“- So you are a meteorologist. What exactly do you do?
– I predict the future.
– You are a witch then. A good one or a bad one?
– You can try me.
– I’d be afraid. You would learn too much about me.”
People brush against each other on a carriage, like clusters of electrons while riding on a long-distance train at night, drifting from one place to another to a distant Baltic coast. The view from the window appears close, but it is unreachable. The bodies that inhabit the train exist in a confined condition, a claustrophobic world. Baltic Express, our inspiration for this text, a Thaw-era 1959 film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, revolves around the communication between two people, strangers to each other, forced to co-exist in the tightest of cabins. The two main characters reveal themselves during one fateful night filled with flirtation, witticisms and suspense under which hides a deep yearning for meaning in the emptiness of a dark, smoke-filled corridor.
Over the atmospheric and geopolitical heat of the summer of 2022, eight artists, four based in Estonia and four in Latvia, travelled across the Baltic coast to discover each other and create this exhibition together. Each of them brings their own personal approaches to art practice, their egos bumping into one another, in collaboration and in a sense, in co-habitation of the exhibition space orchestrated by us, the curators. For us, their travelling to encounter a different yet related context and to collaborate with each other, living together, and creating together, has gradually taken on a deeper resonance. It has become an experiment with present-day life, art and culture in the Baltics as its subjects. Missed connections, suppressed desires and expressions of solitude extend outwards. We can’t help but speculate where our own journeys might take us.
We enter the conceptual space of the exhibition already before stepping through the gallery doors. Transforming and taking over the windows, Dzelde Mierkalne and Junny Yeung have created two claustrophobic, almost cinematic environments, espousing how the home and the workspace have become enmeshed into an uncomfortable functional third space, as our emotions slither through the tools and instruments of the corporate environment, dipping into a completely alienated existence that is undeniably part of our world today. Gazing into the gallery through the windows, we expect that something unusual will happen – or has already happened.
Johannes Luik and Krišjānis Elviks’ works create the scenography of this exhibition from what has been left behind – or from someone left behind after a journey. Through playing and trying to guess the previous meanings of ruins and leftovers, they transform textures and materialities into self-sufficient objects which generate their own value by being placed side by side, where they introduce but don’t impose their history, while looking at stories they create in connection to one another.
We understand and plan our trips while our minds draw the maps of our routes, but what happens with our bodily perceptions while we take this everyday journey or when something or someone puts the train on the breaks? Through their own bodies, Alise Putniņa and Maarja Tõnisson test in rehearsals how our mind and body connect or disconnect in situations like that: do they have their own intelligence capable of transforming our bodies into shape-shifting creatures which we fail to recognise as our everyday vessels?
We reach the terminus point of our journey through the exhibition to encounter a series of digital avatars reciting love poems written by Madara Gruntmane. Together with Alyona Movko Mägi they have created moving digital portraits of locals from Riga, disenfranchised and left without a home. Are these people restless nomads or seeking a freer existence from capitalist structures, being constantly on the move? The artists’ poetic character study leaves us feeling ambivalent. The videos objectify their subjects and make them seen – not less-than-human, but also not like us in an avatar state.
Journeys can sometimes be life-altering, and we are left wondering: if we drift through places rather than being a part of them, can we transcend beyond a floating sense of loneliness and alienation?
Is there a definite end to the story or just a moment of suspension which we perceive as the end? Is it important to have a final stop where passengers get out of the train and continue their lives as before they got on? The train journey is a catalyst which tests what kind of chemistry can be created in unstable and uncertain conditions.
This exhibition reflects the many interactions, stories and intertwined experiences that open up a certain void that has exploded in our societies during the pandemic and current crises, revealing what had been masked by an emptiness that still lingers. How should we act, how can we trust each other, what does this new crisis-era culture look like? At first, this seems unthinkable, but, over a short period of time, the matter becomes increasingly terrifying and thrillingly intriguing. The world as we know it will no longer be the same, and our imaginative space has transformed. Where do we go from here? Every story we tell or read about home or our recent history now has a different landscape, looking out of the window of this train. Do we see the coast better when the weather is stormy, or is there another perspective if we look at it from the moving train? From the position of a passenger, everything in the world is moving, while from the perspective of someone not on the train it is the other way around. Baltic Express reflects on these two phenomena and focuses on a pivotal moment in time. Through the impenetrable night over the fields and trying to gaze through the heavy mist covering the barren landscape, the tempestuous seascape of the Baltics opens up.
Halfway through the film, a jilted lover pleads with the main character: “If you want I’ll go all the way with you. There’s nothing keeping me here.” Through the lens of the story, this quote refers not to the physical space, but to the space of our imagination and perception of the world, where our points of reference have mutated and the experiments that pandemics and geopolitics are playing with us have become irreversible. Have the “new us” developed the skills or even some superpowers to cope with transformation or are our levels of loss and grief quietly rising?
How do we deal with what has happened and the present challenges, while still waiting for the train to arrive at a new destination? Turbulences can sometimes open new ways of approaching things, as we no longer need to follow canons that have been built beforehand. What can this world offer us: building materials or ruins? And what can we offer it: more flexibility or new tools to build solid structures? There is a reason for the expression “a light at the end of the tunnel.” With nowhere left to flee, we must break free from the crippling past and push past the dreariness of the present toward a future that almost has to be brighter. Can we continue building railways and tunnels further into the horizon or are we cast aside by the coastline route?
“ – I could be a meteorologist, for example.
– You disapprove of this line of work?
– Not really. But it’s hardly a serious profession.
– You can’t really forecast anything…”
* All quotes from the film Baltic Express, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959.