Work by Alexei Gordin. Courtesy of Riga Photomonth

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Riga Photomonth: when punks meet decadence

The eighth edition of the annual art and photography festival Riga Photomonth (Rīgas Fotomēnesis) has just opened in the Latvian capital. Art mediator and writer Olga Ipatova-Ignatjeva has put together a list of must-see events.

The Latvian capital is hosting the eighth edition of the Riga Photomonth (Rīgas Fotomēnesis) international Art & Photography Festival, which is a significant cultural event on the contemporary art scene in the Baltics. Since 2014 curated by Elīna Sproģe and director Arnis Balčus its exhibitions and events have become a staple on any art lover’s schedule on the northeastern coastline of Europe, and it is widely seen as a barometer of the newest contemporary art trends both in the Baltic states and further afield. Each year, the program aims to present new progressive names, and invite emerging and mid-career artists not only from Latvia, but from around the world. In 2022 the exhibitions are spread throughout the city, across seven galleries, Tu Jau Zini Kur, M/Gallery, DOM Gallery, Smilga, Masa, Bolderaja and Rigas Augstaka Galerija.

The theme of this year’s festival is Decadence, postulated by the organizers as an artistic reaction against the banality of consumerist society. At the end of the 19th century the idea of Decadence appeared at a time when civilization began to first harvest the rewards of the Industrial Revolution together with the notion of a comfortable, and more predictable way of life, which artists found to be absurd and immoral. As Arnis Balčus wrote in FB about Riga Photomonth’s version of Decadence: “both visual artists and musicians will offer direct, provoking, irrational, brutal, meaningful stuff”. The festival website lays down the gauntlet: ‘Today, Western society is experiencing another ideological crisis. Covid, the *** (this three-letter word is banned in Russia) in Ukraine and other socio-political challenges also point to contradictions between the capitalist system and democratic values. While it seems to some people that art should help divert our thoughts away from problems in these times, we are saying that it should become a mirror of society”.

I contact Arnis Balčus directly, for some further pointers, a review or a short interview, but no answer followed, perhaps unsurprisingly after having read on his FB page “Riga Photomonth line-up. No seminars, no zoom, no FB live, no speeches, no open calls, no portfolio reviews, no VIP dinners, just sex, drugs and rock'n'roll! Join or you will die without enlightenment!”. It leaves no room for doubt, that’s the rule.

I go to the first gallery on my list, looking for something along the lines of sex or rock’n’roll. An indie “all white” gallery DOM situated in the basement at 114 Lāčplēša Street. There I see the works of Ieva Stalšene (b. 1994), in an exhibition called Innocence. Stalšene graduated in Scenography from the Latvian Academy of Arts and is continuing her studies. She frames her discussion around the theme of the exhibition: “I remember what it was like being a child, as a fragile, naive self, and there was no moment in time when I decided not to be that person anymore. I just started living in society and a completely logical process began in which my innocence was robbed. This does not mean that I am not sincere, I think I have a lot of light and love, only much less naivety.” Stalšene conveys this robbed innocence in words carved into lino. Her bright red words carry the air of first true love, reminding me of blood running out of a broken heart.

Elsewhere, the works of Anna Dzērve (b. 1995), exhibited in the sophisticated (yet touched with decay) interiors of M/Gallery (9, A.Briana street) are mind-blowing with an exhibitionist vibe. Named Red Velvet, they recall the spicy delight nestling in-between the pages of an old school magazine for men. Fancy, glamorous, like a variety act, burlesque, and with bitter-sweet pain, the author says the work addresses her personal trauma, it is a way for her to live out the pain she experienced. Thus, it remains up to you whether you prefer to be seduced or to feel compassion.

The group exhibition in Tu Jau Zini Kur (@ Tallinas Street Quarter), seems to strike at the essence of the festival and is indeed called Decadence. The works of Tobias Klein (b. 1989, Germany), Envija (b. 1990), Elīna Semane (b. 1991), Lee Chapman, Roberts Brastiņš are installed in the spacious exhibition hall. The photographic works of Estonian Dmitry Gerasimov are playfully grotesque. The installation by Envija features “soviet-era IKEA” furniture piled up in the middle of the space, crowned by wooden horses. The smell of old furniture completes the idea of Decadence. Suddenly, on this kind of barricade, a borderline, you see a text, handwritten on white fabric, announcing love of life itself. Freedom starts and ends with borders, social and cultural. Creating limits, borderlines always remain a confrontation field, a line of tension. The aim of artists is to push against this border of social stagnation to create more space for freedom. For not only the most outstanding, outspoken, and brave artists or people should have the experience of freedom, but those among us who are more fragile and vulnerable or just ordinary. I’m convinced that to provoke is better than to fall into the sentimental mousse of mainstream “art”. In this sense, the artists chosen by Riga Photomonth 2022 are doing just fine.

Riga Photomonth

Riga, Latvia

May 23 – June 22, 2022

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