I’m on the Viewer’s Side. Artist Gints Gabrāns
For several years already, the artist is considered a challenger of the boundaries between science and art. He represented Latvia at the 52nd Venice Biennale with the project “Paramirrors” (2007), whereas his exhibitions “Paramirrors II” (2008) and “Bloodlight” (2011) earned him nominations for Purvītis Prize – currently the highest recognition in Latvian art. Exhibition “Fields”, part of the “Riga 2014” Programme, presents Gints Gabrāns’ work “Food” – genetic modification of metabolic bifidobacteria outside the body giving them the ability to synthesise an enzyme that can break down cellulose. Whereas exhibition “Visionary Structures. From Ioganson to Johansons”, that opens in the new Latvian National Library building on the 3rd of July, features Gints Gabrāns as one of the most prominent innovators of his time.
First of all, please tell us about the work that will be on show in the new library building!
“For the Visionary Structures, I created a project that is largely based on self-organisation. At the heart of it is the popular fortune telling method of pouring molten tin into cold water, arriving at random complex shapes. I had exhibited similar works in the past, when I and the Latvian Radio Choir participated in the project “Minotaur” in Spīķeri [“Staro Rīga 2010” light festival – ed.]. So, the project features sculptures, and it will continue with videos of 3D models. With the help of computer tomography, viewers will be able to see through the models at various angles.
At the “Visionary Structures” exhibition, you are in the company of six artists who are each described as a trendsetting artistic innovator of his era. What is it like to be in such a company, from Gustavs Klucis to Voldemārs Johansons?
I am very lucky to be halfway between the early constructivists and the young ones. There is a stark difference between the straight lines and angles of Gustavs Klucis and Karl Ioganson – and my hyperbolic planes.
While their works are predominated by simplicity, mine are characterised by complexity. They offer a path to at least some kind of clarity, whereas my works lead to confusion. Changes in of form are generally characteristic of that period, they reflect how people studied nature, researched into the structure of matter. Now we have arrived at biological systems. To me, this exhibition is interesting in showing the difference in the artworks of the beginning of the twentieth century. The ideas about the form were similar, but the results are strikingly different.
How do you like the Latvian National Library as an exhibition venue?
I like the building very much, but the exhibition hall… This area would rather be suited for a bookshop or souvenirs. An exhibition hall should, after all, meet some technical requirements. Here we have a situation that I always see when exhibitions are organised in historic cities. For instance, when I was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, there was a historic building with a number of restrictions – no drilling into the walls and suchlike. In such cases, there is usually a new “shell” built within the room, a new room in essence, good for the exhibition. A similar exhibition hall is being built at the National Library now.
Do you mean to say that you believe the room to be very important, and that the work that will be showcased in the new National Library building would be more thoroughgoing in different environment?
No, I think they will have done everything just right. The exhibition was devised by architects and other people who materialise all these ideas. It is simply a longer route to arrive at a wonderful finale.
The new building of the National Library, that the public opinion was originally divided about, has become the nation’s Palace of Light. Do you feel some kind of patriotic honour to be there?
I don’t know anything about public opinion, I’ve got nothing to do with any Latvia media for years now… Yes, I am pleased to be there…, but honoured …? It’s not easy to “operate” with such concepts [laughs]. Yes, it may be something like feeling honoured. I’m proud that such a major project can come to fruition, and now the building has been built. That is remarkable.
What does it actually mean for a contemporary artist to feel honoured?
I’ll have to think for a while. It may be some certain person who shows appreciation. Someone in authority. I was very honoured to receive the art award from “Hansabanka”, now “Swedbank” [“Hansabank” Group Art Award 2004 for the project “Starix” – ed.]. There was an international jury. I had a feeling of inner respect … If you are selected by that kind of public, then yes, it is gratifying.
The exhibition “Fields” includes your project “Food”, which explores the future prospects of solving the problem of food shortages caused by overpopulation. Some exhibition visitors have said that works at this exhibition definitely need to have explanatory comments by the author. What does this say about contemporary art? Maybe you, as an artist, are offended by such remarks?
No, I’m not offended. In fact, that what you see in an artwork is what it actually means. The viewer may interpret it as a burden that he or she is being forced to arrive at some conclusions. But sometimes artists also do not fully comprehend their work [laughs]. It’s not the kind of comprehension that can be explained in words of one syllable, and that’s not the most important thing about it.
Contemporary art offers a very broad spectrum – there are works that do not require explanatory remarks at all, and there are works that certainly need additional information. For instance, the project “Food” at the exhibition “Fields” – the explanatory text is very important for it, as there are some invisible phenomena concerned, such as genetically-modified bacteria that cannot be seen with the naked eye. On the other hand, the work that is showcased at the library rather deals with the form, and that is one time when explanatory text may be omitted.
Contemporary art is often the subject of very complex definitions, especially by critics and exhibition curators. How much do you think about the viewer when creating a particular work of art? And I mean someone who is not particularly interested in the history of contemporary art, or in prominent artists.
I have very many such viewers. I often collaborate with people from other fields. People may simply be interested, and they do not necessarily have to be trying to understand something. That is rather about the feeling of insecurity, now we are also talking too much about spectators who are supposed to understand something…
But the world around art and artists also creates tensions – a work has to be in context and explained. If a spectator comes into direct contact with a work that has no context, it will be horrible. But we have to understand that people in this profession (curators and critics) also have a job to do [laughs].
So that means that both sides fear this kind of communication breakdown?
[Laughs]. Yes. But I am on the viewer’s side. I have seen all kinds of reactions. But I also see that people who are free from inhibitions can observe an artwork with great interest, without any uncalled-for explanations.
A number of your works is associated with various scientific experiments. Have you defined for yourself the boundary between an experiment and a work of art? Maybe it is not possible at all?
Then I have to think at what moment an experiment actually begins [laughs]. My work surely does not begin as a scientific experiment that is later presented as a work of art. I am not a scientist, and when I start to work on a project, I do so as an artist. So I probably can’t define this boundary.
What is the starting point – is it an idea of an artwork as you would like it to see, or a process with an unpredictable outcome?
In science, art, and in any other creative process there is a goal, while the process in itself is largely unpredictable. It is the successful projects the result of which was impossible to predict. If I could plan everything, and only then commence making it, it would have been boring production. If you do not experience the joy of discovery, the work will not be interesting to the viewer either.
When you were in school, maybe you wanted to study biology, chemistry, or physics?
No, I knew quite well what I wanted. I am an artist, and it is exactly for this reason that I like to communicate with scientists. If I tried to adapt myself to, for instance, biologist Jānis Liepiņš, I would hardly be able to be on the same level as he is.
Microbiologist Jānis Liepiņš plays an important role in your works, including in the project “Food” on show at the exhibition “Fields”. Is there some part in your collaboration that he alone is in charge of?
Yes, yes, that’s how it is done. My collaborations with Jānis Liepiņš and other scientists start by me telling them the basics of my idea. Then it turns out that, according to physical laws, the problem can be solved differently. And so the project changes and evolves.
And what do physical laws have to say about eating cellulose in the future?
I’m not too preoccupied with thoughts about whether it will really happen in the future. The main idea of the project at the “Fields” exhibition is to find a way to feed nine billion people. I exhibited this same project also at the gallery “Alma” [“Molecular Metamorphoses”, 20.06.–15.08.2014 – ed.], adapting the same idea to the requirements of a competition announced by the Military Innovation Division of the U.S. Department of Defence, where the objective was to make it possible for soldiers to be on a combat mission for days and without having to carry food on them. This is where my idea would be of great use. However, making it really work would require enormous budget, and the project would take a long time.
If human body could really break down cellulose, we could eat books. There are more calories in paper than in bread. But in a broader sense it means to see that food is everywhere around us.
Are you a Rigan?
Yes, currently I live in Riga. I was born in Valmiera, but my accent comes from Liepāja.
What are your first memories of Riga, maybe of some special places and feelings unique for this city?
Some of my earliest childhood memories are about us visiting my godmother in Riga. Sometimes I was made to stay there for a while. As for the memories… The Zoo [laughs]. Every time we were in Riga we went to the Zoo. I just realised, thinking of the earliest memories – hot concrete. I don’t know why. It must be one of the things that surprise a child. Because I was living deep in the countryside, and when I was taken to Riga for a week, I could see the contrast. It was hard to breathe.
What are your favourite places in Riga now, maybe beyond the city centre?
Why not the Old Town? It is beautiful, too. Usually people look for what’s new at a given moment, a café or something else. Before that I liked the Spilve Airport. When I moved to Riga, I lived nearby, in Iļģuciems, and the airport was… a good place for a walk.