The Universe has no sense of humour. Baltic art
Zane Onckule, Curator
What is the mood in the field of visual arts in the Baltic? We shouldn’t be bemoaning the lack of a main hero, leader and guide, as we are attractive, witty and speak good English. This, however, is happening at a time when the rest of the world may not be interested in noticing these aspirations, as it is obviously dividing and closing into itself. And what meaning does our “powerful, lively, specific and global” art have against this background? Are they just pleasant, inarticulate gestures?

We are here on the spot and open to discussion. We allow ourselves to confront risk, to overcome fear, to work with thoughts and without, to see thinking in action and vice versa. We are all so wonderful. Our unity is not a means, an end in itself, or the hoped for result. The question is more about this: how to transcend one’s self with the purpose of creating a field of opportunity for the expression of criticism as well as collaboration. Otherwise we have a text without a reader and art without viewers and supporters.

Enthusiasm about the world and the things around us doesn’t and also will not set the tone, and maybe that’s a reason for us to move from nostalgic helplessness to a mental turnabout and to action as an attack? Namely, to do the very things which we don’t want others to do towards us. There are various ways of looking at and thinking about this theme, the same as there are many different ways of reflecting on the reality of art today.
Krists Pudzens. Nucleus. 2009-2010
Artist and art critic Vilnis Vējš, in reviewing Līva Pakalnes’ Smalkās apmātības (‘Genteel Obsessions’) exhibition in the Diena newspaper, has included a reference to the idea that it is specifically an excess of good taste which prevents Latvian art from being of interest to anyone but one’s own countrymen. It is quite clear that globally this area doesn’t seem to be particularly interesting. We are not autonomous and at the same time we are not available for mass consumption, and so Baltic art is to be associated with marginality, accompanied by short-lived interest and flirting.

Here it is pertinent to mention an e-mail discussion with artist Edgars Gluhovs, who is studying in Frankfurt: “I didn’t even know that it (the Baltic region – Z. O.) was an object of interest. In a way it’s even better that there isn’t any interest about the Baltic as a region. In Latvia’s case one must simply do and think in the context of Europe, and try to integrate there, without accentuating some sort of special regional belonging. Because as soon as you start emphasizing that – like Russia, India etc. – then art immediately takes on a kind of exotic flavour: the discussion is about artists from somewhere, not about the artist as such. And then it can’t be taken completely seriously (at least “seriously” in terms of the global art world).”

Here an artist embodies everything at once: both the conflict situation as well as the independence, as he or she neither really takes part nor promotes action. Baltic art’s “incorrigibility” leads to a division between being appreciated and being completely unnoticed, between rapport and unawareness. This brings up the question: does the artist from the Baltic wish to be the embodiment of this region (or the embodiment of oneself?) with the aim of giving one’s activities some previously calculated, and, therefore, a potentially more successful trajectory?

Estonian curator and art critic Anneli Porri, in thinking about these issues, emphasizes personal interest in looking at situations in which Estonians point out “Hurrah, I’m from the Baltic” and also those where the response is “No, Estonia is more of a Nordic country!”. In Latvia the situation is no less complicated, but at least here anyone who wishes to can become Latvian. The Lithuanian artist too, who simply wants to be an artist.
Laura Toots. Past Perfect. Digital print. 2009
Identity develops through communication, and the observation that in the case of the Baltics it isn’t uniform and is a truly problematic theme points to an unsuccessful experience of being together, because the only way of making things real is to place them close to oneself. Following on from this, projects are developing in various spheres, for example, the Baltic Council of Ministers with their representative socio-political economic interest and the recent illustrative exhibitions in Eastern Europe’s capital cities and elsewhere, with a greater or lesser connection with the subject: Let’s Talk About Nationalism! Between Ideology and Identity (KUMU, Tallinn); Building Memory: Four Films About Architecture, Monuments, and Community (CAC, Vilnius); ...on the Eastern Front. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989–2009 (Ludwig Museum, Budapest); History, Memory, Identity. Contemporary Photography from Eastern Europe (Modena).

These sorts of activities demand a representative generalization and a panoramic view, which looks a bit like self advertisement. But, of course, “it is always of some significance – to create something which doesn’t really have a name yet”. Surveying the existing (historical?) point of reference maps, mostly hidden somewhere, or else creating them anew, it is interesting “to look into the face” of the theme of Baltic identity (to a large degree fictitious) and to think about what, where, how and whether there is any overlap.

Maybe it’s the reality of the present which is based on mood and expectations? There isn’t really any conviction that one should speak of qualities, parameters, directions, “fresh” moments, as the search for the truly special could turn into a superfluous, comic attraction. The highlighting of paradox, humour and irony lead to distancing, a blithely cynical position, even. However, one would prefer to think that there is something inevitable and undeniable, and that this type of approach could be used in talking and thinking about situations where the scale of our ideological understanding is relatively microscopic and unable to achieve some fundamental changes or to influence matters in the required direction. As a result the comment on mood, as made before, shockingly points to a pointless situation of chaos, in which politics and ideology, because of the actions of both sides, have become extremely antagonised and interested in one potential – the most cynical possible – outcome. The question is, how much potential is there for this aspect? Is it not the case that anger and discontent are a mechanism of self-denial, organised in a disdainful way? If so, then a continuation of the discussion could prove to be impossible.

A lecture by sociology professor Tālis Tisenkopfs at the Contemporary Art Centre in Rīga on 21 January 2010 foregrounded the problems that have arisen because “a certain systemic economic, social and political weakness exists in Central and Eastern Europe”. That is also a reference to the fact that, in general, art and life here are too local, and the lack of financial resources and a consumer audience is ever-present in the production of adequate and good quality contemporary art, art exhibitions or art galleries.
Such “local pottering around” is quite divorced from global processes, but that doesn’t mean that it is not worthy of examination. The current situation has created an opportunity and a time for self-analysis, and it is useful and pleasantly fascinating to describe the symptoms and to observe the changes which, whilst affecting individuals and various groups in society, are reflected in art.
Laura Toots. Past Perfect. Digital print. 2009
Whilst putting together the What Drives Baltic exhibition (Supernova Gallery, 29.04.–26.05.2010), its accompanying publication of theoretical essays and in discussions with professionals in the field, one comes into contact with the term “Baltic” as being both geopolitically inflexible, as well as indefinable, and consequently there seems to be more potential for a definition of a “mythically innovative, neo-capitalist, ex-socialist” region.

The general cult of individualism has currently come to a halt, and modern societies to a greater or lesser degree are closing them-selves off. Against this background, what are we doing? Have any expressions or symptoms in the direction of various concretely formulated desires finally appeared in our midst? It is possible that What Drives Baltic is its own sort of self-flagellation, which, having been initiated in a small, relatively comfortable place untouched by the vertical relations of power, draws parallels with the Soviet era “kitchen culture” as evident both in the cinematographic masterpieces of the time as well as in the citizens’ real world. The kitchen as a place for conversation, discussions, family, friends and meetings of like thinkers, but also for drinking alcohol and for the inescapable clashes of ideas and opinions.

What Drives Baltic is a grammatically inaccurate title, yet at the same time these consecutive words are not to be unequivocally connected with some linking idea. That, of course, is a type of guarantee against a number of possible contradictions. One of them is the invocation of identity, at the same time being aware that the reference to this word is more of an attempt to avoid this kind of conceptual burden and, as far as possible, to ignore it. If this were to be the case, the question then should be asked: What Baltic? What Drive?

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/
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