Art Must Surprise
Laima Slava, art historian
A conversation with Daiga Rudzāte, Artistic Director of the INDIE project agency
Daiga Rudzāte. Photo: Didzis Grodzs
"Prosecco and summer are inseparable: the sun, the warmth, and Italy somewhere in the background. I think that the world of taste is heavily influenced by emotions." (Daiga Rudzāte)

In recent years, the Artistic Director of INDIE project agency Daiga Rudzāte has made a name for herself as an art curator with big ambitions. For the third year running she has been in charge of the visual arts section (a contemporary art show) at the Cēsis Art Festival, and this was the year of the first Purvītis Prize. The hottest spot in the world this summer is Venice. Daiga has been a follower of the Biennale and Latvia's entries in the event for a decade. She also takes an interest in art markets, and some time ago edited a section devoted to this subject in the magazine ‘Studija'. Our conversation took place on the new summer terrace of ‘Vīna studija', on the very first day of its opening, sitting in the comfortable seats in the window niches and with a post-Venice mood still hanging in the air.
Laima Slava and Daiga Rudzāte. Photo: Didzis Grodzs
Laima Slava: The major artistic events of the summer - Venice, Kassel etc. - are designed to simul­taneously attract viewers, showcase the latest trends and present art to potential buyers.  Can it be said that the artistic process is driven by art which is labelled as "unsaleable?"

Daiga Rudzāte: I think that absolutely everything can be bought and sold. It's just a question of price. It's not for nothing that private collections are packed with art that could be defined as "non-commercial." In our situation, where we do not have a contemporary art museum where you could learn about, for example, art produced in the last 20 years - if a person cannot travel personally to Venice to get up to date information, how can they acquire knowledge about the subject? We also don't have a contemporary art gallery where, in addition to paintings, photographs, objects, video installations
etc. could be shown. I believe that Latvia has missed out in terms of education, in the sense that potential clients and the audience as a whole are not made aware of artistic processes and forms of expression. In which gallery can we find any small objects by Oļegs Tilbergs or Breže's works - for sale!?

L.S.: In this context I'd like to mention the name ‘Supernova' - a tiny, new gallery in Old Riga devoted to contemporary art in the broadest sense. A kind of fragile beginning...

D.R.: The future of such a gallery depends on whet­her it can educate its clients and make them "addicted" to contemporary art. Naturally, you have to sell not only the art, but also the name of the creator, which means investment in popularising them.

The fact that people are interested in contemporary art is demonstrated by the multitudes of culture tourists flocking to Venice and Kassel, while professionals feel a kind of obligation to go to these events and see them for themselves, so that they can take part in conversations and understand the processes. The third major event is of course Basel, which is just as important as the other two. The opening dates of the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Fair are closely coordinated. From Venice many wealthy people, art buyers, dealers and collectors, go straight to Basel. What do they see there? Often, works from the previous Venice Biennale, which are now for sale. These works have been acquired by galleries and are for sale. Of course, mostly they are big names.

L.S.: All of the big names in this "circulation of money" however are also considerably talented.

D.R.: What does it mean to be a big name? It means talent and very serious marketing, investing huge resour­ces to make this talent visible. This means PR and serious books, because no one in Basel will buy an artist who doesn't have a large, heavy "brick" of a book. There are logical steps that lead to Basel. But anything can be sold. As one painter said, "every painting has its buyer, and they will come, but whether it will happen now or after many years is another matter." Of course, you can't view everything in that way, but you can certainly apply it to what is on offer at Venice, because it has a guaranteed level of professionalism. You may like or dislike the curator's concept, but you'll rarely find instances of dil­ettantism there. Sometimes the processes can be very biased, though. Kassel is purely a curators' exhibition, and I believe that the last few shows have demonstrated the demise of the curator as an institution. "The curator's concept" is triumphant and the artists are just marionet­tes in one person's hands. Lately it is beginning to look as if curators are smothering art itself, and there's a sense that they are trying to get others to do what they them­selves cannot do. I feel that the curator cannot be the leader. The curator must make the artist the leader. That's my world of illusions, which I wish to maintain and to do things that way.

Another thing was mentioned in conversation by Jānis Garančs: the curator as an institution, and con­ceptualism as such have decayed and eroded, and they have allowed dilettantism to surface at major exhibitions. Because conceptualism permits absolutely everything. Under the cover of conceptualism, you can show rubbish and declare that it is really something. It is a paradox that a major artistic movement, with a serious foundation, and which was once linked with a very strong group of artists, has led the processes of the whole artistic world to confusion and crisis. Sometimes it seems that this crisis has led to painting coming back into fashion, because with paint­ing you can't just display any old thing and claim that it means something. As with opera singing, first you have to sing the notes, then you can start thinking about acting. You have to be able to hit the high notes, and if you can't, you're in the wrong business. In recent decades, Western art has chiefly highlighted the thought process, which is undoubtedly extremely important. However by putting emphasis solely on the thought process, without atten­tion being paid to the skill of visualising (ignoring crafts­manship), you approach the kind of situation where a person cannot speak.

In these sorts of cases, the artwork is accompanied by reams of written explanations. This seems to me very wrong. We can talk about genres converging, borders eroding and the fusion of whole spheres of culture in general, but at the moment we still have the formulation "visual art," which means that it must grab you and make you think by visual means. I believe this to be vitally important.
Daiga Rudzāte. Photo: Didzis Grodzs
L.S.: Does this also mean setting certain principles for exhibiting art?

Yes, I am a passionate advocate of the "bour­geois exhibition form" (as Heie Treier put it last summer after seeing a European art project exhibition in the Pom­mery champagne cellars). Art must surprise. Yes, art must also make you think and so on, but for me it is much more important that it surprises and influences me purely with what I see. I remember the shock I experienced at a Barney personal exhibition in Paris. It's hard to tell whether he is a saint or a devil, but in any case he only influences you through visual means, and in such a way that you don't understand what is happening to you. He has talent, loads of talent, and talent is a rare occurrence.

L.S.: For three years running you have been the organiser of the contemporary art exhibition as part of the Cēsis Art Festival. What motivates you? What is your objective when selecting works?

D.R.: I think that it is interesting for people if you give them a theme, a push. The theme can be provocative, tricky, dangerous, and already then the curator puts their reputation on the line. Many might find the title Heroes of our Time banal, but for me this is closely linked with literature. I can only see it or write it, but how it sounds verbally is important to me. I like how it sounds: "heroes of our time". The words are also encoded with cultural his­tory (I'm referring, of course, to Lermontov) and some sort of statement, and this is connected with visual images. It didn't emerge in any connection with the political or economic situation. My son once asked me: "Who are your heroes - Agent 007, Batman?" Children and teenagers have these kinds of "heroes of our time", and they live with them today. And really, that's the way it is - these heroes are an important part of contemporary culture and you start to give them some thought. Jānis Garančs has a work named Heroskops. He has investigated the attitude of ancient art towards heroes and how they were born. There are two types of heroes. The first is programmed to be a hero and goes through various stages: he is born, grows up, reaches maturity, performs his heroic deeds and always comes back home. The second type is an ordinary boy who does something. Like Matrosov, for example - he throws himself at a gun emplacement. So this subject can be considered in a number of ways, ironically as well, but it is worthy of serious reflection, and, who knows - someone may even end up reading Lermontov. I just throw the artists an idea and trust in their ability to bring it to life. I tell them my inspiration, but then their feelings and interpretations take over. My concept and I are some­where in the periphery; I kick the ball first, but then they play football with it amongst themselves.

L.S.: Do you have a special formula for creating a successful exhibition? Surely an event like that involves any number of clashing ambitions.

D.R.: I think that it is essential that the works dis­played complement each other - in their way - and that the artists represent different aspects of today's artistic scene. This year the Cēsis festival will feature Ojārs Pēter­sons and his pupils, who are important contributors to contemporary Latvian art: Anta and Dita Pence, Kaspars Podnieks. Jānis Garančs is a well-known personality in Europe, but Latvian public is still astounded by what he does. Monika Pormale's name has in recent years been closely associated with stage design, but I wanted to bring her back to fine art. The invited Estonian artists (Kaido Ole, Marko Mäetamm and Raul Keller) were selected in close cooperation with the Estonian Contemporary Art Centre Director Johannes Saar, and I believe that they represent the best in Estonian art today. I reserved a special space for Raul Keller, because I know that he works miracles. He was given the most difficult space, and he undertook to fill it. I really hope that next year the Lithuanians will also take part, and we will be able to begin talking about a Baltic contemporary art exhibition.

L.S.: So are you consciously heading towards an international event?

D.R.: The ambition of course, is for a contemporary art exhibition encompassing all three Baltic States, and perhaps one day I would hope to have Scandinavia present too. This would be one way to attract global attention to the art of this region. Ojārs Pētersons was right in saying that "the Western express doesn't stop here very often." To any active and well-paid Western critic, curator or gallery owner, seen from afar on a map we are mere specks of dust, a backwater. We ourselves sometimes refer somewhat mockingly to events taking place in "the middle of nowhere."

L.S.: At least at the Venice Biennale we can hope that someone will notice Latvia...

D.R.: I was told that a journalist had asked the question: Is Latvia's participation in the Venice Biennale worth it? And I thought - it's our own fault that we haven't managed to explain to such people that the question shouldn't even be raised! It's another cultural sphere where Latvia is represented at national level! As such it is a positive message from a country which otherwise only gets negative coverage in the international media.

L.S.: Do you believe that through Venice a Latvian artist can make it internationally?

D.R.: If an exposition is good, the news spreads through word of mouth. Of course, you need someone to lobby the higher echelons of professional art. But the Biennale is where everybody - artists, dealers, collectors - all gather, to wander around and look. Inta Ruka became known right after Venice. And through Inta alone, Latvia gains the reputation as a country where interesting art can be found. Successful participation determines a great deal. This could also happen in Miks Mitrēvics' case.

L.S.: But only a few have gained success, despite the fact that all of the artists we have sent from Latvia have been good, in our opinion. Is there some sort of "right moment", some coincidence of factors?

D.R.: It's important that the right person arrives at the right moment. Latvia has never had the money for big PR or marketing campaigns. Because, although it may sound vulgar, from the business aspect art is just another product for sale. If people don't know about the product, they won't go looking for it. Success stories are rare. But not taking part in the Venice Biennale would be a blight on our national identity. 

A Note from the Editor-in-Chief
After reading this conversation, what pulsated in my mind was the issue of "a blight on our national identity." Although I completely agree with Daiga, I tried to find an answer as to why our national identity is so fragile, feeble and sensitive....And then suddenly, the neighbours turn up the volume on their TV, and a song of dubious quality booms out the lyrics "... he who does nothing is condemned to think." And I find an answer to my question: the fragility of our national identity is due to keeping things hushed up, to reducing our thoughts and expres­sions to figures of speech. And I interpret the song to mean that he who does nothing is envious...

If this is really so, then one can either be envious of the city of Cēsis, whose residents and guests will be able to enjoy a month of art, music, cinema and theatre for the third summer in a row, or overcome this irrational envy that everything is better in a neighbouring town, district or country, and head to Cēsis to enjoy the festival.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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