Riga, Latvia

Kader Attia, Reflecting Memory, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes. From Survival Kit 10.0.

Kader Attia, Reflecting Memory, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes. From Survival Kit 10.0.

Survival Kit 10.0

Riga Circus

Kader Attia, Reflecting Memory, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes. From Survival Kit 10.0.

The theme of this year’s edition of the Latvian capital’s annual contemporary art festival, Survival Kit, was the broadly interpretable notion of “outlands.” This was meant to encompass any number of ideas, from the peripheral status of cities such as Riga and other Eastern European capitals in the international art world (along with, perhaps, the inference that it is on these peripheries, outside the watchful eye of the market and the gaze of trend spotters, where the truly exciting and innovative developments are taking place) to the even more remote position of those “other places” that are too war-torn and troubled to even carry the dubious quasi-colonial vestige of the “exotic.” It’s from those places that refugees arrive to crowd Europe’s shores. The festival intended to evoke the myriad ways that otherness is constituted and, on a macro level, the recrudescence of various nationalisms as underlying mythologies of the present—the latter ironically exemplified by this year’s centenary-of-Latvia celebrations, which visiting journalists are constantly reminded of and encouraged to report on by the local public-relations bureaucrats. (With the ending of a little thing called World War I, 1918 was an auspicious year for Europe; many countries are now celebrating their hundredth anniversary.) 

Joining Solvita Krese and Inga La¯ce, from the organizing Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, Àngels Miralda from Berlin and Sumesh Sharma from Barcelona and Mumbai were brought in to co-helm the exhibition. This past September’s event was meant to be part one and took place in the quarters of the Riga Circus, a building dating from 1888. (The second part, with the same curators and theme but in a different, still unannounced location, will open in May.) The circus itself has been on hiatus as it undergoes a transformation, phasing out the old-fashioned animal acts now recognized as inhumane in favor of more interdisciplinary, acrobatic art forms, and the building felt eerily abandoned. 

One entered the exhibition through the back gate, with the first rooms staged in what must have been the former animal holding cells, and then one moved on through to the main arena. Some of the works appeared to respond to this environment. Paper Trampoline, 2018,a collaboration between the late Indian master printer Krishna Reddy and the Algerian-born French artist Nas-reddine Bennacer, deployed Reddy’s clown imagery in three pastel works on Japanese paper, each stretched on a metal ring. Outside the entrance hung a festive mural by Cassius Fadlabi, Tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese Sharpshooters), 2018, depicting the canine cosmonaut Laika flanked by two Afro-haired angels in floral robes bearing swords. The work simultaneously referred to the demise of the Soviet sphere of which Latvia was once a part; “sharpshooters,” poorly trained African soldiers who were used by the French to bait the enemy in World War I; and the martyred Laika, a Moscow stray who died in spaceflight. Perhaps she also symbolized the Latvian circus’s decision in 2016 to discontinue the use of animals. 

The most memorable work in the show, however, was Kader Attia’s 2016 video Reflecting Memory, a series of interviews that poetically evoke the phenomenon of the “phantom limb,” wherein an amputee continues to feel pain in a missing body part—a metaphor for many forms of social, political, and cultural trauma. The loss of one’s parents, for example, may occasion a similar psychological phenomenon; one can go further and see this pain at work in entire communities. To be Armenian or Jewish, for instance, means feeling the pain of genocide, even though one may not have experienced this trauma directly. “All human groups are based on the idea of ghosts and specters,” argues one of the interviewees, the psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama, “because human groups wouldn’t exist without the deceased. The dead and the places of the dead form what is called the ethos of the community.” This, he explains, is why many migrants yearn to be buried in their home countries. Watching this video in the haunted space of the abandoned Riga Circus, in a country still coming to grips with a legacy of Soviet occupation, one suddenly began to feel the presence of absence.