Compared to face masks and PPE, a white car covered with the unsightly splatter of bird shit is not an image you might associate with Covid-19. Even so, the tongue-in-cheek installation by Latvian artist Pēteris Ķimsis will resonate with visitors as an unceremonious metaphor for the past year. Entitled Great Success, the artwork is on display as part of Life after Covid?, a group exhibition curated by Riga Photomonth.
Organisation director Arnis Balcus says that Ķimsis’ installation is an obvious conversation starter — but that it has a deeper meaning: “Some cultures believe bird shit brings good luck, while in other cultures, it brings great misfortune,” he told The Calvert Journal. Even when digging through submissions to the exhibition’s call out, he said, some artists “call it a time of possibilities and new challenges, while for others it’s just been shit.”
The group show opens today on the streets of Riga itself — across poster stands, advertising poles, shop and residential windows, and walls — but the decision to make the show accessible by hosting it in the city’s public places has involved huge risks. “There is very little visual art in Latvia’s public spaces: usually it demands a tedious bureaucratic process. The city’s construction board did not allow us to display art on empty poster stands, even though many are unused and empty. So we are putting up most of the work illegally,” the director explains.
An even greater challenge has been imagining a future after Covid, and making room for a vast array of experiences that go beyond the virus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many entries were projects made in isolation that reveal “the inner psychological state of the artist and challenges of domestic life”. Some artists, such as Polish-born, UK-based photographer Ania Ready, have tried to place Covid-19 in a historical context: her collage series Brave New World juxtaposes images from Western countries during the pandemic — queues, social distancing, police patrols — with archive photos from communist Eastern Europe. Other artists have tried to offer solace in hard times, such as Russian photographer Sergei Stroitelev. His project, Inner Cats, observes how cats respond to crisis and suggests how we could model our lives on our feline friends. “Given that the works will be placed in the public space, we focused on artworks that are visually self-sufficient, which are clear in their statement and have a better chance of getting the attention of passers-by,” says Balcus.
Besides the lockdowns, regulations, and isolation, a large swathe of responses concentrated on last year’s political upheavals. Dutch photographer Brams van Deik offers a glimpse of protests that took place over 2020 in his adopted home of Paris. Meanwhile, the topic of activism dominates the festival programme. “Another main exhibition in the public programme, which is being installed at Janis Rozentāls Square, next to the Latvian National Museum of Art, is dedicated to the [ongoing pro-democracy protests] in Belarus,” says Balcus. From Tuesday 25 May, visitors will be transported to the Square of Change in Minsk, where Belarusian photographer Yauhen Attsetski spent eight months photographing the nation’s fight for freedom. “Today, ten months since nationwide protests first swept Belarus, the authorities in Belarus are still harassing journalists and artists, but the media, even in Latvia, have stopped reporting on it,” says Balcus. Last August, he organised a virtual panel discussion with three Belarusian photographers (which is still available to watch online). As a follow up, this year, Riga Photomonth will host several discussions on the political crisis in Belarus, through the demands on photojournalists. They include, “Between journalism and activism. How do photographers work in Belarus?” on 26 May, a conversation (in Russian) between Attsetski and Julia Volchok from Belarusian photography platform SHKLO, and “Game without rules. Work as a photojournalist in Belarus” on 14 June, featuring photographers Irina Arakhovskaya and Dmitry Brushko.
Elsewhere, the festival travels to southern California, “where the healthy get even healthier”, and smashes contemporary myths about the wellness industry. Latvian artist Ieva Raudsepa made her video Closed for Crisis/Take Care of Each Other during her lockdown in LA, reflecting not only on the city’s obsession with healing, but the proliferation of wellness jargon in contemporary art, explored through a fictional romance between a protagonist who lands a job in a juice bar and a young art student.
“The festival is different this year. We’ve given up on all sorts of printed materials (catalogues, leaflets) to ensure the programme is fluid and changeable at any time. This is not only due to Covid restrictions; we’re trying to consider artists’ changing lifestyles and rhythms,” says Balcus. He adds that many of these changes will likely stay into the future: “The festival is a place to experiment, to be a little crazy, informal, and unpredictable.”
Riga Photomonth runs until 4 July across Riga and online. View the full festival programme here.