When speaking about art to people outside of Latvia, one is often asked who is Latvia's most well-known artist on an international level. After a befuddled pause, one then reels off a couple of names that had their shining moment at some point in the 20th century... and secretly hopes that maybe someone will have actually heard of them. If conditions allow, one can simply Google Gustavs Klucis/Klutsis and the images that pop up should be immediately recognizable to most, even if he is usually never associated with Latvia itself. If one is at a complete loss, there's always Mark Rothko, but he'd probably laugh at the association himself. Barring a few rare exceptions, the works of Vija Celmins have usually been linked to American art. Although, in the exhibition Pittura/Painting, curated by Francesco Bonami at the 50th Venice Biennale, Vija Celmins had the word Latvia in parentheses after her name; and lately, Celmins has been increasingly speaking more about Latvia when participating in international shows.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, much like other former Soviet-bloc countries, Baltic art saw a huge surge of interest from the West. Berlin hosted the substantial exhibition Riga – Lettische Avantgarde (1988), while New York was the site of several solo and group exhibitions at the Eduard Nahamkin Fine Arts Gallery. The works of several Baltic artists were acquired by the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art (at Rutgers University's Zimmerli Art Museum, in the USA), and by Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany; Berlin's Neue Berliner Kunstverein snapped up some works by Leonards Laganovskis. Even the newly-discovered artists of the time themselves have said that they felt as if the world had opened up and a trip to New York will soon be a daily occurrence for them. It is quite possible that there were several outside events that put the brakes on this wave – the early 90s were notable for the Persian Gulf War and an economic recession, after all. And, as German art collector Harald Falckenberg stated in an interview with Arterritory.com – along with the fall of the Soviet Union, the art market fell, too. It did come back to life in the late 90s, but except for a few exhibitions devoted to Eastern European art in the last decade (for example, one of the largest ones was Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, held in2009 at mumok in Vienna, and at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, in 2010), interest in the Baltics had disappeared, and it became a rather marginal point on the world art map. But perhaps there was another reason behind this descent.
Maybe it was the absence of experience, or the lack of ability to use this new-found interest to one's advantage. And probably, as always, a lack of funds. After all, the wave of Russian and Ukrainian contemporary art continued to increase in size, with some individuals even attaining Western levels of acclaim; the works of Oleg Kulik, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, Valery Koshlyakov, and Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe were all on constant rotation in the world's greatest museums, and are now part of these institutions' collections.
Stills from the film Pašportrets (Self-portrait), by Andris Grīnbergs. 1972. Photographs sourced from Experimental Cinema in State Socialist Eastern Europe. Studies in Eastern European Cinema, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2016
The member of the Latvian art scene most often recognized by prestigious institutions is Andris Grīnbergs (1946). For instance, Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian-American pioneer in avant-garde cinema, has listed Grīnbergs' 1972 film Pašportrets (Self-portrait) as one of the top five sexually extravagant films of all time, along with works by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. In 2011, one of today's brightest personalities on the art scene, Massimiliano Gioni (head curator of the 2013 Venice Biennale and currently the director of The New Museum), curated the exhibition Ostalgia, which featured the works of more than 50 Eastern European artists, including Andris Grīnbergs. When Arterritory.com querried Gioni on whether New York needs Eastern European art right now, he answered: “I think that New York always needs the art that it doesn't get to see.” So seemingly simple, but at the same time, infinitely complex...
When querying Baltic gallerists on what, in their experience, is the key to an artist's success, as well as asking whether the work that a gallery puts into popularizing an artist always pay off, one of the saddest observations was that our countries are so small that they aren't able to create the necessary interest; often times, it is due to this fact that they must capitulate. Kadri Uus and Andra Orn – creators of NOAR, the Estonian-based internet platform for marketing art and providing information on it – also admit that it is essential to market the country itself on an international level: “What is our identity? As a country, what do people associate us with? We believe that cultural context is vital. Collectors are interested in that.”
Although one can't shake the feeling that Baltic art has yet to start really circulating in the international art world, one doesn't want to throw to the wind all hopes of it ever happening. There are artists who are, step by step, inching towards the highest orbits of the international art system. Some are doing it on their own, while others are doing it with the help of galleries. One indication of this is the large number of Latvian activities last year, and the Baltic-wide art activities planned for this year. At the beginning of April, the artist Jānis Avotiņš will see the opening of his solo show at the Rüdiger Schoettle Gallery in Munich, and he also has two group shows coming up in Paris – one at the Alain Gutharc Gallery, and the other being the PRAT Prize exhibition (for which he is one of three finalists) at the Palais de Tokyo. The exhibition for the Calder Prize just closed at London's Pace Gallery, which also featured the works of Lithuanian artist Žilvinas Kempinas; Kempinas is currently preparing for his next solo show in Paris. In New York, Kempinas is represented by Lio Malca, and his exhibition Airborne was presented in Malca's eponymous gallery through the end of this last February. In speaking with Arterritory.com, Malca described Kempinas' art as an idiosyncratic illustration of the art of the future. Latvian artist Ieva Epnere has been invited for the third time now to participate in the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, in Germany; this time she will be presenting her video-work Piramīdas četras versijas (Four Versions of the Pyramid). Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis will be taking part in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the young artist Agnese Melbārde won a spot to exhibit in the upcoming Art Expo 2016 art fair in New York.
Arterritory wished to find out how the artists themselves feel about their accomplishments, and how they would evaluate their experiences so far in working with galleries and other art institutions outside of the Baltics. We selected artists from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who, in our opinion, have been comparably quite successful in their endeavors outside of their home countries. There were some who didn't want to comment, and it is entirely possible that there could be a local artist who has become a star elsewhere, but remains unknown in his or her own country.
Iveta Vaivode. From the series Somewhere on a Disappearing Path. 2014
The Key to Luck Is Pure Luck
The first question we posed to our artists was – How did you first manage to get onto the international art scene? Interestingly, almost all of the Latvian artists whom we contacted stressed the role of luck in their accomplishments. But is luck enough? When laboring away in one's studio, can you simply rely on a chance visit by a curator to bring you success?
Photographer Iveta Vaivode (1979) – whose works have been exhibited in one of the most notable institutions of photography in Europe, namely, the photo gallery C/O Berlin, as well as at Month of Photography in Minsk, the Goethe-Institut Mexiko, and in exhibitions at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and at Gallery Taik Persons in Berlin – believes that the most meaningful thing to have happened in her career so far is her winning the C/O Berlin competition for photographers in 2013. Thanks to this, she established a stable working relationship with C/O Berlin, and other offers soon followed. She has yet to form a purely commercial relationship with a single gallery, however.
It is well known that Latvian painter Jānis Avotiņš (1981) is one of those who has formed successful relationships with European galleries. He is not willing to reveal how he has managed to do this, but the art collector Māris Vītols has observed how Avotiņš works and communicates with potential buyers of his work. Vītols surmises that in large part, Avotiņš' key to success is to, over a longer period of time, contact and create personal relationships with both curators and collectors; these relationships have played a great part in his success. When asked to comment on his own experience, Avotiņš advises: “Seeing what goes on today, I'd suggest that young artists shouldn't try to jump into the “international circuit”, but rather think strategically. Who is the ideal partner(s) with which to effectively realize your work (value) over the long term? For some, it might be a big museum in the West. For someone else, it might be a small, leftist, snobbish gallery. For yet others, it could be a cook, a mechanic, a producer or a logistics specialist. And in terms of 'getting onto the international circuit', I'd say – if you're not on it, then either you don't exist at all, or it's your specific strategy not to be on it. In worrying expressly about a young Latvian artist, I would advise him or her to not focus so much on getting onto the international circuit, but to rather focus on avoiding getting stuck in a local dead-end; e.g., don't choose a strategic partner who can't help you in the long-term with securing freedom in the routine tactical activities of your artistic practice.”
Jānis Avotiņš. Untitled. 2015. Photo: veramunro.com
For more than ten years now, Henrijs Preiss (1973) has been living and working outside of Latvia. He started off in London, where he studied at Central Saint Martins Art and Design College, but he currently lives in the US, painting and working as an instructor at the University of Chicago. In 2009, Preiss became the first Latvian artist to have his works exhibited at London's Whitechapel Gallery. A year later, he was included in the list of England's 50 best artists, and his works could be seen at the Saatchi Gallery (which then acquired them for its collection). Preiss recounts that his first enduring cooperation with London's James Freeman Gallery developed after its gallerist came to visit his studio, which was not far from the gallery. “It was easy to set up a visit at my studio. It's a great advantage if you're there on site, especially in the US. If you're not in New York or Los Angeles, it will be harder to get onto the commercial gallery circuit coming from elsewhere. The key to success is to be in the right place at the right time, but of course, with something ready to show.”
Estonian artist Laura Põld (1984), who just finished up her show Hundreds of Illusions Charted as Land at the Tartu Art Museum, and who is also a finalist for this year's Köler Prize (an award given out to Estonia's new artists), used to work with Vienna's Galerie Ulrike Hrobsky. Põld recounts that her first meeting with the gallery's owner, Ulrike Jakob, took place thanks to personal connections.
“The successful presentation of my portfolio led to a group show in 2012. That was followed by my first solo show at Gallery Hrobsky's second space, which is called "Showroom for Young Art Galerie Hrobsky", in Grundsteingasse in the 16th district of Vienna. The area around the nearby Brunnen-market is known for its vibrant art life and great joint-opening nights. The show was successful also sales-wise; the gallerist was surprised to sell three paintings on the first night. But the next show, which took place a year later at the gallery's main venue in Vienna's 1st district, together with Latvian painter Sigita Daugule, wasn't as lucrative for me.”
Ieva Epnere. Video installation Zenta. 2004. A view from the exhibition at the Vienna Kunsthalle. 2013. Photo: Ieva Epnere
The career of Latvian artist Ieva Epnere (1977) has also developed through one event giving momentum to the next. She says her starting point was her video work Zenta; ten years ago, thecurator Gunnar Friel saw the piece in the archives of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, and invited Epnere to stay at the artist residency in Dusseldorf and participate in the exhibition Videoart from the Baltic Scene: Estland, Lettland, Litauen, at the Dusseldorf Kunstraum. During the period of her residency, Epnere made connections and collaborative projects with several art professionals, many of which are still continuing. Following the residency, Epnere studied at HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts) in Ghent, which substantially changed the dynamic of her creative life – her works were included in exhibitions organized by curators that she had met at HISK, and the cooperation has continued even after graduating from the institution. As for the main turning points in her career, Epnere also lists the Oberhausen Film Festival, as well as the exhibitions Salon der Angst at Vienna Kunsthall, and Ornamentalism. The Purvītis Prize. Latvian Contemporary Art in Venice. More collaborations came her way after these events, some of which are still ongoing. In Venice, more than a few curators took note of Epnere's video-work Atteikšanās (Refusal), and she has since received invitations to participate in a number of group shows in Europe, in addition to being asked to organize her own solo show in the Project Room of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art.
The road to success for the photographer Inta Ruka (1958) also began after participating in the Venice Art Biennale, this time in 1999 (in the Latvian exposition, together with Ojārs Pētersons and Anita Zabiļevska). “A viewer liked it and passed on this opinion, which led to a chain reaction ending with my being invited to an artist residency at Villa Waldberta. It was by complete chance that I met Juta Miller, the director of the gallery.” That's how Ruka's collaboration with Cologne's modern-art-specializing Baukunst Galerie began; the gallery has also featured Ruka's works at the Art Cologne art fair. 2006 was an especially rewarding year for Ruka: she had a large show at the Photography Center Istanbul, and in the exhibition In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century at London's Barbican Centre, her works were displayed alongside those of Wolfgang Tillmans and Boris Mikhailov.
The Roles of the Artist and the Gallery
Laura Rutkute, creative director of the Vilnius gallery Vartai, stresses the dynamism of the international market and the intensity with which the gallery and artist – in close collaboration – must “break into” it. Rutkute sees the international art market as an oversaturated environment, one whose doors have been “widely closed” for some time now. “The artist must be able to cultivate unusual ideas, as well as manifest them qualitatively. The artist must be self-confident, but the gallery must be able to get the works to international art fairs and expos.” Rutkute also underscores that one must not let go of consequentiality – only in that way can one keep going forward, or at least stay at the position one has attained.
Sonata Baliuckaite, coordinator of the ArtVilnius art fair and curator at the Vilnius gallery Meno Niša (which represents the artist Monika Dirsyte, who just put on a performance in Berlin a few weeks ago, with a repeat performance scheduled in May, at the Art16 art fair in London) also points to the equal amount of activity that must come from both parties, and accents the importance of the “art environment cycle”: artist – curator – gallery, a necessity if one wishes to get onto the international circuit. “Everyone must do their part. Artists must create art, not busy themselves with preparing informative materials for the media, or technical tasks like signing contracts with logistics companies and such. Of course, there are artists who like to do these things, and who do it voluntarily, like the Latvian artist Andris Vītoliņš.”
Meanwhile, Olga Temnikova, head of the Tallinn gallery Temnikova & Kasela, notes the advantages that Baltic galleries can take into account when it comes to bringing their artists out into the international arena: “First of all, we don't have such high rents for exhibition space, and we also have less competition.” Temnikova also points out the support coming from Europe, which, in a sense, compensates for the lack of a strong local market. As we know, the activities of Temnikova & Kasela have been possible, in large part, thanks to financial support from the Estonian Ministry of Culture and the Enterprise Estonia Foundation (an EU-financed fund that supports entrepreneurs). “I think locals should victimize themselves less.”
Henrijs Preiss. No 392. 2015. Photo: henrijspriess.weebly.com
Being a gallery in a small country may have its advantages. In a conversation with Arterritory, Zane Čulkstēna, founder of the kim? Contemporary Art Centre, shared a similar sentiment: “... we know each other, we can get things done that we couldn't elsewhere.” Nevertheless, there remains the “change of address” issue – why do galleries that want to get themselves noticed (i.e., get into world-class art fairs) often open an affiliate gallery in some international megalopolis? See: Lithuanian galleries IBID Projects (opened galleries in London and Los Angeles), and Tulips & Roses (opened a branch in Brussels).
It must be mentioned that of all of the Latvian artists to have decamped beyond their home country, currently none are working with a Latvian-based gallery. Why is that? One obvious reason is that the local galleries cannot provide them with a constant income. In addition, the galleries' conditions are not favorable to the artists – why give up your artwork as payment for rent of the space if the exhibition has no tangible payoff, no catalog, and even the wine for the opening night celebration must be provided by the artist him- or herself?
Jānis Avotiņš – whose works are practically unavailable for public viewing in Latvia, and who is currently collaborating with Vera Munro Gallery in Hamburg, and the Rüdiger Schoettle Gallery in Munich (the list of artists represented by these galleries is truly impressive; most anyone who knows the least bit about art will recognize many of the names) – describes his experience outside of Latvia so: “The effectiveness and productivity of collaborating with my strategic partners corresponds to the features of my tactical maneuvers – which differ every time. Since my strategic goals are neither political, nor ideological, nor monetary, my partners' tasks do not become specifically burdensome, and success is dictated by numerous precedents of luck and exceptions.” For her turn, Estonian artist Laura Põld says that the opportunity to work with Galerie Hrobsky was a great experience not only in terms of being able to show her work, but it also revealed to her what the commercial side of this kind of collaboration is like: “There are always pluses and minuses – each gallery has its own, and the situation varies in every country.”
Laura Põld. The exhibition Attempts to Stage a Landscape. 2013. Tallinn Art Hall Gallery. Photo: laurapold.com
Most of the artist that we queried did not wish to discuss their relationships with foreign galleries. It is clear that in order to preserve the prestige of their artists, and to protect themselves from the competition, galleries put down on paper the strict conditions of their affiliations with artists. In working with foreign galleries, artists mention that one of their responsibilities is to follow the exhibition schedule – they sometimes have to decline offers from other exhibitions. The galleries also set the prices for their artists' work. Inta Ruka reveals that she can sell her own works, but only at the same price level as the gallery does; she has been able to gift works, however.
Žilvinas Kempinas' installation Tube. The 53rd Venice Art Biennale. 2009
The Greatest Successes. According to the Gallery, and According to the Artist
Vartai and Kempinas. Vartai Gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Over these years, for many Lithuanian artists Vartai was the springboard for an international career. For example, there's Andrius Zakarauskas and Ugnius Gelguda, who, after working with the gallery in 2006, moved on to such high-caliber European art fairs as Art Cologne, ARCO, Art Brussels, Artissima, and so on; their works can now be found in the collections of notable institutions and private connoisseurs.
Since 2009, Vartai has worked with the Lithuanian-born, New York-based Žilvinas Kempinas (1969), a master of kinetic installation art. In New York, Kempinas is represented by the aforementioned Lio Malca Gallery – along with the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among others; in Paris, Kempinas works with the prestigious Yvon Lambert Gallery.
Although Kempinas began his career without the aid of Vartai (his first exhibitions were held at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in 2003, and at the Spencer Brownstone Gallery in 2004 – after the revelation of his master's project at Hunter College), his career saw its biggest jump after his participation in the 2009 Venice Biennale, where his large-scale installation Tube was presented, under the auspices of the Vartai Gallery, in the Lithuanian pavilion. “Vartai Gallery and I, as the exposition's commissioner, put in a lot of work to have this presentation executed at the highest possible level. That also meant a lot of expenditures,” Laura Rutkute recalls. Rutkute met with Kempinas at Atelier Calder after his receiving the Calder Prize in 2007; among his many impressive works, she especially noticed Tube, and understood that she wished to show it to the world.
Temnikova & Kasela, Kris Lemsalu, and Inga Meldere. Olga Temnikova indeed does not hesitate to highlight the paths to success of two of her artists. One of them is sculptor Kris Lemsalu (1985), who has studied in Estonia, Denmark and Austria, and who, despite her relatively young age, has an impressive portfolio and list of exhibitions and collaborations in which she has participated. Temnikova & Kasela is the sole gallery representing Lemsalu, and her works are constantly traveling from Japan and China to New York, Miami, Belgium and Tallinn. “Last year we showed her work at Frieze New York, and the interest shown by professionals and the media (The New York Times, Business Insider, Forbes, etc.) was impressive! This year we're going to show her works at Basel's LISTE,” reveals Olga Temnikova. The gallery's other headliner is Latvian artist Inga Meldere (1979), who has studied in Latvia, Finland and Maastricht. She's had her works shown in exhibitions in Moscow, Vienna, Helsinki, London and Istanbul. Together with Kris Lemsalu, Meldere's works will be show in the gallery's stand at this year's LISTE art fair in Basel. Temnikova notes, however: “I am pretty sure that if they were represented by a gallery from London or Berlin, things would have turned out similarly for them. The impact and activity of the artist is absolutely important, but the location of their representative gallery does not matter all that much.”
Inga Meldere. Fontanelle. 2014. Photo: temnikova.ee
Henry Preiss believes that the greatest success that he has had in working with the James Freeman Gallery was the gallery's organization of his show in Seoul, Korea. Inta Ruka discloses that the gallery has played an important role in popularizing her works in a variety of notable art spaces: “In Sweden, I've had shows at Moderna museet, Fotografiska, Arbetets museet, Umeå's Sune Jonsson Centre, the Katrineholm Gallery, and elsewhere. Greatly responsible for giving my work recognition was the documentary film The Photographer from Riga (2010), by Swedish director Mod Nikander; the film is shown on Swedish television almost every year. Also, the book put out by Max Ström publishers.” Jānis Avotiņš says that collaborating with the gallery has given him “immeasurable opportunity for himself to set the relationships among the components of freedom, constraint, peace and stress in his practice. An immeasurable platform of opportunity in terms of realizing whatever kind of strategy, and in whatever style of tactical maneuvering.”
Inta Ruka. From the series Mani lauku ļaudis (My Country People)
Art Fairs as a Springboard
Participation in international art fairs is one of the ways in which galleries bring awareness and status to themselves and their artists. Getting oneself into the elite group of the world's art fairs (e.g., Art Basel, Frieze, FIAC, The Armory Show, ARCO, etc.) could be the dream of every serious gallery. To be able to participate in just one these leading art fairs, one needs not only a substantial financial base, but one must also withstand serious competition and squeeze into a decidedly closed-off club. Baltic galleries continue to determinedly push themselves and their artists forward into the international arena by participating in art fairs; currently, Temnikova & Kasela is the only gallery to have gained a foothold in these “super art fairs”. Nevertheless, smaller art fairs can also become a springboard for artists hoping to enter the big leagues. Even a comparatively localized event, such as the contemporary art fair ArtVilnius, has proved this possibility.
Monika Dirsyte's performance I'm Your Sun. At the exhibition “Black Roses”. 2015. Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center, Vilnius.
At ArtVilnius 2015, the Vilnius gallery Meno Niša represented the Lithuanian artist Monika Dirsyte and her performance I'm Your Sun: from a rather rough-looking aluminum barrel, a child-like voice desperately pleaded “Don't pass by, don't go! Stay here, stay with me! I am your sun – I love you! Where did you go? Stay here!” Monika Dirsyte herself was performing from within the barrel, and this work became popular with the fair's visitors, eventually earning Dirsyte the People's Choice Award at ArtVilnius'15, and consequently, numerous invitations to participate in various events throughout Lithuania and abroad.
Sonata Baliuckaite sees Meno Niša-represented artist Rimas Sakalauskas (1985) as being just as successful, for at ArtVilnius he was judged to be the Best New Artist, and received a personal invitation for an exhibition at Berlin's Werkstattgalerie. It should be mentioned that this gallery participated at ArtVilnius in 2012, but since then it comes to the fair as just a spectator looking for new, promising talent.
Another significant benchmark for Baltic art galleries is the Vienna Contemporary, which positions itself as a place where one can get a good look at the European art scene as a whole; it does this by bringing together art galleries from Eastern-, Central-, and Western Europe, and the former republics of the USSR. The participants at Vienna Contemporary in autumn 2015 represented an impressively broad spectrum – beginning with the Baltics, which showed up in the form of Vartai Gallery from Vilnius and Temnikova & Kasela Gallery from Tallinn; a number of galleries from Russia, the most well-known being Regina Gallery; galleries from Azerbaijan, Hungary, Poland, and Romania; and ending with such blue-chip level players as Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Unfortunately, there weren't any galleries from Latvia at Vienna Contemporary. Why was that? The doors to this club are distinctly open, and Laura Rutkute from Vartai Gallery point out that, to a certain degree, Vienna guarantees successful business.
Non Grata's performance of Breaking the Backbone. 2014. Yuan Art Museum, Xing Shen art space, Beijing
Going Down Their Own Path
Whereas Žilvinas Kempinas declined to give Arterritory a more detailed description of his personal experience regarding his journey onto the international scene and collaborating with galleries (stating that “that is the commercial side of art”), Al Paldrok, the Estonian artist and leader of the performance group Non Grata, states: “An artist is an independent, creative individual, not a slave to the art world or a plaything of business. An artist is the inventor of alternative solutions, not a fool for society, nor a fulfiller of some aesthetic need of theirs. An artist seeks alternative solutions, and does not work as a conformist figure under some sort of pressure.”
Non Grata has been working on the international scene since their inception in 1998, and is better known abroad – in Europe, Asia and the Americas – than within its own country. Al Paldrok does not deny this: “It is exactly the crossing of borders that is the most sought-after form of self-realization for today's artist. We choose the places where to form a performance – it depends on whether or not the places inspire us. Sometimes we gain strength in such art meccas as New York, London or Paris; sometimes in the wide open spaces of America, or the ghettos of South America; or at performance festivals in Asia or Scandinavia.” The group wholly curates itself. One of the tasks of Non Grata is to show that an artist can do everything without having the structures of the art world forced upon him or her. “We receive a lot of invitations. We can't show up everywhere, and nor do we want to. We have the ability to choose. The world is an experimental space, and art is a creative process in constant motion.”