The Corner House – Choose Your Exhibition!
Tour the Corner House and open the door to the past!
“Corner House”, a project of the Museum of the Occupation gives an opportunity for the general public to see the former KGB headquarters in Riga. The museum’s exhibition tells us about the KGB’s activities in Latvia and takes visitors on a tour of the building to see the lock-ups, basements, yards where inmates were taken to stretch their legs, a lift in which they were taken to and from interrogations and the offices of the investigators.
The exhibition is likely to surprise the younger generation and guests of the city, at the same time paying homage to those who suffered within the walls of the building.
The so-called KGB basements will house an installation from the “National Guard” materials and offer demonstrations of holding cells and the kitchen. On the sixth floor, visitors will be able to see the “exercise yard” and the enclosure where persons detained by the KGB were temporarily held. An exhibition on the fifth floor reveals the story about the Chief of the Border Guard, General Ludvigs Bolšteins, who committed suicide in his office in protest against the occupation of Latvia.
Līga Strazda, a representative of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia believes that the exhibition will open the door to the past: “Our collection includes unique materials. There are a number of professionals at the museum who specialise in this particular area. We have prepared a special route for visitors who want to tour the building. It takes one-and-a-half hours and is likely to stir an entire spectrum of emotions.” She expects that people who were incarcerated in the Corner House will visit the building, as well as those who worked here on a daily basis, but most will be first-time visitors. “People will be able to see the holding cells, the basements, the yard where inmates could walk, the lift in which inmates were taken to and from interrogations, investigators’ offices – temporarily finding themselves in an entirely different dimension,” says Līga.
Stories that the sweets’ box, boots and the accordion tell about their owners
“The exhibition will showcase ten objects – the main “narrators” telling a particular story, but there will also be other objects, each with their own story,” comments Ilona Celmiņa, the curator of the exhibition “Stories of People and Power in Ten Objects”, stressing that the main theme of the exhibition are the stories of people these objects tell. “There will be an accordion with a story about the 1905 Revolution, the medical record of a severely wounded patient – a story about World War I and the Latvian Riflemen, a typewriter with a tale about the exodus of the Baltic Germans in 1939, a suit and its story of Augusts Kirhenšteins, a cigar box with a story about the senior commanders of the Latvian Army and how they were persecuted during the Soviet occupation, a book about the persecutions of Latvian seafarers, a radio with a story of families persecuted by the Soviet authorities, who were deported to Gulag camps or had to flee the country, and how it changed their lives. There will also be a sweets box story about persecutions of Latvian industrialists and businessmen, and a story told by a pair of boots – about Mērija Grīnberga, a museum employee who helped with the recovery of museum valuables from Latvia in 1943 and 1944 and their later return to Latvia.
“The last story is told by a missing object. While the other objects tell about the fates of people, this story is about the fate of objects – some lost forever and some that were found later…” adds Ilona Celma. The exhibition has been organised largely as per the original plans, although the plans did change as work on the project continued. “When I presented the idea of the exhibition, I already knew what objects could become “narrators”, and I had a vision of the exhibition’s structure.
We wanted to turn the spotlight on people who were not talked about much and were not the “top-ranking” personalities, except for maybe Augusts Kirhenšteins, who the public did talk about quite a lot at one time.”
How did the stories of the objects come about? “For example, the sweets box is from the confectionery of Ķuze, formerly a well-known businessman. We started to analyse what other industrialists we knew of, and what their fates were. The sweets box is first of all a story about itself, how the museum acquired it, how it once held Ķuze confectionery’s sweets. The next chapter in the story is about Ķuze – the story of his life, his photographs.” But the organisers of the exhibition went even further and have also found the biographies of other prominent businessmen – such as perfumer Aleksandrs Tombergs, who suffered a fate similar to that of Ķuze. There is also the story of businessman Gustavs Ērenpreiss. “There are the main stories and the side stories. The main object is like a thread that connects the stories of people of various nationalities who worked in all kinds of professions,” adds Ilona Celmiņa.
The exhibition “Stories of People and Power in Ten Objects” of the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is essentially a collection of stories narrated via various objects, demonstrating how such objects can provide different, complex and unexpected information. The main “narrators” are ten museum objects, supplemented by other items from the museum’s collection. One particular object is the starting point for a story about not only a particular person, but entire families, contemporaries, cities and countries in the 20th century.
In spite of all – the rise of naïve art
Most of exhibits at the exhibition “In Spite of All” are presented to the public for the first time. The years the works were created – 1941, 1945, 1949, 1956..., and the places where they were created – cattle wagons, concentration camps, POW filtering camps, labour camps – do not need to be explained. Many of the events at that time were not photographed, or the photographs have not survived to this day, therefore these drawings are considered important documentary testimonies, just as real photographs would have been. In parallel to the exhibition of drawings, also on show are works that were created already at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. These are reconstructions of various situations and events based on eyewitness accounts that, in addition to their artistic quality, give the viewer an opportunity to emotionally link up the developments of that time with the present. The exhibition will also present a number of artworks confiscated by the Soviet authorities in 1985.
“Historically, naïve art in Latvia was flourishing from 1940 up to the end of the 1990s. This is in part due to World War II, the occupation of Latvia and other historical and political circumstances that made it impossible for creative personalities to receive professional artistic education or express themselves creatively and achieve their creative potential,” says a representative of the Naïve Art Museum Kate Zilgalve, commenting on the concept of the exhibition “In Spite of All”. Initially the idea was to create an exhibition that would focus on works by those artists who were banned from studying, which would include some part of works in the main collection of the Latvian Naïve Art Museum. “However, as we were doing our research, we saw that this objective was imprecise as we came upon a large number of drawings that matched the concept and name of the exhibition even better.
These are works that artists created in prisons, concentration or filtering camps. The drawings documented their living conditions, buildings, daily routines; some of the works were created as greeting cards or messages to their loved ones. With limited artistic means, the drawings were made on slips of paper, the backs of documents, notebook pages. Many of them had to be hidden from the guards.
These works carry even a deeper emotional message about the individual’s ability to withstand an inhumane regime and remain a sentient person – in spite of all,” emphasises Kate, adding that she is very grateful to the co-operation partners – the culture and art project “NOASS”, Latvian Naïve Art Museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, the museum “Jews in Latvia” and the Talsi Region Museum, as well as to Taiga Kokneviča, Evita Rukke, Iļja Ļenskis and Aina Zariņa, Guna Millersone.
(Re)construction of friendship – all kinds of readings of recent history
Inese Baranovska, the curator of the exhibition “(Re)construction of Friendship”, reveals that the idea of the exhibition goes back to when her colleague from Iceland Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir was visiting Latvia. “Æsa arrived in Riga in 2008, she was collecting materials in the Nordic and Baltic countries about the Cold War - photographs and documents that showed how small countries had to “peacefully” coexist with superpowers. Latvia was part of the project because I could offer some help. The research project was completed, however, there still remained many “uncharted” areas.
Hence the idea of the exhibition, which originally had the same name as the project, “Immanence of Friendship”,” Inese Baranovska recalls and adds that when the project was included in the “Riga 2014” thematic line “Freedom Street” she wanted to suggest the Corner House as the venue for the exhibition, and was surprised to learn that her colleagues from the Museum of the Occupation had the same idea.
Inese Baranovska goes on to say, “After the project was confirmed we decided to involve several younger-generation curators and researchers from Latvia in the project to expand it – Inga Lāce and Kārlis Vērpe. I believe that this collaboration has been very fruitful as each of us contributed to the content of the exhibition in one way or another.” During this period, the exhibition was renamed “(Re)construction of Friendship”, a more precise and understandable name for the exhibition. More researchers from various countries joined the project with various “readings” of the recent history in the language of contemporary art: Kitija Vasiļjeva took an active part in organisation of the exhibition, whereas Elza Lāma helped with the communication process.”
The exhibition’s curator admits that it is not easy to co-ordinate the organisation of an exhibition of ten projects from different countries, adding that technical requirements may also differ depending on the given work.
However, putting it all together “so the orchestra would sound right” and the exhibition would speak to visitors is a challenge that gives a great sense of emotional satisfaction, notes Inese Baranovska.
“I would also like to mention a special publication dedicated to the exhibition that is not quite a traditional catalogue: it not only presents information about the artists who participate in the exhibition and explains their ideas, but is rather a book with captivating texts written by art researcher Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Doctor of Philosophy Kārlis Vērpe, the University of Iceland Professor of History Valur Ingimundarson, literary critic and poet Artis Ostups, magazine “Rodnik” editor, journalist and writer Andrei Levkin. The goal of the book is to provoke thoughts about the phenomenon of FRIENDSHIP in a broader, deeper and morally more responsible way. The book’s design is by Kristaps Epners, one of the authors of the exhibition. I believe that his graphic language very aptly presents the essence of our project,” says Inese Baranovska, adding that she is thankful to all who helped implement the project.
The “(Re)construction of Friendship” exhibition explores the phenomenon of “friendship” that one party forces upon another, such as when a superpower imagines it should “make friends” with a smaller country, which results in relations that would normally not exist. Participating in the exhibition are Daniel & Geo Fuchs (Germany), (Ukraine), Sandra Krastiņa and Kristaps Epners (Latvia), Alban Muja (Kosovo), association “Orbīta” (Latvia), Tanel Rander (Estonia), Spessi (Sigurtór Hallbjörnsson, Iceland) & Erik Pauser (Sweden), Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas (Lithuania), Johan Waerndt & Monika Marklinger (Sweden) and Helena Wikström (Sweden). Art critics Inese Baranovska and Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir (Iceland), Inga Lāce, Kārlis Vērpe and Kitija Vasiļjeva are the curators of the exhibition.
The Museum of Fateful Objects – a testimony to the uniqueness of life
“I am a producer, which maybe does not sound very well, but it means that my vision never changes regardless of the product that is being created, be it a broadcast, a film, an article or, in this particular case, the exhibition at the Corner House. I and my supporters work pragmatically and systematically to fulfil this vision. It may sound dull and not very romantic, but that’s how the romantic is created,” says the head of the project, Ilona Brūvere, reminding us that the Museum of Fateful Objects offers visitors an opportunity to take a look at life in a philosophical category. “The Corner House has always been a symbol of totalitarianism and destruction. The Museum of Fateful Objects encompasses a broad spectrum of existence through the stories told by objects and things.
Objects tell us about people’s lives. People come to this horrible place to oppose its black aura with stories that celebrate life and pay homage to lives that were interrupted but are held within the silent objects. The exhibition is not meant to glorify destruction, it is a testimony to the uniqueness of life.”
The Museum of Fateful Objects asks Riga residents to submit meaningful objects, entrusting the museum with telling the stories of fates that these objects have changed. This is a new museum of personal history that opens in 2014 and showcases objects presented by Rigans.
A new way of interactive social communication presents a world of objects and things that tell entire life stories. As part of the exhibition, video monitors have been set up at the museum to shed more light on a particular object and the story it tells. Also, a compilation of the most compelling stories and objects will be published in a book titled “Fateful Objects” (“Liktens lietas”). The author and director of the project is journalist Ilona Brūvere. Project artist – Artis Rutks.
A Latvian’s suitcase and a striking story of a loaf of bread
“We are creating a museum that pays homage to people who left Latvia for one reason or another, and the museum exhibition showcases things and items that they had packed to take with them – approximately 200 various items in total,” says Juris Zalāns, the head of “A Latvian’s Suitcase” exhibition, adding that he believes the idea has been successfully implemented, although the final verdict, of course, will be made by the exhibition’s visitors. “The exhibition is made up of two parts. The first part lays the emphasis on projections by artist Zane Oborenko, each dedicated to one item. The projections are not meant to convey a story, rather give an emotional insight into the circumstances or events that were taking place at a time the owner of a given object or thing had to leave Latvia.
The other part of the exhibition is made up of objects that will be displayed for the public to see, and think about the choices people had to make when it was time for them to leave.”
Most exhibits are from World War II refugees, but there also are items received from Baptists who left for Brazil in the 1920s, and Baltic Germans who left Latvia for Germany in 1939.
What could be the most unusual things that people took along when leaving Latvia? “Teddy bears and toys that children took along when they were leaving Latvia are, of course, some of the most striking exhibits at the exhibition. Because children usually were not offered a choice between leaving and staying in Latvia. The only thing they could do was to take along their favourite toy, and there are several teddy bears on show at the exhibition.”
But the most unusual exhibit, Juris Zalāns believes, is a loaf of bread, which also has a special story to tell. “A family that left Latvia during the war took several loaves of rye bread with them. At one point there were living in a refugee camp in Germany, and by the time they arrived in the United States several years later, all bread had been eaten up, but the wife had carefully stored the bread crusts. There was no proper bread in America, but her husband had a craving for rye bread, which is why the wife started to bake rye bread of rye flour, using the bread crusts she still had not thrown away as pre-ferment. All these years she baked rye bread from the pre-ferment thus obtained, and her daughter who lives in the United States bakes rye bread to this day…” Displayed at the exhibition will be a loaf of rye bread – baked a short while ago and sent to Latvia from America, as well as a small cup of pre-ferment. The fact that the story still continues and that pre-ferment is still being used is particularly important and emotional, notes Juris Zalāns.
“It is not even a thing or an object – it is a living thing that has to be cared for. You cannot put pre-ferment in the fridge for ten years, bread has to be baked every month. And I believe that a bread loaf is a highly important part of the Latvian way of life.”
“The main symbol of the exhibition is the suitcase. Packing things when leaving is about making the final choice between values to be taken along and things left behind. For most Latvians who left the country, what was not put in the suitcase was lost forever. The objective of the exhibition is to show what Latvians actually put in their suitcases when they had to leave their homeland for one reason or another. The exhibition focuses on items that tell the story of their owners through vintage photographs, video and audio materials, computer graphics and animations. And visitors will not be passive observers either. They, too, will be asked – what would you take along if you had to leave Latvia tomorrow for an unknown period of time?”
Exhibitions’ opening hours: Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed on Tuesday, Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A visit to all exhibitions costs EUR 5. Tickets for pensioners, pupils and students – EUR 2. Family tickets (two adults and two children) – EUR 10. Admission free of charge for people with politically repressed status, national resistance movement members, persons with disabilities and children under 7. Tickets are available from the Corner House box office in the building’s courtyard.