To hide in your own darkness

Helmuts Caune

Review of the 1st Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art exhibition at the Zuzeum Art Centre


The part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art that is exhibited at the Zuzeum Art Centre requires an additional employee to monitor the sound installations of Finnish artist Hans Rosentröm. Since the installations are intended to provide a unique personal experience for each visitor, the monitor’s job is to briefly instruct each guest and then turn the installation on. As I prepared to enter the special bunker to receive my unique experience of Rosentröm’s Mikado, the monitor directed me to ‘just go in there on the right, sit down and put the headphones on… A lot of people get scared and run out after a few seconds, but I don’t understand what’s so scary about it...’ Of course, this last commentary has a negative effect on my authentic experience: knowing that I should prepare myself for something horrifying, I was able to steel myself for the first – and I must admit, truly scary – seconds of the recording, so that I didn’t run out but stayed put and listened. 

This spoiler reminded me of my childhood experiences at those huge amusement parks and their inevitable haunted-house ‘ghost trains’. From a rational standpoint, the ghost train is one of the silliest of rides – even a child should sense that it’s not real, that all of the ghosts and monsters that try to scare you are just props, and that everyone who enters comes out alive and well. Assuming that children truly understand this (and I’m quite sure that they do), I can only guess at two reasons as to why they haven’t lost their appeal: either the people taking the ride have simply accepted the rules of the game and are willing to follow them; or, the scare effect is achieved not with content, but with technical tricks that fool one’s sense of perception – for instance, with speed, sequencing, surprise and special effects that come at the riders of the train. I don’t know how convincing this comparison is, but it does share some similarities with the overall descriptions of the Zuzeum part of the exhibition found in the Biennial guides.

Han Hoogerbrugge
. Limbo Lottery, 2016

The roots of this description seep into the overall thematics of the Biennial, which deal with unstoppable, boundless changes (‘Everything was forever until it was no more’) that accelerate in geometric progression. The Zuzeum ensemble, however, specifically concentrates on the ability of each individual’s psyche to live with this situation: ‘ many, the speed of changes that we see today is too much for the psyche to handle. […] The works in this part of the exhibition look at the influence that these changes have on the individual on a much more personal and existential level, as well as possible strategies for resisting and/or alternative forms of existence.’ Sounds intriguing: if ‘today’s changes’ are like a train whose structure we are aware of, and we either accept it as is or can’t even manage to follow along with it, then it’s worth noticing how one’s consciousness, mind or psyche deals with that (or doesn’t). At the same time, one should notice that this kind of conceptual determination seems a bit forced, since a person’s relationship with macro-reality is too overarching of a theme for whichever art form to think that, of the eight Biennial venues, only this one speaks specifically to that theme. For the sake of clarity, it’s worth taking a look at what the specific works set up in the Zuzeum either bring or take away from the stated theme.

The layout of the exhibition leads one to think about the acrobatic twists and turns that the human mind must take in order to come to terms with reality. Already dark in their natural state, the rooms of the Zuzeum have been made even dimmer. In places it’s hard to even see your feet, much less read the poorly lit artwork descriptions. If you don’t count the video works which serve as a light source themselves, the lighting for the other works is so weak that you can barely see anything. Moreover, the works have been cordoned off with walls, tunnels, steps and curtains to the point that visiting the exhibition is something like wandering through an immense and dark labyrinth (of consciousness) in which one much constantly be wary of getting caught on some accidental and unwanted thought. In terms of the exhibition’s conceptual vision, this layout is well suited – the conscious mind’s only refuge from the torrent of change is it’s own darkness. And so it is in this darkness that the curators have collected various interesting and not-so-interesting statements as to how the conscious mind attempts to deal with it, resist it, accept it or what not.

If you don’t count passing by Jevgeni Zolotko’s wall-mounted bas-relief that says both a thousand things and nothing, Han Hoogerbrugge’s work Limbo Lottery is the first piece with which the viewer comes into contact – which could be a good thing because the 3D-printer-created ‘turbine’ is concurrently a description and a commentary on the exhibition’s captured moment, and therefore quite possibly serves as its central work. I must admit that either due to a technical glitch or my own inattentiveness, I had no idea that the object was supposed to be turning; regardless, even when not in motion, its message was clear: even when trying to create our own uniqueness within the given situation, we still end up having to put together a combination of pre-selected options.

Diana Tamane. You Can't Have Me For Real, 2014-18

A contradictory reaction is elicited by Diana Tamane’s work You Can’t Have Me For Real. On one hand, one would expect that the Biennial’s section devoted to the individual’s coping methods with macro-reality would put less emphasis on a dimension of politics, globalisation, social relationships and identity. Both due to the fact that plenty of other exhibitions cover these themes, and because many of the events and exhibitions in which the Biennial’s head curator Katerina Gregos has any say deal precisely with these themes. Which is why my initial reaction to listening to Tamane’s collection of ‘world citizen’ testimonies is slight boredom; this is compensated, however, by the room featuring the artist’s photographs that convincingly demonstrate that you’ll never guess where they were taken...because nowadays everything looks the same no matter where you are. Tobias Zielony’s series of large-format photo portraits made specially for the Biennale, Golden – featuring post-soviet queer youth – also provides no surprises, neither formally nor thematically. Of course, sometimes photographic portraiture is a genre which does not need to surprise if we are open to the unique potential that each subject inherently has, and Zielony is admittedly quite adept at making use of that. In addition, the subject matter of the series nicely resonated with the Riga Baltic Pride events that coincided with the opening weeks of the Biennial.

Likewise similar but always intriguing is the genre of research, which includes the photographic and story series Anomalies of the early 21st century / Some case studies by Sven Johne. Here, ‘anomalies’ refer to individuals who have either chosen to or have been forced to abandon an ‘acceptable’ way of life, i.e. the way that society ‘expects’ one to live today. The background upon which these stories stand  out as anomalies consists of, unfortunately, nothing more interesting than the structures of the neo-liberal world order of the last twenty-five years. Nevertheless, the diversity of the selected stories is refreshing: among these ‘anomalies’ we see nomads, homeless people, activists and rebels, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, Bono, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the artist’s own mother. 

Sven Johne. Anomalies of the early 21
st century, 2015. 

A clever piece is the installation To Be A One At All You Must Be A Many by textile artist Sandra Kosorotova, which consists of ten see-through aprons, each imprinted with one of the words from the work’s title and hung in an pyramidal arrangement. Together, they confirm the point of the sentence; if each apron was hung by itself, the word printed on it wouldn’t mean much, but when hung together, they create a grammatically correct (and hierarchically arranged), meaningful sentence. Or, if we so wish, a society of focused, hierarchically arranged and productive aprons.

Although pleasant to look at, perhaps the greatest disappointment is the silent video work Letter to My Children and to the Children of the World to Come by Nicolas Kozakis and Raoul Vaneigem. The work is made up of mundane black and white scenes of people shot by Kozakis, of the kind one would expect from a Mediterranean cinematographer – meditatively unpretentious but aesthetically exquisite – with subtitles written by the philosopher Vaneigem that could be appeal? A speech? A political overture? A spiritual pamphlet? It’s hard to say. Although the work is welcomed by a weary mind, a certain sense of disillusionment settles in when you realize that you expected something more than just aphoristic and overly positive shouts of encouragement from someone as esteemed as Vaneigem. Adding to this sentiment is the fact that the work’s manifesto-like quality really doesn’t fit in with the cautious and careful spirit of research and study that permeates the rest of the exhibition.

A pleasant surprise, however, awaits those who make their way through the exhibition’s dark labyrinth (in which each of the various participants has holed up in their own little cave of consciousness) and reaches the stairway leading up to the lighted platform of the Bulgarian artist Valio Tchenkov. Here we can see the installation Private Zoo on Stage, which consists of little paintings literally everywhere – on both sides, in front, in back, above you, below you – featuring cute but scary little monsters that most of could never even imagine. Tchenkov himself says: ‘I wish to create an atmosphere that is not threatening, yet possesses a slightly strange atmosphere. It contains the spirits of many of my daily companions (both human and animal) who follow me always and everywhere; I also show my own fear and thoughts.’ Tchenkov’s suggestions of how to behave while on the ghost train is to replace the ghosts that are being forced upon you with your own ghosts.

Valio Tchenkov. Private Zoo on Stage, 2018.

Their diversity notwithstanding, the works on view in the exhibition more or less correspond to its stated conception – which, admittedly, has been formulated vaguely enough that most anything could be said to belong here. Still, it’s a bit perplexing as to how the the 3D video animation Case no. 14. The Storm on the Baltic Sea by Karel Koplimets – a narrow, closed room with a sloping floor in which the viewer stands and watches a video loop of a boat being bandied about by a rough sea – could be said to fit in. It seems that this piece’s (and a few others’) altogether serendipitous correspondence to the theme indicates that it has been placed in the Zuzeum precisely because it didn’t really click with any of the other Biennial’s exhibitions spaces...but for some reason or another no one wanted to ‘throw it overboard’. Then again, perhaps this thematic ‘free-for-all’ is a good thing: the ways in which the individual’s consciousness can withstand the stupefying train ride and not lose one’s identity are infinite and unimaginable – and here, in the convoluted web of the Zuzeum, only a few have been illuminated.

Speaking of the dark labyrinths of consciousness, in closing I must once again mention Rosentröm’s sound (and light) installations Mikado and A House Divided. If on the day that you’re visiting the exhibition you have already experienced any feelings of psychological or existential dread/fear, I advise you to make a carefully considered decision whether or not to view these works. The effect that Rosentröm achieves through the most basic of media – a bit of light, some sound effects, a mirror and a voice recording – can leave a lasting impression. It is guaranteed that, more than ever before, you will be aware of the separateness of both your physical and spiritual self. 

Overall, I would say that if one doesn’t pay too much attention to the thematic vagueness and incoherence (which is expressed in truly forgivable amounts), the Biennial’s exhibition at the Zuzeum Centre surprises with its on-point scenography and invariably new discoveries in a framework of old genres and forms. Cognitive meanderings through unfamiliar territory is assured – just be careful of where you place your step.

A visitor experiencing
Hans Rosentröm’s A House Divided (2015)


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