 3rd, 2020 I will be at ‘Publics’ in Helsinki for a talk about my book ‘Salt in the Wound. Encountering Contemporary Artists across Europe.” It starts at 6 pm and the entrance is free. This evening I will discuss the work of Anish Kapoor, Miroslaw Balka, Paula Rego, Luc Tuymans, Sean Scully and Janis Avotins, all featured in the book. How is their respective work related to the place where they grew up and work, to its history and (cultural) landscape?

Nikos Aslanidis in Emsdetten, Germany

Nikos Aslanidis can hardly be called a pleaser. His paintings can look rather grim, leading us into dark ages, showing people in the battle of life. The question coming up while visiting his exhibition in Emsdetten is how much of our own era, and our own lives, is reflected in the paintings. The artist’s goal is to make timeless painting, and he is not worried about ‘being contemporary’ or introducing props that refer to current issues. Yet, the situations depicted aren’t that far from home. Timeless means here, that it also suits our time. In each painting there is a figure engaged in some kind of work or activity, as can be figured from titles like The Gardener, The Alchemist or The Hunter. The good news is that Aslanidis presents his vision always with an understanding of order, with nuance and also with beauty. As a painter he seems to find a task in making situations of life presentable and worth looking at with curiosity or wonder, no matter how uncomfortable or tense they are.

The Thessaloniki based artist currently has his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany, ‘Corpora’ at the Emsdettener Kunstverein, up till 15 March 2020.

Image: The Dancer (detail) 2014-16, oil on linen, 180 x 200 cm

‘Trees’ at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

A visit to the exhibition ‘Trees’ with works by Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen made me think about the difference between motif and subject matter, or even ‘content,’ in painting. The fact that both artists paint trees was taken as the glue for this duo presentation in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Yet, one should not get too philosophical (or ecological, or symbolical) about that. The tree here is a formal motif – a vehicle to construct a painting, and as far I can see it does not connect the painters in a deeper way. What I like mostly about the show are Oehlen’s large paintings where the shapes of a bare, winter tree counteracts with geometric color fields. At times the trees resemble human or animal figures in their dynamic shapes. The exhibition becomes interesting where trees stop to be just trees…

The exhibition is up till 1 March 2020

Lecture Rethink Painting at HBK Essen

On December 3rd, 2019, I will be at the HBK Essen, Germany, for a talk in the series ‘Rethink Painting’, initiated by Nicola Stäglich and Sabine Bartelsheim. I will discuss the work of some contemporary painters, among them Kaido Ole, Bernard Frize, Bridget Riley, Janis Avotins, Béatrice Dreux and Paula Rego. Included will be reflections on the question How to write/speak about painting in the current era of stylistic pluralism?

The lecture starts at 8 pm.

Taking Root at KIT Düsseldorf

In a world full of conflicting interests and beliefs, how do artists root themselves? Where do they find their sense of direction? These questions underlie the exhibition Taking Root. The assumption is that the eleven artists presented here did find some roots. They have developed a clear and insistent focus in their practice, and that is what gives their work depth.

For a tree, life without roots is not possible. It needs a stronghold, right underneath, in order to grow and stay firm, to endure storm and thunder, and to maintain resilience. One can assume that similarly, human beings find some “nutrition” in the places where they grow up. Yet, those places are not the only ones where developing roots happens. Artists can pick their roots, collect them on their way through life, or search for them in places where they are not yet familiar. After all, humans are mobile beings. And for humans, roots are not just a matter of physical circumstances; they can reside in thoughts, memories, beliefs, and traditions.

Taking Root brings together the work of eleven artists. Some of these artists grew up close to nature; for others, the city has been their natural environment. Some of them are young artists, who in recent years have started their own studio practices. Others have been working for decades already, and have had more options to develop their roots. Together, the participants span two generations of contemporary artists. Most of them come from Europe, yet in terms of landscape and cultural climate, their backgrounds are diverse. One is from the USA, which is itself a country with roots in Europe. 

In times when God is declared dead, or has been hijacked by terrorists, when political leaders can be liars and fakes, the question is where to find understanding and beliefs, and additionally, where to find the confidence and context from which to act? The answer goes inside, into the imagination and reflection of the artists. And it leads into the traditions that have shaped them. These eleven artists have been selected for this show not necessarily because their work is about roots, or depicting it as a theme, but rather because their work has roots. The artists have been able to ground themselves in the present, and find a sense of direction through anchor points in nature, religion, art, or culture. They have developed an interest that brings their work into focus.

The artists in Taking Root do not usually find their artistic incentives in the daily news or in politics. Their knowledge is more indirect, coming from stones, stock photos, walks, landscapes, icons, paintings, plants, children – from all possible sources. There are many situations and observations that guide them. They do not preach or illustrate a particular belief. They make their work as artists, through searching and delving and developing their own discipline – that is enough of a statement. You can sense in their work that they know something.

Even though art is not necessarily sacred territory, it offers stretches of land where a different world is possible – not corrupted, and not adrift. It can offer an environment where you actually want to spend time, a place that is nurturing for the mind, body, and soul. The Kunst im Tunnel offers a good shelter, with solid walls, to create some distance to the physical and digital traffic around, to the hustle of city life, to the problems of our times. The generous tunnel space filled with the works of eleven contemporary artists allows a time out – and offers itself as a place to reconnect and take root.

KIT, Mannesmannufer 1, Düsseldorf, exhibition runs through 26 January 2020 and is open Tue-Sun 11 – 18 h