It is actually about painting every day
Zane Oborenko, Visual Art Theorist
A conversation with Simon Rees
Simon Rees, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius (CAC), was born in New Zealand in 1972. Having studied in Australia and New Zealand he started his career as a culture journalist, initially writing about dance, ballet and opera, but later mainly about art. Rees then became involved in curating art projects and curated his first solo show in Auckland in 1997. In 2003 Rees participated in the international IASPIS residency programme in Stockholm, soon after which he relocated to Lithuania and started working at the Contemporary Art Centre. Simon Rees was the curator of the Lithuanian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2007 and currently is working on the 15th Tallinn Print Triennial For Love Not Money.
Simon Rees. Photo: Zane Oborenko
Zane Oborenko: It’s always fascinating to observe how different coincidences can lead to a result one normally wouldn’t expect. In this context the fact that you are living and working here in Vilnius seems to be a result of such coincidences, rather than a premeditated goal of yours.

Simon Rees: Absolutely! When you’ve come from so far you try and make the most of your geographic location. During my residency in Stockholm I actually travelled from there to Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Lithuania. I didn’t visit Latvia and came here only because I met people from Vilnius at an opening at the Kiasma museum in Helsinki, and they said: “Why don’t you come and stay at the CAC guest house and do some research?” That’s what I did and I’ve basically been here ever since.

Z.O.: How does it feel to live and work here in Lithuania, in the Baltic states?

S.R.: The interesting thing is that I was prepared for this sort of consciousness or experience, because I’m from a place that’s so far away. As you probably know nothing about New Zealand, you have a projection of it and it’s probably quite romantic and distanced from everyday reality – and it’s the same for me here.

There was a big public survey done in 2007–2008 by the Lithuanian government in relation to the marketing for the culture capital Vilnius, and what they found out is that the best known thing about Lithuania internationally is Riga. So that describes the feeling. Everybody knows it’s cold, everybody knows the people are tall and good looking, so on and so forth, and it stops there.

Z.O.: Many of your curatorial projects lately, such as Building Memory, You Are My Mirror and the CAC project at Frieze Art Fair explore the changes caused by geopolitical shifts, why such interest?

S.R.: One of the things that professional curators who work in institutions do is to identify things that are missing within public conversation or discourse, and things that could be valuably articulated. So I am somebody who is interested in post-Marxist political theory and I read it constantly, I read a lot about economics, microeconomics and about 20th century political history, even more than reading about art. When I find happy coincidences of topics where art and these very problematical and pertinent cultural issues coincide, I’m interested to make projects about that. And it’s because people in the broader European space aren’t aware of these things. If we just look at the Holocaust: everybody knows Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen; everybody remembers these three death camps and concentration camps and a reason they do is that that’s where Western European Jews were sent – German, French, Italian and others. But they actually killed far less people than the Soviet war, Treblinka, Lublin (which is also known as Majdanek), but because these camps were dealing with Belarusian, Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Ukrainian Jewish people they don’t have a voice. Western European Jewish people have a voice in New York, they have a voice in Israel, they have a lobby. Because of what happened with the partition of Europe, the thousands and thousands, millions of people who died from these other areas have no lobby, and pointing that out is kind of important because otherwise people mis-imagine Europe and the experience of the places that we come from. I think that it’s fascinating that so many stories are still left to tell about these places.

Z.O.: But was it also a process from which you learned something yourself?

S.R.: Absolutely. Something that annoys me greatly, but gives one positive benefit, is that I do a lot of editing of the English language. I’ve done editing for the Historical Museum, Vytautas Magnus University, Vilnius University, the Culture Research Institute, the National Art Museum and many more. Because I’m reading all these books, all these texts, I’ve been learning an awful lot. (Colleagues in Estonia are also asking me to edit texts). I’ve actually been learning all this extra information about the history of the region by osmosis. Of course, it does motivate me to read specific texts in a specific way, which is really good.

Z.O.: Assuming culture represents values, different values might lead to conflicts between different cultures or even within the same culture over time. Do you notice great differences among values when working with art in different regions of the world?
Or is art the common language, a meeting point across cultures?

S.R.: It absolutely isn’t. Because former Communist Europe and what we call old Western Europe, southern Europe, America and Asia, Great Britain all have different systems and all have different values built into that. The biggest difference between America and the larger Europe and the former British Commonwealth is that there is no governmental money for art in America. Everything comes from private foundations and private endowments, and that already changes the way that museums and their staff and artists have to operate. University education is extremely expensive in the US and that already pressurizes people that go to those schools to think about their art in a commodified way, or in the way it can deliver them enough money to pay back that student debt, and so they are very career focused. There is no room for accidents in that system. And then there is the situation with post-communist Europe, where art was always something privileged, always something that to a great degree reflected directly the values of the state, and actually delivered a sort of propaganda. When that privilege and propagandistic nature was taken away it had to find a new ground, a new set of values which are still being determined and it’s unimportant to government. Because it relies on government and there is no new private or nongovernmental culture for the sponsoring of stuff, it’s sort of disappeared at the moment, it’s in permanent flux. It’s actually living in a very long shadow of the Communist period, because we are almost twenty years away from 1991 but things haven’t necessarily improved to the point you might have been expecting, you might hope.

Z.O.: And are there conflicts?

S.R.: Absolutely, and I think conflict inside our space is still related to national identity. In fact everywhere where art has a governmental input it is still expected to deliver in some way on official policies of government, of national identity or national values, value systems… problematically, nobody is quite sure where those identities lie. The biggest certainty is that they come out of some sort of ethnographic, traditional, 19th-century folk-ideal of the nation that never actually existed, because that set of values was actually a superimposition from the Soviet period of the 1950s. It’s quite problematical. And of course these collisions happen, it’s a generational fight, people that belong to government tend to be in their 50s and 60s and the people representative of contemporary art particularly tend to be in their 30s and 40s, or even younger. They have a set of values that belong to new Europe, that belong to the future, that belong to humour, playfulness, and disrespect. So those two sets of values often clash and can’t easily meet.

Z.O.: While art and economy were perceived as two separate fields (several decades ago), there has been more interaction lately. What do you think about the relationship between art and the economy, and the economic value of art?

There are many different relations and different strands overall. In countries like ours, including yours [Latvia], we have to develop some sort of tertiary or servicebased economy. Culture can play an integral and very important role in that, which can actually be a leap forward for a new sort of economic model and economic reality, because within art and culture lie ideas that belong to technology, advertising, moving images, all sorts of a popular and advanced media. Sadly nobody has thought about this in a clear way, and so far nobody seems to understand the way that big institutions like our own [CAC] or the Daniel Libeskind museum proposed for Riga will operate as economic drivers. I’m not talking about an individual artist and an art market, but I’m talking about the fact that institutions raise and spend money in their own town. There is a very positive economic benefit from running big institutions like the CAC, like the Arsenāls, like a good orchestra and opera house such as you have in Latvia, because everybody benefits. The idea that you give this funding and it stays inside that building is completely wrong, we only hand it on to the public and with that also comes a set of social benefits. Art has a social role to play. It’s uplifting, it’s challenging, it makes people think, it starts conversations, it adds an element to education.

Then there is the more direct link with the sale of art which, as we know, in our countries is still developing. Art systems tend to develop in a 30 year cycle, so we are probably at year 5 with 25 years to go. It’s a positive and cyclical process. Of course, once 30 years comes along and there is a body of collectors, benefactors who then start to influence culture policies and the way that museums operate: that starts to become problematical, because once private capital has built up influence through the market on objects, artists and how they represent in public institutions, you start to get a different set of clashes of culture and of course the people with the money, people with the cheque books are always closer to politicians and politics because that’s the politicians’ job set.

Z.O.: The Venice Biennale is one of the most important international art events, at least it is one of the best known art events among the general public: what in your opinion makes it so important, and is it important at all?

The fact that it was started in the late 19th century and has built up, over 115 years, public consciousness – amongst at least the middle classes of Europe – is important in itself. It’s the very oldest biennale. Like the Louvre is the oldest art museum, it’s had 300 years to enter the consciousness. Of course, the fact that the Biennale is built up around ideas of national identity, and competition between nations, lets people from each nation identify with their pavilion project and the artists representing them, and so they get a sense of ownership, regardless of whether they are particularly involved in art. Already with the new National Museum here, people describe it with pride – I’m sure when the equivalent building finally opens in Riga you will have the same, people will be proud of it because they understand that in many ways it belongs to them, and it does. And as a story should be read, so for that reason it has a larger public profile and public identification rather than documenta, which potentially is more important, but it’s only important for the artists and the people that work inside the art world system. Once you have something to do with the brand of nation, a bigger group of people identifies with it. I think it’s for those reasons – of course, it is also a very important space for discourse about art, its presentation and production as wellas reception.

Z.O.: Aren’t artists forced to stay within the concept of a National Pavilion?

Not necessarily. When I was curator for Lithuania, there were very few foreign curators of any pavilion, so that was sending a certain signal. Liam Gillick, being a British artist, this last year represented the German Pavilion, and these things and new stories are starting to be told that way. I think you’ve just got to remember that maybe for the first and last time in their career the artist that does Venice for their country gets a really good budget to make something new, and to make something which can represent them for the future and represent the success for the country’s future also: that has to be positive. It’s a very pressurized situation, but it’s the job of the commissioners, curators and organizers to lift that pressure off the artist, so the artist can do what they want, so it’s as experimental as the people that make the project want. So the pressure falls on them, and then if you have farsighted people you can do all sort of things.

Z.O.: How does the implicit assumption that an artist going to the Venice Biennale needs to take on an ambassadorial role for the country’s art, and to some extent nation, influence your work as a curator? As you said, this brings a burden to your job.

Absolutely. The Villa Lithuania project which was highly politicized and widely covered in the media caused a major fight between the project and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Embassy in Rome, and the Ministry of Culture! It was very difficult, but these stories have to be told. I think that there is a difference between what the world is interested in and what suits local politicians. And seeing as the CAC is not the National Gallery, we are empowered to tell the story as we see it. Once you are national gallery institution that’s a little bit different, and I actually wanted to tell a story that had a relevant and political role to play inside Lithuania as well as something to do with abroad. I was always keen to work on a highly politicized project, and to set off a discussion that was difficult, that was problematic, that would maybe change the grounds for discourse.

Z.O.: What makes a work of art interesting outside the context of culture where it has been created, especially now, in the process of globalization? When does the geographical origin of artist and artwork cease to be of any importance?

Don’t forget that art simply can be cool stuff, just like the 3 minute and a half pop song, something like the Arctic Monkeys, who I like, or the Foo Fighters, who I don’t like, which is just pure noise and speed. It already has its own energy and its own catchiness, and artworks can be like that also. They do not always have to represent, they can be in and of themselves. The work of Shaun Gladwell which has to do with skateboarding, BMX riding, graffiti: these things are placeless, because they belong to the subculture everywhere. And beauty is still absolutely an element in an artwork. You have to understand it’s not all politics and context. I still believe in Gestalt artwork and an art object, and these things can represent themselves a great deal of the time. Humour also is present in contemporary art, which is relative to the individual who is looking at it most of the time. All of these things are present which have something to do with context, with their production, and certainly travel very well.

Z.O.: You yourself are a foreigner in Lithuania. Has it created any difficulties in your work, or maybe, on the contrary, has it helped to show local art in a better way than the locals could have done, because of your undoubtedly different knowledge base and vision of the order of things?

I think it’s a half and half discourse with a dynamic or dialectic, of course I’ve run into resistance and difficulties that have to do with practical things: with immigration, linguistic misunderstandings and people thinking I’m just a director’s man and old Soviet habits of xenophobia or nepotism, all these things. Alternatively, I get all those positives coming from outside: I can speak with more authority, and I don’t depend on people, I don’t owe people favours, so I have been developing an independent voice. I can divorce myself from issues of personality or to make different clinical, critical standpoints, but really, in the end, you would have to ask my colleagues or the audiences of the exhibitions, or the people who read my essays as to how much positive input I’ve been able to have and how much I have missed the point. I’ve been lucky in that most of what I have done, for these reasons, becomes a point of discussion. When I write something there’s always billion-million bloggers saying bad and good things about me, that’s nice because at least I’m being noticed.

Z.O.: How would you characterize the situation of contemporary art in the Baltic states? Are there any significant differences you have observed?

I think the situation is reasonably similar in all of them. One of the great disappointments about the situation of contemporary art at the moment is that a number or a higher number of artists somehow finish their career early, because they disappear to advertising, disappear to whatever, they disappear into the economic reality of our situation. So the people that were very active in the 1990s and the early part of the millennium maybe are now underproductive. Generally, I’ve always been disappointed about how little is produced here, that people haven’t developed studio practices where they make work, because the more work you make, the more work you can make. People tend to only do things for commission. This means there’s actually big gaps between their works, which is difficult to explain to foreign visiting curators who have the power to give them more opportunity. So when somebody comes from Manifesta, you have to show them a work that a person made in 2003 and now it’s 2010 – that’s very common and it’s problematical. I think it’s common in all three countries there are only a small number of artists who have managed to keep up constant production. If you look at Kristaps Ģelzis, he started to make work again just last year, there is like a five year gap, so it’s very difficult: how do you bring him into new projects? Though someone like Laganovskis is just making and making and making work, so maybe you’d like Ģelzis to work more than Laganovskis, but you can put Laganovskis in a project because he can say: “Oh, this is what I’ve been doing last month”. And the same things happen here. In fact there has been no expansion of the number of artists being shown in exhibitions, because there hasn’t been any build up of studio work practice, so we all are slightly underrepresented which is something common to all three countries. Of course, at the moment there is no money, the Latvian museums are currently undergoing a consolidation process, CAC is almost broke, KUMU is having to give staff unpaid leave and is closed early to turn off the lights. What hope have we got? We just have to hope that we all can be inventive and find new ways of doing things.

Z.O.: Don’t you think that the problem with underrepresentation of our artists is also a problem related to the work of art galleries?

Sure, if there was a dealer gallery and they had one dealer show a year they would at least have one body of work per year which they had to make in relationship with their dealer, so yes. Because this system is building up very slowly there hasn’t been any expansion of internal opportunities. How many times can somebody show at the CAC and how many times can they show at the Arsenāls? This is a major problem. One thing that maybe is going to happen, we hope, is that some more people shift away and send work back, or develop a binationalism, “live and work in Berlin...“

Z.O.: This means that artists should be more self-organized?

Romantically I would like to think they could be more self-producing, more self-organized. That they would realize that it’s actually the production of work, not the being, which counts. There is a very heavy mantra of what an artist is in the Soviet mentality and I think you’ve got to slap that down a bit. And explain to people: no, this is not about going to that bar, and having long hair or whatever, it is actually about painting every day.

Z.O.: What do you think are the key challenges for contemporary artists today?

Finding ways and means of producing and showing their work. And it’s the job of the people in charge of the institutions who have the ear of the government: in some marginal way to try and explain how important this whole process can be for society as a my job or my director Kestutis Kuizinas’ job is to play advocate for the artists, to say they are the bedrock of a much larger, potentially positive, productive, generative system within society which can be one part of a process driving society forward to the future. But they also have to do their work inside that.

Z.O.: How has the opening of a National Art Gallery influenced the art scene in Lithuania?

We have had two really good shows of foreign work with Lithuanian content. People have had access, seeing really cool stuff without leaving the country. And seeing Lithuanian things put into a larger international context helps them think about their position in a different way. Also, the opening exhibition of Čiurlionis sited him in a larger European discourse, which has two effects: one proves he is important and the other, I hope, proves that he is just one of many, because, of course, it’s typical in every nation or every national gallery that you have your hero artist, for you it’s the great constructivist Klucis, but you have to realize he is one of a whole school of people working. Hopefully they understand that this person is only heroic inasmuch as he was one of a number of heroes from all over Europe. Also they have the opportunity now to go and visit their national art history from 1900 to 1990 – that’s also a good thing, the best for students. Generally it tells the story that big buildings can be popular and can play a part in daily social life, and if the National Gallery can play a part of daily social life maybe people begin to imagine that all art institutions have a role to play in regular metropolitan living. It’s a natural place to visit as part of living in the city. You don’t have to get on the plane or train or bus, and you are integrated into a much wider European discourse.

Z.O.: The work of the CAC and you as a senior curator has been very successful in terms of attracting larger audiences, visibility, popularity on an international scale.

The CAC has had an international reputation ever since it opened in 1992. I’m just one of the team of people who have built that up and I have had my role to play. Kestutis Kuizinas is an international figure, Raimundas Malasauskas – who was here – he is an international figure, Deimantas Narkevičius worked for the CAC for many many years, and he of course is an international figure. So I’ve been privileged to be slotted into an already running machine, and I just think I’ve brought a different set of communications strategies which might be more public friendly, I’m interested in the audience. So if I have achieved anything it’s just trying to be more audience friendly. That’s the great thing about institutions: that they develop their own histories. I’ve been lucky, because I had a good platform to start my work from.

Z.O.: What would be your advice to artists, galleries and curators in promoting contemporary art of the Baltics?

Decide what’s important to you and find a way of explaining how it’s important to the people who potentially will look at it or buy it. That’s the thing. You have to identify why you are doing it, identify what difference you are making and learn how to tell people where it fits into a larger picture, and why that’s important. It can even be just telling them why it’s important to you, but with enough enthusiasm. Find the means of communication and a language which people find friendly, that’s all I have to say.

/Translator into English: Egils Turks/
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