The inaugural edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More,” is titled after a 2005 book by the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak addressing the inherent paradox underlying the Soviet experience of Communism’s end. “The system’s collapse had been profoundly unexpected and unimaginable to many Soviet people until it happened,” Yurchak writes, “and yet it quickly appeared perfectly logical and exciting when it began. Many discovered that, unbeknownst to themselves, they had always been ready for it.” People in the Baltics were arguably readier than most: independent countries prior to their forceful incorporation into the Soviet Union in World War II, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia consider the entire Soviet era to have been one of illegal foreign occupation.
But the invocation of Yurchak’s book turns out to be a red herring. Curator Katerina Gregos drops the historical specificity of his argument, stretching it to accommodate the nebulous theme of change in general—per her catalogue essay, “how it is anticipated, experienced, grasped, assimilated and dealt with at this time of accelerated transitions and the increasing speeding up of our lives.” In other words: iPhones and the Anthropocene.
Comprising an assortment of what Gregos frames as chapters, which unfold in venues across the city, the biennial suffers from a conceptual bagginess that tends to produce homogeneous presentations that do little to elucidate the terms of the individual works. The first and longest chapter, which plays out in a shabby fin-de-siècle building in the city center, is emblematic: formerly home to the University of Latvia’s faculty of biology, this venue contains a presentation predictably centered on the relationship between humans and nature, variously exploring fantasies of a return to origins and offering melancholy reflections on obsolescence, bioethics, evolution and adaptation, the poetics of landscape, and apocalyptic doom. Occasionally, the display seems almost algorithmically organized, as if it assembles the results of a database search for art tagged “nature.”
Nevertheless, some works manage to stand out: Diana Lelonek’s Center for Living Things (2016–18) considers the new hybrid forms that have emerged as organisms are forced to adapt to the routine presence of man-made waste. Vitrines hold slabs of polyurethane, old shoes, plastic packaging, and computer parts sprouting with living moss, fungi, and weeds, all of which the artist collected in the wild—mostly from illegal dump sites in her native Poland—and catalogued over the course of two years. In Katrīna Neiburga’s video Pickled Long Cucumbers (2017), a surreally funny riff on Thoreau’s Walden, a couple emerges naked from a swamp and makes a stumbling attempt to live off the grid against a soundtrack of thumping techno. Sven Johne’s spare pseudo-documentary, A Sense of Warmth (2015), gives a darker view of the dropout impulse: the unseen narrator moves to a nature preserve on a remote island in an attempt to leave behind the dehumanizing effects of modern life, only to inflict them unwittingly on the creatures in her care. While several works speculate about the end results of environmental catastrophe, the Finnish duo IC-98’s computer-generated animation Epokhe (The Last Sixth of the Final Hour), 2017, is the most dramatic, continuously looping a fire-and-brimstone vision of the last ten minutes of life on Earth.
The biennial’s strongest, most thematically cohesive chapter is located a few blocks away, in the half-preserved prewar apartment of Latvian philanthropist Kristaps Morbergs (1844–1928). Here, the legacy of Communism is revisited via its traces, with works employing archival and documentary forms to address relationships between the built environment, social transformation, and collective memory. In one room, Sputnik Photos, a Warsaw-based collective, has created a site-specific installation based on their project “Lost Territories Archive” (2008–16), for which they traveled around the former Soviet republics documenting emblems of post-socialist transition. Enlarged photographs from the archive—of, for instance, a half-built futuristic tower in Anaklia, Georgia, that was part of a failed development project championed by former president Mikheil Saakashvili—peek out from beneath torn wallpaper that appears to be original to the apartment, the combination suggesting a reverse palimpsest that hints at the excavational nature of their work.
Indrė Šerpytytė’s (1944–1991) Former NKVD-MVD-MGB-KGB Buildings (2009–), a set of stacked metal shelves lined with miniature wooden sculptures of houses and apartment blocks, reflects a similar archival impulse: the artist used declassified government files to identify the domestic buildings secretly utilized as sites for the interrogation and torture of dissidents by Soviet security agencies in Lithuania and commissioned a Lithuanian woodcarver to reproduce them. Elsewhere in the apartment, Henrike Naumann’s installation Eurotique (2018), a period room evoking the phenomenon of “Eurorepair,” the wave of post-socialist home renovations using inexpensive materials like linoleum and plasterboard to emulate Western European interiors, emphasizes the 1990s rush to erase remnants of the Soviet past.
One biennial chapter is divided among spots around the industrial port of Andrejsala. Among the works are Alexis Destoop’s ludic documentary Phantom Sun (2017) and Karel Koplimets’s video installation Case No. 11: TALSINKI (2016/18), both of which use the maritime crossings between the former East and Scandinavia as a metonym for broader geopolitical and economic shifts; the latter, which is shown on a docked boat, highlights the diverging fates of Estonian day laborers and Finnish tourists traveling on the ferry between Tallinn and Helsinki. Another portion of the biennial is housed in a building used as a studio by Riga-based painter Andris Eglītis at the former Bolshevichka textile factory complex; a handful of works exploring entropy and decay (by Ieva Balode, Robert Kuśmirowski, Žilvinas Landzbergas, and Andrejs Strokins) are interspersed among Eglītis’s paintings and studio detritus to create a display evoking the derelict state of the surrounding buildings.
Subsequent chapters deal with neoliberalism’s social and psychic effects. Hannah Anbert’s Sacred Work Fashion Collection (2016–18) imagines bizarre new liturgical vestments—such as a priest’s stole with the signature colors and details of a stock exchange trading jacket—for a culture that follows the gospel of work. Nearby, a new installation by Taus Makhacheva—a highlight of the biennial—takes the form of a large room filled with speakers placed on tripods at roughly eye level. From these unsettlingly anthropomorphized speakers play recordings of people repeating the first lines of emails apologizing for a delayed response, ranging from the perfunctory (“Your email was trapped in my spam”) to the intimate and confessional (“I miss you too much to write”; “I’ve been avoiding your question”). Surrounded by this chorus of anxiety, I felt a sense of visceral dread: the horror of self-recognition, panic at the thought of my own unanswered messages piling up.
While the biennial makes creative, thoughtful use of Riga’s urban environment and Gregos’s selection of artists is refreshing—of the ninety-seven artists and groups, the bulk of them from the Baltics and Scandinavia, few are regulars on the international biennial circuit—the exhibition is weighed down by an underdeveloped curatorial framework: “change” is a non-concept, so broad and slippery that it can be mapped onto virtually anything. Unwilling to define its terms, the biennial fails to cohere into more than the sum of its parts.