Ieva Astahovska

Avant-garde Exhibitions in Latvia in the 1970s

The archived events from Latvia reflect a diversity of form and status: exhibitions with instant resonance, activities that earned attention only much later, and exhibitions that were little known due to censorship or their transitory nature.

Among these are both official and semiofficial events, as well as private ones that took place in venues outside of the art world. This diversity shows that in Latvia—unlike, for example, in Russia—art life was not strictly segregated into mutually exclusive zones (official vs. unofficial), and that progressive or avant-garde art tendencies were often integrated or camouflaged behind slogans supportive of the system.

However, all these events were unusual for their time and broke with accepted exhibition formats—they included, for instance, performances, happenings, concerts, and discos where the DJs also gave lectures. This clearly shows that the artistic process in the Soviet era was driven not only by exhibiting artworks but also by experiments, improvisations, discussions, games, and provocations. The initiators and conceptual authors of these exhibitions (curators in today’s terms) were often artists themselves.

The selection of exhibitions from Latvia reveals three important directions for new artistic exploration. The first strand was exhibitions of independent works by art academy students that challengingly attempted to fuse the rules of the local school with Western influences, pre- and postwar avant-garde styles, and forms and genres such as abstraction, Op art, Pop art, photorealism, surrealism, and experimental photography. Only a few of these experiments later gained acceptance by the official art scene, with most remaining outside the main exhibitions.

A second trajectory is the trespassing of artistic boundaries in exhibitions focusing on relations between art and design, and space and environment—seeking a new aesthetics, as well as a more conceptual approach. These exhibitions clearly reveal the principles of the Soviet system: they were official and approved by the authorities, who accepted their avant-gardism since it was presented using the “proper” terminology (decorative art, unique design, environment, synthesis, etc.).

The third trajectory involves events that radically deviated from the traditional notion of art, heading in the direction of “living art”—a synergy between art, music, and unlimited creativity. At the time, the organizers of these events did not attempt to interpret them within the art system, but today these alternative exhibition formats are seen as important reference points in the development of contemporary art in Latvia.