The Venice Biennale is one of the most significant international art events whose history reaches back to 1893 when a small group of Venetian artists and intellectuals gathered for another meeting in the legendary café “Caffe Florian” in St. Mark’s Square. One of the most prominent persons in this circle of friends was the poet and playwright Riccardo Selvatico, who also held the office of Mayor of Venice in the period from 1890 to 1895. In one of the meetings the Venetian artists came up with a bright idea – to organise a grand exhibition displaying the best Italian artists’ achievement once every two years.
By Auguste Petre, Baltic Editor at Arterritory.com
During the development of the idea it was decided that the biennial must turn into an international event with the participation of foreign artists and a professional jury. The Venice City Council who fully managed the creation of the biennial made an ambiguous announcement in 1894 saying that “in 1895 an international fine arts exhibition which would be partly accessible to society as a whole and would be partly accessible only for entry with invitations would be opened in Venice [...]” The announcement was followed up with the information that the biennial is a kind of dedication to King Umberto I of Italy, for his silver anniversary1. Thanks to the talks about the organisation of the biennial, negotiations were opened on the development of the city itself and cultural tourism, and the Gardens of Castello (which are known now simply as the Gardens or Giardini) was an explicit periphery of the city until the organisation of the exhibition. This implies that the political context was employed as a useful background for the realization of this large scale exhibition.
However, the participation of the invited artists in the exhibition was based on the condition that they were allowed to display one or two artworks that had not previously been exhibited in Italy. After lengthy negotiations and exchange of views the final decisions were eventually taken and preparations were made, and on 30 April 1895 in the Giardini the first International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale was opened, attracting more than 200,000 visitors.
1* Mulazzani, Marco. Guide to the Pavilions of Venice Biennale since 1887. Milan: Electa, 1988.
Ever since its emergence, the biennial has engaged a great number of famous artists who reflect their epoch and ideas in their artwork and whose creative activities and contribution make world art history possible. For instance, American artist James Whistler’s picture Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl (1864) was in the very first exhibition. Whistler, who in the contemporary pop culture is better known for his iconic mother’s depiction in painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 or Whistler’s Mother (1871), won not only the first prize for his artwork exhibited in the biennial, but was also awarded prize money of 2,500 lire. It should be noted that at the end of the 19th century it was sufficient capital for an artist to focus on the creation of new artwork, make a decent living and on top of that go on a spending spree. The fourth edition of the biennial included the artwork by French painters Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and displayed an impressive Rodin’s solo show but throughout the 20th century the biennial exhibited the artwork by Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys and a great many of other influential artists.
What on earth was the impetus for these famous artists, exhibition commissioners and organisers to participate in an exhibition in Venice at the end of the 19th century? On the one hand, it was facilitated by both the enthusiasm of exhibition organisers (especially, Selvatico) and the broad circle of spectators. After the success gained in the first year the number of visitors continued to grow each year, reaching 300,000 in 1899. Although Europe had experienced large scale international art exhibitions before, it cannot be disputed that an important aspect was also the Venice Biennale or La Biennale novelty – not for nothing is this art event regarded as the archetype of biennials. However, it seems that the general elation and interest hide something else. From a contemporary point of view the Venice Biennale is a great opportunity for such small representations as the Baltic Region countries to show the best and most topical achievements in their art space, and to be honest it perfectly matches the original idea of the biennial creation. On the other hand, the role of the aforementioned political context has not been diminishing and its impact on the organisation of various biennials is no less important nowadays. Such mega art or cultural events have the potential to develop positive diplomatic relations among the countries. In the case of the Venice Biennale it has especially been furthered by the establishment of the national pavilions of the countries, which was commenced in 1907. The Belgian Pavilion was the first to be built and was followed by the Hungarian Pavilion, the Pavilion of Great Britain and the Bavarian (at present, German) Pavilion two years later. Today the Venetian Gardens accommodate 29 national pavilions and their authors include such stellar architects as the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld.
However, as far as we know the artwork comprised by the biennial can also be viewed each time outside the Gardens. In 1980, during the first Venice Biennale of Architecture, the organisers, artists and visitors were given an opportunity to use a new exhibition hall – The Arsenal. The construction of the impressive shipbuilding workshop and armoury was commenced around 1104; it became the most renowned complex of such kind in Europe and accommodated the Venetian Navy in the long run. At the moment it is a recognised cultural venue, which is visited by several hundreds of thousands visitors during the biennial.
Due to the increased significance and popularity of the Venice Biennale, the exhibition much more frequently extends beyond the two main event venues practically filling the entire city up with art. Of course, the situation has developed this way because the practice of satellite projects has progressed over time and because the number of the exhibition participants (or participating countries) has increased considerably.
The participation of Latvia in the Venice Biennale started experimentally by bringing the art into already self-sufficient premises. Venice witnessed Latvian art for the first time in 1999 in the 48th Venice Art Biennale under the name “dAPERTutto (APERTO over ALL)”, whose chief curator was legendary Harald Szeeman. Through the involvement of three outstanding artists – Ojārs Pētersons, Anita Zabiļevska and Inta Ruka – the exposition of Latvia was curated by Helēna Demakova and could be viewed at the Church of San Giovanni Nuovo. The exhibition of that year was based on stories about Latvians, which seems logical conceptually. It was important for the Latvians, who were newcomers to the European art stage at the end of 1990s, to show that modern art is also a well-known and topical concept in our region. In 2001 the curator of the Latvian exposition “Riga 800 Magic Flute” was again Helēna Demakova and the exhibition ideas swirled about social reality in Latvia. Ilmārs Blumbergs and Viesturs Kairiš’s video co-work “Magic Flute” on the funeral of the homeless in Jaunciems graveyard as well as director Laila Pakalniņa and operator Gints Bērziņš’s short film “Papagens” were presented at the Church of San Lio. The actual social background was highlighted in 2003 when, due to political and possibly reckless considerations, the Ministry of Culture suspended the participation of Latvia in the Venice Biennale, literally deleting this event from the list of culture priorities. Two years later when, due to the replacement of the minister, communication resumed with this significant collaboration partner, the biennial was attended by a group of artists known as the “Famous Five” (Ieva Rubeze, Līga Marcinkeviča, Mārtiņš Ratniks and Ervīns Broks), in 2007 Latvia was represented by Gints Gabrāns (curator Ieva Kalniņa), in 2009 by Evelīna Deičmane and Miks Mitrēvics (curator Līga Marcinkeviča), whereas in 2011 it was Kristaps Ģelzis with his exposition “Artificial Peace (A Contemporary Landscape)” (curator Daiga Rudzāte). This Venice Biennale, whose chief curator was Bice Curiger, was notable not only for the record- reaking number of participants, all in all 89 countries participated in the exhibition, but also for the meditative theme “ILLUMInations”, whose context covered the relationship between the artwork/artist and the viewer. It seems that the large-format watercolour paintings in the author’s technique by Ģelzis amazingly reflected the curator’s poetic idea as well as highlighting the issue of the reconstruction of traditional artistic values in a contemporary format. It also remains as one of the most topical themes of visual culture today.
2013 could be regarded as a turning point in the dialogue between Latvian art and the Venice Biennale because considerable changes took place both in curators’ approach and the change of location. This year the Latvian exposition was organised by kim? Contemporary Art Centre, it was created by Krišs Salmanis and Kaspars Podnieks, but the curator’s responsibilities were assumed by art historian Alise Tīfentāle, American curator Courtney Finn and artistic director of New York’s art space Art in General Anne Barlow. The visual story about childhood, local culture and countryside, created by both artists under the name “North-Northeast”, was not just the first time when foreign professionals participated in the formation of the exhibition of this country, but also the origin of the permanent location of the Latvian Pavilion in Arsenal. At the same time the exhibition carried on the theme on self-awareness not only as a part of one small cultural group, but also of the entire world, which is so essential for us.
In 2015, under the guidance of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA) and independent curator Kaspars Vanags, the Latvian Pavilion was inhabited by the large-format site-specific mixed media installation “Armpit” by the well- known duet of artists Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis. This was the first time Latvian art was shown in a broader context – in an exhibition from a satellite project group “Ornamentalism. Purvītis Prize. Latvian Contemporary Art”. In the last 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale award-winning artist Miķelis Fišers presented his achievements under the name “What can go wrong” (curator Inga Šteimane) but this was the year internationally well- nown Latvian artist Daiga Grantiņa was honoured to do it.
The curators of the Latvian Pavilion in 2019 are Inga Lāce and Valentinas Klimašauskas and the organisation is committed to the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in collaboration with kim? Contemporary Art Centre. The directors of both institutions Solvita Krese (LCCA) and Zane Čulkstēna (kim?) gave positive comments on the collaboration so far: “The same way as the collaboration of both organising institutions is mutually complementary an identical collaboration model is also observed within the creative team – between the curators and the artist. The Latvian Pavilion is an extensive project whose preparation requires large resources, therefore at an organisational level the work is shared by both the institutions involved and similarly the curators’ collaboration within the project trumps everything.
Both curators are experienced in dealing with large international projects, therefore the possibility of merging their knowledge and forming the exposition through discussion gives an opportunity to approach the issue of the promotion of the notion of Latvia in the world from different angles. After having followed Daiga Grantiņa’s career over a long period, it is clear that no other art direction in Latvia compares to hers and that this was the only logical decision is therefore appreciated in the international art environment.
Both kim? and LCCA had addressed Daiga regarding the opportunity to nominate her to establish the pavilion, however, in negotiations they came up with the common denominator that a project of such scale could be best implemented through joint action. Last year the jury took a visionary decision by choosing an artist whose international activity is a step ahead of the artist’s recognition in Latvia. At the beginning of March magazine “Cura” in its ten-year edition ranked Daiga Grantiņa among the top artists of the new generation, we are therefore glad about the fact that after the exhibition in Venice it will also be possible to see the exposition “Saules Suns” in the Latvian National Museum of Art, which will enable the Latvian spectators to get acquainted with this unique installation. The artist has a unique feeling of shape which, with the help of her created objects, completely transforms the space where they are found. This ability of subduing space, form and light gives the viewer a unique experience which has been inimitable by other artists and which will definitely have a strong impact upon the visitors of the Latvian exposition. Last year’s biennial exposition was visited by 615,000 viewers and their number increases each year; this has special significance, taking into account the fact that the number of various biennials and international exhibitions also increases. These data confirm the fact that this exhibition is not only an event for art professionals but also an opportunity for every curious person to see how each country expresses itself artistically.
This national aspect is not only an opportunity for foreign guests to get acquainted with us but can also be used as a standard for documenting our achievements. This year’s international team, the innovative institutional collaboration model and the choice of the artist prove the fact that since the first participation of Latvia in the international art exhibition in 1999 we have undeniably grown.” It should be noted that the exhibition “May You Live in Interesting Times”, which is formed by the chief curator of the biennial 2019 Ralph Rugoff, is the first case in the history of the Venice Biennale when fifty percent of the represented artists are women and the same trend is also observed in the expositions of the national pavilions (all three Baltic Countries will also be represented by women in the biennial). Čulkstēna and Krese also admit that it is a serious turning point indicating the progress of the industry: “We are undeniably proud of work on the first exhibition of the Latvian Pavilion, which is formed by a woman artist’s solo exhibition. However, the accompanying question which is worth considering is whether the year 2019 is really the first time we are ready to do it.”
Grantiņa, who so far has been less known to the broader Latvian audience, was born in Riga in 1985 but moved to Germany in childhood together with her family. There she discovered the first impulses of art and obtained an art education by graduating from the Art Academy of Hamburg whose former pedagogue was Joseph Beuys. Later, Daiga left for Berlin and Paris where she now lives and works. The focus of her research is quite often the light, its match with colours and the environment around artwork; however, the historical background and the course of research are of the same importance for the artist.
In 2018 in one of the world’s leading art centres in Paris, the Palais de Tokyo, Daiga Grantiņa’s solo exhibition “Toll” was presented; the same year in collaboration with the new generation Lithuanian artists’ duets Pakui Hardware and the Young Girl Reading Group the project “Solar Bodies” was created; and yet Daiga participated in the 13th Baltic Triennial “Give Up the Ghost”. Her sculptural installations, objects, which have been shaped by merging different materials, give a convincing feeling of replenished reality. Daiga Grantiņa will present her artwork “Saules Suns” in the Venice Biennale this year.
Your artworks are exhibited in several European art galleries, including the Joseph Tang gallery in Paris. How did your collaboration begin?
It was Jo-ey Tang who introduced me to Joseph Tang. An encounter that we both sensed as a beginning.
Last year your installation “Toll” was exhibited in one of the most prestigious Parisian art spaces — Palais de Tokyo. Could you tell us more about this project?
It was a good occasion to work with drama. The space is actually a sort of centre stage that one sees from afar coming down the massive classicist staircase. Then, standing in a rotunda surrounded by pillars, one can decide to step inside the picture. It was a real challenge to give in to the tension the deeper the frame got.
Although your career developed outside your native country, could it be said that you identify yourself as a Latvian artist?
I identify myself as a migrating Latvian woman and I don’t want to separate the woman from the artist at this moment.
A great many of your works of art focus on light and materiality; the artwork in Venice also encodes the word the sun. What is your work “Saules Suns” about and what does the light mean in it?
Saules and Suns, Saules are Suns, Soul-less and suns and Souls and Latvian dogs. There is that unpredictable moment of how the meaning of these words can be read and how light and matter interfere.
Could we say that your art in general is characterised by conceptual coincidence?
I think it’s great to invent new terms because the existing ones don’t seem to fit. But if this is meant as a binary compound I can’t relate to it.
The Venice Biennale is one of the internationally most significant art events. What are your feelings awaiting it?
It’s a feeling of releasing something into the world.
Is there a work of art that has a special impact on you?
On the topic of the Sun it is the various ways and conditions in his semi-outdoor studio during all seasons that Edvard Munch painted this subject.
Is there a Latvian modern or contemporary art representative whose creative work is especially close to you?
I just had a very inspiring conversation with Evita Vasiljeva.