Exhibition review: Rauma Biennale Balticum 2010, Rauma, Finland

"Is it Easy to be Caught Between 'Sunday Artists' and Commercial Kitsch?" Review of the Rauma Biennale Balticum 2010 What’s up, Sea? Contemporary Art of the Baltic Sea Region. Rauma Art Museum, Rauma, Finland, June 12 — September 19, 2010.

Published in Studija 75, no. 6 (2010).

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Kaspars Groševs, Darya Melnikova, Rūta Kiškyte. The Island. Installation. 2010. Rauma Art Museum, publicity photo,

Is it Easy to be Caught Between 'Sunday Artists' and Commercial Kitsch?


While travelling from Riga to Helsinki, from Helsinki to Turku and then on to Rauma to see this year’s Rauma Biennale Balticum, what I saw at the various stops combined to present a vision of the future of art in Latvia. The participation by Latvian artists in a few respectable international exhibitions is a sign that artists in Latvia are working, creating and thinking. But one question remains uncertain – is there any rational foundation, here and now, for being an artist?

[. . .]

The Contemporary Art Biennale of the Baltic Sea Region in Rauma has been taking place since 1985. As artist Franceska Kirke neatly pointed out in 2002, “the existence of a biennale in a small city like Rauma is a cultural phenomenon”(4). The conception of the biennale could be in a way likened to the obsession of the main hero of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, because Rauma is a small provincial town in Finland – an ethnographic museum, a UNESCO culture heritage site, not a citadel of contemporary art. This is not where contemporary art is created – at least not on such scale and with the same infrastructure as in the big cities.(5) But why shouldn’t art be viewed here? And it is exactly the odd location (Rauma cannot be visited “on the way”, you have to plan a visit there) that adds distinctive character to the biennale. Even a search on Google brings nothing of consequence about the biennale, and the web site of the Rauma Art Museum gives only the scantiest minimum of information: a press release, the names of the artists and information about museum opening hours. But already in 1994 Helēna Demakova, the curator of the Rauma biennale, pointed out that “such a widely varied collection of images removed from their creators tends to produce an unusual atmosphere. These images have nothing to do with the aspirations of the policy-makers or the ambitions of those marketing the exhibition; they are part of life, including both the profanation of notions and the fuss of public relations”(6).

The regional principle, which the biennale is based on, and the fact that the location is far away from any cultural Grand Tour, can be in a way related back to the status of our (chiefly – the three Baltic states) art in a world context. Of course, “our” art gets to galleries in London and New York, it can be viewed in the biennales of Venice, Moscow and Sydney, and at times it ends up in private collections in wealthy countries. Yet only in this remote place, as seen from the egocentric point of view of Western Europe, in the quiet and peacefulness of the seaside provincial town, “our” art is really at home.

Historically, the work of the curator has played a significant role in the creation of the image and reputation of the biennale. Ten years ago Ieva Auziņa remarked in her review of the 2000 Rauma Biennale Balticum: “Being aware of the Finnish provincial charm of Rauma, discarding unnecessary ambitions and respecting tried and tested values, I have to admit that this tradition, with origins in the mid-80s, has justified itself; one only has to look through the catalogues of the previous exhibitions in Rauma to be able to make relatively precise indents in the art of the recent decades. ... The conceptual direction of previous years formed by curators such as Barbara Straka, Helēna Demakova and others have been successful.”(7)

But since 2002 the Rauma biennale has been curated by a single team – chief curator Janne Koski and Henna Paunu. And however topical and promising the themes of biennales of the last decade may have been,(8) the tagline of this year’s biennale What’s up, Sea? left some suspicion that the ideas may have dried up and that there has been a return to a tradition which is all too familiar from the Soviet period. A declarative “unity of the nations” and the gathering of creative collectives for thematic events from the series of By the Amber Sea, Man and the Sea and The Amber Land cannot in any way be associated with a meaningful and substantial unified concept.

In keeping with the title of the biennale, the curators had chosen works which directly or indirectly feature water, and where the sea is depicted either in a realistic or figurative role. It has to be admitted that the “theme” of the exposition relates only to the formal side of the works, the criterion being the presence of the water, or sea (as image, concept or material).

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