On my first afternoon in Riga, as I sat with a coffee in the Livu Laukums, my eye was naturally drawn to the large bright yellow snail in one corner. Later that day I spotted a green one in the Ratslaukums and I was to come across several more during the course of my stay. What is more, these snails were on the move; slowly (as is normal for snails) they made their way around the city, each day a little further from their original starting place.
When I returned to the city a year later the snails were still there, but of course in different places. Even a snail can cover some distance in the course of a year!
These snails, I learned, were installed around Riga as a form of artists’ protest, by an organisation known as ‘Art Needs Space’. Many of the city’s artists felt that not enough attention was being given to contemporary art and it had no place in the city’s galleries. There had been talk of a dedicated contemporary art museum but little or no progress made on this; in fact, you could say that discussions were moving at snails’ pace! The L’Officiel website (a Baltics-focused magazine) explains:
It is only occasionally that Latvian society can learn more about the Latvian post-war artists, when the Latvian National Museum of Art or private collectors whose collections contain works by Latvian post-war artists arrange exhibitions devoted to their work. Meanwhile, at present we have little accessibility to the art heritage created precisely during the years of occupation. In Soviet times, Latvian art played a particularly important role in the country – artists tried to keep up with the latest trends in art elsewhere in the world, although it was not easy. They tried to create what they felt was creatively relevant to them and to express their cravings for freedom and humanity.
These colourful snails were the work of an Italian group of artists ‘The Cracking Art Group’. There were fifteen in total and the aim was to attract public attention and to encourage people to support the campaign for a museum of later 20th century and contemporary art. They certainly drew my attention; but it was a somewhat subtle form of protest and I wondered if it would have the desired effect?
However, it was certainly true that the general public engaged with the project, posing for photos with the snails, stroking and hugging them, and even trying to speed up their progress with a shove. And from what I read now on L’Officiel, some six years after my visits, there is indeed a contemporary art museum of sorts, albeit not a full-time one. The MVT Summer House is a seasonal art gallery housed in shipping containers on the site of a demolished building. It is open only during three months in summer and is not a permanent solution. From L’Officiel again:
Creating an art gallery in containers truly resonated with the name of the organisation – Art Needs Space. While there is no such space, art shall reside in containers, and hopefully it will be moved to a more appropriate space over time. And yes, maybe it looks at the moment that the work of post-war artists is placed in containers as debris, but without them contemporary art would not stand with its head held high today.
So here are just a few of the fifteen snails, shared for this week’s Photographing Public Art challenge.
I visited Riga in 2014 and again in 2015; most of these photos were taken on my first visit