Karen Kiphoff "Do you read me?"
Rael Artel "My favorite piece of Latvian art"
Jānis Borgs, Art Critic
In Latvia also, the streams of postmodernism have polished up “nuggets and diamonds” of talent of our own. Such descriptions intended as compliments would perhaps be more appropriate to bourgeois (or even criminal) passions and values, and less so to artists in vanguard positions. Hence, if this did not sound like common name-calling, he too, Krišs Salmanis, could be deemed a rogue. A “polished rogue”, schooled in the land of Joseph Beuys himself, a rogue not in the shady meaning of the word, but in its tastiest sense – like a ripe, shiny, juicy and crunchy apple on a counter in the Central Market.
A similarly healthy contribution of the autumn harvest was once again “put on the table” not far from the said market, in the exceptionally active centre of contemporary art kim?, i.e. Gallery VKN, in the form of an exhibition of artifacts by Krišs Salmanis titled Bezmiegs (‘Insomnia’). And sleep does indeed disappear for some time, as the impressions of what we have seen bubble up every once in a while in the dense mass of our consciousness, like gas in an opened bottle of sparkling mineral water.
In the small exhibition room, we saw a rather ascetic array of art objects, as is now quite usual. Once again, a thought (not addressed to Salmanis) crossed my mind – is anybody ever going to piece together something other than the established flirt with the beauty of emptiness? However, executed by Krišs Salmanis, this has turned out to be so well-balanced and so professionally tasteful as to raise suspicion that the cosmetic aestheticism of our rogue may disguise a modernist gentleman, who is up to some fun and games in the “street of broken lanterns” populated by “hooligans” of the avant-garde. Anyhow, a detective investigator in art processes could find here traces of a good education, as well as prints left by fingers trained in the commercial culture of advertising. In this case it had true charm and brought intellectual enjoyment. Like when launching into Kafka’s works. While watching a desperate struggle with the artist’s body hair in the animation loop titled Sarežģītais veltīgums (‘Complicated Futility’), the workings of one’s mind are bogged down in the quagmire of nocturnal nightmare. Although there is nothing particularly complicated there, what we see correlates well with many ‘real life’ Laocoonian situations. For instance, a grand and monumental bridge built in the late 19th century near Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been painted non-stop for 120 years: by the time they reach one end, the other is already getting rusty…
A similar nightmare goes around and round, in Hitchcockian manner, in the zootrope-like video installation Insomnia, where anonymous little people run a relentless marathon in a neverending circle. Here too, the “futility” of the process leads towards an existential contemplation on the “meaning of life”. And only the video-mediated image imbues it with a certain social angle of vision, and emotional uplift. However, the eternal questions – Who? Where to? Why? – remain open, and every now and then ring in one’s consciousness like wind chimes in a Zen Buddhist garden of stones.
The only wan lettuce-green touch of colour in the black and white composition somewhat marginally but consistently flashes in a number-haiku: 7, 6 / 5, 4, 3, 2 / 1, 10, scribbled on a small paper sticker. An element that could easily have failed stands out here with its conceptual finesse and intellectuality. As is the case with the exhibiton as a whole.
Not far off there is a black square on white, immediately eliciting an almost queasy association with Malevich: yuk, what banality! But nothing of the kind: this is again an intellectual and ironic challenge to yet another great master of European culture, film director Michelangelo Antonioni, setting his famous movie Blowup in counterpoint to Salmanis’ Blowdown which is a photogram of the famous cinematic piece in a 110 minute exposition.
And then there’s more – two installations of helium filled rubber balloons. The white balloon, “poor thing”, has been squashed under the weight of a wall, no less white, but the black bladder, proudly erect and pushing towards the ceiling, is held in check on a string in the very middle of the room. The viewer is invited to perform an act of communication with the balloon by treading on a small pedal. Like pulling a cat by its tail… The comic profundity of meaning behind the objects takes on quite a serious turn if we look at them from the positions of aestheticism, as elements vital for compositional balance in the exposition. This ever-present ambivalence, too, can be added as a special plus to the artistic achievements of Krišs Salmanis.
The notion of aestheticism has been brought to its highest point in Lūzera parkets (‘Loser’s parquet’) – a minimalist graphic pattern of parallel stripes laid out on the floor with black adhesive tape. The exhibition’s visual structure, alongside its philosophic content and ironic wit, reveals a definite pattern of geometrical forms, or an order, built by clearly defined black-and-white accents in layered arrangements of circles, squares and lines. Moreover, these are successfully synthesized with the architectonic whole of the exhibition room. And this is now a completely unexpected synergy, testifying to outstanding expertise and competence. It outgrows the level expected of a rank-and-file artist and raises this exhibition to being a truly multidimensional masterpiece.
Krišs Salmanis has reached Jesus’ age, an age when he should say good-bye to the status of ‘young artist’. In the words of a Latvian poet: “... a rabbit who runs into a forest, it’s a rabbit no more. It is a hare for sure.” But the forest of our art now resounds with the roar of a genuine and new tiger from the big world. May he always have “insomnia”.
Published in visual arts magazine Studija No. 75.
The Complicated Futility Trap
Solvita Krese, Director of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art
“Did I do something wrong today, or has the world always been like this and I’ve been too wrapped up in myself to notice?” asks a surprised Arthur Dent a couple of minutes before the end of the world.
Who hasn’t at one time or another felt that things aren’t quite as they appear. At times the trompe d'oeil effect could perhaps be to blame, or some artistic conceptual manoeuvre. Ceci n'est pas une pipe writes Rene Magritte under a picture where a pipe is unmistakeably depicted. A different artist, Marcel Duchamp in turn exhibited a urinal and announced that it was a work of art. The optical illusion of space repeatedly confuses the casual observer, stumbling against the surface of a wall instead of continuing his journey along a pergola-lined alley or in attempting to grasp an object pictured in a two dimensional plane. Krišs Salmanis uses neither surrealist tricks, nor ready made inspired overturns of meaning, but in his characteristically ironic manner, it seems, he manages to warn the observant viewer that something is not quite right with the world.
The artist tends to hide traps in the everyday portrayal of the environment. For example, in one of the video works, it is only after observing a languid Latvian sweltering summer country scene for a longer time that we notice that the tree which can be seen in the foreground is no longer found in its original spot (Swelter). The subtle movement creates an almost unnoticeable displacement of reality, allowing one to sense the world’s own pace, which takes place independently of us, and which we can only influence slightly. In another video we may not even notice the funeral procession, the appearance of which, like the mysterious twenty-fifth frame, briefly and unexpectedly appears at an empty country crossroads (All Roads). The brief appearance of this scene works like the punctum defined by Roland Barthes , “an attractive or cutting detail”, which tends to be incidental and almost unimportant, but strikes at the epicentre of attention and at times remains in the memory longer than the main picture.
The allegory about life’s journeys which all finish up inescapably the same is openly one of the most existential of Krišs’ works. Usually, ironic rebuses are created, whose existential despair is disguised behind a “complicated futility”. In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, this sign decorates the school library where a number of failed perpetual-motion machines are on display.
“Complicated futility” would be a suitable motto for the majority of Krišs Salmanis’ works. He is able to masterfully make simple things complex, and by joining a succession of moving pictures in a never ending loop, achieves a moving and at the same time grotesque reminder about the seeming futility of existence. A plasticine person going in a circle tries to clean up his dirty footprints (Rondo). This continues ad infinitum confirming the futility of action. Or one can, for a moment, view the silhouette of a man showering until he washes himself away and disappears. (Shower). Then the animated figure jumps into the picture again and it all starts anew, raising a string of questions about the loss of meaning and problems of representation.
It can be noticed that the author is drawn to small, seemingly unimportant stories; in a way, footnotes to some universal message or a personal diary. Small formats also dominate Krišs’ works – plasticine figurines, badges, small-scale installations, and marginalized display methods – miniature screens, difficult viewing angles. Prior to Latvia joining the European Union, the artist makes do without heroic narratives and flamboyance in creating a rather symbolic work about the Latvian mythical hero Lāčplēsis. The pompous promise, that along with his return and the death of the Black Knight better times will begin for the people, is condensed in a 36 picture video loop in which Lāčplēsis, as an animated stencil-drawn character, approaches along the street named after him. (The Moment Will Come ).
A number of images of the national hero can still be noticed on some of the electricity boxes in various sections of Lāčplēsis Street. They are real images which the artist has created by initially filming the desired movement, then splitting it into separate frames, redrawing them, creating stencils and spraying them on electricity boxes along the entire Lāčplēsis Street. The character in the shower was created in a similar way, drawn frame by frame on the bathroom walls, floor and plumbing, as was the plasticine character transformed step by step fixing each of its movements. That’s the way Krišs works – simple things done in a complex fashion, confronting scrupulously manual work and use of time with the possibilities of digital technology. Confirming the “complicated futility”, the work creation process itself participates in the creation of the work’s significance.
The majority of people would most likely say it can all be done so much simpler, especially by using the possibilities of digital technology, which itself at times provides a source of inspiration for the artist. As far as I know, the inspiration for the screeching vegetable levitating above the steaming pot was the desire to parody in analogue form a possible visual effect generated by a 3D programme, later using this effect in one of the little stories favoured by the artist (Why I am not a Vegetarian).
Doubting the possibilities of technology, as well as the deciding role of media and representation, the artist chooses to undertake a great part of the work creation process “for real” – photographing, drawing, re-photographing and only then working on the image digitally. Possibly it is an attempt to escape from the simulacra world, in which the image, interchanging with intertextuality, creates a never-ending loop in which the initial point of reference is lost. To be completely sure that everything is for real, Salmanis, quite in the spirit of the Viennese Actionists, subjects his body to various processes as well, both approaching the territory of body art, and continuing to ironize about the individual as a fragment of an original and authentic text.
Consumed by “the complicated futility” I return in my thoughts to Marcel Duchamp, who in my opinion also had a pretty sound knowledge of this method, visualising ironic commentary, imitating a resigned inactivity at a time when he was creating such work and time consuming projects, as The Large Glass, La Boîte en Valise and the enigmatic, difficult to decode Étant Donnés. It turns out that not even his closest friends knew about the creation of these works, as for this purpose the artist secretly rented a second workshop. A small part of the work created in secret appears in Duchamp’s self-portrait, in which the profile’s silhouette is supplemented by a fragment of the artist’s face cast. With tongue in cheek – the gesture which many recognize as a sign that something is not to be taken seriously.
“Tongue in cheek” also helps viewers while meeting “the lost” of Krišs Salmanis, allowing them to navigate safely between existential despair and a feeling of fatalism, losing themselves in an alternative translation, or stopping at the level of clever irony, which this time the artist uses less of than he does usually. Perhaps the attempt to do everything “for real” arises from ambiguous feelings, which, independently of physiological age, signal the fact of maturity and that one has to take care of things oneself in the end, and the clear insight that everything without fail will end up you-know-where.
Themes from nature, trees, a country road, a summer scene are only visual elements of language, to increase the feeling of urban alienation and haste, which doesn’t allow one to observe the moving tree unhurriedly and for a long time. The “Lost” series of works, it seems, performs a complete revolutionary somersault of meaning in opposing Kant’s world view that “Nature is beautiful because it looks like art, and art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as art while yet it looks like nature” Salmanis again plays out a conceptual trick and things don’t return to normal.
The trees connected by a taut line spin into a wide-ranging metaphor setting off a flood of associations (V). One of the two trees must bend. Or break. It is possible to apply the system of images created by the artist to any strength and power relationships – power against the individual, the state against the citizen, or to even allow it to resonate in the private space, as in the relationship between two people, trying to remain together as sovereign beings and unable to master this task. The answer is offered by the lone float, a curled up person, who in this pose continues to remain on the surface of the water quite well (sland). In observing Krišs’s works, at times it seems that the key to the main problem and the source of the sadness is the detachment of causes from their consequences, the inadequacy of the end and the means, and the discrepancy between subjective cause and objective result.
I still don’t know if Krišs will exhibit his work Wormhole II, which may not perfectly fit into the exhibition’s overall ambience, but would undoubtedly be the most cheerful piece in the show, as it would provide the possibility of escape, if not to another galaxy or time zone, then at least out of the existential oppression, away from the feeling that the stable foundation under our feet has gone and our usual system of values has collapsed, as the end of the hyper-rational era has already been declared. At one time the cover of a Vonnegut novel, released by “Dell” publishers, contained the statement “See how the world ends: Not with an explosion, but with something strange.” Krišs Salmanis has been able to say something similar without apocalyptical pathos, but with tongue in cheek.