Up on the shelf with Warhol. Film about Vija Celmiņa in the works

Up on the shelf with Warhol. Film about Vija Celmiņa in the works
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014 . Author: Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014; producer, head of ‘Juris Podnieks studio’ Antra Cilinska
Una Griškeviča
12-05-2013 A+ A-
One of 'Riga 2014' projects is major personal exhibition of world-famous Latvian artist now living in United States Vija Celmiņa, which – an event within thematic line ‘Desire of the Ocean’ – will open in Art Museum Riga Bourse in April next year. In order to introduce the public with the prominent artist and make a documentary, film crew – director Olafs Okonovs, cinematographer Aleksandrs Grebņevs, producer Antra Cilinska and curator of the project Elita Ansone – travelled to New York to visit Vija Celmiņa. Meanwhile, on May 19, Vija Celmiņa’s painting ‘Knife and Dish’ is expected to be auctioned in Los Angeles for 300 000 to 500 000 dollars…

‘I think it will be fantastic opportunity – to see and enjoy work of this artist in Riga. Since Vija Celmiņa is widely known in the world, but, unfortunately, not here, we had this idea to generate a deeper and more interesting insight into her personality and work,’ head of ‘Juris Podnieks studio’ Antra Cilinska tells about the incentive to create documentary dedicated to Vija Celmiņa, which should be ready this autumn, adding that ‘slowly and gradually, things begin to emerge. I can’t say what will be the end of it, but we have something to start with, the seed money is there, so I strongly hope that we will be able to go ahead.’

In Latvian woman’s earnestness – garden, kitchen and studio  

For our first journey, we aimed at establishing a relationship with Vija, since, Antra underlines, mutual understanding and trust must exist in order to make a film about a personality. Now, having returned from New York, producer is convinced that the plan is completed for one hundred and twenty percent. ‘Vija Celmiņa is very forthcoming!’

She is a fantastic figure in all her inner complexity, when she says ‘I am not yet that old as to be made a film about and do not want films about me being made’ while welcoming us very warmly and letting us hear her life-story at the same time.

Antra Cilinska accentuates frequently, in our conversation, how important it is for us to understand the significance of Vija Celmiņa’s name in contemporary art and culture of the west: it is no coincidence that Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Gallery in London and Museum of Modern Art have presented her work and keep it in their collections to this day.




Producer says: ‘No doubt, we can be proud of Vija Celmiņa’s Latvian roots, which artist herself has most interesting stories about. Arriving in America, her father took her to a state where it looked like nothing happened as he thought it would be more peaceful that way… But it was not to be! Imagine sixties and California with all you could see happening there at the time – all the possible revolutions, children of love and all the movements… Vija has grown up in this atmosphere, it has influenced her outlook of life and art, and that is also what we want to show in the film – how Vija has created her art and structured her life, living in this boiling pot, and how it fits into present-day context.’

‘Warhol has been reified too much!’

Our filmmakers visited Museum of Modern Art, which is in an hour’s drive from New York. Remembering it, producer makes light that value  in its own right was her commentary on works on display, including Warhol’s of whom Celmiņa said: Oh, I don’t know, Warhol is too reified, in my opinion!’


Meanwhile, in a gallery in New York, Warhol was presented on the wall opposite to Vija’s works. Well, that is a level and height of the standard… And then, her Latvian earnestness is also in view.

Antra emphasizes, as she says it, that, while presenting herself as American in conversation, Vija Celmiņa has never denied her Latvian origin. ‘She has lived there all her life, of course, grown up in that culture and life style. But her Latvian roots are acknowledged, and that comes to the surface when Vija cooks something and asks everyone to her table – all sincere and essential, adding: ‘Well, I am a Latvian after all.’  

To widen the view

We go on to discuss that Vija Celmiņa’s name resonated in Latvia in February this year with media reporting that ‘Latvian artist living in America, Vija Celmiņa’s  painting ‘Knife and Dish’, dating back to 1967, will be offered to buyers, in a Los Angeles auction house, on May 19 for 300 000 to 500 000 US dollars.’ Antra says that all she knows about this painting is that it had hanged on Vija’s kitchen wall for long time until she gave it to people now offering it to be auctioned as a present. ‘This is precisely why our task is to widen the view opening behind these words offered by the press. She is very open and, no doubt, a thing worth stressing is artist’s fanatical energy to work – she repeats that one should work more and more… as her work is very much on demand.’



The film crew has also appreciated the scrupulousness of artist’s work and the fact that they are still created with help of no more than a tiny, blunt little pencil. ‘I think that we will be able to complete our task and create a film about this fantastic personality. We have several meetings planned as it is impossible feat to fulfill in a single one. But to be with Vija and interact with her is a singular delight!

Walking in New York, our cameraman asked the artist – What would you say you like here the most? Vija answered that it was all the trash being thrown out, which could be used to make art…

‘But artist is always an artist,’ Antra laughs, remembering Vija’s Latvian side again and – how much she likes the countryside. ‘In New York, she has grown this little garden and was ready to try and talk our sound man and cameraman into helping her to dig it up a bit and prepared to adopt them as grandchildren. We said that we are up for calls whenever needed.’

Bird-watching and Mayan inspiration

It turns out that Antra first met Vija Celmiņa many years ago when Ilmārs Blumbergs’ exhibition in the UN building in New York was filmed. ‘I still remember how she first told me about bird watchers. I was listening in wonder about someone travelling to all the jungle corners of the world to observe the smallest possible birds in the earliest hours of the day, but, seeing and learning more about Vija’s work and herself, you begin to understand this strong sense of grounding.’ The artist has said of herself that she is a builder. Antra says that this image may the most closely capture the way she creates her works, layer on layer, for the art form to emerge. ‘Vija says – there are so many beautiful photographs in the world! So, she reproduces, imitates them as she generates her own work.’




Antra imagined August sky full of stars in Latvia as she observed one of Vija Celmiņa’s creations. ‘But Vija said: no, not stars, those are planets! And she had visited an observatory to study them and the cupola of the sky.

There is boundless sea and the planes of desert, which fascinates her deeply, in Vija’s work. She finds old blackboards, once hanging in school, in the trash and uses them for the model and inspiration in her work.”

In order for the studio to complete the envisaged portrait-film, Vija Celmiņa will come to Latvia this autumn, whole the crew will go to America at least one more time tying it to a short journey to Mexico – a place artist is very inspired by as she is fascinated by the ancient Mayan culture – their lines and form, which is important for her work. ‘Structure, texture, form of objects is also language of the film, by which we, along with Vija Celmiņa, try to build this story. Because she fill find order of things even in chaos, which will touch her and which will become her art. We wish to tell more of the artist herself in order to open her art more widely to more people. And I liked very much what Vija said – that we are used to every work carrying a message these days. Vija says: the art work has to speak for itself – for you to see and enjoy it! If we manage to help our conservative viewer to enjoy Vija’s art with our film – our aim will be fulfilled!’



03.06.2014 11:12

Now when we've been to Riga and saw the exhibitions ourselves, we realised what a great artist she is - and as you say, a great personality. Without your movie though, we have a feeling that we might've missed that further insight. Thanks for a work well done, the exhibition was great, and so was the documentary you made, we thoroughly enjoyed it.