Podnieks from Drusti
Ieva Astahovska. 2005 / No. 1 (40) / STUDIJA
Kaspars Podnieks is a 24-year-old artist still studying in his final year at the Visual Communication Department of the Academy of Art. His works have been noticed not only at exhibitions by the young and talented ("2 Show" in Vilnius, "What is important?" in Riga and elsewhere), but have also attracted attention at the traditional "Autumn" exhibitions, where he has participated every autumn/winter since 1999. We may remind ourselves of the most conspicuous works of recent years: a six-metre-high reed structure that turns out to have been inspired by the ancient Latvian straw decorations or puzuri; and a series of quite enormous photographs under the title "Milk", featuring 1) a calf grazing in milk, 2) a farmer lying dead in milk, 3) a three-year-old boy on a tricycle in milk, and 4) a forlorn, packed-up milking machine standing in milk. (I was convinced that this work is staged virtual reality, but all of it turns out to be real: the calf and everything else, including Kaspars himself as the dead farmer, and 500 litres of milk, donated by the young artist in the name of art from his parents' farm.) Shown at the "Nature. Environment. Man. 2004" exhibition was the work "Cow": moving screens showing the cows Gudrīte and Paija appearing and slowly disappearing from the screen which had been neatly upholstered with the hides of these animals, now grazing in happier pastures.
I wouldn't like to develop any further my apologia on the artist's work, since this is only the promising start to his quest. However, various thoughts do arise. From a contemporary standpoint in art, Kaspars Podnieks has maintained the approach that "brings art out into nature" or "brings nature into art". At the same time, this is a path little-trodden so far in Latvian art: namely, he develops the "art-nature" relationship not as an aesthete or a metaphysician, a destroyer or a hooligan, seeking poetics, exotic form, alterative settings or subjective intellectual inspiration, but in quite a different manner: with a farmer's thoroughness, stability and sense of scale, and even with a certain rational humanism, which is kept down to earth by the ironic note so characteristic of young artists' work. Kaspars Podnieks brings the theme of the countryside into art. And not as an idyllic pastorale, where the country or nature serves the purpose of "fleeing from civilisation", returning to primeval elements or presenting studies of the exotic, of the kind that have frequently attracted 20th century artists, and which even in these cases serve to confirm that art is after all more of an urban activity, a somewhat snobbish affair. The aim of Kaspars' subversive work is not one of objecting or protesting. He's simply saying "It's better in the country!"
Tell me about your work!
In sculpture, physics is of great importance. Back at school (the Wood Design Department of the Riga College of Applied Art), we were taught that wood doesn't necessarily have to be combined with wood. There's a principle of tension: the cables and timbers reinforce each other. I borrowed the designs from the puzuri. I chose this form, since it's beautiful, and perfect in terms of durability. Each timber was enormous, five metres long. Not turned by machine, but planed by hand. I always do everything myself, from beginning to end. The work weighed half a tonne. Accordingly, I wanted to make the second work as light as possible: I shaped it from glued reeds, with aluminium for the metal structures.
There's also structural design in the work "Cow". I created the mechanism for the motion of the TV screens after the principle of a table lamp - when you move it, the angle doesn't change. I made the mechanism, used a chronometer to calculate how it would progress, positioned the cameras and filmed the cows.
I'm studying at the Visual Communication Department, where many students use computers in their work. But I wanted to show that the same can be done without a computer. Thus, in some of the works, the main idea was to give the impression that it's all been done by computer, although in fact I do the work in a real setting: the same thing can be done "for real", using a real photograph. Anyone can do it on a computer. That's cheap. I've been taught design in wood for five years, and I've come to understand that work done by hand is unrepeatable. Digital work seems to me factory-made by comparison.
The aim of one of the works was to present familiar elements in a setting as things or objects. I used oil paints on a dead tree that was to be cut down, painting it red and white like a factory chimney, and I painted a cow with white emulsion paint. Then I decided that it wasn't right to paint an animal, and to make it fair, I used the same paint on myself.
In another work, I wanted to play around. The idea is that from a distance, or in a photo, it looks like a regular square in the landscape. It's only when you look at it obliquely that you see how it's actually been created. The principle is the same as if the square were small: I stood at one particular spot and tried to create it precisely. It's an enormous work: I stretched a 50-metre-long plastic sheet across a field and painted it red. I painted a tractor too, using litres and litres of paint. Everyone looking at the work is fooled: everyone says its been done by computer, that it's impossible to do it in real life, because in the photo a small corner of the square appears to rise into the sky. I made this corner in the landscape, building it up from earth and covering it in coloured plastic sheeting - it took me half a day.
For the work "Milk", I poured out some 500 litres of milk, from several days' milkings, to a depth of some three or four centimetres, into a specially-formed pool. This was at that critical time when very little was being paid for milk. I don't like using a work as a protest, but I wanted to present it in such a way that people would reflect on the importance and value of milk.
Do you always consciously strive to show the countryside and nature in your work, or is it "in your blood"?
At the outset, it wasn't intended that way, but it is now. I didn't set out with the aim of presenting the countryside. In the beginning, I simply wanted to create my works in the space represented by my own piece of the country. To combine them with the setting - a pond or a hill. It simply came of itself, since this is where I live. My parents are farmers, it's the background I come from and what I keep to. We have property there; I feel secure there, I'm familiar with all of it. In Riga, I could never do something as crazy as that: I'd need all sorts of permits, but over there, on my own land, I can drive around in a tractor and pour out milk.
You have a kind of farmer's approach.
A direct approach is needed. It's most sincere to have just one word in the name of the work, rather than to seek out something beautiful, because that gets suspicious. If you can answer directly, in one short sentence, then it creates the conviction that you know what you're talking about. Some people can talk for an hour, and at the end of it I haven't been able to understand what they're saying or thinking. I try not to talk so much, but to prove it by my work. I think a lot. Then, when I'm creating a work, I no longer have to think, and it's best if everything's clear beforehand, even down to the details.
Is the countryside and nature primary in your work and interesting for you as a world in itself, or do you use it as "raw material"?
Nature is primary. I don't use natural materials brutally. I wouldn't like to clown around with natural materials. I'd never have painted that tree in the landscape if it'd still been alive. You have to be acquainted as well as possible with your past, and it's nature that has been there first and foremost. That's integral to my work.
Is the idea important?
There's everything. I've never really been able to understand why art has to be made only for those 2% who are critics and experts, or else for the 60% of ordinary viewers who only need it to be beautiful. Because it's possible to create work for everyone, to include both concept and form.
I want a work of art to look good and to contain an idea. There must be a concept too, but it must appear through form, rather than the other way round. After all, you can't accompany the work all the time, explaining what it's supposed to mean.
A work needs to address the viewer through all the senses. So that you not only see it, but can hear and touch it too. It's important to me what others think, so first I need to sen-se for myself how they will perceive it. It needs to hold the viewer's attention. To present the information in a compact way, so that all the elements can be picked up and so that each viewer finds something for themselves. I try to make the work as multifaceted as possible. I include as much as possible, so that each viewer can create their own story.
I like sculpture, but in sculpture it's harder to present the idea. Thus, when I'm creating a work, I more often choose photography. Photography to me is more like painting. Everyone thinks that painting involves just taking up a brush and mixing colours, but I can do the same with photography. I look at the sky, at a cloud approaching, at the changing light and shadow. By taking a particular picture, I'm seemingly painting it the way I like, using natural means.
Have you done any work at Pedvāle?
I have been there a few times and thought about it. Bet then, why should I do it at Pedvāle when I can do it at Drusti? Why should I go to an unfamiliar place when I've got a good place of my own in which to create my work?
A place where you can work on a big scale?
When I was little, in drawing class, some of the others had a tendency towards small drawings. The teacher was always saying that you have to draw big, you have to compose the whole page. Then I got the hang of it, and it really took off. The "big" approach worked: I want to do things in a big way. A room is too small, and the city seems too narrow for me. A city seems to me like one big shared flat. Like life in a box. When you go outside, you can't see anything for the boxes all around.
When I first came to Riga, there was this attitude: "we're from the city and you're from the sticks". Some of my acquaintances were shy of admitting they were from the country. I myself too was a little shy of it, but then I thought: so what? And I always said I was from Drusti. Now I've gotten over that and understood that because "I'm from the country" I actually have a better life. There's nothing in the city. For example, if you get fired from your job, everything stops and you get thrown out of your apartment. In the country, you have your own home, you have room and open space. I think that's why my work is on a grand scale. In the country, I can roam around and go where I please. In the city, if you go out, there's always a car about to run you down.
So nowadays, I often emphasise that I'm from the countryside, from Drusti. You're from the city? Oh, you poor thing, you live in a little box.
Aren't you afraid that alienation is invading the countryside too? That natural harmony is being lost?
It's people from the cities who want to conserve it and present it to the tourists. For me, the country is a way of life, a place where you can go fishing and hunting. I want to live in the countryside, with its freedom. In the city, on the other hand, you have opportunities, such as exhibitions. I like this change. But in the city too I feel good. It was only hard at the beginning.
Do you think something has inspired your work? What about authorities?
In the first place, it's a matter of trust in yourself. If I no longer believe in myself, then whom else can I trust? Authorities for me are those who have proven themselves. Teachers, many of them: you can't know which of them has been more important at some particular moment.
At one time, I tried not to be influenced by works. To see less, so as to be freer in my thinking, otherwise it might lead me off my own path. At the outset, it was a matter of being from the country, not knowing anything and just creating something. Now that I've shown some of my own work, I have to see what others are up to. I take an interest in their work and go to exhibitions. I can race through an exhibition at the Arsenāls hall in a few minutes, to look and see which of the works addresses me, and then I stay with it and contemplate it.
What do you think an art academy, where traditions are accumulated and "new currents" in art are created, can contribute or give a young artist?
At the academy, I've done whatever I've wanted to and taken various additional classes. I tried to devote six months to something of my own that I regarded as being most important. At one stage, I was painting all the time, morning till night, Saturdays and Sundays. Then, for six months, I took sculpture classes. At one point, I was carried away with photography.
In the main, I'm satisfied with life. When you get up in the morning, whatever wave you get yourself on, it stays with you all day long. So, I always try to get on a positive wave.