Reservoir Dogs

Neringa Černiauskaitė on the second Riga Biennial

Lina Lapelytė and Mantas Petraitis’s Currents. All photos: Ugnius Gelguda.

AFTER FOUR HOURS OF HUFFING MY OWN BREATH under a mask on the bus from Vilnius, stepping out in Latvia’s capital for the second Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (Riboca) felt like entering a pre-Covid wonderland: Masks were not seen anywhere, bars were full, and foreign languages spilled out into the streets. The surrealism intensified the next morning, when guests from around the world(!), their brains buzzing from the mimosas on offer, were greeted by Riboca’s founder, director, and, finally, the curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel under Ugo Rondinone’s rainbow-painted plywood poem life time. The biennial’s theme? And suddenly it all blossoms. But no one—not even the Riboca team—could believe this was actually happening, at the foot of corona’s second wave. Pronouncing Covid-19 as “cocurator” of the biennial, Lamarche-Vadel invited visitors to be seduced, enchanted, by the new breeds, forms, and voices abloom here in the aftermath of the end of the world. The last six months, in my experience, have been neither enchanting nor seductive, but alternative narratives of a possible world were waiting ahead of us, in what some of us in the press pool were calling “The Zone”—the sprawling, postindustrial district of Andrejsala, Riboca 2’s Tarkovskian sandbox.

Curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel speaking under Ugo Rondinone’s life time.

Originally slated for May, this year’s Riboca indeed arrives with a cinematic twist: Amid the pandemic, the biennial-in-progress has been reconceived as a movie set, the backdrop and subject of an arthouse film that will capture “a dialogue between finished, unfinished and absent works.”

Gamely playing Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Lamarche-Vadel guided us through this strange, deserted site, proving that the straightest path is not always the shortest. There are certainly no shortcuts in re-creating Bridget Polk’s Balancing Rocks and Rubble performance. In less than ten minutes, the artist devised an elegant, modernist-looking sculpture by “simply” placing one rock on another. Visitors held their breath while Polk blew on the cairn to test its firmness—it stayed calm as a marble monument.

Monumentality was playfully dismantled in photocopies of Heinz Frank’s drawings displayed in one of the abandoned smaller houses. The Austrian artist sadly passed away at eighty-one, only a few days after the opening of the biennial, leaving his rhinoceros-shaped playground, derived from one of his drawings, for the youngest exhibition-goers to enjoy. Architecture as readymade became a point of departure for a subtly immersive site-specific installation, titled Habitaball and staged in a former paintball field, by a young Lithuanian artist named Anastasia Sosunova. “I was really fascinated that this fake paintball village had a church,” the artist screamed that night, trying to remain audible over the opening party’s music. Walking from one worn-down wooden house to another felt quite uncanny and as if we were peeping into someone’s private ritual rooms, where casts of actual objects—computer monitors, benches—were combined with more obscure, shamanic-like things made of found and handmade elements alike.

A sculpture by Heinz Frank.

As we passed tall meadows filled with healing plants sowed for the biennial by the Latvian doctor Vija Enina, Lamarche-Vadel stopped next to an orange table that advertised Dora Budor’s In the Year Of (companion piece), another commission forced to adapt to unforeseen conditions. Instead of being treated to Budor’s original work—a performance involving humans engaged in various mundane gestures usually designated to background actors—we were informed that there was a pack of shelter dogs roaming freely around the territory. My Huyghe-ish fantasies fell short when we encountered the real “performers”—an entourage of gorgeous, freshly shampooed collies hanging around their trainer. Apparently, these were canine actors hired for the biennial’s film, scripted by the curator and codirected with the Latvian director Dāvis Sīmanis, to premiere in November. Heartening to know that, even in this economy, there are still some jobs going around.

Tarkovskian tableau: dog actors to be featured in the biennial’s film.

Before entering the cool darkness of the main venue, an erstwhile warehouse overlooking an erstwhile harbor, we paused next to Currents, a colossal installation by the Lithuanian artist Lina Lapelytė and her partner, the architect Mantas Petraitis. Comprising over two thousand pine logs floating on water, the work explores the history of wood transportation via the Baltic rivers to the West, transforming the dangerous, masculine journey of raftsmen into a meditative and poetic “garden” of timber accompanied by Lapelytė’s soft voice seeping through nearby speakers.

It couldn’t be a better place for a Covid biennial, we all agreed as we walked to a sparse piece installed around Riga’s former harbor. No violation of six-feet distancing rules could be imagined here. Like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the setting presented viewers with objects of obscure origin: a pile of abstract clay shapes by Katrin Hornek, shiny metal sculptures in the shape of the devil emoji by Sarah Ortmeyer, snowmen-like figures made of straws and mud imagined by artist Augustas Serapinas and made by Rigan children. Videos from Alex Baczynski-Jenkins and Bendik Giske and a display of Riga postcards by Jaanus Samma elaborated on how queer communities are forced to constantly negotiate dangerous and violent zones, laws, and individuals.

A view of Mudmen, sculptures conceived by Augustas Serapinas and crafted by Rigan children.

And then there was the Positron—an enormous kinetic sculpture by the Latvian artist Valdis Celms designed in 1976 to improve morale at a Ukrainian factory but realized only now. Like a giant disco ball, I marveled, simply, as I watched the glimmering orb rotate. “We were fascinated by disco and jumping around,” Celms said the next day, as if having heard my thoughts. Despite my boosted morale, after touring the three floors of the warehouse—and becoming ever more entranced by the sounds exuding from various installations by Oliver Beer and Félicia Atkinson, among others—I began to fall deeper and deeper into a Stalkerish dream state. Only a shot of Latvian moonshine paired with sauerkraut could lift me from that condition. However, as there was no other option but to grab the cabbage with bare fingers from a large bowl, I chose not to take my chances and went for a spritz instead—I didn’t want Riboca’s “cocurator” to follow me home.