Conference reports Cease identification with territory, gender, race, and class

Usually, this triennial takes place in Lithuania, as it has since its foundation in the year 1979. But now, due to the celebration of the centennial of the restored three Baltic states, Kestutis Kuizinas, the leader of the Contemporary Art Centre, decided to suggest that they work collaboratively. Thematically, the 13th Baltic Triennial’s three-part format also shaped the way it was realized.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 52-54
Published on on March 7, 2019

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The 13th Baltic Triennial: Give up the Ghost opened in Vilnius (11 May–12 August 2018), before continuing to Tallinn (30 June–2 September 2018) and making a final stop in Riga (21 September–11 November 2018).
Organizers: Staff at Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius; CCA Estonia, Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn; Kim? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga.
Curatorial team: Vincent Honoré, Dina Akhmadeeva, Canan Batur, Neringa Bumbliene, Cédric Fauq, and Anya Harrison.
Artists: Caroline Achaintre, Evgeny Antufiev, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Carlotta Bailly Borg, Darja Bajagic’, Olga Balema, Khairani Barokka, Nina Beier, Huma Bhabha, Hannah Black, Dora Budor, Egle Budvytyte, Ben Burgis & Ksenia Pedan, Harry Burke, CA Conrad, Miriam Cahn, Adam Christensen, Jayne Cortez, Jesse Darling, Michael Dean, Anaïs Duplan, Melvin Edwards, Merike Estna, Gaia Fugazza, Penny Goring, Daiga Grantina, Caspar Heinemann, Anna Hulacová, Pierre Huyghe, Derek Jarman, Sandra Jogeva, Jamila Johnson-Small, Vytautas Jurevicius, E’wao Kagoshima, Sanya Kantarovsky, Agnes Krivade, Ella Kruglanskaya, Zygimantas Kudirka, Tarek Lahkrissi, Lina Lapelyte, Kris Lemsalu, Klara Lidén, Elina Lutce, Paul Maheke, Benoît Maire, marikiscrycrycry, Maria Minerva, Pierre Molinier, Moor Mother, Katja Novitskova, Precious Okoyomon, Pakui Hardware (Neringa Cerniauskaite and Ugnius Gelguda), planning to rock, AnuPoder, Laure Provost, Ieva Rojute, Rachel Rose, Max Hooper Schneider, Augustas Serapinas, Michael E. Smith, Ülo Sooster, Christopher Soto, Achraf Touloub, Mare Tralla, Ola Vasiljeva, Karlis Verdins, Jackie Wang, Liv Wynter, Young Boy Dancing Group, Young Girl Reading Group (Dorota Gaweda & Egle Kulbokaite).

I must admit that I was taken by surprise when I entered the first venue of the 13th Baltic Triennial at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius (CAC). When the artistic leader, Vincent Honoré, sat down with me, he did not tell me the story that I had prepared for. But then, I had not been to the pre-opening night in London. Now, I thought that this was yet another triennial, that would use the three capitals’ picturesque cultural history as a backdrop for contemporary artists’ comments. Instead, he drew my attention to the relations and a new ecology of co-existence between the cultural history of the cities. Gender, race, feminism, and class were at the core of the curatorial concept. This is as common in the art world as it is uncommon in the Baltic states. My experience is that one looks in vain for black people and only hesitatingly met people who refer to themselves as feminists. There seems be an obstacle for this in the religious and nationalist sentiments in the Baltic states.

To “give up the ghost” is a figure of speech that actually refers to dying. However, the curatorial team also provided another option: to cease identification with territory, gender, race, and class. Indeed, an appealing thought in these times of jingoism and populist politics. And all members of the curatorial team that I spoke with during the opening stressed how important it is to address these topics. Usually, this triennial takes place in Lithuania, as it has since its foundation in the year 1979. But now, due to the celebration of the centennial of the restored three Baltic states, Kestutis Kuizinas, the leader of the Contemporary Art Centre, decided to suggest that they work collaboratively. Thematically, the 13th Baltic Triennial’s three-part format also shaped the way it was realized.

The curatorial team’s selected artists — as well as their consequent catalogue entries — were given a queer slant. For instance, they used the pronouns “they/their” for artists of both sexes. The guidance for the catalogue-writers was to avoid separate chapters, and instead to work with different voices. And, of course, to make the catalogue into one coherent work with the artists ordered alphabetically. This decision proved to be mostly a nuisance for the reader because one suspected there was a risk of missing some artist or other. However, each of the venues had its own separate leaflet with the artists present.

There was a pre-opening at the South London Gallery in the UK, where the audience was given “an opportunity to experience Gaia Fugazza’s mouth sculptures” alongside Liv Wynter who gave a reading of their spoken words, Mare Tralla performed “We Still Have Chickens to Pluck”, Adam Christensen brought out his accordion for “Red bra in a martini glass”, and marikiscrycrycry performed excerpts from their newest work, “Hotter Than A Pan.” A most interesting lineup.

This years’ Baltic Triennial, “Give up the Ghost”, started with the question: What does it mean to belong at a time of fractured identities? What, indeed. An extremely hard question, one that required the full powers of imagination of one person — or six people, seven if one includes the interior architect. The curatorial statement held out that there would be a tripartite show — in Vilnius: Formless subjectivity; in Tallinn: Bastard objects; and in Riga, finally: Anti-categories. However, I failed to perceive this distinction between the three venues. I think that the Vilnius venue stood out in terms of how the exhibition was put together. For example, it had an interior architect of its own, Diogo Passarinho, who outlined the contours of an older building within the present one. Neringa Bumbliene of the curatorial team told me that we were in the former Jewish ghetto. She said that Vilnius used to be an open-minded and cosmopolitan city, one that did not care about roots and that Lithuanians used to be a minority in the country.

Something that was very clear, however, was that inspiration had been drawn from Martinican poet-philosopher-playwright Édouard Glissant. You could argue about the necessity of dealing with the past; but his postcolonial spirit hovered over the entire exhibition, and perhaps most of all over the first part in Vilnius. There, fittingly in the cellar of the Contemporary Art Centre, one found Korakrit Arunanondchai’s video With history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 (2017). This video showed mixed footage of the artist’s grandparents in what looked like a Thai home for elderly people and a green spirit in human shape. Most striking was the artist’s grandmother who suffered from dementia — or was it her relatives who suffered? She grappled with her slippers, tried them on her hands, put them in her mouth and tasted them, before she stowed them away in an empty space under the table in front of her. Behaving like she had never encountered such things, she seemed to vacillate between states of unease and contentment. Here, the artist Arunanondchai seemed to trace his relation to his grandparents, accepting their sinking into a sea of oblivion, while calling on the spirit Chantri. Like Glissant’s Tout-Monde/Whole-World, both a realization of the world’s full poetic potential — and its opposite, the withheld and imagined in a paradoxical combination.

Pierre Huyghe had a very explicit video piece, The Host and the Cloud (2001), in this first part of the show. It included half-naked bodies suggestively moving around in dark spaces. It lasted for more than two hours, as long as a cinema film, and was shown in a black box. When I looked it up in the catalogue, I found Bumbliene’s clarifying description of it as hovering on the “slippery fringe between reality and fiction”. And that it captured three days — Halloween, Valentine’s, and May Day. It could fit the theme of formless subjectivity — all mysterious and dark.

Tallinn also offered some strong pieces. It opened with a performance by Adam Christensen, the same howling Red bra in a martini glass. Klara Lidén’s films Paralyzed (2003) and Mythos des Fortschritts (Moonwalk) (2008) have aesthetic expressions that differ from each other, and seem to be hung for the contrast. The first one features a young woman going berserk and making somersaults among half-sleeping train commuters, while the “Mythos…” is a contemplative backwards moonwalk to Philip Glass’s soundtrack of Koyaanisqatsi; an American documentary film from 1983 by Godfrey Reggio, that shows alternately landscapes and cityscapes in both slow-motion and at double speed. While the first piece was rather forcedly cheerful, the second struck a melancholy chord, also ending up recalling Glissantian paradoxes.

There were many poetic, spoken word, performative, and time-based pieces. In the stairwell, eerie musical chords could be heard at even intervals. Lina Lapelyte’s sound piece was based on structures, like George Kubler’s groundbreaking book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Time (1967) that broke off from the well-rehearsed male white canon to form a new narrative based on structural rules. What Lapelyte draws from this work is a reflection on the structures of notes and intervals that make up musical scores. This means that space opens up in the canon for a postcolonial critique of abstract art.

This also holds true for Young Boys’ Dancing Group. Five or six males and one female performed a sort of candomblé — a syncretistic Catholic-Congolese religion — inspired dance with burning candles and light-pens stuck up their anuses. (This particular work had an age limit of 14 years for the audience. Nothing should be taken for granted in the Baltic States.)

It was a stroke of genius by Kestutis Kuizinas, long-time director of Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, to suggest Vincent Honoré as a curator to his colleagues at the Baltic institutions for contemporary art, even with all blemishes and faults, as when the Triennial opened in Vilnius and the curator did not seem to remember the names of all the artists. Other reviewers reacted against the lack of local artists. But in fact, when I read the catalogue, I saw that the ratio between local and “international” (whatever that means in our globalized world) was no worse than usual.

In Riga, there were only a handful of artists left. Pierre Huyghe screened a second film, Untitled (Human Mask, 2014), and there was Dora Budor’s Dust (“a ‘Midas touch’ in reverse”, as Anya Harrison on the curatorial team had it in her catalogue entry) and Ksenia Pedan’s and Ben Burgis’s installation Memory Room: A Ghost of a Ghost. These Memories spread out in the shape of plaster casts kept in dirty plexiglass boxes where a shoe or a broken sofa could also be found. Budor’s piece made everything look aged and abandoned. Specks of dust tainted the plexiglass or rolled through the air like tumbleweed to land randomly in Pedan’s and Burgis’s installation. In a grand finale of the opening, Caroline Achaintre’s huge wicker construction that first appeared in Vilnius was torched — prosaically by a firefighter, but to a real poetical and spiritual effect — and went up in flames.

Once it reached its final destination in Riga and could be compared with the Riga Biennial, it was clear that this was no ordinary triennial. It made no attempt to put any capital on the map by making the venues coincide with local heritage sites or to activate situated narratives. Nor did it seem to look for a region-forming mechanism. That is, if one does not see the queer qualities as a provocation to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. ≈


  • by Charlotte Bydler

    PhD, is a lecturer at the department of art history and research coordinator in the cultural theory field, Center for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University, Sweden.

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