Photo: Andrejs Strokins

An Irresponsible Perfectionist 0

Sergej Timofejev

On 27 February the Contemporary Art Centre kim? announced its first “kim? Residency Award 2015” for young Latvian artists. The first winner was Daria Melnikova, who will now be able to spend 2 months in Berlin's KW Institute for Contemporary Art. We interviewed Daria about the award, as well as about “art after the Internet”, Latvian cheese and living in hotels.

The purpose of the new award is to help Latvian artists expand their horizon of possibilities and to experience the global context of art. Daria calls it “nourishing ourselves with vitamins”. Now every year a Latvian artist under the age of 40 will be able to go to one of the largest international art institutions on a kind of “internship”. This is how the members of the international jury Alessio Antoniolli and Robert Leckey justified their nominees for 2015: “Daria Melnikova achieves a balance between the visually flawless and the intriguing, between handmade and mass products. She uses everything from exquisite, sculptures inspired by modernism that use warm, patterned fabrics, to clay “prototypes” with typical for handmade work handprints and deformities. The works of Melnikova attracted us because they seem mysterious, bold in form and not easily verbalized. I wonder in what direction it will move forward.”

Daria Melnikova is a woman of small stature with very lively eyes, an honest smile and disarming spontaneity of reactions. She does not want to appear as an intellectual, or a rebel, or a feminist, or anyone else. She is just Dasha Melnikova, which is enough for her. “I do not tackle any problems, I do not intend to impose my opinions on those who come to view my work. They are just my experiences and my notes.” The Director of the Residency Program at Berlin's KW Institute for Contemporary Art Adela Yawitz, who took part in the selection of the award winner, said that she liked how Dasha describes her creative process. “In fact there is no process, she just gets an idea, and follows it.” Although the process of implementation may take weeks and require special knowledge and skills. So everything is both simple and not simple for Dasha, it is specific and it is very abstract. If we are talking abstractly, that is how she describes her own place in art, her “trail”. If we want to be more specific, we interviewed her a few weeks after a group exhibition that Dasha took part ended in New York, called “Lily's Pool”, and a few months before another group exhibition, this time in Milan.

Photo: Andrejs Strokins

You have quite  a large experience with international and group projects...

Yes, an exhibition like that just ended in New York three weeks ago. My artwork “Bearing Petals” was in it, and it was about a certain personality of the color purple, because purple is a mix of red and blue, a very bright character. But at the same time its characteristics are very unique. I have loved the color purple since I was a child and my father scolded me for it, because he said purple was too aggressive. I don’t wear purple and it’s not like I have everything painted purple at home, but it has some kind of freshness. And so I made a picture, a bouquet of flowers painted in the Dutch manner, very realistic and framed in purple tones. Lately I’ve been really liking flowers, and not because I am some kind of a girl... I think that flowers and plants are very complicated forms on their own and these forms come directly from nature, they are not made-up. In some of my last works I have used vegetation and its elements as a metaphor. And in this work I was putting abstract silver shapes on the already drawn (from stencils) bouquet. And it was very scary, my hands shook because I spent so long drawing the flowers and it seemed that if I messed up, there would be no way back. But I didn’t spoil it. It's a kind of silvery veil, a curtain through which you can see something quite different, details and depths are disclosed through it. There was another supplement to the bouquet painting, and it was a sculpture of metal and fabric banners with phrases about “purple’s personality”. For example, “Time means little to you and you are often late for everything”. Sometimes I work with texts, although I am certainly not a writer. I really like constructivist poetry, and suprematism. I adore Kandinsky, I really like his book “Point and Line to Plane”. When you read it, you start viewing his work differently, it's not just sticks and squiggles here and there. Everything has some deep foundation.

Bearing Petals, 2014

It seems to me that this statement is true regarding your works as well, as they always have some designed and verified structure.

Sometimes I fight it, I think that everything is too precise (laughs). Yes, that is how I was taught. I think it is just our school, everything has to be precise and everyone is responsible in their work. When somebody goes to live abroad, they collect other experiences there, and it is obvious when they come back, something changes drastically. Here everything is more solid, more “right”, more precise, which is not bad because that’s who we are. On the other hand though, frankly speaking, the opposing fashion of exhibiting everything that is sold in a hardware store, not even framing it in any way, that also gets a little old and annoying. A pile of plaster, in which something is stuck...

A carnation...


And how do you make decisions in your work, that here you need this object and there you need this item, some type of delicate wire...

During the process everything changes. When you come into a real space, everything looks somehow differently. It happened many times that I had the mock-up ready, but then I had to make other spontaneous decisions in the real space, and they usually ended up being the most successful. That doesn’t happen when you sit at home.

How do you approach the process of making works? Do you decide, for example, “I want to express an opinion about this topic,” or “I want to hang something rectangular and purple on the wall”?

For America I wanted to draw something new, to take real brushes and paints and make something. Usually there is always some simple guidelines, thoughts. I outline these things for myself, then I take something from these writings, I mix different ideas...

Perfect Error, 2011

And how do you “outline”? Can you give me an example?

Today I was going to work and I saw a wire fence, and there were plants growing on it. I really like metal, and it can create a completely different composition with an opposite material, for example with a soft material or a warm material, like wood. In general I really like different materials and how they play with each other. Sometimes during the actual process of working it is the material that pushes me to something. And as I was looking at the fence, I got an idea that this could be a construction with artificial leather, something cut out and draped over. I think I need to try this... Actually I already worked with artificial leather for another group exhibition which kim? organized last spring in Moscow, in Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

So according to you, how did it go?

In reality it turned out to be pretty funny, they have a huge team of workers... not really sure what they are there for. It was like this: two people were hanging a TV, the other five were standing and watching and saying things like “higher” or “lower”. And it kept happening that one would be working and the others would be watching. And then I heard someone say “Where do I hang the hat?” and I thought “What hat?” I turned around and saw that they were holding my work. I still call it “the hat” by the way.

Photo: Andrejs Strokins

And what was it in reality?

The work is called “Arrangement II (Hanging Corners)”. It is an abstract work, it reminded me of a parrot although I didn’t make a parrot. Their workers were laughing at our works, they were saying that it was all garbage. Well, that’s a classic situation, really.

And how did the Moscow art public perceive all of it?

I heard that everything was positive. They said that overall it was unusual, and they liked the fact that there weren’t any annotations, no cardboard tags on the walls by the works. At first when our curator told the locals how it would be, they couldn’t understand it. Well, of course we made a guide for the exhibition, whose work is where and what it is called. Overall there are a lot of young and interesting artists in Moscow, but the majority of them had studied somewhere abroad. It has an immediate effect, you can feel the person has taken their “vitamins”. Or the person was simply reassured that they are on the right path.

This exact opportunity has come to you, you are going to Berlin in May.

Today I understood that I can’t wait for it to happen. Of course two months is not enough to realize a whole new idea. It is quite difficult, if you don’t know, where and when the work will be exhibited. But the place itself is fantastic and I will have open studios there. I would be able to invite people for conversations, that in itself is priceless, to discuss my works with professionals. In actuality I already lived in Berlin before, I had a student exchange during my time in the Academy. I didn’t like the school where I ended up having my exchange, it was kind of boring... It was like a step backward although I wasn’t sure what I really needed. The Academy teaches everything together, so you throw yourself at everything at the same time. My awareness of what I could be doing only came to me in the last year of my MA, and even then it was very unclear still. So it turns out that after you finish studying, you suddenly realize that you don’t depend on anyone else any more. And it’s not the fact that you don’t depend on anyone, but rather that nobody will run after you or bother you any more. You are independent and on your own, so it is your choice to either continue what you are doing or you go to an advertising agency, for example.

And what was this insight, or half-insight? How would you outline this path of yours?

(She thinks for a moment). I like the combination of something very concrete with something completely opposite to concrete. And that is my “taciņa” (little path). (Laughs). I like to combine the realistic with the abstract. But even now, when I create something, I always think afterward “Dasha, again you made everything precise and so clean”. However, it wouldn’t be natural if I tried to make wild, messy works on purpose. Of course I think about it, because sometimes I hear they say my perfectionism is too obvious. But I don’t do this on purpose, I think it’s just a part of me, not just in art but in everything.

Bearing Petals, 2014

What you and other artists of your generation are doing is sometimes referred to as post-conceptualism. Is that more or less correct?

I am afraid of that terminology. I’ll say something wrong and Janis Taurens will immediately pronounce “She is barking up the wrong tree again”. The conceptualists had a very strong theoretical background, everything they did was very intellectual with many books embedded in their foundation. So let them be the conceptualists. I try not to use or take on such flashy terms. They are calling the new trend in contemporary art “post-internet art”, although I am not saying that I belong to it. Everything that is trendy now gets transferred to art; if sneakers are in fashion, then they make sculptures from them. The same goes for the aesthetic of the internet, of Tumblr, all the “captures”, Google Maps... all of this also gets adapted... gadgets...

Actually much of the attention now is paid to representation itself, how the exhibited works are presented; instead of a mounting, they would use a tripod from the TV, for example. So instead of using the items with their original function, they are used with another to exhibit the works. Many people use all sorts of complex materials like epoxy, plastic, they pour things out of these things... Cool, if only we could still understand something (smiles). But many things are on the brink of being trash, people are making this well presented trash. Or maybe not... I am about to talk a bunch of nonsense now. (laughs)

One, Two & 1000 Pieces, 2013. Artwork together with Armands Zelčs for group exhibition 24 Spaces – A Cacophony in Malmö

And the exhibition you did with Armands Zelčs in Malmö, was it also about the feeling of what contemporary art is, how it functions...

For me it was probably the first time that I worked on such a social and interactive project, we didn’t just exhibit some figurines, but the viewers could take them home. There was a thousand of them, each one was numbered, and if the viewer took one with them, then they had to fill out an informal questionnaire which also had a number, and leave the questionnaire there. Then we put the information in a database on the internet, to understand where a bunch of figurines ended up and what their fates were. At first I thought that nobody was going to fill out those questionnaires, but in reality we ended up with a lot of them. And all the figurines were taken as well. We could see that for example a busload of babysitters were brought to the exhibition, because 40 figurines were taken by babysittiers, or a busload of lawyers, because 40 lawyers took our figurines... 

I really like different collaborations, as well as group exhibitions. It is good experience and communication. When you make something alone, then you know what to expect from yourself. When you work with others, they contribute something of themselves, and the result can be very interesting.

The figurines that were all taken away, were they all identical? 

What happened was that we took a piece of clay and started to pinch the clay to gradually remove piece by piece and to make another such piece equal in weight. And then we just copied the already copied form that happened as a result of this “pinching”. And from that piece we cast a form and made 1,000 copies. Visually, they are the same, but due to the fact that they were obtained by squeezing the two halves of the mold and compressing it with a little bit of different force, there are slight differences. This is probably about the loss and the return of uniqueness. At first it was a unique object, then we copied it, duplicated it, and then it got to a thousand owners and for each of them it became unique again. This is a cycle.

The Prototypes. 2013. (Fragment from One, Two & 1000 Pieces)

Interesting. I think that there are artists who show their emotions, as if asking to share them, and then there are those who create some kind of models which express thoughts and at the same time encourage them to be formed.

Yes. Although one can show emotion in many different ways, like creating an ideal cube because that is just the emotion one is feeling.

So what feeds your ideas? Books, theories, or music, for example?

Actually I am not trying to prove something to someone with my works. In the past, during my childhood, I loved all kinds of ancient empires. I read and re-read “The Children’s Plutarch” from cover to cover. I liked the slightly mythical East. And once I made a work which reflected it to some extent. I took a photograph of the desert, typographically stamped it on very thin paper, then I burned it, but it remained as a uniform layer of ash in which I could still see the burnt image. First I tried it on small formats, and everything kept turning out great. And so I took the size A2, confident that everything will go well too. But then I thought I would die, that it was unrealistic to do. In order for the sheet of paper to burn evenly, the flame had to be applied from the top and from the bottom. I made a kind of metallic grid and put the paper on top of it, then lit it. And still, sometimes the grid would overheat in certain places and created holes. But in the end I managed to get it done. I was making this for the Print Triennial in Tallinn, where “Orbita” also took place, and the main theme was “Literacy - Illiteracy”.

Signs I-II, 2014

I took these works as some kind of oriental alphabet, some type of writing...

In reality they were the imprints of a snake in the sand, which really did look like Arabic squiggles. In other words, real prints of a real snake, which I then transferred onto the ash.

I am telling you this to show that there are some things that push me to something. Today, it is the East and tomorrow it might be the West (laughs). I do not come up with a problem and I do not try to solve it. There are enough problems around us as it is. Do we have to also solve them in art? Come on, why...

I really like cheese, I think it inspires me (laughs). I can eat cheese without any boundaries whatsoever. If I were the one who invented cheese, I would be incredibly proud. Veganism is not for me, because then I would have to say no to cheese. And now I am doing a project with cheese. The thing is, I was asked to make a still-life with things that inspire me. Of course, mostly they are not material things. Therefore it was hard for me to think of something for the still-life. And then I decided that it’s going to be something from Constructivism with cheese and palm leaves.

Excellent. I also really like cheese.

When I was a child, I really liked the smelly “Latvijas siers”. Nobody at home ate it except for me, because it smells really strong, but the taste is really great. I remember I was standing with my Dad at the Purvciems market, and he said “200 grams of Latvian cheese”. The woman looked at him and replied “How can you even eat that?” and he pointed at me “It’s not me, it’s her”. (laughs)

Yes, smells are an interesting topic. Once I tried to create an aromatic installation for “Riga’s poetry map” project which was dedicated to a bakery that existed some time ago in a now demolished house on the corner of Brivibas and Miera streets. For me it was a very important place. What do you remember specifically from the Soviet times?

I remember the Table of orders. We went there to get salami. What else do I remember... I don’t know, all my associations are with food! (laughs) I remember that Karums (cottage cheese snacks) used to be wrapped in some kind of tracing paper with orange squares. I really liked how they looked. I also remember when the first chips appeared. We had a shop near our house, and they started selling chips there, they were corn chips, like nachos. And of course we also had French fries. I also remember the 1st grade, the 1st of September was also one boy’s birthday and he was giving away little juices in boxes to everyone. We didn’t even drink them, we just looked at them, it was grape juice in bright blue boxes. They were our first juice boxes, in the year 1991.

Where in Riga did you live at the time?

In Pardaugava, where there used to be the hotel “Daugava”, now they have “Radisson”. First we lived there, then in Purvciems, then back again in Pardaugava. And when the hotel was being built, the boys and I climbed over the fence to beg the Polish builders who worked on the site for chewing gum. The gum was called “Donald Duck”.

Unforgettable Moment 21 x 29. 2013. (Fragment from One, Two & 1000 Pieces)

So when you were very young, you lived next to the big Daugava river. Was it something important for you or did you simply perceive it as an obstacle to get to the other side to the center?

When I was that age, before the 1st grade, the river was just a river. I didn’t have any particular emotions about it. It didn’t inspire me...

It’s not cheese.

Exactly, it’s not cheese. (both laugh)

And where did you live in Purvciems?

First I lived on Unijas iela, then on Stirnu iela. I didn’t really socialize with anyone there, my school was in Pardaugava, and there was simply no time. Especially because there were so many houses and millions of children. It wasn’t like going to play in a small yard where you know everyone.

Do you have a studio?

I work at home. I don’t think having a studio is very common for us. Those that have studios are usually doing very well, like painters who get their works bought regularly. As for artists that I know... they can barely pay rent, they can’t afford a studio. Of course I don’t solder metal at home, but everything else is possible to do there. 

How is your day structured?

It goes by very fast. I go to work every day so I can support my hobby. Of course, I wish it wasn’t like that, but no matter how you see it, art is my hobby, I have to make money to support it. I wake up, go to work, come home from work, I know it’s very exciting. (laughs) In the past when I didn’t work, I slept until noon, then I did something, but it wasn’t the best either. It’s obvious that it’s never going to be the best! (both laugh)

Where do you work?

I work at DdStudio. Mostly they work with expositions for museums. I like it because it’s quite close to what I am interested in, such as different materials, surfaces and spaces.

What about political issues and events, did all the news of the last year and a half leave an imprint on you?

I don’t read the news, I am very apolitical and I don’t often get into political debates. I am not one of those people who starts the day by reading news and then gets weighed down by it. I don’t need that, and perhaps that is bad. I know what is going on in the world in general, but I don’t abuse it, I don’t let it get near me. Something like that.

What political views do the other artists in your social sphere have?

Yes, we have those who follow the news and argue with each other about it. I don’t talk about politics at all. I think if you want to talk about politics, you need to read the news from both angles and to track them down carefully, for me that seems unrealistic.

So what do you usually talk about with your friends?

About all kinds of nonsense. Our topics change quickly and casually.

Phоtо: Kristīne Madjare

You are from a Russian family. How do you feel in the Latvian art scene with a Russian background.

I feel fine.

But it is visible that you are “different”?

I want to think that it doesn’t matter, that there is no bias on the grounds of “She is Russian.” That is probably why I never read comments. The commentators have nothing better to do with their life. 

I went to a Russian school, and then I transferred to the Rosenthal art school and at first it was very difficult. I thought that I know Latvian, but it turned out I could barely string two words together, like “Kā Tevi sauc?” (What’s your name). But, of course, the best way to learn a language is to plunge into the environment where it is used all the time.

My friends from the Russian-speaking environment are mostly young businessmen and lawyers. They are also interested in some creative things, although they are skeptical when it comes to contemporary art. What is it? Why do we need it? I can make that... Well, if you can, you should, it’s not prohibited.

But in general it’s a shame that the Russian and the Latvian youth overlap so little. Those are very isolated environments. When I meet some Russian-speaking friends of friends, I understand that they come from a parallel world. But it can also be fun, at least for me it is fascinating.

Fragments from soloshow „A Green Silhouette of Grey” at kim? Contemporary art centre. 2014. Phоtо: Kristīne Madjare

What about your parents? Do you explain your works to them?

I think they would appreciate it if I explained more to them. Although they are very creative people, my Mom is always coming up with ideas. She calls me up and says “You know, I finally understood what your work is about!” And then she starts to tell me about it. But of course they ask me a lot. Even if they don’t understand something, they always support me.

But do you ever want to do something completely different, to change everything drastically?

I thought of a perfect job for myself. I want to be the person who travels around the world and rates hotels. I actually like staying in hotels. It is ideal, because when you arrive, everything is ready: the bed is done, the room is clean, and in the morning you get breakfast. And obviously nobody knows that you’re an expert and that you rate them. I think I would want this job for myself. Maybe because in my daily life hotels are a rarity, especially good hotels, when I am in one I really don’t want to leave.

Or I also wanted to have a bouillon-eria, like a “small food” place. I would only serve bouillon and some kinds of pies. Everything would be delicious. One time I really wanted to do this, because Riga doesn’t have a place like that. 

Catalog from soloshow „A Green Silhouette of Grey” at kim? Contemporary art centre. 2014

Yes, Riga doesn’t. But why a bouillon-eria? 

Because we don’t have one! (laughs) But who would eat bouillon every day? But once I start to think about all the permits and committees, I immediately stop wanting to do it.

Sometimes when I have periods with no exhibitions, nothing is happening, then yes, I get ideas that I should change my profession. But now everything is active, I have a lot of offers, so it’s a shame to talk about another profession. Then of course I am sure I will hit a decline, but right now I am too busy to even think about it.