Katrīna Neiburga, Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017, two-channel video, color, sound, 11 minutes 44 seconds. From the 1st Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Katrīna Neiburga, Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017, two-channel video, color, sound, 11 minutes 44 seconds. From the 1st Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art

Various venues

Riga’s skin, like that of most cities, bears the marks of its past. The wood of its nineteenth-century houses has swelled and shrunk through seasons; the faces of gargoyles hanging from the pillars and cornices of its twentieth-century Art Nouveau buildings are chipped into bewilderment. Flowers and weeds burst through cracks in the polished concrete and asphalt of modern infrastructures.

The first edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More,” evokes the waves of time that form history and proposes that our present is out of sync with this continuity. Homo technicus, if you will, has invented a new, technological temporality that has accelerated contemporaneity toward its own extinction. The biennial chose to unpack the historical rupture occasioned by emancipation from Soviet rule and incorporation into a capitalist system through the ecological scars left by those processes. Diana Lelonek’s Centre of Living Things, 2016–18, for instance, showcases this new nature: Five glass vitrines, complete with museum-style labels, contain found objects such as plastics and pipes knotted in a thicket of moss; fossilized foam resembles a rhizome; a shoe appears as a lichen in a landfill. Condensation forms inside the glass cases, clouding our view of these relics and suggesting unseen forces: breathing, monstrous, invisible.

Founded by Russian art patron Agniya Mirgorodskaya and curated by Katerina Gregos along with associate curators Solvej Helweg Ovesen and Ioli Tzanetaki, the biennial seems torn between conflicting impulses: to import some of Western Europe’s prevailing debates to a Latvian public or to showcase regional trends. Of the 104 artists included, about a third are from Baltic countries. The biennial’s eight venues are situated in symbolic locations: the former seat of the faculty of biology of the University of Latvia, an ex-Bolshevik textile factory compound, a cork factory turned art museum, a warehouse, a boat, a bar, patron Kristaps Morbergs’s apartment, and the train station of the affluent beach town of Dubulti, just outside of Riga. The last is home to a separately titled sub-exhibition, which departs from the rest of the biennial both geographically and stylistically, refocusing our senses away from the visual. In “The Sensorium: A Laboratory for the Deceleration of the Body and for a New Politics of the Senses,” Sissel Tolaas’s olfactory laboratory beyond SE(A)nse, 2018, elicits both pleasant and putrid scents from the Baltic Sea. Anne Duk Hee Jordan’s Ziggy and the Starfish, 2016–18, is a sculptural installation in which the viewer floats on a waterbed, listening to music from a 1970s porno film while watching a video of the strange, tentacular, sexually diverse world of seahorses and octopuses as they struggle and morph amid rising temperatures and oil spills.

The former biology faculty displays a more distanced approach, with works examining the effects of scientific progress on landscapes scattered among cabinets containing microscopes and beakers left over from the building’s previous life. Katrīna Neiburga’s video Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017, shows the artist, her husband, and her child enjoying a wild, summery, naked day in a freakish forest where everything is slightly eerie. On a split screen, they appear and disappear, scrambling through a swamp of blue ooze, bursting out of pasty algae in a pond, or slinking through its viscous water. The landscape looks luminous but is potentially contaminated. In Julian Rosefeldt’s forty-three-minute film In the Land of Drought, 2016, a surveillance drone hovers above a group of scientists as they probe an extinct planet. With its beautiful, barren compositions of geometric relics, the film encounters the ghosts of the future unearthing the ghosts of the past, asking, in the process, What is it that we really make while we’re here? Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko’s Dziedināšana Remedies, 2018, is a hardcover book documenting Latvian traditions of herbal remedies and healing. The culmination of a seven-year project, it is an archive of communal wisdom, generations old, documenting a form of friendship with the natural world and an informal network of shared, private knowledge of self-care in the face of the official sciences. The book functions as a microcosm of the biennial as a whole, embodying an art that takes its time to unravel, as if slowing down were itself a remedy.