A closer look doesn’t resolve in clarity

A closer look doesn’t resolve in clarity
Santiago Mostyn with the curator Joa Ljungberg

Santiago Mostyn is an artist and filmmaker based in Sweden but brought up in Zimbabwe and Trinidad and Tobago. His and Susanna Jablonski’s work Umdrehen was displayed in Malmö Art Museum’s exhibition The Latvian Collection that will also eventually travel to Riga. This collaboration, in turn, prompted Santiago Mostyn’s participation in the international symposium From Complicated Past Towards Shared Futures hosted by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA) in Riga from May 18th to 19th – the catalyst for our conversation.

I used the opportunity to further discuss the philosophical aspects of the artist’s lecture – questions of identity, nationhood, memory, and history –, connect them with Latvia and some pages of its past and probe the potential of art in all of this. The world is a complicated place, and many pointers are offered to us to navigate it, but it’s important not to get too comfortable with them.

Introduction and interview by Rūdis Bebrišs

You were in Riga for the LCCA symposium and because of your work on the exhibition The Latvian Collection in Malmö. How did this collaboration come about?

I had worked with Inga Lāce and Solvita Krese of LCCA once already. We met in Stockholm when I was working on a film project about Tobago and discussed the connection between the island and the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, which was part of my research for the film. Inga wrote to me at some point to say that she and curator Lotte Løvholm started working on a project with The Latvian Collection in Malmö. I told her about the discussions Susanna Jablonski and I had been having around the site of the Jewish massacres that took place in the dunes north of Liepāja – in Šķēde –, and Inga said it would be interesting to follow that process and perhaps develop it for their exhibition. Later in the process, the curators suggested a painting by Jāzeps Grosvalds from the Latvian Riflemen series as a kind of starting point for our project.

So, there were two touchstones: first was the visual history of the massacres in Šķēde and the other was The Latvian Collection at Malmö Art Museum. We were thinking about what it means to make an artwork in response to multiple points in history: Grosvalds' painting depicts the First World War, and the event we’re looking at is from the Second World War; even more important is the interview footage of the German officer who filmed the massacre, which was recorded forty years later in 1981. It was another forty years until we went to Šķēde and recorded the landscape ourselves. These incidents took place at different moments in time, but we wanted to synthesize them, or hold them together, in the installation.

Since both this work and others in your catalogue touch upon the topics of sense of place, collective identity, memory, history, and intertwinings of all of these, I'm curious about your view on a somewhat everyday question that can nonetheless get complex – what do you think of Latvia and Latvians?

(Laughs.) Maybe my relationship to Latvia, and I suppose by extension the Latvians that I’ve developed projects with, is one that you might have with a good neighbour: someone you’re on friendly terms with, you lend things to, you give a hand when you need to. You don’t necessarily know everything about their lives, but there’s a solid, ongoing dialogue. I don’t think this is so common between the Nordics and the Baltics, which quite literally are neighbours, separated by a small sea. I didn’t grow up in Sweden, so maybe it was easier to come into a working relationship without any preconceptions. But it has been fruitful and interesting to get to know some of the histories of neighbouring countries and at the same time see the relationship to places I’m from. When I first discovered the connections to the Caribbean, for example, it shifted my understanding of the place I grew up.

I think this kind of neighbour-being is a nice analogy indeed! I could add that in many aspects we also strive to be closer with our northernmost neighbours and identify with Northern Europe. This prompts me to ask: how do you understand identity and nationhood? As you noted, being a neighbour obviously requires a border, and you raised a similar topic in your talk in the symposium here in Riga, speaking about the arbitrariness of boundaries and referencing a particular scholar. Could you expand on this idea?

My upbringing gave me multiple cultural anchors, so questions of identity and nationhood were never a given. I think it’s just a matter of fact that when you look closely enough at any country’s official history, it fractures and becomes more complex, and you realize that there is no such thing as a nation – at least not in the way that Richard Sennett would put it, as a place where culture and territory are understood as one and everyone shares their references. That’s never been the case, unless it’s on a very small scale or in an isolated part of the world.

A big part of the research that goes into my practice has to do with navigating these obscure lines of cultural identity where the closer you look, the foggier they get. In the symposium, I spoke about the coastline paradox: an idea that mathematician and pacifist Lewis Fry Richardson developed in the early 20th century. He was trying to establish whether there was a relationship between the probability of two countries going to war and the length of their common border – speculative, yes, but also quite interesting metaphorically. As he was gathering these figures, he realized that there were huge variations in the officially documented lengths of international borders, and he was faced with a paradox: the smaller the measuring device, meaning the more you can measure every single curve and rock, even down to the level of a grain of sand, the longer the resulting coastline will be. These values never converge to a finite number or a true length, they just keep on becoming something that can’t be reached. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for the inability to define national borders or to know anything concretely about who I or you are. Or as James Bridle summarises it: looking at something more closely doesn’t resolve into clarity; it makes you understand how much more complex things are. There’s always more to discover if you pay more attention, and I think this idea drives a lot of the work that I’m doing.

I’m sure many researchers are familiar with this grain of thought… But, lingering on Sennet’s and Fry’s thoughts, maybe islands could be an interesting example for analysis, since they are as big as they are and sometimes don’t share land borders with other countries; maybe that leads to more definite identities? Keeping this idea in mind and coming back to your experience and what you said at the start: back in 2019 you took part in the art festival Survival Kit with an artwork focused on the island of Tobago. Obviously, our history is associated with this place – it was a colony of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. I wanted to ask your opinion about the peculiar place this event holds in Latvian history and memory. I would say that the fact of Tobago being colonized is not really scolded or regretted, it is rather often cited as an odd source of pride. Knowing you've worked with both this topic and similar questions of colonial heritage in the Swedish context, what do you make of this?

I understand the desire to reach out for a particular story in historical time and use that to define or give oneself a sense of national identity; I think that’s what history is, really – it’s taking the stories and anecdotes that have taken place in many parts of the world and giving them a narrative.

As I understand it – or as it’s been explained to me – many Latvians see Latvia as a small country that has historically been the one taken over by multiple powers – a small place under the whims of large political forces. So, the idea of Courland and Semigallia, a wealthy vassal state with colonial interests on the other side of the world, is naturally something that people will grasp onto because these are the types of narratives that can be simply and straightforwardly written into history books. Yet, for a place that has always seen itself as small or as a victim, the sense of identity can be complicated by pointing to the violence of colonial trade.

There is a myth or a saying about Latvian history and victimhood: seven hundred years of slavery. It’s an overarching way to enframe the history of Latvia, starting with the crusades in 12th – 13th century and then counting all foreign powers that came here – German, Russian, Swedish, Polish – up to the founding of the Republic of Latvia in the 20th century. And I agree, as you mentioned, that these borderline cases such as the colonization of Tobago complicate this big picture. When we zoom in, we see how the story of victimhood has moments of it being the other way around.

In my talk in Riga, I showed an image of a sign next to a Latvian monument in Tobago, describing the duchy’s settlement on the north coast of the island. Even this complicates the story – it talks about how this settlement was under the rule of the duke of Courland and Semigallia, but the people living there were Germans, Latvians, Scandinavians, Dutchmen, Brits, Frenchmen, Jews, Caribs, Gambians… It wasn’t a colony of people from Courland and Semigallia – it was an international settlement. And once again we are reminded that the idea of nationhood and nation-states became entrenched only in the second half of the 19th century. It’s very recent in historical terms.

I’m wondering about ways to step out of this dichotomy of victims and perpetrators. The question stems from the case of the colonization of Tobago but holds just as much to a complicated part of our 20th century history – people that collaborated with occupying regimes. Do you have any ideas how can passivity and activity – victimhood and being a perpetrator – be balanced? I feel like neither pole really works because it runs the risk of reducing the other: focus on victimhood often cultivates passivity and doesn’t really encourage change, whereas the focus on perpetrators tends to blame victims for the situation they were in rather than the ones who caused it in the first place. Is there a middle-ground that can acknowledge the legitimacy of victimhood and the agency of people, including their poorer sidesteps and choices?

There is no simple definition. Two senses of self or two forms of identity can and do exist within each other. I think images can more easily bring opposing ideas together, and there is potential within an exhibition space to introduce ideas containing some of this complexity.

That might be the role that Susanna and I took in making a work about the massacres in Šķēde. It feels like a part of Latvian history that hasn’t yet been dealt with or incorporated in the same way as the colonial history. It’s easier to face something that happened hundreds of years ago and was also a positive thing, at least economically. But the fact that the majority of killings that took place during the Holocaust by Bullets were perpetrated by Latvian soldiers and people who were collaborating with the German occupying forces feels more difficult to approach. Of course, it’s more recent – there are people who feel this history on a personal level – therefore it’s much more difficult. It’s going to be interesting to see what the response in Riga will be to our work.

You’re right about the generational aspects. Talking about collaborationism with either regime of the 20th century is still a touchy subject that is hard to navigate. It’s still a conversation that we’re personally influenced by. But to clarify – could you say that art might be a vessel for conveying difficult pasts or a tool to provoke conversations about them?

I would hope so. I’d like to think that within art practice there is the capacity to allow complex historical ideas to unfold. Though the majority of the commercial Western artworld might be strictly about branding, buying, and selling, there is a rich tradition of artistic practices that face up to thorny histories. I’ve certainly felt very changed or moved, or have been able to see the world with more clarity after experiencing certain artworks. I suppose that’s why I work within this context rather than traditional filmmaking which is even more driven by commercial interests. There’s space for opening up, unravelling the ideas, and letting the viewer make the connections and braid things together again.

What do you think about the connections between art and activism and art swaying more so to the side of political statements?

It’s easy for artists to perform the politics of, you name it – feminism, Blackness, environmentalism – and have it remain at the level of aesthetics. I find that dangerous, even offensive, to the people who commit their lives to different kinds of activism, actively trying to make the world a better place. On the other side of this, I certainly believe that images have the potential to shift awareness within you, and make you see the world in a different way. That’s the potential of art practice – it can influence the viewer on a one-to-one level, in the relationship between the artwork and the subject, and even become transcendental. But it’s a very different thing to activism.

Art has persuasive power…

I just rewatched a clip last night, for example, from Douglas Gordon’s film with Jonas Mekas. There is a shot, filmed by Mekas, of a beetroot on a table. A large knife is cutting down into it and a hand is trying to turn the beetroot this way and that, pulling away at the last second when the knife comes down. It’s incredibly simple but there’s something so unsettling about the image. It stays with you. The obvious connection is that even though the hand moves away in time, you see the knife cut through the beetroot and your brain immediately turns the beetroot into flesh, because of its colour. But it’s also much more complex than that – there’s a bodily understanding of what Jonas Mekas and other displaced people went through after the war. His experience comes through in the image.

Embodiment – hold that thought. Thus far we’ve been talking about theoretical things, but how do they connect with physicality, being, place – topics you're also interested in, from what I gathered? Or is this a separate interest altogether?

I consider them one and the same. It’s a question of sensual knowledge. The works approach historical and political topics, but as an embodied experience or at least an attempt to get close to it. In both the Tobago film and Umdrehen, the camera’s point of view is very loaded, it’s a presence in the landscape. The choice was deliberate – to make it so there’s a feeling that something or someone is moving through the landscape. The sound is, of course, also very important for establishing this. So, it’s not a separate interest at all, it’s a way to get from the analytical, intellectual, research-based background into the embodied experience of these places, which hopefully is conveyed by the films. We all have deep and strong relationships to music, for example; music can make us feel something in a very direct way. I think there’s potential for the moving image and works made within the realm of art practice to have that capacity, or at least I would like to push towards that.

It also reads as a subtle critique of the Enlightenment ideal of disinterest – the camera is a reminder of the subject’s involvement in the process of knowledge, as opposed to the seeming position of a detached analytical viewer from afar.


One more question: is it possible to truly feel at home in the world? Be it societally or in a connection with a certain place?

I’m sure some people do. Theodor Adorno said something like, the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home. There should be a sense of discomfort. But I think everything is established in the connections between us. To reference James Bridle again: we can learn from the support networks of trees and fungi that what matters lies between us, not within us. Wondering what matters within oneself – be it an individual, a nation-state, a community – remains a post-Enlightenment form of thinking. To understand that what really matters lies between us is to understand our place in the world as interconnected societies and, more importantly, one element in the biosphere that’s related to everything else around us – which we’re unfortunately in the process of killing.