ON THE RUINS OF AN EMPIRE: Arsenals Exhibition Hall’s “1914” exhibition brings together archival material about Latvia’s renowned Riflemen during the First World War, along with war art, damaged sculptures from historic Latvian mansions, contemporary takes on the war from present-day Latvian artists and more.
RIGA - Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock the last few months will know Riga is the European Capital of Culture, 2014. Accordingly, on Sunday morning I decided to take a stroll into Old Town to soak up some aforementioned culture.
It helped I was woken up by three generations of Latvians screeching at each other on the stone staircase outside my apartment door, though they were so loud they could have been in the bed with me. At least it gave me a nice early start to the day.
With little of cultural significance taking place in Old Town itself - unless you count a golden dwarf, sitting on a golden box, moving occasionally - I decided to go and check out an exhibition I’d heard about at Arsenals Exhibition Hall. 1914 is dedicated to World War I. It is an attempt to reconcile the losses and gains from the war that changed the world.
The exhibition is divided into three parts, or “zones”: 1. On the Ruins of an Empire, 2. The Riflemen, and 3. Eyewitnesses. Because Arsenals was built as a military armoury in 1832, it seemed a fitting stage for the exhibition.
I made my way up Torna Street where tourists buy amber, amber and, well, more amber. But of course, this being Riga, you can also have a shot and get your nails done if you’re so inclined. I wasn’t, and soon found myself faced with a rather daunting, huge black cross, which seemed to almost barricade the entrance to the gallery.
Having visited Arsenals several times before, the first thing I noticed on entering is that it doesn’t look like Arsenals anymore. Most of the entrance hall has been fenced-off, with a ramp leading up to an intriguing-looking wooden structure. If the desired effect is to leave you with a rather uneasy, “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore, Toto” feeling, then mission accomplished.
As you approach the fence, a badly-damaged sculpture lies on the ground at your feet. Missing an arm and both legs, with a gaping hole piercing her torso, she almost appears to be reaching for the heavens. Lying in the dust all around her are the fragments of burnt and semi-obliterated artefacts – all that remained of Latvia’s artistic and cultural heritage at the time. Welcome to Zone 1: On the Ruins of an Empire. It’s a sobering introduction (even if you did have that shot on the way).
Curious as to what lay through the wooden passageways, I made my way up the ramp - but was stopped short by my old arch-nemesis – the computerized information screen. Powerless to stop myself, I pushed a button. “What’s in the bag?” and a picture of a bag flashed on-screen. I pressed something and a series of random images appeared, each of which I pressed, each of which did nothing - except show a little circle where my finger had been. Thwarted, I let the young girl waiting behind me take over. (She didn’t have any more luck than I did, I’m pleased to report.)
Turning, I entered Zone 2, The Riflemen. The walls of the passageway are lined with photos of the Latvian soldiers who fought for their country. Some of them not much older than boys. Patriotism and pride shines from their faces. Moving along the wall, the images become bleaker with every step, harsh winters and hopes fading - photos of the dead and dying, row upon row of graves.
On the way to the rest area, someone had added their own creative contribution to the exhibition. Written in crayon on a plain white piece of card were the words “A People Who Forget his Historic Will Reapeat it”. Spelling and grammar issues aside, they have a point.
Zone 3, Eyewitnesses, is composed of works by artists from the newly-independent states that emerged after the war, the artists themselves having lived through it. Paintings and sculptures depict battles, the impact on ordinary people and their lives, refugees, and the overall mood of the times.
This is supplemented by a fresh look at the war by three contemporary Latvian artists. The one that stood out for me was a single red button on a white background, simply entitled “Push the Button.” The ease with which another world war could be started – just the push of a button – stayed with me for a long time after I had left the exhibition hall.
The wannabe grafitti artist put it well, “A People Who Forget his Historic Will Reapeat it”.
“1914” runs until 20 April
at Arsenals Exhibition Hall,
1 Torna Street, Riga.