Setting traps

Paula Lūse

A conversation with Ēriks Apaļais, shortlisted for the Purvītis Prize 2019


Ēriks Apaļais often uses the motif of snowmen in his works, even going so far as calling himself ‘the snowman artist’. In his works, he also examines language as a material created by culture. He creates visual models that explain and analyse the human thinking process with the help of linguistic formulas. His graphic and laconic technique contains references to literature and linguistics that function as fragments of memories and deconstructed narration within the plane of the painting. By abandoning everything that is extraneous, he works with artistic means of expression much like with language.

Diaries from Earth, 2014–18. View from RIBOCA exhibition.

In the series of works titled Diaries from Earth, an interest in linguistics is yet again the main structural principle. When asked what it was that he wanted to portray in this series of works, and what the main idea behind them is, Apaļais replies: ‘One thing was the view from a child’s perspective as compared to that of an adult. Children perceive everything more actively; I think they have a closer contact with reality’. The works are composed of episodes taken from childhood memories, as well as a narrative akin to the autobiographical genre. Apaļais adds: ‘[…] this genre answers the following questions: What is existence? What does it mean to exist? And then arises the question of whether it is possible to record your existence through words and text, or rather, what it means to be in this world.’ 

Ēriks Apaļais has studied English philology and the visual arts. In 2011 he graduated from the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK), under Professor Andreas Slominski, and received the Karl H. Ditze Prize for Best Final Work. Since 2008 he has had several solo shows at Galerie Vera Munro in Hamburg, and at the kim? Contemporary Art Centre and Alma Gallery, both in Riga. He has participated in art fairs such as Art Basel, Art Cologne and Artissima, and his works can be found in the collections of the Latvian National Museum of Art, the forthcoming Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art, the Prague Kunstahalle, and in the private collection of Sylvia von Metzler in Frankfurt.

Apaļais’ exhibition Diaries from Earth (2014–2018) was on view at 2 Sporta Street as part of the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA).

Diaries from Earth, 2014–18. View from RIBOCA exhibition.

Was there a specific moment in which you consciously realised that you are an artist?

(Thinks for a while.) I still sometimes wonder if I am an artist or not (laughs). It’s hard to define what that even means. I have always been interested in philosophy, psychoanalysis and linguistics. I don’t know if that makes someone an artist…

Perhaps art is a way in which you can express your various interests?

Yes, I could agree with that.

You frequently use language and its grammatical rules as a foundation for your paintings; consequently, your painting experiences a transformation and becomes a visual representation of text or of a sentence. Do you think viewers understand this?

I usually write the accompanying texts for exhibitions myself in order to help explain to the viewer what is being portrayed in my works. The text also helps me to understand and structuralise where I am, what I am doing, and to responsibly ascertain the situation I am in. The symbols in my works are conditional; or rather, they are images that are depicted through symbols, emblems, and sometimes silhouettes. For a time, I tried to make the images linguistically relative and build myths, and then cleave them using the structuralism of language. I wished to illustrate that the image is just a kind of form that has been filled with various meanings. These meanings can be derived from both personal experience and individual mythology. I don’t believe that there is just one truth or natural access to something concrete. Language is a means, but we nevertheless interpret each other’s words in our own way; if the interpretation trajectories meet, then communication is established. Nowhere is it stated that we all understand a symbol, image, or word in the same way.

Diaries from Earth, 2014–18. View from RIBOCA exhibition.

Works of art seem to have even more potential interpretations than language. Is it important to you that the viewer of your work sees any of your own interpretations in it?

It is an age-old question of whether works should be accessible to the viewer. The artistic environment is very closed-off and hermetic. The information in the texts accompanying the exhibition is often presented in a generalised and vague way, but in a manner in which at least the direction of thought has been made clear. It has more of an educational function. On the other hand, art now finds itself in the midst of a big crisis because much is being generalised and emptied, and dogmas are being relativised. The problem lies in today’s art often being illustrative, aesthetically unpleasurable, bordering on journalism, and being one-dimensional or at least poor in dimensionality.

There’s also the other extreme: painting only aesthetically pleasing works – works that lack underlying meaning.

Those pretty little works one sees in ‘souvenir shops’?

Your works do have a rather prominent aesthetic aspect, however.

How do you mean? In that they are beautiful? (Laughs.) You know, there are many different ways of achieving beauty: deliberately avoiding finesse; specially looking for ways in which to paint ‘the wrong way’, such as with your left hand; or deliberately painting as if you don’t know how to. It can carry a lot of risk, though.

If an artist thinks about art, but doesn’t create anything in a physical sense, are they an artist?

Of course they are an artist.

o, 2018. Acrylic/oil, canvas, 160 x 230

What, in your opinion, makes an artist an artist?

Hard to say. Their way of thinking, and their perception, perhaps.

Must an artist speak about their art?

It’s not mandatory, but an artist should have a feeling of responsibility towards their work. I view arbitrariness in art very cautiously.

For instance?

Artists who say: ‘I wanted it that way; that’s the way it turned out’.

But maybe they really did want it that way, and it really did turn out that way... (Both laugh.)

Yes, one can want various things and have various outcomes. You can paint a pictorial landscape that is sickeningly sweet and banal, but the same landscape can also be painted by an amateur sitting in his suburban kitchen and – IT WORKS! Whether it was the way in which they applied the paint or the vision that they encoded... and regardless of whether it was done calculatingly or not. 


Diaries from Earth, 2018. Acrylic/oil, canvas, 170 x 210

The exhibition of yours shortlisted for the Purvītis Prize is the one titled Diaries from Earth. How did that title emerge?

I have long been interested in the genre of autobiography. In literature, the genre of autobiography can be depicted in various ways – one can pragmatically write about actions taken, or instead, describe feelings and emotions. Yet it seems that this genre does answer the following questions: What is existence? What does it mean to exist? And then arises the question of whether it is possible to record your existence through words and text, or rather, what it means to be in this world.

And is it possible?

Language always conforms. It can be stylised, the syntax can be changed, and it can be used to manipulate other people, such as manipulating your image in order to steer the viewer to your side. But in the process of writing, you stand beyond meaning – it is a fulfillment of impulses.

Do you keep a diary/personal journal?

Not lately, but I have.

Do you plan out beforehand what a painting will look like? Do you make sketches?

Yes, always. I don’t paint spontaneously.

Could one say that, on more or less of a daily basis, you spend your time thinking, and then there comes a day in which these thoughts are executed in a painting?

Yes. I’m not the kind that sits in their studio from Monday through Friday, nine to five. There are times when I can paint for two or three weeks straight. There are times when I don’t paint for a whole month or two. Yet I am one of those fast painters who like to paint quickly. I’ve noticed that if I work on one piece for more than two days, it’s no longer good – something’s been lost, or else there’s too much. Either I hit the mark or I don’t. I’ve also tossed out works.

Are you a ‘day painter’ or a ‘night painter’?

I used to decidedly be a night painter. Now I paint during the day; I’ve become kinder towards myself. There’s something to be said for having a rhythm.

Why snowmen?

(Laughs.) At first, I wanted to surprise myself in terms of what I could paint that would be as stupid, naive or banal as possible – strawberry men, Santa Clauses, snowmen… Not too long after that, it was more related to childhood memories and something alive. A snowman is so very formulaic – with a bucket on his head, a carrot for a nose, etc. It seemed interesting that virtually anything that is so conventional can be taken out of its usual environment and transported into a metaphysical space and allowed to live there. I also projected various subtexts into the snowman. The snowman is indeed only a shell. You can think of many things to place inside of, or project into, one image.

Galal, 2018. Acrylic/oil, canvas, 195 x 135

Is there a specific meaning that you wanted to portray in the Diaries from Earth series of works?

One thing was the view from a child’s perspective as compared to that of an adult. Children perceive everything more actively; I think they have a closer contact with reality. Children simply are and see, they do not separate themselves from the world around them. The child’s perspective is what I tried to work with in these pieces. I’ve always been fascinated by that. It is not for naught that Nietzsche spoke of the three spiritual metamorphoses – from camel to lion, from lion to child. I also wanted to play around a bit... see what would happen if I did it like that – would you be able to catch me, would you get what I’m saying? I set out traps. (Laughs.)

Do you wish for the works to elicit some sort of memories from the viewer?

While painting the snowmen, I was reading Freud – the book in which he described the experience of association and memories. An element or a particular thing that elicits pleasant or unpleasant emotions does not always firstly connect with a particular memory. For example, you see something very cosy and homey, but there’s also something horrible that is hidden away in your memory. You remember, for example, a snowman, but the associations are with something else. By suppressing unpleasant memories, you associate that event with an object. The story is not about a snowman; the snowman is just an object, a shell.

Do your ideas for works change depending on the country or environment you are in?

I am stubborn and persistent, and I resist many things... which is not always a good thing. Everything is, of course, connected, but I tend to be more influenced by the conversations that I have and the texts that I read. The environment may inspire me in some way, but the people whom I talk to are more likely to influence me. At some discrete point in time, the basics become clear to a person, and then the environment can no longer really run you off of your set track. Perhaps, over time, a confidence in something unknown develops. Of course, things can always change course.

Do you have the need for communication with other people?

Yes, definitely. I once was a distinct loner. But one goes through various periods.

How do you take criticism?

I take verbal criticism very harshly, but after a while, looking back on the situation, I reflect on it. If the criticism is unwarranted, I forget it; if it is warranted, I take note.

Ēriks Apaļais. Photo: Jānis Deinats

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