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(Fragment) Miķelis Fišers. 2017. Photo: Valdis Jansons

“I’ve Died About a Hundred Times in Front of This Canvas” 0

Miķelis Fišers talks about the most difficult work of his life, which will soon be on view at the Venice Art Biennale

Sergej Timofejev

Miķelis Fišers – the artist who will represent Latvia at the Venice Biennale. A couple of months ago he even held a press conference on the subject. It was attended by the Latvian Minister of Culture, Dace Melbārde, as well as by green-headed reptiloids (or their quite real-looking Earthly delegates) who had come to meet both the Minister and the artist. The reptiloids presented the Minister with their gifts, and at some point, on the adjoining platform a chicken carcass was effectively blown up with the aid of firecrackers.

Miķelis Fišers is always balancing on the edge of the boundaries separating reason from mysticism, humor from seriousness, and in-you-face kitsch from symbolic spiritual art. Regardless, he appreciates a good laugh, something which he proved several times over during our conversation held in his temporary studio – a rented space with high ceilings in a residential building on the west bank of Riga. It’s where he created his large-format painting (508 x 322 cm) which has now been transported to Venice by lorry.

Miķelis is a recipient of the Baltic’s largest monetary prize in the visual arts – the Purvītis Prize, in 2015. He had been nominated previously, in 2013, for his sizable painting exhibition “Megamatter” at the Latvian National Museum of Art’s “Arsenāls” exhibition hall. Fišers works in various mediums – painting, video, wood carvings – using them as they become necessary in his projects. Always present in his works, however, is his personal messaging form, this Morse code, this period-dash: serious-trivial, momentary-permanent.

I’ve known Fišers for a long time – ever since the opportunity- and risk-filled 90s, when the young Latvian artist was helping ends meet by working as a driver for the Israeli embassy. I also remember when he was preparing for his first trip to Mexico with Viktors Vilks, maker of music videos and commercial ads. They were heading to the so-called Zona del Silencio – a sparsely inhabited region where, according to the specific literature, UFOs were fond of appearing. They didn’t meet any aliens, but they did get some film footage on the theme, which later became a short in which Miķelis searches for contact with magical beings while wearing a classic Mexican sombrero.

Fišers has also made less extreme and more laid-back trips to what was then the still peaceful and Ukrainian Crimea. In that period he painted powerfully charged landscapes with color and light, many of which were shown in his 2013 exhibition “Megamatter”. He did return to Mexico several times, though.

Modified Squids Loot the Potash Plant. 2017, wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29,5 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

Then suddenly, in 2014, Fišers shows up with a rather unexpected technique – wood carving – which by then was a half-forgotten medium that had been popular in our childhood. White contours on a black background; a clear and unambiguous “drawing”, practically a comic strip done on wood. The stories depicted in these works are Fišers’ fantasies about conspiratorial themes; they’re about the “true meaning” of everything that’s happening. He had painted a lot of similar narratives before then, too. However, here, the technique itself allowed for the “message” to be thickened to the max. The exploitation of not only humans, but also, for instance, unlucky mermaids – by various alien creatures. Violence and contempt emanating from a myriad of reptiloids. Curated by Inga Šteimane, the exhibition was held in the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History, a location that only strengthened the harshness and credibility of the situations that Fišers was presenting. There was something akin to anatomical pathology in the whole thing – an emphasis on distancing oneself from the presented account. It was the exhibit “Netaisnība” / “Injustice” – which also contained excellent video works, one in which two secretive creatures communicate with one another with the word “pran”, and another one in which Fišers himself walks across red-hot coals – that garnered Fišers the Purvītis Prize.

In that same year, Fišers presented an installation at the Cēsis Art Fair that had a similar narrative, but it was executed with the aid of strings of glowing LED lights. A related light-and-sound installation, but with a different narrative, will be one of the three exhibits that Fišers will be showing for the first time at the Venice Biennale. The second part is a new series of wood carvings, and their titles speak for themselves: “Giant Grasshoppers Massacre Tourists by the Pyramids of Giza”, “Ancient Aliens Execute Overqualified Rocket Scientists at Palenque, Mexico”. Yet, at the same time, it also includes a completely happy-go-lucky piece titled “Guided Shopping Tour for Extraterrestrials at Champs-Élysées, Paris”. Nevertheless, the overall tonality of the works casts no doubts. Fišers and I looked them over in a draft of the catalog for the Venice exhibition, which has been titled “What Can Go Wrong”. Fišers’ comments: “Look, this one is about to have his heart cut out… See, this one’s been caught by the one in the space-suit. This one here is the ‘blackest’ one of them all. ‘Extraterrestrials Monitor Humanitarian Crisis In the Oligarch Organ Warehouse’ – they’re obviously not being fed. But see these creatures here, they’re...monitoring everything. Just like the Europeans monitor the humanitarian crises in Africa – they can’t give them much aid, but they...observe. This work here, by the way, is quite positive compared to the others. ‘The Last Yetis Protest Against CO Emissions by the Great Wall of China’...” Besides these rare positive notes, the mood of the exhibition was too one-sided; a contrast was needed, and Fišers worked on that for the last months leading up to the Biennale.

Miķelis Fišers. Photo: Valdis Jansons

Fišers puts on the kettle for coffee, and sits me down in one of two chairs facing his huge canvas titled “Breakthrough. Farewell to Selfness”, so that I can better view it. He says:

You might have some questions to start with. Otherwise I’ll just keep plowing ahead…

Don’t worry, I’m fine with that.

Good. In the beginning, I imagined that I would make this painting about how the Universe is transitioning from chaos and entropy towards a more complex, organized and conscious form. Something very abstract, and about which I have no preconception or experience. And I imagined that it should be very large, beautiful, and with little stripes. It will have nice colors and everyone will like it. And then… Ha-ha! [Exclaims this heatedly and with scorn]

As soon as I started painting, I understood it was a complete fiasco. Not because I didn’t have complete faith in it, but because I had no knowledge of what I could put in it. I could have made something similar to trickling drips, like in these sketches on the wall. But if there’s nothing personal in it, then it comes up a bit “empty”. And then it begins… I think I’ve died about a hundred times in front of this canvas! [Both laugh]

I went through hell. And the main thing – this sense of responsibility. Usually you’re drawing something or other, and no one cares what you’re doing. But here, I have to make a painting that will represent Latvia in Venice, plus, it has to balance out all of this “blackness” that reigns over my wood carvings. And I understood that I had taken on an obligation like never before in my life.

Then I started to listen to a lot of lectures, and I thought a lot; I struggled with myself, I traveled. Every once in a while I’d erase what I had painted on the canvas. And it became clearer to me what it actually was only when practically everything had been already done. The process was like, every time I started to think about why I’m painting this, what sort of impression will I make, what the goal of the painting is… That is, every time my ego started to ascertain itself, nothing would work. But once I learned to deal with that, things started to come together on the canvas.

At the time, I was listening to various talks specifically on the issues of the ego. Afterwards, I understood that that was what I was painting about – setting myself free from it. From the same screaming ego that is ready to do whatever it takes so that you don’t notice its complete pointlessness. And the fact that it is dictating your actions, how you must behave, what you must choose.

Of course, it’s very difficult to release yourself from these types of things when you’re making the exhibition for your country’s national pavilion at the world’s biggest art show…

Yes, and that oppressive sense of responsibility. I think it’s complete foolishness: to premier in Venice with a project that isn’t yet ready. I suppose it could be called courage – a kind of courage that lies on the edge of complete foolishness. Because it paralyzes you – the obligation to make something great, and everyone expects this of you, and at the press conference, you’re explaining what it’s going to be, but you haven’t even started on it yet. In short, it wasn’t easy for me. I just have to hope that it wasn’t all for nothing. I really believe that the energy is in it now. We’ll see what it all looks like once its assembled, but right now, I’m content with each of the separate parts.

Why did you decided that this canvas was necessary – that the composition as a whole needed balance?

Because both the light-and-sound installation and the wood carvings are about one and the same thing – it is a critique. But the painting – that’s a kind of opportunity, a kind of hope for development, for an exit. And it’s also what I principally wanted to show from the beginning. However, if at first I thought that I would show it from the outside, as a cosmic evolution – it has turned out that I’m showing it from the inside, through me. But that’s also the only possible way to develop – to work with oneself, not with the cosmos… [Laughs]

Breakthrough. Farewell to Selfness. 2017, oil on canvas, 508 cm x 322 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

What do you see as taking place on this canvas?

Of course, everyone will see their own thing and will look at in their own way. But I see it as, in the upper part, that’s an image of the same “screaming ego”. And the world that is shown here is very simple – it is our material world. Evil, good, fame, money, the wish to oppress that which is weaker. And when this ego is threatened with being unmasked and rejected (and I really wish I could get this to happen in my own life), then the struggle begins; there begins a layer in which you can detect some sort of caves or labyrinths, or the structure of human organs, or parts of a staircase. It’s what lies beneath our reality; it’s what we cannot see, but which still is within the inner structure. And even lower in the painting is this world of indeterminate opportunities that reveal themselves to you when you reach the level in which you gain the ability to spot them. Kind of like that. Of course, anyone can interpret it as they wish.

It’s interesting that for you, the material world, the lowest one, is high up and not at the bottom…

I, of course, haven’t reached nirvana or an awareness of Christ. That’s all up above, the upper layer. But at the bottom there’s all the rest; every person contains the Universe, and even more.

OK… I’m trying to imagine in what kind of space this painting could hang. After Venice… perhaps in a Dominican monastery?

Overall, it is, in essence, an altarpiece. I’d like to see the kind of church that would want to hang that up. Or the sect that would… But I don’t think there is one.

Because I can’t imagine it hanging in someone’s house. Although, anything could happen…

It would have to be a very strange person. [Both laugh] I certainly wouldn’t hang it in my house.

There’s a kind of powerful energy coming from it…

Of course – it’s like dying. Or like being born.

One must die in order to be born? Do you think that in Venice, in the crowds that stream from one pavilion to the next, the viewers will have a chance to immerse themselves in it, to meditate on it, to understand anything?

I’m very well aware that people don’t wish to immerse themselves in these sorts of themes. But that’s exactly why the painting is so big – so that there’s an effect. That in itself will draw attention to it. And if you’re not interested in those kinds of things, you’ll just rush off to the next pavilion. But if it takes a hold of you… I can’t say how other people act in these situations, but I usually run through the whole exhibition and then I return to the works that spoke to me.

At Fišer's studio

I can imagine a very minimalistic house on a lake. And there’s a white room that has nothing in it save for this painting, a few windows, and maybe three chairs. And you go there already knowing a bit about what you will see.

Like a retreat! [Both laugh]

Still, this work was not intended to attract, or to look “nice”. There’s nothing like that in it, and I understand that very well. Or nothing like that should be in it.

Nevertheless, the more one looks at it, the greater its increasingly pulls you in…

Thanks for saying that, Sergey. Almost everyone who has seen it says that. And I only hope that some people will linger in front of it. As soon as you don’t run away from it, it begins to work on you.

This painting also reminds me of an immense exhibition that opened in March, at the GAM contemporary art museum in Turin; it was produced by a whole team headed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of the last Istanbul Biennial. The exhibition is about color and the way it has been perceived in the art world over the last 100-150 years. But it starts off with an exhibit on theosophy, with little paintings from a 19th-century theosophy publication which was popular with artists who later were responsible for the emergence of modernism. They were attempts at depicting notions, thought forms… In a rather abstract manner. Theosophy is also mentioned in the text by Inga Šteimane for your catalog for the Biennale. Somehow, everything fits and links together.

Yes. Your going there wasn’t a waste! [Both laugh

Do you read these sorts of theosophical texts?

Truthfully, not especially. I am more or less aware of the basic principles, but I don’t have the time to really delve deeper. My latest great read – “The True History of Earth”, lists from A to Z all of the alien races that have been on our planet and what they’ve done. And how everything really happened. Everything is clearly laid out. I needed exactly this kind of literature as my working material. I’m also interested in works in the field of theosophy, but I haven’t read anything by Blavatsky. Except for some references, quotes…

Reptilian Immobilizes Hallucinating Darwinists. 2017, light and sound installation, extruded polystyrene, structured polypropylene sheets, drawing cut in ORACAL ® adhesive film, LED light tape, 600 x 600 x 600 cm. Sound by ERROR. Photo: Valdis Jansons

Same here – some references and quotes. And at the same time, I don’t feel as if there’s a need to delve any deeper into it.

There’s already a lot of new and interesting stuff out there. There’s enough information these days that it’s worth filtering it.

On top of that, all of the new information that we receive contains pieces and elements of old information…

Of course, that’s the way it’s been arranged. Like, now they’re talking about discoveries gleaned from quantum physics that prove the illusory nature of our reality, but all of the basic religions have talked about this since their inception. That, I believe, is an exciting subject. Plant had already discovered this, but since those sorts of things didn’t fit into the view of world history at that time, it was all pushed aside.

Maybe a quantum physicist will find something that is important to them in this painting…

See, that would be really good, yes! There simply could be nothing better than that.

Over the last six years, the trend has been to combine science and art…

You mean “science art”? In my opinion, that’s more of a regressive phenomenon. Contra!

A bit utilitarian?

A lot, I’d say!

But in the 1960s, artists were also inspired by discoveries in physics…

The 60s was the period in history when people’s consciousness was the most free.

Back then, it was fashionable among the masses to try and understand the latest theories in physics…

And that’s when they also appeared, and everything was so new and fresh. It was easier to grasp these things back then. There was transparency – physicists discovered this and this, and everyone knew about it. But now, what they discover or don’t discover – no one is interested in that. Everything has turned into a giant mess.

Obviously, everything has fallen into place like that. Both physics and society. There’s a visible layer followed by an invisible layer, which we can manage to see with the aid of some sort of technology, but then that is divided into even more layers. The same goes for politics. You don’t understand much if you’re following what’s going on at the surface. Even if you can see one layer deeper, and even another layer after that, there’s going to be a fourth or fifth layer, too… Where’s the exit here?

[Sighs. Six seconds of silence]

We obviously won’t work that out today.

That’s for sure. On the other hand, it’s clear that we can find something that is true only by looking deeper within ourselves. But to do away with the surrounding reality would be strange. If it exists, it must have some sort of function. Like a firing range? In any case, there can’t be just one answer. 

Miķelis Fišers. Videoinstallation. 2014

How do you thing the public in Venice will perceive your wood carvings, all of these reptiloids?

I don’t know. And there’s no point in imaging what others will think. After all, the series “Injustice” was exhibited in Venice, and no one said anything. [“Injustice” is the series of works for which Fišers received the Purvītis Prize; it was shown in the exhibition “Ornamentalism. The Purvītis Prize. Latvian Contemporary Art”, which took place in the Venetian Arsenale in the summer of 2016 – S.T.

Where else have these wood carvings been shown?

In Helsinki, where they are now a part of the Kiasma museum collection…

How did it go in Helsinki? What did they think?

The Finns really liked them. Maybe they have a similar sense of humor.

But when you took up this wood carving technique, did you immediately know what it would be about?

You mean conspiracy theories? Yes. It went like this: I had done the painting “The Officers’ Ball”, and it was clear that I had to continue with this theme – there was still a lot to talk about in it. And then, completely unexpectedly, on New Year’s Eve at the nightclub “Pulkvedim neviens neraksta”, I saw on the wall this print that, from a distance, looked like a huge artwork done in the wood-carving technique that was popular in the 60s. When I went up to it, I realized it was a print, and not what I had thought. At that moment, I knew that I would make works in specifically this technique. Because you can’t depict all that much with it. It’s best when everything happens on one plain. Just a couple of textures. There aren’t many options. When taken all together, it’s the most suitable for the “conspiracy theory” tonality. “Everything is just so and no different!” And it’s carved into wood. No going forward, no going back. You cut into this black surface and light comes out! [Both laugh] You reveal what was hiding underneath.

But you still have something you want to get across in this manner?

You’re asking me this at a moment in which I truly have nothing more. Everything has been squeezed out to the last drop. But we’ll see, after a while.

To criticize the world…

… is not exactly a pleasant job.

The Last Yeties Protest Against CO Emissions by the Great Wall of China. 2017, wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29,5 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

On the other hand, you have this pair of “positive” works. About the protesting yetis, for example. It’s not just suffering and the sufferers.

It’s like when you’re being interrogated and they hold your head under water, then they lift your head for a second so that you can take in a breath [mimics taking in a quick, deep breath]. And then they can continue torturing you.

One can also say that, when criticizing the world order…

One can’t, of course, do that in all seriousness.

Yes, because one is again conforming to some sort of scheme. And how you’re doing it, is, actually, a very good way.

Perhaps that’s the only way in which it’s worth doing. But to talk about such “high-minded” subjects uncritically also is… There’s already a lot of art that… No, I’m not going to be able to formulate my idea.

Did you mean to say that one must be critical towards everything, not just, let’s say, towards “consumer culture”, or “the society of the spectacle”?

Not in the sense that everything has to be “trashed”. It’s just that it would be good to judge these generally accepted things without prejudice, critically, and based on your own personal experience. If you come down to the level of generalizing, that’s when all of the problems arise – even if it sounds horrible – from faith. If you have blind faith in something, and don’t try to independently evaluate it, then you are immediately exploitable. But if you have perceived everything with an open heart, knowing that things can be like this, but that they can also be different, than that is a much more healthy way of perceiving, in my opinion. You shouldn’t have complete faith in even your own personal experience, much less in that of another person. Or in an experience that took place thousands of years ago and that has changed thousands of times in its retelling.

Maybe the truth forms from thousands of fantasies and misunderstandings that overlap one another, and suddenly – bam!

But then we first have to talk about fantasies, and if it’s even possible to think up something that doesn’t exist, and so on. You see, I think that what is fantasy is this perception that we have of the material world – the idea that life has come about by chance. Because as I understand it, the probability of that happening is just as small as the probability that a tornado hits a junk yard and randomly puts all of the scrap metal together into a brand-new Boeing, along with its crew, food and drinks. What sort of randomness is that?

But maybe we appeared in this world in order to think critically?

I’m afraid that’s not the way it’s turned out, either. [Both laugh]

Guided Shopping Tour for Extraterrestrials at Champs-Élysées, Paris. 2017, wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29,5 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

Has your world view changed over the last three or four years?

It’s hard to judge in terms of yourself unless you’ve spent all that time in a coma, since you change along with your notions of yourself. You’d have to ask my friends, especially those who haven’t seen me for a while, and then do.

Any travels? Any events that have prominently affected you?

Probably – my first trips to Mexico. The culture shock and so on.

Have many times have you been to Mexico?

Four or five.

The first time, you went with Viktors Vilks and cameraman Paša Vladimirskis to look for space aliens and...

And we didn’t see a single flying saucer. On the next trip, we did.

Over the desert?

Over a volcano called Popocatepetl. It’s a favorite spot for them to land – in the volcano’s crater. No one is startled by it anymore.

I had a strange experience in Moscow in the early 90s. I was standing on a balcony on about the ninth floor of a student dormitory, waiting for my girlfriend. The balcony was wide – it spanned the whole side of the building. A couple was standing in one corner of it, arguing. And suddenly, a classic flying saucer appeared in the sky – a round, gray disc in the distance, undoubtedly flying in the clear sky. I must add that I’ve never seen anything like it since. And the arguing couple also noticed it. They stopped arguing for a minute, and then started up again!

That’s wonderful! [Both laugh]

“A flying saucer?” “It’s as if it...” “Aha… Now tell me, why did you last night...”

Brilliant. And very educational.

Miķelis Fišers and Mārtiņš Grauds in Peru. 2015. Photo: Aigars Sērmukšs

Did this experience in Mexico lead you to look at things here in Latvia in a different way?

It was more about the overall perception of reality, about how we create it ourselves. We calibrate it ourselves – what can happen in it, and what cannot. In this sense, Europeans have the following stance: “Something like that simply cannot be!” But they look at these sort of things differently there. And that’s why a lot of things like that also happen there.

But if you’re born into a culture where “these sorts of things don’t happen”, and then you go over there…

But they’re in the majority there. They are the ones creating reality. All you have to do is just watch it happen! [Both laugh]

Did you see any Mexican art while there?

I really like Mexican painters. The power of their country shows in their works.

And their perception of reality?

Yes, it’s all in there. Undeniably. It can be seen very clearly.

But here you are, back in Latvia. Living in Baltezers. That’s also an interesting place – it’s urban and not urban, it’s on a lake.

Yes. I probably couldn’t live in the middle of a city.

Do you have any favorite spots there?

Of course! I have a lot of them. But I could also live further away from Riga. I don’t have much of a social life; I don’t go out much.

You don’t paint every day, do you?

No. Actually, I spend more time looking for a place where it’s worth doing it. A place can be very beautiful, but no good for painting. And when I’m painting a landscape, what’s important is its… [sighs], I’d say. And it either appears or it doesn’t.

You mean to say, you show up somewhere with the intention to paint something there…

Yes, and then I look for a suitable view, which sometimes I can’t even find. It’s actually quite complex, in truth. For instance, a canyon in which, according to ancient Native American legends, humanity arose. Where the first people emerged. And there’s no one there, just you, and you’ve spent the whole day getting there by dirt road. The canyon ends in a small clearing with a stream, and you can pitch a tent. All around you there are waterfalls, it’s like a fairy tale. And you start painting this canyon… I struggled for several days there – nothing came of it. [Both laugh] Nothing at all. You can never predict how it’s going to be.

Miķelis Fišers. 2012. Oil on canvas. 159 x 200 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

Do you paint all day, or just for three or four hours?

Four hours is enough, although I can go longer. Sometimes I paint two days in a row. I like it the best when the paintings come easily.

But with wood carving, it’s a completely different process, right?

Absolutely! It’s diametrically different. Everything starts with the literary process – I have to come up with a title. And as soon as the title appears… Although, I actually have a bunch of titles that can’t be drawn. [Both laugh] “Sabotage In the Automatic Eye Nursery”. The title is still workable, but what do I draw? When I do get an idea for a drawing, I still have to work out if the various objects named in the title and the objects I’ve drawn correspond to reality. And then the technical work follows, which isn’t as interesting.

But you do the cutting…

You simply cut according to the drawing, without any improvisation.

But the pressure that you apply to the material…

That is nice, of course. It’s very pleasant to work with wood. Concentration, real zen. You can’t make mistakes.

Buddhist Monks Train Reptilians-Renegades to Meditate. 2017, wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29,5 cm. Photo: Valdis Jansons

With these works, it’s easy to tell when they’re done. The drawing has been cut out, finished. But how about with painting? How do you know when it’s done – when you should stop?

It’s impossible to put into words. You simply sense it at some point…

You can continue painting, but then you will ruin it, most likely; there’s no point in doing that. Everything has been said.

How did it go with this painting?

There was one spot that I didn’t like, and I repainted it three times. On the third try, it worked. And I knew that that was it.

Interesting – how do you feel right now? Everything is done. And as you leave the studio…

It depends. With paintings that came more easily, there’s a kind of euphoria. You think you’ve painted the best thing in your life. And you see how the same ego starts bursting out at full force. But that didn’t happen this time. I guess this ego has given up already; it understands that it won’t get it’s way here… I don’t know. But this truly is the most difficult work I’ve made. [Five seconds of silence]

And that’s thanks to the fact that painting – an unfashionable medium, and then this intimate, personal, and at the same time, very general theme… I think that this whole stuck-up concept of wood carving had to come face to face with something honorable. In a sense, maybe I need to fail. You have to disregard how you’re going to look in the eyes of others. Simply do what you have to do. Sometimes they say – what’s on your mind is also what’s on your tongue.