Krišs Salmanis, Metro Surfer, 2019, stop-motion animated video, color, sound, 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Krišs Salmanis, Metro Surfer, 2019, stop-motion animated video, color, sound, 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Krišs Salmanis

As if subscribing to the national stereotype of the introverted Latvian, in his recent work Krišs Salmanis offered a nuanced proposal as to how to communicate at a time when mental and physical violence seems to have mutated along with the coronavirus, similarly crossing and closing down borders, cultures, and minds. The exhibition “Construction” documented Salmanis’s attempts and (self-professed) “clumsy failures” at observing and absorbing the place in which he found himself during a three-month residency at the A4 Art Museum in Chengdu, China, in 2019. Against the backdrop of the state-imposed spectacle surrounding the celebrations of the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic, the artist embarked on a choreography of his daily rounds, discovering the regional genre of opera and contesting the symbols of modernity that are ever present in contemporary China.

Salmanis used the large windows of the bedroom-size, glass-clad Galerija Alma to deliver his message amid the ongoing lockdown. First, strident sounds emanated from the speakers installed outside the gallery’s closed doors. Disrupting the otherwise sedate street life of Riga, this arresting two-and-a-half-minute loop mixed snippets of prerecorded sound with traditional Sichuan percussion recorded at the opera house in Chengdu. This was the audio track for the stop-motion animated video Metro Surfer, 2019, shown on a monitor inside the gallery. It evokes an abstract ballet performed by cheap boom-light stands whose shapes recall the silhouettes of humans who live by uninterruptedly scrolling through their phones, complemented by various geometric forms made from cut-out and painted corrugated cardboard. One such figure stood immobile in the gallery, along with a group of related photographs, while Salmani created the movements in the video by quasi collaging the props together and making them bounce as if they were shivering. Red and white circles and squares, black triangles, and various irregular forms in grays and blues evoked Russian Constructivism, Jean Tinguely’s Dada kinetics, and the aesthetic arsenal of contemporary Chinese political poster design.

In previous installations and videos, Salmanis has employed everything from Post-it notes, tattoos, and shaving rituals to large-scale labor-intensive interventions (a full-grown tree transported from rural Latvia, flipped upside down and set into motorized movement for the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale in 2013). Whatever the scale, his works tend to be loaded with codes, puns, and inside jokes, while conveying a meticulous record of everyday life through counting, measuring, remeasuring, and sampling. “Construction” thus revealed the backstage production of what the artist calls “my lateral entrance into a painting.” At the same time, it staged a somewhat joyous depiction of the problematically fundamental link between culture and politics. Toward the end of the video, an animated “loading” symbol appears, in what must be a nod to the Chinese Communist Party’s people-monitoring program. This system not only tracks the country’s citizens when they pay for groceries at the local market, but also renders Wi-Fi connections unsparingly slow. The fact that the artist needed a virtual private network to open his inbox, communicate with his family, or watch news from the outside world points to how the digital infrastructure whose functioning implicitly demands openness and global interconnectedness is so easily sacrificed for the sake of an overarching form that shapes reality. You may be attracted by how Chinese modernity looks but might dread the invisible narrative behind it. While “Construction” was initially sparked by incomprehension, amusement, and solitary research, Salmanis’s interest in movement, dance, and sound has shifted his disposition toward appropriation in favor of a sentient exploration of disturbingly common yet covert power.