From 8 October to 14 November 2015 the exhibition SPAM will take place at the Main Gallery of the Mūkusala Art Salon. Using Latvian posters of the 1920-30s from the Salon’s collection, a ubiquitous object from the city’s streets and a single work of contemporary art, the exhibition builds a narrative on conditions of inclusion in art and public space.
The title of the exhibition – SPAM – most readily invokes aggressive advertisements in the digital environment, undesired intrusion during work and leisure, vulgarity and fraud. In mid-19th century, the reaction towards the rapid spread of posters on the walls and fences of the West European metropolises was rather similar. Nevertheless, in the context of the exhibition the origins of SPAM are much more important – it is a brand of canned meat which was established in 1937, and which became widely popular during World War II and the following decades, not least, because of its catchy advertising campaigns. In 1970, owing to its ubiquity, it served as the inspiration for an episode of the British comedy series Monty Python, and through it – became a designation of the so-called junk e-mail.
A considerable part of the Mūkusala Art Salon collection of posters of the 1920-30s consists of advertisements of similar consumer goods – sweets, tobacco and alcohol. Unlike the misty Soviet Latvian art posters of the 1970-80s, they are blunt and direct in their representation of the economic and social system of their time. Encircled by these goods, social democrats’ red agitation for bread and workers’ rights urges a different kind of choices, while exhibition posters stand aside from the political hustle, engaging in their own disagreements between divergent aesthetic positions.
Irrespective of their contents, posters are about a struggle for space. Foremostly, it is the outdoor space of the city, nevertheless, virtually since their very beginnings some posters have also acquired a place in art spaces. Among them is one of the most visible brands of Latvian cultural export – Gustavs Klucis. The posters of his compatriots living under capitalism have been exhibited comparatively rarely, but they, too, have attracted the attention of dealers, auctioneers and conservators. A small selection of the posters in the collection have been framed, most likely, to refocus the viewer’s gaze towards the categories of art, while others are represented in several copies, reminding of their utilitarian purpose.
Bringing a contemporary poster into an art exhibition space in Latvia is even less common, and draws attention to a series of practical and institutional issues. On the one hand, the advertisers of the goods and services are living, functioning enterprises with their own interests, while, on the other, the dynamics of ad campaigns means that copies of even recently printed posters are not available in a condition fit for pubic display. Simultaneously, along with the dematerialisation of the advertised services, the very supports of posters have become more mobile, approaching the glitter of the frames and glass of artworks.
From the perspective of public order, various slogans on walls and bridges have taken over the reputation of spam in the urban environment, and, at least in some cases, these are now the terrain for the most poignant struggles – about representation, identity, revealing and becoming visible. The basis of the Estonian contemporary artist Art Allmägi’s installation in the exhibition is an ambiguous slogan which for a period was painted in the centre of Tallinn: Art Is So Gay. The artist’s work interprets it in terms of sexual preference, a matter of paramount significance in the Baltics, while it can also be read as a testament to the fairly widespread perception that art is purposeless and hence cannot be a real profession.
It is exactly this character of art as a space of play that enables looking at posters past and present from other, impractical perspectives. Among them, to question the thinking of the authors of the advertisements of the 1920-30s that motivated them to include exaggerated images of people of other races and cultures in posters for tobacco and tea, and to see what happens when they are exhibited in the context of contemporary news headlines. Everyone is invited to the exhibition at the Mūkusala Art Salon to see the beautiful Latvia and its historic places!
Exhibition curator: Valts Miķelsons
Publicity photo: Art Allmägi. Art Is So Gay. Installation (detail). 2012-2015. Artist’s property.