‘Don’t be afraid,’ an attendant reassured me, as I entered Hans Rosenström’s Mikado (2009/18) at the first Riga Biennial (RIBOCA). Housed in Zuzeum – a forthcoming private art museum – the piece amounts to a dark room, in which I sat alone, staring into a mirror. As if that weren’t disturbing enough, footsteps soon came a-tapping, by way of headphones, which were shadowed by a whispering voice that goaded my self-consciousness.
This work echoes the murky socio-political circumstances underlying a biennial that takes safe roads to a favourable but familiar result. There’s something generic about executive curator Katerina Gregos’s opening statement, which marshals a laundry list of contemporary worries – from ecological plight to unwieldy technological innovation – towards a sweeping thesis reflecting the baffling rapidity of change. Despite the predictability of these concerns, within the biennial format it seems fair to chalk up this kind of all-encompassing framing to the impossible expectation that large-scale art shows should embody some unified purpose.
And, anyway, as a local friend reminded me: ‘It’s the art and artists that matter.’ But it also matters what art and artists are used for, and many Latvian artists and curators have concerns about the proximity of this show – along with the millions of roubles backing it – to Russia’s perceived efforts to reclaim influence in the Baltic states. While locals are appreciative of RIBOCA’s generous remunerations, many remain wary that imperialist power flows in mysterious ways. Hence a question posed by the Latvian curator Inga Lace: ‘Is it possible to organize a biennial in Riga […] funded by private Russian money, which would not feel like a burden instead of a gift?’
Given the quantity of subtle, idiosyncratic artworks contributed by RIBOCA’s 90 artists, it’s a shame that such questions must be raised. Also unfortunate is the fact that my impression of the show was colonized by several highly produced, quasi-science-fictional films. Kerstin Hamilton’s Zero Point Energy (2016), Julian Rosefeldt’s In the Land of Drought (2016) and Alexis Destoop’s Phantom Sun (2017): the slickness of these films grates. Straining to reflect poetically on the unsure future of humankind, they instead float a vaguely post-apocalyptic sublimity that bespeaks a fetishistic (not to be confused with critical) relationship to our uncertain future.
Better to focus on the many funny, needling, absorptive works distributed across the show’s eight venues. Ariana Loze’s Impotence (2017) is a double projection wherein the artist delivers a poignantly neurotic monologue about the near-impossibility of living with purpose in the 21st century. Marina Pinsky’s Second-Hand Time (2017–18), on the other hand, looks back. With charmingly perfunctory technique, the artist’s photomontages combine archival images of a Soviet parachute squad with her own photographs of Riga, reflecting on the region’s troubled history while humbly dodging sensationalism.
In Riga’s former biology faculty – unsurprisingly reserved for art that deals with ‘scientific and technological developments’ – is Erik Kessels’s fiendish The Human Zoo (2018), for which the artist has hidden photographs of humans amongst various taxidermy beasts, thereby delivering a sharp jab at our anthropocentric egotism. A more didactic approach to nature appreciation transpires at Art Station Dubulti – a striking Soviet-era train station that houses the section ‘Laboratory for the Deceleration of the Body and for a New Politics of the Senses’. The venue emulates a playful, science-centre atmosphere and, while I’m not sure this is the way to engender ecological awareness, in truth, I’m equally not sure that it isn’t.
There’s little reason to suppose that this art, which might well illuminate some passing child’s blooming biological interest, threatens that which elicits gasps from those accustomed to a modernist lineage. In any event, there is plenty of the latter. Case in point is Taus Makhacheva’s Dear R., R., K., S., M., A., C., S., K., I., G., L., A., A., L., P., G., E., J., D., M., C., B., O., F., F., R., D., M., E., L., I., F., L., A., M., T., K., K., L., P., F., V., A., L., L., (2018). In a former candy factory, Makhacheva has installed a crowd of variegated portable speakers, which broadcast the opening addresses of numerous emails. The result is akin to the human ecstasy for communication, ventriloquized by its own technological medium.
Technology’s eeriness likewise animates Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Infinite Engine (2011–18), which, presented within a mock laboratory, uses video interviews to communicate the ramifications of DNA modification. Elsewhere, boilerplate recitations of Latvian history are mercifully offset by more idiosyncratic historical works. With photographs and biographies installed throughout the biology faculty, Kerstin Hamilton’s The Science Question in Feminism (2018) draws attention to the country’s slighted female scientists. In one of the show’s most morbidly melancholic moments, Andrejs Strokins has established a museum of Latvian fire: A Boy Who Set a House on Fire (2018). Located within a shack bedecked with pyro-referential accoutrements and smells, the work is engaging, gritty, nerdy and freaky.
Still, I wasn’t afraid. Not of the art, at least. The many US soldiers with whom I shared my hotel were another story. I knew they had a purpose amidst the region’s turmoil. As did I, it seems – as some kind of witness in yet another place where the pleasures of art seem unavoidably implicated in the machinations of power.
The 1st Riga International Biennial of Contempoary Art is on view at various venues around Riga, Latvia, from 2 June until 28 October 2018.
Main image: Andrejs Strokins, A Boy Who Set A House On Fire, 2018, installation view, new commission for 1st Riga Biennial. Courtesy and photograph: the artist