Palpable Urgency and Understated Ecology: Latvia’s “Survival Kit 9”

Laurie Anderson, "Heart of a Dog," (still), 2015.
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Remember that chunk of the Antarctic that fell into the sea, earlier this year? How big was it? Three trillion tons? Three hundred miles? Thirteen-thousand cubic something? It’s hard to remember: the figures so massively abstract as to portend a time when numbers will cease to matter, their human counters having vanished by collective suicide.

The Larsen C ice shelf’s breakage gave unreal dimension to the narrative of climate change – even if it should have reinforced the problem’s immediacy. Shortly after, Scientific American issued the vague, arch-grim proclamation “maps will have to be redrawn,” and New York magazine published their viral The Uninhabitable Earth a few months later. The latter envisioned cruel mass-extinction – hypothermic humans dying in their sleep, and perishing in accelerating wars. These booming, anthropocentric clarions – arguably necessary in their own way – can drown out artists’ perhaps suppler attempts at evoking ecological urgency. Latvia’s Survival Kit 9 an ambitious annual show with a healthy respect for the surprising force of more humble means – makes a strong case for a quieter approach.

This exhibition was the latest iteration of an annual contemporary art festival in Latvia’s capital, Riga. Though the show has carried the same name for a decade, this year’s curators gave it an ecologically-conscious intonation – both in rhetorical framing, and in a selection of artists working through the relationship of our species to intelligent flora and fauna. The approach reflects not only a renewed urgency around global warming – sparked by the recent American withdrawal from the Paris Accord – but also the steady seepage of a post-anthropocentric discourse from the natural sciences into art.

Back in 2009, the festival’s title suggested the function of art in our enduring economic calamity; during this time – the late aughts’ financial crisis – Latvian society, which had once endured expulsions by Soviets and Nazis, now suffered the exodus of workers to more fertile economies. Now, on the eve of Latvia’s centenary, the winsome old city center is looking fresh. Sure, senior women still beg alms. But all around them, clusters of workers tap new stones into old sidewalks. Days before I arrived, decades of grime were scoured from the city’s freedom monument: a tremendous obelisk footed by four hulking gods; one well-muscled hero slits a bear’s throat, his pageboy haircut kept clean by a chic cap. Smartly shrinking from this image of human supremacy, Survival Kit 9 opted for a decidedly modest setting: the university’s former college of biology and chemistry now a charming museum.

Survival Kit 9’s well-chosen venue.

If I’m skirting the artwork, it’s because the show’s twenty-four artists risked being outshone by the history of this context: memories of the policing of education linger in the formerly totalitarian country. Certainly one of the exhibition’s successes was in posing the staid history of scientific education as its backdrop: a gesture that communicated awareness of the roots of trendy post-anthropic discourses in long years of dedicated work.

With productive eccentricity, Survival Kit 9 often mimicked its context: watercolor and pencil drawings of mushrooms by Juris Boiko blended fantastical visions, both scientific and artistic. Likewise, Jim Holyoak’s Book of Nineteen Nocturnes (2017) radiated ecological wonder from a sprawling, handmade book laid out across the desks of an amphitheater lecture hall. Across thick black pages flooded a creaturely dreamscape rendered in ink, print, and collage. A tree-branched humanoid named Book wandered this scene. Meanwhile, the work’s low-fi gothic feeling was amplified by a mural on the theater’s back wall: all dripping whites and blacks. Holyoak’s installation encapsulated the strange magic-theatrical alliance between Survival Kit 9 and its chosen setting.

Jim Holyoak, “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes” (detail), 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

With a playful air, the show knocked rust off the old conceit of “social change through art,” and its own declared ambition to broaden “perceptions of the world and [to learn] from nature …” A work by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas canted towards vérité science fiction. Inside several chambers made from plastic tarp, shelves supported many rough-hewn vessels, each sprouting fungi. The piece was inspired by a J.G. Ballard story that “imagines a world where technological devices are alive and sentient …” Despite seeming a little slapped-on, the Ballard reference didn’t stop the work’s elegant contravention of our squeamish relationship to aberrant growths – molds, mushrooms, maybe even cancers.

Fungi appeared as such a regular theme in Survival Kit 9 that keen viewers might have felt like upright, tote-laden truffle pigs. Touchingly, these organisms interwove the show with its region; at a nearby market, vendors tend boxes brimming with mushrooms so gargantuan they have to be quartered for sale. This subtle local rootedness showed that it is possible – indeed incumbent upon artists pursuing solidarity against ecological violence – to circumvent the grandiosity that has plagued artistic engagements with the natural world. Case example: Jackson Pollock’s declamation “I am nature,” delivered with the humility of a Latvian bear-slayer. While equal in metaphysical ambition, this show’s epigraph from Henri Michaux was mercifully light on brawn and hubris. “I put an apple on the table,” Michaux wrote, “then I can put myself in the apple. What peace!”

If apples graced Survival Kit 9, they did so incognito, within watercolors of unnamed fruit by Maria Theresa Alves. Each item was a quickly modeled circle, underlined by the jotted phrase “this is not an apricot.” Alves was inspired by a street vendor in the Amazon, who insistently informed her that every item on his stand was an apricot. In turn, these painted sketches became rejoinders to a process of reduction, characteristic of the human relationship to outside nature. In the fruit-seller’s description, plants were reduced by the exigency of human communication. Alves’s work analyzed this reductive process, purposing language, without reducing to it. Her method was touch – between fruit and consuming body, paper and watercolor paint, artwork and caption.

Maria Theresa Alves, “This is not an Apricot,” 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.

In ways like this, Survival Kit 9 illuminated complex ecological issues while spurning expensive, inaccessible, and fetishized technologies. For his installation I love Morality (2017), Ehsan Ul Haq doubled down on this unassuming methodology, delving under the museum’s skin in order to pull out its metaphorical guts: a cabinet of books and specimens, a decaying ostrich skeleton held together with shrink wrap, and a bust of Charles Darwin, among other things. As archival approaches to art-making go, this was direct stuff. But by highlighting of the museum’s scrappier corners, Ul-Haq’s work de-mystified the show’s “Night at the Museum” atmosphere: cut its antique whimsy with realist tooth.

Though laced with subtleties – often in the form of curious archival materials in the building’s shadowed corridors – Survival Kit 9 did have a star headliner: Laurie Anderson’s 2015 film Heart of a Dog. A montage of moving and still footage, the film meditates on a dog’s experience of the world at the occasion of its death, with the implication that this perspective might shift our human perspective on life. Though seeming trite on paper, this concept enchants when executed by an artist committed to their idiosyncratic vision. The contrast between Anderson’s cushy lower Manhattan lifestyle and the economic stress still evident in Riga’s less-touristic outer neighborhoods landed somewhat awkwardly. But Anderson leans so deeply into her kinship with the dog that the film grows into a vivid analogue for the way we dream ourselves into the lives of others. Far from fearing naiveté, the piece embraced a gentle earnestness, modeling the exhibition’s human-ecological interweaving with disarming clarity.

Survival Kit 9 took on a difficult task: imagining how to complement the brute power of ecological activist’s language with a picture of ecological connectivity, nearly impalpable and consistently washed out by ideological rhetoric of all kinds. Artworks like those shown here – low-fi, often handmade, never industrially produced – model accessible methods for articulating human-ecological existence. They’re certainly not a solution unto themselves – but nothing is. The show worked as a weirdly effective stage for a complex process because of its sensitivity to the local environment and its supporting cast: consider the nearly fossilized professors who continued to pace specimen-lined rooms. Their charge, it seemed, was to fulfill the admonition that we learn from nature. Viewers were meaningfully snared between new art and this well-aged counsel.

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