Baltic Winds: The Institutions That Reshape the Art Map

Tucked between Scandinavia, Russia, and Eastern Europe, the Baltics’ remoteness has kept the region somewhat distant on Europe’s cultural map. But over the past decade, an exciting young art scene has been quietly brewing in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and slowly forging global networks and well programmed institutions along with it.

Anne Katrine Senstad's installation "Radical Light" in collaboration with JG Thirlwell at Kai Art Center © Renee Altrov

Artists like Kris Lemsalu, Pakui Hardware, Indrė Šerpytytė, Eglė Budvytytė, Katja Novitskova and YOUNG GIRL READING GROUP are being hailed by critics and curators alike, and gaining a continued presence in international institutions. Augustas Serapinas was the youngest participant in Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale in 2019, and when the Lithuanian Pavilion snagged the Golden Lion award at the 58th Venice Biennale last year with an unforgettable presentation by Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė and Vaiva Grainytė, the rest of the world finally started paying attention.

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A host of international art events now attracts art professionals to the region; meanwhile, new museums have been added to the existing landscape of institutions, among them the contemporary-focused KAI Art Center in Tallinn, opened in 2019, and the Daniel Libeskind-designed MO Modern Art Museum in Vilnius, opened in 2018. The latter, a private initiative by two local philanthropists, houses over 5,000 works of modern and contemporary art by Lithuanian artists from 1960 to the present.

Unlike many countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the Baltics have enjoyed relatively stable economic and political conditions, spared even from Europe’s recent penchant towards right-wing populism. The new generation of artists and curators largely grew up in the post-Soviet era, studied or worked abroad, and are now reshaping and redefining local artistic production, bringing back an international perspective and network. Artists of this generation seem less concerned with probing a “Baltic identity” in their work. Encompassing themes such as climate change, technology, and social justice, their output can be better described as belonging to these specific times rather than simply to a region.

This output was enhanced when the three countries officially joined the European Union in 2004, both in terms of funding and accessibility. The new wind blowing through the Baltics is best evinced in its institutions—both state-run and private—as well as in the region’s various biennials and art events. Here are some of the major ones worth adding to the agenda:

© CAC/ Baltic Triennale
© CAC/ Baltic Triennale
© CAC/ Baltic Triennale

The Baltic Triennial, Lithuania

Founded in the late seventies under Soviet rule, the triennial has managed the transformation into a dynamic international event organized by the CAC, Vilnius —the largest venue for contemporary art in the Baltics. Its 2018 iteration, curated by Vincent Honoré, took place across all three Baltic countries. The upcoming 14th edition, slated to open in 2021, will be helmed by João Laia, chief curator at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, and Valentinas
Klimašauskas, former programs director at Riga’s noteworthy Kim? Contemporary Art Center, and co-curator—together with Inga Lâce—of the Latvian Pavilion at Venice in 2019. The curatorial concept and artist list have yet to be announced, but with this duo steering the wheel, next year’s triennial promises to be a stimulating affair.

Performance "Household Gods (Aspazija)" by Oliver Beer at Riga Biennale © RIBOCA

RIBOCA, The Riga Biennale, Latvia

A relatively new addition to the scene, RIBOCA was founded in 2016 by Agniya Mirgorodskaya with the aim of creating a European biennial that sets new standards in sustainability. The 2018 inaugural edition was curated by Katerina Gregos; the second iteration, RIBOCA2, is curated by
Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, on view for three weeks until 13th September 2020 at the post-industrial site of Andrejsala, part of Riga’s port. Centered on burning topics such as climate change, extractive turbo-capitalism, and fundamental human rights, the exhibition, titled
and suddenly it all blossoms, is thought-provoking without being preachy, and had critics swoon in an otherwise culturally dry summer, cut short due to Covid-19. It is now being shot as a feature film, directed by award-winning Latvian filmmaker Dāvis Sīmanis and scripted
by the curator—so watch out for the release of this poetic (if dystopian) movie next year.

© Aron Urb

Kai Art Center, Tallinn, Estonia

Compared to the more established CCA Estonia and the Tallinn Kunsthalle, which have helped put Estonian art on the map, the Kai Art Center is a relatively recent player in the Estonian art scene. Occupying a former secret submarine plant by the harbor, it now forms the heart of a new cultural hub, replete with period-tinged architecture and Baltic history. Bringing international artists to a local audience alongside contemporary Estonian artists, Kai programs some of the country’s most vibrant exhibitions while forging connections with international institutions. Currently on view is a joint project by Kris Lemsalu Malone and Kyp Malone Lemsalu, first shown at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Residence at Rupert © Rupert

Rupert, Vilnius, Lithuania

An independent art center with a world-famous residency program, Rupert maintains a strong international profile through its uncompromising programming of exhibitions, talks, and an interdisciplinary education platform. Rupert’s residency program at its studios—designed by the award-winning studio Lithuanian Audrius Ambrasas Architects—has attracted artists, curators, and writers from around the world to its quiet location in a bucolic Lithuanian forest. The Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works of Rupert’s exhibition program for 2020, but an alternative implementation has been in full operation since August.

While all of these places merit individual attention, it’s the confluence of events, institutions, and artistic production in the Baltics have helped raise the region’s international profile. At the same time, Baltic artists tackle a diversity of interests and media in their work, and in doing so, successfully evade being pigeonholed through their national identity. In an era defined by a tendency towards tribalism, this approach feels refreshingly universal—not to mention necessary.

Hili Perlson is an art critic and lecturer. Formerly an editor at artnet News, her writing also appeared in Artforum, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Vogue.com, Zoo Magazine and other publications.