Revelation at the Breakfast Table
Alise Tīfentāle

“Everything will be fine!” promises Romāns Korovins’ photo series Garden at the Sea (2005-2007). These words are written as a dedication on a cake being presented to someone against the background of a miserable building site. Garden at the sea (showcased during the exhibition of contemporary photography from Latvia Private in Moscow, 2008, on the premises of the contemporary art centre Winzavod) was the series critics referred to as “the allegory of present day Latvia”. All in all, shrewd and explicit remarks on the stressful existence of the modern man are what feature Romāns Korovins’ artistic style. Apart from being a photographer, he works as a producer for the studio Vilks Studio creating music videos and commercials. Among everything else, Romans has produced several videos for Russian cult band Mumiy Troll (Мумий Тролль), namely for their songs Dobroe utro, Planeta! (Доброе утро, Планета! 2003) and Medveditsa (Медведица, 2003). In Dobroe utro... the soloist is being vengefully slapped in the face by pretty young ladies. But Medveditsa was the one video people kept asking each other about – did you see…? This parody, or even grotesque, presents two actors dressed up as a cucumber and a pink bear acting out burlesque pornographic situations. To a certain degree this product falls in the category of Romāns Korovins’ original works possessing the qualities inherent to all his art.

Transcendence disguised as a joke

A photographer having seen Romāns Korovins’ works at the exhibition Is the Medium the Message? Latvian Contemporary Photography (Andrejsala, Riga, August 28 – September 28, 2008) resentfully marked those were no photos at all and their author should rather draw or paint pictures than take them. The remark clearly displays professional jealousy, but at the same time it helps to describe the specific aspects of Romāns’ creative activities in the context of contemporary art. After graduating from the Latvian Art Academy, Korovins tried and tested various means of expression and, in the end, found the ones he believed to be the best for efficient materialisation of his ideas. What exactly is the paradigm of our era, i.e. the time between the 20th and 21st century? The issue is eagerly discussed by art historians, culture theorists, anthropologists and many others, while Romāns, with a swift stroke, paints his own version – speed, lightness, fragmentality, and seeming superficiality against the background of consumerism and selfishness, and, at the same time, a sharp existential awareness of the place of man in this world, disguised as a joke.

Photos, videos, written notes and drawings are the quickest ways to materialize an instantaneous revelation. The seeming lightness – the denial of a photographic image as an object of art, a complete contradiction to the fine art photography or documental photography theories on the formal qualities a picture has to possess to be worthy of the viewer’s attention. In Romāns’ case photography is just a means to materialize a thought, and nothing more. Separate images or objects do not play a decisive role in Romāns Korovins’ exhibition; the message is combined – images laid out in a certain order like a comic strip or a storyboard, the unexpected participation of a real object in the parade of two-dimensional images and the continuation of the storyline in a video. Formally Romāns’ videos classify as home videos – fragments shot with an amateur camera without montage or post processing tricks. They are thoughts materialised in time and space trying to preserve most of their authenticity - in a way Romāns’ style could be compared to impressionist paintings of the nature, only the tasks and aims differ. Impressionists strived to capture the “atmosphere” of the moment; Korovins wants the transcendence of the moment. Impressionists worked with material and form, Korovins works with the intangible - how can you translate into words or visual images something you have felt? Romāns tries to do it using visual witticisms, at times tough humour, analogies, and parody, in one instant jumping from an easygoing grin and idle self-delight to an absolutely straight and sharp awareness of extinction. He never pretends to be an artist-prophet, a symbolic propagator or a moralising old man; his seemingly light-hearted, playful works never bring criticism upon media reality, advertising industry or political-economic situation, upon nothing at all. What they do is study the modern human nature – what is it that makes up the urbanised, efficiently functioning, well-educated and, sometimes, self-reflective Crown of the Creation?

Romāns Korovins’ “decisive moments”

Paraphrasing the simple truth expressed by Hannah Arendt in 1963 about the banality of evil, Romāns in his work materializes the idea, that even the most serious, most essential issues are actually banal, and that they manifest themselves not only in monumental symphonies and grand objects, but also in the most trivial, commonplace items and situations. Accepting the present situation and living conditions (after all he is not only an artist but also an employee and a dutiful family man), Romāns turns virtually everything, life presents to him, into material for art – thus, for instance, a snail on the windscreen suddenly becomes “King of Speed” and rushes along the main road at a giddy speed with the sound of rock music from the 1980s (video King of Speed). Or – bread and butter with sausage and cheese all of a sudden become representation of an abstract change of colour tones (work Gradient). A flock of sparrows after feasting on grain and seed in the meadow grows into a group of pigeons (photography book Garden at the sea, 2005 – 2007). Dad’s shadow on the asphalt next to the child’s pram turns into the protective silhouette of Batman (or maybe a dreadful monster?) in photography book Pay Half and Run!, 2005. Mowing the lawn and bathing in the household pool is played out like a real drama (video One Day at Mangaļi, 2007). And so on, and on. Speaking of the commonplace character of the raw material for his work, Romāns refers to Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1840 – 1964) who devoted his whole creative life to the studies of practically one and the same still life. “My favourite places, where 70 – 80 % of my photos have been taken, are Mežaparks and Mangaļi. It’s just like Morandi – three bottles and the background, and you can do whatever you please. I have two bushes I can have a chat with,” says Korovins during an interview (Vikuļina, J. There is no photography – just the artist// Foto Kvartāls, No 2(6), 2007 – pp 26).

This is why the artist has no need for expensive materials or equipment; for him it is enough to see and preserve (whether he draws in felt tip pen, takes a photo or shoots a video is of no importance). His works lay no claim to become objects of fine art, they do not attempt to surprise with refined tones in photos or cinematographic quality in videos. The artist is impatient, which is why he applies technologies to catch, as fast as possible, what, perhaps, could be called the “decisive moments”, although their contents are different from as defined by a patriarch of documental photography Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1952. Referring to Bresson in this case might seem like heresy as Romāns Korovins is not a photo documentalist, however, we should bear in mind that the “decisive moment” was not invented by Bresson. Although it was him who introduced the term into the discourse of modern photography, the very idea was borrowed from the 17th century French writer and diplomat Cardinal de Retz (Jean François Paul de Gondi, 1964 – 1679) who wrote in his memoirs: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”. The idea travelling throughout centuries that time is in no way an even, unmeaning stream of facts, and that everything in this world can have its moments of revelation, epiphany or glimmer, to a certain degree explain the method of Romāns Korovins – to see and preserve the parallel and paradoxical message that, for just a moment, has broken out of the usually boring and unnoticeable existence of commonplace objects. Probably here we could draw a comparison with the photo - series from the 1980s Quiet Afternoon (Stiller Nachmittag, 1984 – 1985), by Swiss photographers Peter Fischli and David Weiss. However Korovins’ afternoon is far quieter than the Swiss photographers’ absurd installations constructed of furniture, foodstuffs and household items. Fischli and Weiss liberate the potential energy of objects and clearly demonstrate the imminent advance of this world towards chaos and self-destruction, whereas Romāns’ interference with the status quo of things is minimal. Chaos, collapse, decay, perdition, destruction, impending extinction of every living being emerges to the surface (as written by Martin Heidegger “to create means to cause something to emerge”), and Romāns notices that. What alternative there is for us? The faithful and righteous will go to Heaven and rejoice forever, but what will become of us who believed in science, reason, the rational business plan, technologies, information and global communication? Winter – summer, winter – summer – death. And that is it.

The banality of life and death

The monotonous layout of pictures in the book and exhibition, the dark tonality, and at times melancholy atmosphere in no way prevents Romāns from causing his viewers to have a good laugh. Anything can be funny: the everyday walk through the memorial park “Lielie kapi” (Great Cemetery), the view from the studio window, playing games with a child and a reflection of a skyscraper in the water. At the same time he could claim that there is nothing funny in this diary of paradoxes. The anachronistic monuments at “Lielie kapi” paradoxically remind of nothing noble, grand or beautiful, like, for instance, the pyramids at Giza or the Brothers’ Cemetery Memorial by Kārlis Zāle*, they are just standing in the way like some ghosts in the place where people take healthy walks with their children and dogs (another paradox – can there be a better place to strengthen your health and the illusion of immortality than a cemetery? The living ones manifest their vitality, cruelly and tactlessly, against the background of the dead and forgotten). The artist himself says: “The project Winter – Summer, Winter – Summer – Death is about the major and minor fears of adults and children, about the relatively poor understanding of “the dark forces”, and about stereotypic interpretations of magic symbols and signs. The mystery of life and death acquires a commonplace character in its mundane interpretation. Any object can become ghastly and scary in certain light. You just need to tune your mind in for the world of the magic and shadows. But I wanted to make it all look like home made, my “mysticism” is easily seen through, at times clumsy, ridiculous or childishly naïve, but then, all of a sudden, it scares you … boo-o-o.” Legitimizing the relativity of any evaluation makes separation of the ridiculous from the terrifying impossible. Everything depends on the viewer’s perception. Romāns’ works are in no way depressive; he encourages looking on the “bright side”. While preparing for Winter – Summer, Winter – Summer – Death, Romāns gave me a pocket format book by Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe (born 1969) Naïve. Super (1996). Its Latvian version was published in 2006 by Norden AB Publishers). The main character in the novel is a young, apathetic man who follows “the flow of life” and wishes to make no attempt whatsoever to become a better person. The only things he readily does are talking to a strange child, playing with a wooden hammer and surfing the net for books whose titles contain low language. (Reviews compared Naïve. Super to Jerome David Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which is, however, more sophisticated in revealing the fear and anger of a person not yet grown up at everything that exists and operates regardless of his own childish beliefs about how things should be.) Naïve. Super annoyed me, and the helpless and arrogantly passive main character evoked sheer indignation. Such deliberate naivety and refined simplemindedness seems to be on the verge of the “evil as the absence of good”, as described by Saint Augustine. Fortunately Romāns’ works demonstrate nothing of this over wise role of someone suffering and whining that “nobody understands me”. However this novel can help us enter into the spirit of the images of Romāns Korovins’ art – at least regarding the feeling of time. Our views on time are what sort us out – in the era of stress only those who afford to leave at least a moment free of petty activity will survive. This idea is promoted by the time dimension in Romāns’ work – the idle rhythm of his meditative photographic notes and his videos (for example, the episode in One Day at Mangaļi, where the video camera takes on the role of a huge bumblebee that breathes in the intoxicating nectar and falls asleep right inside the flower). I believe that Romāns Korovins’ work is an answer to our question how to survive the era of stress.

Alise Tīfentāle – art critic, editor-in-chief of magazine Foto Kvartāls.

* Kārlis Zāle (1888 – 1942) – a Latvian sculptor. He is best known for his monumental sculptures, including the Brothers’ Cemetery Memorial and the Freedom Monument in Riga. (Translator’s note)