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Krišs Salmanis’ exhibition “Poems and Things”, at Vartai gallery in Vilnius 0

Odrija Fišere

Photo: Krišs Salmanis

 With the support of the State Culture Capital Foundation

As we’ve already reported, an exhibition featuring the works of artist Kaspars Podnieks opened in Vilnius last week. Be it coincidence or not, but also in Vilnius, and on the evening of the same day, the gallery Vartai celebrated the opening of yet another show by a Latvian contemporary artist – “Poems and Things”, by Krišs Salmanis. It is no secret that it was precisely the works of these two artists that represented Latvia at the 55th International Venice Art Biennale, in the exposition “North-Northeast”. In this latest exhibition at Vartai, Salmanis presents both new and older works – installations and video works that embody a diverse and sprightly synergy between irony and paradoxes.

Krišs Salmanis is one of Latvia’s best-known contemporary artists; he has twice been a finalist for the Purvītis Prize, and is currently among the nominees for the forthcoming Purvītis Prize – for his collaborative work on the piece “Dziesma” (“Song”), along with Anna Salmane and Kristaps Pētersons.  Salmanis’ works have been exhibited in shows held at the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMM), Art in General (New York), Galerie für Gegenwartskunst (Bremen), the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, and the Berlin Film Festival; several of his pieces can be found in notable collections such as those of LNMM, the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art, the Central and Eastern European video film archive Transitland, and the Estonian Art Museum, among others. spoke to Salmanis to get a closer insight on “Poems and Things” in Vilnius.

What kind of works are you showing as part of “Poems and Things”?

“Poems and Things” centers around the new work “Savā nodabā” (“Within Oneself”), which was created under the suggestion of Vartai. The Vilnius galerists were very fond of the pavilion that Kaspars Podnieks and I had created at the Venice Biennale, and they requested a reference to it in this show. So, I returned to the method I had used for “North-Northeast”, and opened up my notebook filled with ideas that I had filed away for some unknown time in the future. Vartai has enough space to show a modestly-sized piece with a tree. Together we found a slender birch tree in a Vilnius forest, and now it plays back a vinyl record of a singing finch that was recorded several years ago. When one views the work, the feeling is similar to that of when I took the recording. An equivalent show is taking place at arm’s-length in front of the viewer, who then hopes that “the bird will stay on the branch”, or in this case, that the record needle will last.

The other rooms contain works from previous years. From bent sticks and an animated film of a collapsing barn (which were shown in Riga), to a series of drawings that I’m still working on.

By the way, I was surprised to learn that concurrently with “Poems and Things”, another Vilnius gallery, AV17, is hosting Kaspars’ show. I recommend it.

What inspired you when creating this latest show?

It seems that right now, artists don’t have to take on the role of challenging society. That is being successfully done by people who have been freed by the various social media, or by the crazies that traditional media report on. Consequently, the socially inactive artist becomes, whether he wants to or not, a counteroffensive to this collective feeling of madness. That’s what comes to mind when I listen to “Klassika” [a classical music station on the radio]. The comparing and contrasting of nuances between several recording of the same musical piece, or debating the current concert scene, are not an escape from reality. It is real life to both the speakers and the listeners, and when I hear them, it’s clear to me that real life goes on – despite the riots going on around the world.

“Poems and Things” – the material and non-material worlds? Is there also poetry in the show?

I didn’t write poetry as a teenager. When I came upon the idea of “Ciparhaika” (“Numberhaiku”) in 2010 (when reading aloud various versions of works in Latvian or English, the lists of decreasing numbers arrange themselves in lines according to the rules of haiku), I called that my first poem. I’ve come up with a few short lines since then, and I wanted to show them together. Do they represent the non-material world? It seems to me that all of my works are done materially. Even an undocumented empty room is exhibited as a result of the decision to wait for more suitable material. If, for example, the introductory text for the Vilnius exhibition hadn’t been written on the wall with a can of spray-paint  that emptied at the exact right moment, the poem wouldn’t have worked. They are visual artworks done in mixed-media, in which one of the mediums is letters.

That is, of course, my interpretation, and I may be wrong. It’s also worth making an exhibition because one hears unexpected interpretations of works. That is encouraging, and sometimes the viewers see more, and better, than I could have imagined myself.

Do you have a deeper interest in poetry?

There are people who have a wonderful talent for language. Language is a self-evolving system. There was an experiment in which volunteers were taught the basics of a made-up alien language. When they were tested on it, the examiners secretly included words that the students hadn’t been taught. Some of the students didn’t even notice them, and figured out or sensed their meaning on the spot. In the continuation of the experiment, the first group of students taught the next group, and so on. After six “generations”, the language had, by itself, gained a definite set of grammar rules, and its vocabulary had increased considerably. If that can happen naturally, then it’s no wonder that by pointedly training one’s language “muscles”, word artists appear. Nevertheless, I do wonder. Poetry is, of course, one of the most direct training programs of this kind that come to mind. But humor, journalism, and science can also give the pleasure of language. In Vilnius I’ve put up several drawing of birds that have been labeled with their Latin names. For example, a relative of the aforementioned finch, the bullfinch, is called Pyrrhula pyrrhula pyrrhula. Read that with expression, and there’s your poem.

Is this your first instance of working with Vartai gallery? How did this one come about?

I had been to the gallery as a visitor, and I had even seen a show by Latvians. Now I’m aware that with “Poems and Things”, Vartai gallery wants to bring back their Baltic exhibition program. I hope that on my next spontaneous trip to Vilnius, I’ll see some more names that I recognize.

The gallery has been in Old Town for 25 years, in the Teachers’ House. During openings, the beautiful rooms still attract both art lovers and salon aficionados. When I think back to the gallery’s straight-forward attitude when setting up the show, and when I now see the results, I’d like to say that our attempt at cooperation has been successful. Would a commercial gallery, with its own criteria, think the same thing? I don’t know. In any case, there were adventures to be had by both me and the Lithuanians.