Pioneering artists who trespassed on to new ground

  • 2005-03-09
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - Art, like everything else, is best understood in context. If you were to look at the works currently on show at Arsenals gallery without knowing anything about them, you probably wouldn't be particularly impressed. But see them in their socio-historical context, and they suddenly take on a fascinating new light.

Arsenals has once again mounted a significant exhibition in the form of "Trespassers. Contemporary Art of the 1980s."

It's the first time that a serious attempt to systematically explore 80's Latvian art has been undertaken, and the results are truly intriguing. Many of the works involved haven't been publicly seen since the mid-80s and early 90s.

Latvian art during the 1980s was, of course, preoccupied with one thing above all else: the Soviet Union. Artists were among the most galvanized people in society in challenging, provoking and confronting a political system they despised, for obvious reasons.

Ironically, some of the work in this exhibition is better than much of the contemporary art I've seen in recent years. Not only did many of the artists clearly relish the new media at their disposal, such as video, but there is also an enduring freshness and even sophistication in many of the ideas. The fact that artists had to keep a wary eye on the censors doubtless helped them to keep on the subtle side.

Take Miervaldis Polis' performance art pieces under the name "Bronze Man." Polis went around Riga covered in bronze paint, much to the bemusement of locals. A series of photographs shows him in all manner of social settings, and captures the frequently confused looks of passers by.

In one memorable image, Polis poses statue-like beside the Victory Monument, while in another experiment, he and several other people coated themselves in bronze paint and went begging in Dome Square. Some saw this as a symbol that they were really begging for political independence.

The exhibition also takes a look at other aspects of culture. There are several copies of the then-influential magazine Avots on display.

There is also a fascinating display of architectural material related to the planned Riga metro, which was abandoned, partly thanks to widespread public disapproval.

One of the most interesting things is a section about the EXPO '92 U.S.S.R. pavilion. It was a hugely ambitious project but ended up serving as a mausoleum to the dead Soviet system.

There are many, perhaps too many, video installations on show, most of which come with an all-too-typical '80s synthesizer soundtrack. It may have sounded cutting edge at the time, but it sounds absurdly anachronistic now. Yet there is something soothingly melancholic about it, which oddly helps to enhance the videos themselves.

There's only a few days left of the exhibition, so try to catch it while it lasts. Failing that, just poke away at an old synthesizer to get a good feel of what it's all about.