TOP (of the TOP) in formation at Latvian National Museum of Art

Estere Kajema

“Džemma who?”
“Džemma Skulme”

It is clear that a relationship between the collector and their collection is a very special kind of relationship. Patriarchal, hierarchical and homogeneous, but still very familial and tender – there are thousands of different methods and practices of collecting, and each one says a lot about the collector. Dina and Jānis Zuzāns are, arguably, two of the most perfect collectors that you will ever find. With his pedantic approach, Jānis Zuzāns continually works on expanding his personal collection which comprises, allegedly, about 5,000 pieces of art, a fact that would make it the largest private collection of Latvian art in the world. The greater mission of Jānis Zuzāns is to Make Latvian Art Great Again. With his mission of building a new art center – called Zuzeum – Mr. Zuzāns will be presenting his own collection to an even larger audience than the one served by the Mūkusalas Art Salon, the current showcase venue for the collection.

TOP in formation, without any doubt, is one of the most remarkable and interesting art exhibitions to have taken place at the newly reconstructed Latvian National Museum of Art. Not only does the show present a carefully crafted selection of the most exceptional examples of Latvian art, but it also provides the viewer with a highly professional example of collective curatorial and editorial work as executed by a large team led by four exhibition curators – Diāna Barčevska, Sniedze Kāle, Līga Lindenbauma, and Valts Miķelsons. The exhibition design, the brochure and, most importantly, the catalog, are all masterpieces of production. Whilst there has been quite a lot of critique aimed at the catalog produced together with “Neputns” – the main points of contention being that it was not organized either alphabetically or thematically, and that it a bit misleadingly presents a collection of 200 reproductions of works exhibited at the show as well as other works from the Zuzāns Collection – it is difficult to name another catalog of Latvian art that has been so qualitatively made and also so very stimulating to read.

The title of the exhibition, TOP in formation, is highly curious. A private collection, or any other archived material, is always in formation – as long as there is a systematized vision and a mission. But then again, TOP means the best of the best, which is also constantly in formation. An art collector has to steadily challenge their inclinations, their weak moments. Having a cherished artist or a favored work of art is always hindering, as that TOP should always be about a boundless perfection, a search for the unfamiliar, rather than a cluster of favorite objects.

Although museums and phones never really go well together, TOP in formation educates the visitor on how to use their phone purposefully. Because the exhibition offers a room with works of art that can only be seen through a device that supports barcode recognition, prior to their visit, visitors are advised to download a special LNMM phone app. When entering the room, visitors are advised to turn on the interactive guide in the LNMM app and then target the large barcodes on the walls with their phone cameras in order to see what has been hidden behind the cipher.

The exhibition also uses a language of “emoji”, both in the brochure and on pins and sweatshirts for sale at the museum shop. This idea clearly comes from the Mūkusala Art Salon’s Head of Communications, Agnese Kleina (Benji Knewman’s editor-in-chief), who wishes to build connections between East and West. TOP in formation is one of the first exhibitions to ever work with emoji, which is a very crucial feature – most importantly because we are moving towards an age when emoticons, or any other language that can express information graphically, will be the only written language we understand. 

Even though TOP in formation takes place at one of the most conservative museum spaces one can find in Riga, the exhibition does defy many museum canons. Usually, we are accustomed to seeing art in a so-called “white cube” space. At TOP in formation, however, the viewer is offered to appreciate works of art set against different backgrounds, all of which have been created by the artist, stage designer and director, Reinis Suhanovs. For instance, in the room that has been dedicated to “Strongest Women”, the walls have been covered with a background that depicts outstretched hands and palms – because a mother’s love is often associated with the warmth of her hands. The section dedicated to the most expensive works in the Zuzāns Collection, for most obvious reasons, presents the works against a gold background – even though the artworks found on that wall are not necessarily the most expensive in terms of money, but in other metrics, such as sentiment. 

Some of the most phenomenal artworks in the exhibition include Psihoterapija (Psychotherapy) by Kaspars Zariņš, Sievietes Portrets (Woman’s Portrait) by Kārlis Padegs, and Grāmatas (Books) by Bruno Vasiļevskis. The exhibition should really be appreciated as not only a collection of unique works of art by Latvian artists, but also as a fragmented selection of an immense archive that we, the viewers, have been given an opportunity to explore. TOP in formation, which takes place on the museum’s bottom floor, is, at some point, a recital of every other artwork on display in the museum – a perfect guidebook for anyone willing to learn more about Latvian art.

Clearly, no exhibition will be perfect for a true art lover. Even though TOP in formation is surely one of the most outstanding exhibitions that I have seen this year, I did find one particular room extremely precarious. Even after having spent a few weeks thinking about this room that has gathered together, as the exhibition states, “the most sexist” works in the Zuzāns Collection, I am still struggling to see elements of misogyny in most of them. At least to me, this room opens up a sharp question – What exactly is sexism, and what kind of behavior, or representation, do we consider as being sexist? Is painting a naked woman sexist? I am not yet sure of how I would answer the question myself, but I do believe that this section of TOP in formation should belong in a different category – perhaps one dedicated to gender troubles instead of feminism.

The exhibition ends with a wonderful room dedicated to the future of the Zuzāns Collection. Here one can find a Zuzeum architectural plan – an architectural drawing and architectural model of the new art center, commissioned to be designed by the architect Zaiga Gaile. 

TOP in formation also offers an exceptional selection of beautiful merchandise – pins and sweatshirts conveying emoji-like images of three artists: Džemma Skulme, Miervaldis Polis, and Auseklis Baušnieks. It most definitely is problematic to connect pret-a-porter fashion accessories and art, but it is also essential to spread the message. You can visit the exhibition until September 17th, and I suggest that you do go out and spread the message.

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