|THE BIOLOGICAL ICON “AG” AND A COMPARISON WITH THE CHEMICAL ELEMENT SHARING THE SAME SYMBOL |
Sitting on my desk is a small icon in a carved silver frame, and so, in seeking to delve into my very personal relationship with Andris Grīnbergs, I perceived this association that life presented to me. Thus, Andris has the same initials as silver - a chemical element of Group I in the Periodic Table. And both images - the silver-framed icon and the biological "Ag" - are in my possession. They have been bought and belong to me as much as the fragility of life ever permits us to obtain anything. Thus it transpires that the biological "Ag" is in a sense the brother of a copy of Ecce Homo, painted by the 16th century Spanish master Luis de Morales, known as "The Divine", in a not very deftly carved silver frame.
It is known that the chemical element "Ag" occurs both as a native metal and in compounds. Clearly, this applies not only to the biological "Ag", but to virtually any individual whose coefficient of perception and understanding is demonstrated through both personal and social communication. However, what is the origin of "Ag" as a pure biological element? First of all, we should start by recognising that the biological "Ag" is a patriarch. And this is important since, notwithstanding the additional information available to us regarding the free thinking demonstrated by "Ag" in everyday life, he belongs to a patriarchal tradition. And there's no better epithet to describe such a head of a family than "the eternal conqueror". And everything may be conquered, including spring, summer, autumn and winter. By planting a sunflower seed, one can obtain a sunflower; by planting a pumpkin seed, one can get a pumpkin. Conquest is the very basis of the patriarchal tradition. And in this regard, every day is marked by a different desire. And finally, there is the aspect of patriarchal disappointment, where anyone can become your conqueror, indicating that we are in a dead end. Nevertheless, fickle love remains. Another patriarchal territory, every resident of which becomes a naïve moth rushing towards the light, or a traitor. The place of "Ag" in this scheme we must guess, since no answer will be forthcoming - which is also in the patriarchal tradition!
But let us return to the facts. We know that "Ag's" mother was a housewife, with his father as the breadwinner. In this regard, the biological "Ag" convincingly upholds the family model. He is the family's main supporter. And from time to time he is unhappy with the role allotted him. However, as in all proper Latvian families, the case of "Ag" permits interpretations ranging from his mother's bourgeois origins to his father's markedly red convictions. And, as is usual among Latvians, "Ag" too has a famous relative. In this case, it is the classic of Latvian romantic art, painter Rūdolfs Pērle, among "Ag's" maternal relatives.
All of the above goes to prove one further resemblance between the chemical and the biological "Ag". Namely, we may ironically apply "Ag's" characteristic of better electrical and thermal conductivity than that of other metals and high reflectivity, and thus explain the survival capacity of the biological "Ag". Further proofs are advanced below.
It is also known that the biological "Ag" comes from Riga's Miera iela district, also an important aspect, since this is the road to Mežaparks. And in the fifties there were still trams with an open back platform. It was in the cemetery there in 1969 that "Ag" held his first happening "Romeo and Juliet" (with his sister Aija Grīnberga, Ivars Priede and Alfreds Stinkurs). This is a good starting point, which permits the whole of "Ag's" art to be interpreted as a counter-culture phenomenon or conscious non-conformism. It is precisely from this perspective that we may regard the happening in the Cemetery. Such a choice of venue could only be interpreted in Soviet times as a mark of insubordination to the ideological system. However, the deeper motives behind the event were directed at the interpretation of profoundly human issues. "Ag" presented as the motives for the happening "the utopia of the force of love, which might reconcile ideologies and peoples; the quality of masculinity and femininity, which is not characterised by the length of one's hair, and bisexuality".1
However, it is interesting that processual art activities began in "Ag's" life even before that, when in his childhood he used dolls he had made himself to stage a home production of Andrejs Upīts' "The Lads from Lazy Village" (Sūnu ciema zēni). In other regards, "Ag's" childhood artistic memories are connected more with the famous relative of his mother's, one of the reasons why "Ag" in his childhood generally restricted himself to colouring-in drawings prepared by his mother and thus, without putting Mr Pērle to shame, received the commendation "excellent". However, the drawing teacher too is important here, since he was a "real" man - in a "real" tailor-made suit, and a "real" smoker.
Knowing that the chemical element "Ag" is a potent catalyst, widely used in organic synthesis, photography and film, as well as electronics, we may remember the biological "Ag's" appearance in the "Shock Show" on Latvian TV on 5 September 1995, a show in which the audience provoked the guests and at the same time were themselves shocked not only by "Ag" and his wife Inta's stark revelations about parallel sexual contacts, numbering more than three hundred, during their life together, but also by undressing in public. This is just one example of the biological "Ag's" implacability and constant activity, of his potency as a catalyst.
But in "Ag's" understanding, implacability means being that which you wish to see, to serve as an illustration of your interpretation without giving up your position. Struggling quietly and implacably for his own quality of absolute honesty as "Ag". Organising performances and happenings, and changing his image2 in order to express an eternally active stance. The biological "Ag" has never been one to engage in observation or description. Only ever a participant. His conspicuous image-building through dress and coiffure have never constituted any kind of hiding, since assuming a new image is difficult. It is first and foremost a challenge to himself, to assume and bring to life an image, which is logically accompanied by heightened attention in society. This is both an obsession and a kind of mission, when you present your conviction and test whether you survive or fall. And when you tire, you change yourself again, searching for something new! And not because you've become unfaithful to something you've already had, but simply because you think there's more!
The role of the chemical "Ag" in photography and film is yet another correspondence with the biological "Ag". All of his themes in the art of life are undeniably cinematic. Performances, happenings, collages and posed photographs - all constitute short films of a kind. This is because the cinematograph in particular permits a record of the transition from one state to another. This also explains why in the first half of the seventies, the happenings organically developed into photo sessions staged by "Ag" at various locations in Riga. These posed photographs created in the course of photo events display the collaboration and/or role of the biological "Ag" in the development of Anita Kreituse, Laima Eglīte, Līga Purmale, Miervaldis Polis, Leonards Laganovskis and other creative individuals. The main themes of all these happenings and photo sessions by "Ag" were "the person as an object, the person in the environment, the person in movement, the person and their dress, human inner discovery".3
Three years after "Ag's" first happening, in 1972, when the theme "Querying reality: image worlds today" was being interpreted in Documenta V in Kassel, the most important of Andris Grīnbergs' happenings was "The Marriage of Jesus Christ", held in the village of Carnikava. Its significance lies in its conceptual and artistic scope. The happening was documented by photographers Māra Brašmane and Atis Ieviņš.4 Like other happenings initiated by "Ag", this too may be described as having a comparatively important romantic element.
The happening "The Marriage of Jesus Christ" disrupted the conceptual structures built by those art researchers who based their analysis of Soviet-era events in art life in Latvia on the idea that the socialist zone was isolated from the capitalist. Only a short space of time passed between 12 October 1971, when Andrew Lloyd Weber's rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York and the version in Latvia on 24-25 August 1972.5
However, the version initiated by "Ag" also had a real, functional role. Namely, the happening was the actual wedding of "Ag" and Inta Jaunzeme6, a ceremony conducted by Sandris Rīga, one of the founders of the ecumenical movement in Latvia, who was later arrested and subjected to the therapy of Russia's psychiatric hospitals.7 In the role of the witnesses were Mudīte Gaiševska and Eižens Valpēters.
The happening involved about 20 people altogether, including Ingvars Leitis, Ināra Podkalne, Ivars Skanstiņš, Ināra Eglīte, Atis Ieviņš, Māra Brašmane and Ninuce Leimane, who played roles in Bible scenes.
The idea of synthesis of the arts, along with Christian iconography, was also presented in "Ag's" next happenings (such as "Angels" in 1974). A synthesis of various arts is especially advantageous if nature has not endowed you with great powers of imagination.8 But this is not an insult. See for yourselves: the biological "Ag" throughout his life has used only real facts, transforming them and extracting them from their everyday context. Thus, he plays with facts in his own biography: his wedding, Easter among a group of friends, the tummy of the pregnant Inta. All of these, simply torn out of their ordinary context, became special. In the end, one must understand that real people play a secondary role in this game, and we can easily imagine any other person in the particular role! It's all about life's theatre, the facts of life. It's a particular kind of rational imagination characteristic of the biological "Ag", permitting him to discover in a pile of used clothes that which will serve as a key to a certain sense of the situation.
Looking back at the seventies, it is seen that the biological "Ag" had recognised beforehand the special role of music: "The music was very important. Some of it was a kind of music of aggression, which maintained the opposition to everyday life: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Led Zeppelin. Another section included the poignant Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel..."9 But in addition to music, there was also philosophy.
The publication of an interview with Miloslav Bruzek, Minister of Culture of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, reprinted from Pravda, in early 1973 in the paper Literatūra un Māksla ("Literature and Art"), had several different purposes. The main one, of course, was to convince the reader that the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had been logical and grounded in objective necessity. A second was to warn of the adaptive potential and danger of undesirable philosophical currents. This records a fear of the threat of existentialist philosophy as a "contemporary interpretation" of Marxism.10
However, existentialism was not the only philosophical movement that became topical in Latvia in the early seventies. Particularly important was structuralism, and especially semiotics. Its popularity derived from the free opportunity to attend lectures by Yuri Lotman at Tartu University, which many young artists made use of.
The ideals of structuralism required relinquishing semi-intuitive, semi-rational arguments in the sphere of the humanities. Classical structuralism was inextricably linked with criticism of subjective illusions. The structuralists accused academic aesthetics of a wish to infiltrate art itself. Roland Barth recognised the contradiction that art should, on the one hand, not subordinate itself to the games of the institutions of authority, while on the other hand it was recognised that it was impossible to oppose the power of the common language.11
The film made by the biological "Ag" in 1972, which, thanks to Latvian-American art researcher Mark Allen Svede, was restored in 1995 at the Anthology Film Archives of Jonas Mekas in New York and included in the archive along with other experimental films, is one such very specific and personal testimony to the existence of parallel world models unrelated to reality in the Soviet Union. It revealed an unusual symbiosis of existentialist and structuralist currents, along with the popularity of semiotics among young people in the arts in the early seventies. Here I should explain that this first film by "Ag" was created in association with the Birojs ("Office") Studio12, which initially developed as an experimental theatre group, the core of which was formed by a group activists from among the first graduates of the Riga Film Acting Studio (1971): Ivars Skanstiņš, Juris Civjans, Gita Skanstiņa, Ruta Broka and others. Their original initiative was connected with a wish to develop Jerzy Grotowski's concept of Poor Theatre, popular in the early seventies. Emerging from the group's experiments was the idea of creating a "Self-Portrait" of the group, with an individual film version by each participant, presenting his or her sense of the world at the time. Only two films made by this group, which may be interpreted both as experiments in film and as documentation of happenings, are preserved: those made on 16 mm film by the biological "Ag" and Ivars Skanstiņš. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The lost films created in the frame of Birojs include the works filmed in 8 mm format by Mudīte Gaiševska, Juris Civjans and Eižens Valpŗēters.
Looking at the range of applications of cinematic media in the art of "Ag", we may recognise that their magic lies in the possibility of recording the fragile boundary between the "staged" and the "documentary". However, looking at the works of "Ag", one should not seek a clear answer to the question of what is staged and what is documentary. The only acceptable answer is conditionality. To assert that the creative expressions of the biological "Ag" are staged is equivalent to saying that his whole life has been staged. Thus, some other term should best be used for the records of creative activities of "Ag". Thus, we might describe them as "documents of life". And this is an excellent explanation for the fact that those documenting "Ag's" life have always been changing.
The fact that silver objects tarnish in the atmosphere, with black silver sulphide forming on the surface, brings us to consider the ideal environment of the biological "Ag" and his relationship with nature. Possibly, the biological "Ag" does regard nature as being of primary importance, but in reality this is restricted only to two unfinished series of photographs, showing a bridge in Mazirbe and a lake on the outskirts of Riga. Please do not misunderstand: this maniacal, seemingly insignificant tracing of these two features across the years and seasons will be complete only when the biological "Ag" has become a magical fact of history, but until such time it remains an endless process. However, examining the countless staged photos created by "Ag" amid the urban bustle, we come to understand that a person too, uprooted from this accustomed context, becomes part of nature. In this way, disrupting the individual's inner harmony, even in the structured urban setting, one can reach nature.
The chemical element "Ag" has long stood for the idea of gaining property. What is the property that the biological "Ag" has obtained or has wished to obtain in the course of his life? When asked about the supreme value in life, he answers: "People, only people, wonderful people! I regret all the time that I've grabbed hold of them too little and forced myself on them too little. The art of getting: that's my art! To get, rather than to hold! Life cannot be held: even the most thrilling physical experience dims from memory after a day or two. It's gone and lost to you." This explains the fact that the art of the biological "Ag" is communication. But I have to honestly admit that praxis has also shown up "Ag's" idealism, equivalent to "Ag's" absolute honesty. It means leaving the door unlocked, but not wishing to speak when not in the mood. It means not picking up the phone when the idealistic feeling tells you that you're not going to be able to say anything good to anyone. It means a conviction that bodily nakedness is only a texture, which, without the touch of the soul, has no other meaning than its specific expressions in terms of painting: form and colour.
Finally, the link between the above described properties of the chemical element "Ag" and the biological "Ag" may be sublimed into yet a third: the reproduction of Ecce Homo, imbued with the spirituality of a sorrowfully exalted figure. This I came to perceive clearly, when one day I was discussing with "Ag" the subject of the castle that each of us is intent on finding in the hope of a better life. In his answer, he told me of the moat at the foot of very castle, where the biological "Ag" feels as if he has spent most of his life. Well, life isn't perfect!
1 A happening on the theme of "Romeo and Juliet". Notes by Andris Grīnbergs in the author's personal archive.
2 In chronological sequence, the figures portrayed by Andris Grīnbergs developed as follows: Oscar Wilde, Jesus, Andy Warhol and thereafter interpretations of biological "Ag" himself, from a harsh to a romantic self-image. For some time now, "Ag" has been in a sporting mood.
3 Grīnbergs A. Biographe. In: Riga. Lettische Avantgarde: [Catalogue]. Berlin, 1988, p. 80.
4 In 1971-1973, Andris Grīnbergs collaborated with photographers Māra Brašmane and Atis Ieviņš; in 1973-1977 he collaborated with Jānis Kreicbergs, and periodically he has also worked with Andrejs Grants.
5 Intriguingly, there was a similar interest in this musical in Lithuanian art history. On 24 December 1971 a production of the rock opera was banned at the Faculty of Architecture of the Vilnius Institute of Civil Engineering.
6 The marriage was officially registered later, in October 1972.
7 Real name: Aleksandrs Rotbergs.
8 This is one of Andris Grīnbergs' constant charges against himself.
9 Meistere U. "20 gadu garumā vienā dzīvoklī" (20 years in one apartment). Nakts, 1994, 28 April.
10 Bružeks M. Cildenie daiļrades principi // Literatūra un Māksla. - 1973. - 20 January.
11 Riklin M.K. Strukturalism i poststrukturalisticheskaya estetika. Moskva, 1984, p. 3.
12 The experimental theatre group derived its name from the venue for rehearsals: the Office of Film Propaganda, at that time the workplace of one of the participants, Gita Skanstiņa.