When Monuments Fight. Aigars Bikše on “Monument Wars”
Aigars Bikše has already tried to fill up the small area between Hotel Latvija and the Cabinet of Ministers building once before, playing a little game with residents’ beliefs and memories. This is where, during the “White Night” contemporary art forum in September 2009, an inflatable figure rose and shrank every few minutes. It was the “Idealist”, a human shape in the characteristic pose of a Lenin monument, with the phrase “Two minute cycle of historic justice” inscribed on the pedestal. In 2014, when Riga is the European Capital of Culture, Bikše proposed to use this site for “Monument Wars” – a witty and slightly provocative installation that plays on the various powers that have had an impact on the fate and development of Riga.
“We were thinking about a way to show the versatility of Riga in the European Capital of Culture Programme, to make it clear that this is a place influenced by different cultures and historic changes.
If we want to identify these layers, there are four superpowers or political formations that have left cultural traces in Latvia. They are: Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia. Many people do not know that it was Swedes who started to open schools for Latvian farmers – the Swedish king needed educated people in his army. The Russian Empire period has also often been considered bad for Latvia, but at the same time, Riga was the region’s centre of economic and industrial development in the 19th century. What I want to say is, there are different contexts why this object is being created,” says the artist commenting on the idea behind “Monument Wars”. He is also working on another project for the “Riga 2014” programme – the interactive installation and film “Where Is Our Dear Scientist?” (Kur ir mūsu mīļais zinātnieks?)
At the heart of “Monument Wars” is a pedestal, from which various symbolic monuments emerge. Aigars Bikše calls it an oversized wonder box that every little while will produce four different sculptures, and then they will sink back again.
“All of them are copies of sculptures that really exist, except one that has been created from Gustavs Klucis’ drawings. Poland and Christianity are symbolised by the Virgin Mary. The wooden original of this sculpture is located in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation. There will also be a sculpture of Emperor William I [in office from 1888 to 1918 – ed.] whose grandson Wilhelm II, by the way, visited Riga during World War I to review a military parade” explains Aigars Bikše.
“We also have a copy of Gustavs Klucis’ artwork, which stands for both the revolution and for Russia. Klucis used to say he was a Russian, but at the same time he is the one Latvian in the visual arts to have attained an enormous level of worldwide recognition. The object in Klucis’ drawings, which was the basis for our sculpture, was destroyed a long time ago, but the original was used, either as an advertisement or encouragement, at a congress of the Communist Party when it was still run by Lenin.”
“The fourth sculpture of “Monument Wars” represents Sweden and the global, open society – it is a black Barbie dressed up as a Swedish maiden. We stumbled upon the original work by pure chance, on “ebay”. This is true folk art. We can say that it is an artwork by an unknown artist – just as the wooden Virgin Mary is.”
Undeniably, the work will cause discussion and reflection. It will stay in downtown Rig until November 2014, also presenting the opportunity for any person to become a monument by climbing a separate pedestal and having his or her picture taken with Brīvības bulvāris and Brīvības Street at their feet. Aigars Bikše is not afraid of causing a scandal, and he believes that fearing and denying the past will not make anything better. This, he believes, is the same as denying some events from one’s childhood:
“If you do not accept something in you, it means that you do not accept that which is part of your identity, personality. In every one of us there is, to a greater or lesser degree, a Christian, a nationalist, a revolutionist and a citizen of a global, open society, not to mention inter-ethnicity. Therefore, the “monument wars” take place within every individual.
This installation gives us a good opportunity to remember what a rich heritage we have.”
It is no coincidence that the former location of Lenin’s monument has been chosen for “Monument Wars”. This is a place in the city centre on view to the public, and it evokes certain memories. Aigars Bikše, however, only smiles about that and says that often we are “terribly over-cautious” to make sure that someone else is not offended:
“If someone is afraid of everything, he will not be able to do anything. I have the experience with the “inflatable Lenin”. Then too, many people were extremely worried. I, however, would be worried too if I were a municipal official. My father works at a manned car park, and he meets both Russians and Latvians on a daily basis. When they found out that I was the author of the inflatable “Idealist”, they all reacted the same way – what is your crazy son doing? The Russians said that Latvians would not like to have Lenin back in Riga again, whereas the Latvians said, why is he irritating those Russians? [Laughs – ed.] One is thinking about the other, but they do not talk to each other.”
The artist sums up: ““Monument Wars” is a story of our presence here, and that we choose our identity ourselves. Besides, there will be a pedestal in front of the object, for anyone to climb on to have his or her picture taken, either together with the sculptures or alone. That way, every person will have an opportunity to become a monument.
Climbing the one-and-a-half-metre pedestal or simply standing in this place in the middle of Brīvības iela affords a completely different view of the world. You feel as if you are the centre of the universe and a real monument – after all, every person is the centre of the universe, are they not?”
“Monument Wars” is part of the “Riga 2014” thematic line “Freedom Street”. Another key feature of Brīvības iela is the former KGB building, also known as the “Corner House”. In the near future it will open to the public, while discussions about the future of this historic and, architectonically beautiful building continue. Aigars Bikše thinks for a long time, then says that the building carries a huge burden in collective consciousness. He believes that memories of the past should be used differently. For someone who works with artistic projects, such a building would be very inspiring. But it is also permeated by a vibration of pain, and it’s possible that such memories may provoke new painful situations. Anyhow, I have not been thinking much about what should be done with the building. I do not believe that I would want to have my workshop in this building – it needs a cleaner environment, not something saturated with the past. This is not a simple matter that needs to be replied to here and now.”
Installation “Monument Wars” opens on the 27th of March.