SKAN II review for The Wire

skanwireSkan II is the second edition of a sound-focused art exhibition organised by Riga’s Skaņu Mežs festival – 2007 was the first. Split into three parts between May and August, it featured a rolling programme of numerous works by Latvian and international artists installed around the University of Latvia’s Botanical Gardens, both outside among the plant life, and inside some of the garden’s utility spaces.

Heimo Lattner and Judith Laub’s The Silbadores: Part 4 was broadcast from the garden’s main greenhouse. Composed in El Silbo, a whistled language that allows the inhabitants of the Canary Island of La Gomera to communicate across its mountainous terrain, El Silbo almost died out in the late 1970s but has since been revived in Gomeran schools. A native whistler performed The Silbadores at the exhibition’s opening event, Now the whistles of its recorded version intermittently pierce the air above the garden, calling out for attention, or possibly warning against predators.

Anke Eckhardt’s Ground occupied a decomposing wooden manor house, the type that dot Riga as a reminder of centuries of German presence. Standing on the floor, while hissing air compression heaves concrete slabs into slow and heavy motion around you, is a queasy experience. Structured around metal tubes and burnt wooden frames, Evelina Delemane’s outdoor installation Chimney was an audio narrative spoken in Latvian telling a story about wooden manor houses. To hear it you had to place your ear against one of the tubes emitting faint voices. Even for non-Latvian speakers like myself, the effect was mournful. Eli Keszler’s wired-up Truss contraption, installed off-site, and Max Eastley’s wind powered installations playfully echoed each other, though both seemed detached from the exhibition, as if they could have been anywhere.

David Helbich’s Riga Tracks was an unhinged audio guide that required several hours for the participant to make their way around the city and engage in ‘wall sex’, involving headphone caressing and putting oneself in other awkward positions. The accompanying booklet is a great read, though it’s questionable how many people really followed its instructions.

The most striking works were those that embraced the unique spaces they inhabited. The Satellite Laser Ranging Station is essentially a very deep hole in the garden’s ground. As one descends the stairs, it gets danker and more constrained. In the second part of the exhibition, Leif Elggren and Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s Downdowndowndowmn, played with this: its drone gets more intense as you’re swallowed by the depths, becoming increasingly nightmarish until one reaches the lowest chamber, painted red. In part three, Voldemars Johansons presented his OP. 38, part of his ongoing Standing Waves series. Johansons turned the space into an extended pipe organ, a drone bellowing from an installation of metal pipes jutting out of the bottom chamber’s floor. Both works tuned into an already strange space, and charged it with drama.

Christian Skjodt’s Illumination was installed in the garden’s vine cellar – a damp and dark domed room covered in earth, with a tiny hole letting in a pinprick of light – and involved the sonification of sunlight captured by solar panels on the cellar’s roof
which translated the energy into a pulsing drone inside. The work description claimed that Illumination was a literal translation of data, but like so many sonification pieces, it allowed musicians to make numerous choices that affected the outcome: what circuitry to use, how the energy is amplified, and so on. In this case the effect was sinister – listening to the low drone in the cold and damp darkness dispersed through a series of small speakers mounted in backlit perspex boxes, the scene resembled some occult ritual, rather than a laboratory-bound explication of phenomena.

Illumination exemplified the core theme running through Skan II. Many countries look to their landscapes to personify national characteristics (spend a short time with a Latvian and they’ll regularly mention the forests that define their patch off the Baltic). But as everywhere else, this relationship is fictional and arbitrary. Many works in Skan II were site-specific, and the best relied on a dramatisation of human relationships with landscape. Flesh is never rooted in the land, the only connection it has with it is made through stories.

Text by Nathaniel Budzinski for The Wire magazine (November 2014)

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