Report from hopelessness

  • 2000-12-14
  • Ieva Lejasmeijere
This conversation might be regarded as a particular kind of report - a report from hopelessness, which is not at all easy to admit. Nevertheless Maris Subacs in calm reflection announces that he does not see the way forward and that he lets events take their course, leaving the direction up to God's will.

It seems that the hopelessness Subacs admits to demonstrates not only a crisis of not being able to depict God, but rather the "blockages" that many artists suffer from whose "star hours" were in Soviet times. The work of the "LPSR-Z" group of artists (Normunds Lacis, Vilnis Putrams, Maris Subacs, Artis Rutks and Vilnis Zabers) in the second half of the 1980s illustrates clearly that the main content of art was a certain "viciousness" and "savageness" in reaction to the socio-political processes. Using the terminology of stories and fables so loved by Subacs, it has to be said that "ever since then," the problems of self-identification torture society in the most varied ways. Subacs has worked mainly in linocut, he has designed posters; but since 1997, together with vicar Juris Rubenis, he writes, draws and publishes tales.

Such texts as "God is. I am too" and "Subacs was here" undeniably evoke noble thoughts, but it is difficult to avoid the more earthy associations, in essence just as conceptual, "I was here. Kolya." Of course there is a difference between spiritual wealth and spiritual poverty. However, taken to their extreme forms, poverty and wealth begin to become similar in an absurd way. Expressions become self-sufficient, they no longer 'talk to the world outside', but quietly murmur to themselves and the conceptual depths sometimes become inhuman and imperceptible to the viewers' minds.

If we begin by saying genuine art is sacred and sacredness creates its genuineness, where do we go from there?

I have that problem now - where do I go from here? I have experienced the time when art was a kind of compensation, some- where where you could relax after the Soviet system. The Ôsystem' constantly imposed something artificial, something fabricated. When you make or look at art, there is some kind of free emotion. That is why art was so important in Ôancient times' - there were the Art Days and similar events. I wouldn't call what I and many other artists were making socialist art exactly. I have never made a 'Lenin.' However, the whole art thing had grown out of the reality we were living in. With the collapse of the socialist reality, the basis for the whole Ôart thing' was lost too. Then I looked for a way to somehow put it all together again. On my first trips abroad, I came to the conclusion that the art in Latvia at that time was something completely different to the art in the West. Although we all studied the Western art tradition and during Soviet times we looked to the West, the art that was created then was principally different to Western art. After that I tried to find the root of this different attitude toward art and artists. At that time I took a deeper interest in religion but this was completely unconnected with art. And that is how I came to icons, to sacred art, because I am used to putting on paper whatever is occupying my mind at the time. I could say that by putting things in their proper places, no other result is possible. And that's where the problem lies, a problem that I have come up against and I don't know where I can go further - God is something that stands above any comparison. Sacred art is connected with God, but God is something that cannot be depicted at all.

But he is in everything that is depicted.

That's right. The very fact that there is someone here depicting something is also a result of God's work. We may, for example, regard everything that is as proof of God's existence, because once there was nothing. However, trying to depict religious subjects where God is present, I was faced with the fact that God cannot be depicted. It's one thing that this is forbidden by the scriptures. But there is the feeling of God's presence that I have experienced and it still cannot be depicted. And what can't be depicted can't be respected. I am really frightened that this is a certain dead end. There were times when I perceived art as religion. But when true religion stood in its place, art was pushed aside. And so I still haven't really found what to do and how to do it.

There's no place for art?

Time has shown that, regardless of whether people are religious or not, something has always been in that place and probably always will be. At the moment I am waiting to see how my 'inner things' progress.

Sometimes I draw something so I don't simply forget what it means to draw, and I write stories. I hope I will reach some understanding of what art is at this moment, because I have no intention of announcing that art is dead. I am relying on the fact that it has always existed at all times. I think that there is an essential place for the image in religious life.

The dead end does not just concern me and just art, but it describes the whole age in which we live. We are not living in capitalism; we are living in some kind of post-communism. Capitalism for us already ended once.

We have been traumatized by socialism; we have gone through a certain way of thinking. Capitalism cannot answer the questions posed by the age of the collapse of socialism and the awakening because it has never come across this experience - they are happily untouched. Their attitude to life has much that is healthy, but also a little stupid. I find a mechanical return to yesterday unacceptable. There is a general tendency to copy yesterday. In my opinion a new kind of thinking has to come, otherwise there could be a repeat of the Ôsocialist revolution.' Western capitalism has no serious arguments against socialism, only that they lived better. This would mean that, the more things we have, the happier we will be.

And artists, not being able to depict God, buy a bag of cherries and spit stones at the ceiling.

And think about the epoch.

It is possible for a principally new culture to appear, not a copy of capitalism. It is assumed that the beginning and the end are material things. Sooner or later this will leave something unfulfilled in people. I write stories for a bank on the subject of 'good changes.' They just don't like that God and angels appear in them - they probably see earning money as a godless pursuit, people would be offended by my stories. And God-fearing people don't like it when money appears in my stories.

Generally in society, religion is seen either as something formal - something will come out of it, or it is seen in a negative light and with suspicion.

I would like to see religion reach into all aspects of life in time. That would be so wonderful. If you pay a little attention to it, the presence of God can be felt constantly. The normal reaction to 'aspects of life' stuffed with Soviet ideology is to deny any kind of ideology. It turns out that the questions people are faced with and troubled by come from an unhealthy diet. There has to be a new system of values, new searches to explain what is this post-communist world. For me this has become entwined with thoughts about art. Behind art there is the life of the soul. All the 'head problems' an artist has appear in art.

Where do those people who are not artists put their head problems?

They go to an art exhibition and are happy. I don't think the artist and the viewer are principally different beings. An artist has that kind of job - to show. In one sense he is a kind of Chippendale.

In the age of technologies you choose the most elementary means of expression - paper and pencil. Is this minimalism?

I am a graphic artist - I duplicated works but I became allergic to paints.Then I began to draw and write books, to make works for all kinds of actions and 'still lives'; for example, here on the table, this is a still life with a bear and grains of sugar.

My text period is gradually ending. Texts just simply came to me and I drew them. They seem to come out as half poetry and half revelation. I can't say what it is.

Haven't you had enough of drawing the word God? Can't you leave it alone?

Sacred art breaks down when faced with the impossibility of depicting God. What can be depicted is not godly, it is the earth from which Adam was created. That earth can be depicted, but the godly in Adam cannot. The godly is invisible. When I realized that, I came to the conclusion that trying to draw it was a stupid exercise. Still, doing stupid things for God's sake is healthy. Art is a moment. All moments remain somewhere. Everything an artist creates around him is already art at some stage.

I miss the cartoon films of Soviet times. These days I sometimes only watch 'Little Ernest the Vampire' and the 'Simpsons.' The others are just plain stupid - just one simple technological war. Perhaps I should write a script myself about a strange kingdom, say. There are a number of ready-made scripts in the book He and She.

I'd like to know which one, you or Rubenis, wrote the story about the girl that nobody wanted. Then God suggested she marry him. You know that story is popularly known as 'the improper suggestion.' Which one of the three should the girl marry? There is a danger here of a split personality.

I think I made it up. To marry God is an interesting prospect. All the women that read those stories criticize me for being a chauvinist. I love women and I have no objection to their existence. Actually it is an autobiographical story - I myself am married to God.

And what do you do?

In the bedroom we talk about art. It's a funny bedroom. What the knight did with the princesses in the bedroom is also 'censored.' There is supposed to be an erotic angel in the Islamic paradise. If you die in holy battle, then in paradise celestial virgins entertain you. I wouldn't object having some of those virgins in my apartment.

Then first of all you have to have a holy war in your apartment, then you have to die, and then there are the virgins.

That would not be a bad thing, to start a holy war against this state. I liked the Gorbachev times - everyone was interested in art. Nowadays I seem to miss those times a little. But I voted for an independent Latvia, so there's nothing I can do.

One has to wish carefully. You can suddenly get what you want.

Fishing for goldfish is a dangerous activity.

In my house there will be a goldfish, angels, holy war and virgins.

(This article is reprinted with permission from the visual arts magazine Studija, 2000 #4)