Jānis Zuzāns | Art ought to be shown

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Jānis Zuzāns, photo Otto Strazds

Since the late 1990’s when Dina and Jānis Zuzāns started collecting Latvian modern art master pieces, the local cultural landscape has received purposefully and passionately guided support for creative, artistic and socially beneficial expression. Thus, in the beginning of 2008, in collaboration with the Latvian National Museum of Art, Jānis Zuzāns founded the most significant award in Latvian art – ‘Purvītis Prize’. And in 2014, gathering like-minded people, a foundation ‘Mākslai vajag telpu’ (Art Needs Space) was established to draw attention to the fact that Latvia still lacks a museum devoted to the art of the second half of the 20th century. Soon after the ‘Art Needs Space’ summer house came into being, serving as a creative and experimental platform for exhibitions, artist talks, performances and discussions.

For a couple of years now at the premises of the historical cork factory on Lāčplēša street 101, Zuzāns family has been developing ZUZEUM – a new, timely art centre of an international scale. At its core – Zuzāns private collection, consisting of more than 5000 works of Latvian painting, graphic and applied art, sculpture, photography and video art from the late 19th century until today. While the factory awaits its reconstruction, its premises has already welcomed the first edition of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) and other events. Once the reconstruction is finished and the doors are open to the public, ZUZEUM, located at the junction of two main transport arteries, will become an important quarter, nurturing artistic, cultural and social processes.

Some time has already passed since you founded ZUZEUM and started inhabiting the historical cork factory. What is the current development stage of the art centre?

The design process is still in progress. I really hope that by April we’ll submit the project to the Riga City Construction Board and in May or June will receive the permission to build. The construction is planned in three stages – at first, creating the office and art repository, then reconstructing the old building, and in the last phase – developing the surrounding public areas. In three years’ time everything should come together.

Meanwhile there are cultural events are already taking place at the premises, ‘ZUZEUM: The Ear’ has opened...

Yes. ‘The Ear’ functions as a shop, a meeting place, an open office and a cinema spot. This way we’re positioning ZUZEUM as a space already welcomed and enlivened by young people, they know it and it’s on their radar. Our idea is to create a place where young people and everybody who is interested in alternative cinema and culture can meet and talk. That’s also where our ‘ZUZEUM 101’ programme takes place, involving young and active people into various art- related projects.

During these couple of years while the art centre is shaping up, has your personal vison of ZUZEUM somehow evolved or changed from its initial origin?

Everything changes, flows. Before we set our eye on the cork factory on Lāčplēša street, we bought a territory on the corner of Kalnciema and Melnsila streets. That is where the former vinyl records factory ‘Melodija’ was located

and where the ‘Art Needs Space’ summer house has been opened for the last years. It seemed that we could set our base there. We already did sketches, hired architects and started investing into the development of this corner, but then the cork factory appeared on the market. This place is more interesting, it embodies a historical aura. Also, its volume seems more “friendlier” to me, because we can’t strive for enormous spaces like ‘Tate’ or Centre Pompidou has. Those are mine and Dina’s personal finances we’re investing. This place felt more exciting, more accessible and malleable. The idea with ZUZEUM is to focus on the new, the contemporary but all museums or art centres nowadays has it the same, only nuances change.

What are those nuances that are important for you?

Both I and Dina find it important to work with young adults and children who don’t really have any fascinations or hobbies. Especially those young people who live and grow up in this particular neighbourhood. If we could engage them and some would become interested in art and culture – that would already be a great success. By developing ZUZUEM we’re creating some sort of an ecosystem. And our intention for the space surrounding the art centre is to alter the environment so that it’s no more a periphery of the city centre but an extension of it. Also, if the railway embankment would be taken down when building the ‘Rail Baltica’, it would make it easier for such an extension to be developed and stretch into the adjacent Moscow suburb. Then, also the young people living in this suburb would have a place to come and engage in different happenings. Maybe not only getting involved in the art processes; perhaps we could build something of their interest in the outside space of ZUZEUM. This place should become intellectually and creatively charged... We’re deeply interested in working with the young local society.

How do you envision the art centre finished – both visually and in substance?

ZUZEUM definitely won’t be static, it will consist of several sections. The permanent collection; although relatively “permanent”, because we’re planning to change the exposition once a year. Possibly 20% of it won’t change – those would be the everlasting art values. In addition to that we’re planning to have two changing exhibition spaces, where to exhibit works of both our private collection, as we have already been practicing at the Mūkusala Art Salon, and the young and not so young Latvian and Baltic artists. A whole separate section of spaces will be intended for conferences, exhibitions and public events. We hope to develop this section so that the art centre could be financially self-sufficient. We’re also going to bring over the whole research division, currently formed by six scientific researchers, as well as restorers and professionals in charge of the repository.

You mentioned the corner of Kalnciema and Melnsila streets, where the ‘Art Needs Space’ summer house resides. What’s in the plans for this summer?

This year the summer programme will be moved closer to the Art Academy of Latvia because mobility is at the basis of ‘Art Needs Space’. For four years we have been activating this corner and now we’ll let it rest. All happenings will take place behind the academy, by Rainis monument in Esplanade. Since the aim of ‘Art Needs Space’ is to search for a place where to exhibit art, it can be anywhere! The Art academy is celebrating its centenary this year, therefore this summer’s exhibition and event series is organised in partnership with the academy. The events will still take place inside the shipping containers but their placement will be rearranged. The facades of the containers will stay black to retain our already established and recognized image, yet plywood or plastic “sticky notes” will be attached to the facades as a reference to a notice board, since ‘Art Needs Space’ functions as a herald of art processes to the society.

The discussions have fallen silent, yet the lack of a museum devoted to art of the second part of the 20th century is still pressing. What is the current status of it?

There’s still no such museum. It’s almost unbelievable, what more I can say! To my regret, there is still no national support for neither the museum of art of the second half
of the 20th century nor the museum of contemporary art. In fact, we need two museums! It's like a national business card these days! It may sound a bit arrogant since I might know a small circle of people, however all my acquaintances when visiting an unknown country, especially its capital, always start with a visit to the museum of contemporary art. The contemporary is the reference point of everything. And if we still go by saying: “You know, it’s not really relevant at the moment but maybe in ten years,” then it pathetic. We don’t comprehend the time we live in! We just dance and sing, and still live in the 1870’s.

“...Zuzāns private collection, consisting of more than 5000 works of Latvian painting, graphic and applied art, sculpture, photography and video art”
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Džemma Skulme | “Folksong” (“Tautasdziesma”) | 1969 | canvas, oil | 98.5 x 135 cm
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Džemma Skulme | “Folksong” (“Tautasdziesma”) | 1969

What’s your opinion of why we’re still so far behind in building a museum of contemporary art on a national level? Already in the 1960’s we had an intent of an Art exhibition hall at Uzvaras park, then in 2006 Rem Koolhaas’ project at Andrejsala, and most recently – contemporary art museum in Skanste neighbourhood that fell through. What’s stopping us now?

Incomprehension of processes! It’s a very short-sighted view on positioning a country and the necessity of contemporary art. Until now only one Minister for Culture – Helēna Demakova – has fully understood the necessity of such institutions and strived to turn this vision into reality. That’s why she had the idea of three brothers – the museum of contemporary art, the concert hall and the national library. One of the brothers has been built, sort of... (laughs) The rest are still waiting for their turn. But it’s just a matter of decisiveness and commitment. If we don’t have a museum of contemporary art we can’t normally engage in conversations with other institutions of such scale internationally – neither Centre Pompidou, nor ‘Tate Modern’, MoMA, etc. It is unwillingness to understand that the society, its interests and perception are changing. What one considers excellent art might be scribbles on  canvas for others; but you must work with the audience. Right there the value of art lies – everyone gets their own batch of emotions. I myself might not be the biggest fan of conceptual art but at least I’m trying to make sense of it. Nor am I fascinated by reading the long descriptions of artworks; I wish for a “shortcut” to art (laughs) So that it bespeaks me quicker. At other times, however, you linger at a conceptual work and suddenly realise – yes, there’s something to it! In that sense RIBOCA was a wonderful event. In my opinion it was the most significant of all the art and culture events last year. The Song and Dance Festival is wonderful, I applaud it, and I’m happy that people are so excited about singing and dancing, but I disagree when it’s promoted as the only cultural phenomenon of our national importance. And that is why we also need the museum of art of the second half of the 20th century, so that we can present our art in this hundred-year cut. When you go to the Latvian National Museum of Art where the collection of artworks of the second part of the 20th century are exhibited, some notable artists are not even represented there. And those who are, are represented by one or two of their works. What can you gather about the artist from just that? We just don’t know how to show our capabilities and power; that’s why we still remain outsiders in the art world, and that’s why nobody takes us into account.

Was it because of this that you collectively founded ‘Art Needs Space’?

It was a cry of desperation! With ‘Art Needs Space’ we took a stance for a place to be dedicated to art of that particular period, and for this place to be the building on Kaļķu street 1, which will soon be vacated by the Riga Technical University. The building itself is an architectural monument of Stalin’s era. We walked through it and realized it could be wonderfully transformed! We’re a group of like-minded people, united by the idea to urge the society and the governmental authorities to create such a museum. I deeply hope that sooner or later we are going to be heard and the museum will be made. Meanwhile, we continue to talk about it and try to fill in the gaps by curating exhibitions.

Could you share your vision for this museum?

The museum could be a completely separate volume in any accessible part of the city. It’s important that it exists at all. I’ve come to a realisation that I don’t like museums that require a full day to be visited, I get tired. It’s enough if you spend two or three hours there. Therefore it would be wise to separate everything that has been created until WWII or better yet everything until the 20th century in one volume, leaving the rest of to be displayed in another setting. There might be a chance that the exhibition hall Arenāls is soon going under construction. The new repository on Pulku street is about to be finished, and the artworks from the left wing of Arsenāls will be moved there. Arsenāls can be “embraced” and shaped, maybe there is even another volume to be found next to it. That would be a suitable place because we already associate it with the 20th century. It’s important to create a permanent exposition big enough so that we can display our post-war artists, such as Borisss Bērziņš, Jānis Pauļuks, Biruta Baumane, Edgars Iltners and others, in full spectrum. The country must be presented by its artists; the art ought to be shown. It should not be in a standstill, forgotten.

Why are you particularly interested in post-war art?

I’m interested in contemporary art as well, but it seems to me the second part of the 20th century is undeservedly forgotten. I’ve also developed a certain amount of spite
as a result of conversations I’ve had with my foreign acquaintances of the art world who sometimes express an attitude of “Well, what could you possibly have created in the time of socialism?” I want to show that our socialism was just as good as their capitalism (laughs). The fact that they had more money or the market relations were different doesn’t necessarily mean that the artistic processes differed. Conformism in art existed on both sides. Sure, I agree, socialism had more because that is how you could sell your work but not all artists painted the heroes of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and socialism, or made busts of Lenin. For example, Rūdolfs Pinnis. He was repressed in the 1970’s, his exhibition was closed and he went through a breakdown, depression, but in the 80’s he’s a blast, in the 60’s – a bomb! It’s not socialism what he represents. If he had lived in France or the USA he would be a star!

Which work of art or an individual’s achievement would you consider the most important value of Latvian art in the time frame from the second half of the 20th century until now?

It’s hard to compare the 1960’s, the 90’s and the time we’re living in now. There’s no such work of art that can unite it all so I’d rather highlight the creative output of quite a few personalities. ‘The Folk Song’, painted by Džemma Skulme in 1969, is a very dramatic and tragic image. Creating it was extremely daring considering the context of those times. Back then it was like a howl of pain, and it still is a vivid example of the power of art and painting. Džemma embodies the might and the avant-garde of painting; she is one of the most significant milestones of the 20th century’s culture.

Also Miervaldis Polis’ series of works ‘The Island of Colossus’, created in the middle of the 1970’s is something remarkable. Polis was a bright, unusual and extraordinary personality – a painter, a performance artist, a theoretician and a fantasist. His appearance on the Latvian art scene was so vivid, even shocking for that time. By blending photorealism with fantastic visions he created a travelogue about the journey through time and space. There were giant colossuses in the shape of fingers – the ruins of an ancient culture, with him or the painter Līga Purmale posing side by side to them. Miervaldis Polis freely “wandered” in Venice or America, or inside the paintings of other artists. He travelled in time, space and his own fantasies. Captivating are the works of the so-called supergraphic artists form the 1980’s – ‘Icarus’ (1987) by Andris Breže and the ‘Continuous Choice’ (1986) by Ojārs Pētersons. Juris and Vilnis Putrāms, Kristaps Gelzis, Indulis Gailāns, Normunds Lācis must also be noted. They were a collective of artists who changed the whole notion of graphic art as a medium, creating a proper Latvian art phenomenon – large-scale silk screen prints on paper. Their art was very expressive, they dared to talk about socially and politically charged subjects. Also the so-called ‘Group of Gentle Fluctuation’: Ieva Iltnere, Sandra Krastiņa, Aija Zariņa, Jānis Mitrēvics, Edgars Vērpe, Ģirts Muižnieks. The exhibition ‘Gentle Fluctuations’ that opened in 1990 at the exhibition hall ‘Latvia’ became a catalyst for the discussion on painting. It poised on the edge of performance art – all artists created their works on the spot in the exhibition room. At that particular time and place this was a unique event that shook the established perception of art.

You are also a member of the ‘Tate Modern’ Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisition Committee. How might that influence the Latvian art scene?

About seven years ago ‘Tate Modern’ shifted its paradigm regarding the development of their collection, moving away from the Westernized tradition of collecting into worldwide monitoring of art. They created several subcommittees that cover every region of the world. One of those is Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisition Committee for which they invited active art collectors of this region or people from other parts of the world, who are interested in the artistic processes taking place here. We’re about 40 members who meet twice a year – in spring and autumn. Once a year our team goes on a research trip to one or more countries in the region. Last year this ‘Tate Modern’ team was here in Latvia, visited artist studios, and explored RIBOCA, where local artists were represented. There are few contributions to the local art scene. Firstly, as I’m representing Latvia in this committee – Latvia is being mentioned in discussions and taken into account. A real contribution is that the ‘Tate Modern’ team has already been here. Secondly, usually this results in an actual purchase of artworks for the ‘Tate Modern’ collection, however this process is relatively slow. It takes about one and a half to two years from the visit to the acquisition of works, so I think we’ll see the results of this visit by the middle of next year.

Have they already named specific artists they are interested in?

I wouldn’t want to highlight anyone, but they’ve already given me a couple of names. Both two dimensional, and video art. That I see as the greatest benefit. Being included in the ‘Tate Modern’ collection is in some way an indicator of quality because they don’t purchase some works just for the sake of buying. They explore and try to sense how art is evolving in every region, what’s specific and unique about it, and how it fits in the bigger picture. That I find very interesting. It fascinates me. Otherwise, nothing special...

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Andris Breže | “Landowners III” (“Zemes saimnieki III”) | 1988 | paper, silk screen printing | 229 x 154 cm
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Andris Breže | “Landowners” (“Zemes saimnieki”) | 1988 | paper, silk screen printing | 234.5 x 154 cm

Why is it important for you personally to be involved in ‘Tate Modern’?

To some extent because of the contacts, but not just ‘Tate Modern’. Honestly, while working in the art field, I’ve come to the conclusion that this environment of creators and collectors have opened doors that I had never imagine I would open. We have good relationship with the Austrian gallery ‘Thaddaeus Ropac’. Its owner has galleries all around the world, and he’s inviting us to events, where we meet globally important collectors, and we talk and laugh about the same things. It’s not the names you collect that of importance, a true collector values the process – how you do it, what captivates you and why. That’s fascinating. I collect because I love this process.

What do you collect from contemporary art? What are those values you wish to hold on to?

It’s impossible to name those who will last; time will show. I personally feel that Paulis Liepa could be one of them – because of his approach, his artistic thought... For him – similarly as for Boriss Bērziņš at his time – there is nothing accidental in art. Everything has been thought-out to the utmost detail.

What captivates you the most in contemporary art?

Through contemporary art you can flick the “nerve” of today, of how the world is changing. Through it you can start understanding of things. The thoughts, vision of other people... By reading Dostoyevsky we somewhat comprehend the human soul, peek into its deepest nooks, but the current of today can only be caught through contemporary art. In some intuitive sense art yanks open your subconsciousness. At least for me, and I think Dina would agree. Of course there are many works that won’t stand the test of time. But then there are those that descend and will remain.

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Andris Breže | “Ploughman” (“Arājs”) | 1986 | paper, silk screen printing | 204,5 x 154 cm
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Ojārs Pētersons | “Continuous Choice II” (“Nepārtraukta izvēle II”) | 1987 | paper, silk screen printing | 223,5 x 154,5 cm

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