MŪSU MĀJAS BIJA ZEME. UZPLAUKUMS or “We walked the Earth. The Growth” is the spectacular installation from the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022 by the artist Uffe Isolotto and curator Jakob Lillemose. Now it has been transformed into a site-specific setting in Central Riga, characterized by a lush wilderness and referencing the city’s Art Nouveau architecture. The hyper-realistic installation expands the world-building approach across visual art, film, scenography, literature and design to spark reflection on the future of mankind. Fleshed out by the accompanying short story, it interrogates our perceptions of Growth, the future of life on Earth and the human role in its potential scenarios.
Installed in the new exhibition space of the future museum of contemporary art – the closest venue to museum plot and next to the architectural gem for culture and arts that is Hanzas Perons in the New Hanza district of Riga, We Walked the Earth: The Growth is a site-specific exhibition reinterpreted to the Latvian context and featuring a new set of derelict decorated pillars referencing Riga’s rich art-nouveau architectural heritage. The columns are “haunted” by a fungal growth that seems to be creeping down from the ceiling.
Framed by this setting, the exhibition tells the story of a family of centaurs who inhabit a world rocked by dramatic and strange natural processes that have radically transformed the prior conditions for life and survival. The scenario is set in the future and incorporates elements of the past. Yet, essentially, it is a vision of the precarious and uncertain existence in the present, where humans are navigating a twilight zone between the built and natural environment, between biology and technology, despair and hope.
The exhibition is organised by the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation, the producer and co-curator of the exhibition in Latvia is Elīna Vikmane, member of the board of the foundation.
The exhibition is organised by the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation, produced by its member of the board Elīna Vikmane.
In this blog post, we will take you behind the scenes of the exhibition, how it came to Latvia, and the process of making the exhibition in Latvia.
Please tell us how this exhibition came to Latvia?
This year, the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation is stepping up its efforts to promote not only the museum building project, but also to introduce the artists, works and geographical scope of the museum's collection, which is the Baltic Sea region.
This year, the museum's grounds have hosted a performance by Mailo Stern, now a work by Krista and Reinis Dzudzillo, and the White Nights, together with the LNB and the LNMA, showcased video works from the collection.
At the same time, we had been looking for a work of art that would evoke strong emotions, that would encompass several genres of art and that could potentially attract people who are not regular visitors to exhibitions. When I saw the Danish Pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale, it was clear that this was exactly what we were looking for.
How did the collaboration with artist Uffe Isolotto and curator Jacob Lillemose develop?
We didn't know each other before. I approached the artists through the curators of an art museum in Finland, who led me to the Danish Art Museum and then to the artists' contacts. I invited them to visit. We spent several days in Riga, talking a lot, finding common interests, themes, outlooks on life, perhaps also temperament. Visited art spaces, visited also potential space for the exibition. I have to say that the collaboration with Uffe Isolotto and Jacob Lillemose, as well as the set designers Christine Bechamel and Marie Torpo, has been very professional, intelligent and extremely enjoyable in human terms, and has led to new collaborations, for example with Anna Fišere and Iveta Pole. Maybe you can tolerate and put up with a lot when you are very young, but now I really appreciate relationship with the people I work with, because I spend a lot of my time at work. I am very grateful for the trust and the miraculous coincidences. These things don't happen often.
What was the process of finding an exhibition space? Did you know the location right away?
The space is another amazing coincidence, as we were originally looking for a work that could be exhibited on the museum plot. When we saw the art of Uffe Isolotto, it was clear that the centaur installation needed a recess. It was Ernests Bernis who came up with the idea of a building that had not yet been commissioned and therefore had just concrete structure. So we ended up with a superb concrete frame with ceilings almost 5 m high and so much light. You could say that the exhibition is "site specific" in the truest sense of the term, because the space itself was created together with the exhibition. Perhaps this is why there is a feeling of complete integrity.
Producer and co-curator of the exhibition in Latvia - Elīna Vikmane
What were your personal thoughts when you first saw this installation?
It should be recalled that last year's Venice Biennale took place in the shadow of a global pandemic, with many artists reflecting on fear, loss of security, death. When I entered the Danish pavilion, the feelings were so strong that I can accurately reconstruct them today.
The first feeling was that we humanity had done something fundamentally wrong again, that we as humanity were to blame for what had happened, even though neither in the Venice Biennale nor in the Riga exhibition did the artists give direct indications of what had happened. However, also in Riga people feel a strong sense of injustice, tenderness and a protective attitude towards these images - the centaurs. Many reflect on the geopolitical catastrophe - on the sacrifices made by Ukrainians so that others may have hope for a better future. The great question of death-life and past-future does not lose its relevance.
After the first wave of injustice, the next feeling was hope. The Danish pavilion was one of the few places where I could still imagine the future in my mind. Let me explain. Many artists are talking about the future at the moment, but maybe my focus is more on it at the moment. What I observe is that the vast majority of art shows the future as dystopia, apocalypse, emotional emptiness, technological alienation. But Uffe Isolotto's work speaks of the planet continuing to live, creating new life, new ways of surviving, without losing the ability to feel strong emotions, to seek and find belonging.
How long did it take from the idea of continuing this exhibition in Riga to opening its doors to visitors? What was the most difficult stage?
From the moment of the idea to the opening, a year and a half has passed, which is an incredibly short time for such an exhibition. The final result was not known to any of us at the beginning. It should be recalled that the exhibition in Riga has been reinvented, with each new layer of interpretation emerging as the work progressed. The space was also created from scratch, thanks to the team at New Hanza Biroji and especially to Roberts Meiers and his team. The installation also involved people from the construction sector who had never worked on an exhibition before and from the beginning considered all our requests to be curiosities. Eventually these people started to question the artists about the works, they started to ask about the opening hours and they shared their own thoughts, to their surprise that they had changed their minds, that art could be interesting for them too... It's very touching, also satisfying. So the goal of getting people interested in art who have not been interested in art before is achievable. This is also confirmed by the extremely high number of visitors to the exhibition and their feedback.
But I also have to say that it was not easy to produce an installation of this scale, every day I could feel that I was working in an environment that was not designed for contemporary art, that we still don't have a museum. In Latvia, for some reason, there is a perception that art only fits in slums or can be placed in any space. This is not true, just as a doctor cannot work without a hospital, manufacture without a factory and an orchestra cannot play without a hall. Somehow it can - with great compromise or superhuman effort. The effort that goes into making an exhibition possible, into making sure that artworks packed in huge boxes and weighing hundreds of kilogrammes can be put in a room, into insuring the works, into matching daylight with artificial light, into having adequate ventilation, etc., etc., can only be understood by those who work in unsuitable conditions. Visitors, of course, can neither feel nor see this in an exhibition. But I tell them these details during my private tours to change this stereotype about contemporary art and necessity of a dedicated, suitable space – a museum.
Are there any special events, tours or workshops related to the exhibition that you would like to recommend to visitors?
We have developed an educational programme for secondary school students in groups, which includes a visit to the exhibition and a creative writing workshop. It is run by our partners "Ziedoņa klase". You can book a session at firstname.lastname@example.org. An interesting phenomenon is that the students themselves persuade the teachers to take them on a field trip to the exhibition, rather than the teachers having to try to persuade the students. This is also the answer to the question of who needs art here in Latvia anyway. Very many. And especially for our future generations. It is very moving to hear that the exhibition is a catalyst for many beautiful emotions and a desire to share how much compassion there really is in us. If only we could feel it for our fellow human beings. This was precisely formulated by Antra Priede, the Vice-Rector of the Art Academy of Latvia, in the Kultūrdeva programme. I can only join in.
The exhibition will take place from 23 September to 19 November 2023 at the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation, New Hanza offices, M. Tāla 1, Riga (next to the Hanzas Perons cultural venue).
Don't miss the chance to see this exhibition in Riga!
Elīna Vikmane, the exhibition's producer and co-curator in Latvia, answered the questions.
Photo: Reinis Oliņš, Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation