”Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” wrote James Baldwin, as if to echo the idea, rooted in Zen Buddhism, of a ceaseless state of presence and enlightenment. It was a Japanese Zen master who had earlier written, “For forty years I've been selling water by the bank of a river. Ho, ho! My labours have been wholly without merit,” asking us to understand that we already have everything we need, that the river flows whether we want it to or not, and that we have to reach enlightenment on our own. In this exhibition by the artist duo Skuja Braden at the Latvian Pavilion, a home and a river are similarly metaphors, signifying states of consciousness that reflect different experiences. The borders between private and public space are blurred here, and questions are posed as to the possibility of living and being together in the modern world, shaken as it has been by shifts of a seismic scale. Now that hospitality has become a neoliberal consumer good, and with aversion to all that’s conceptually or physically different growing rapidly, social groups can be bound together as if by manifesto with aggression towards a “guest”.
Why has Skuja Braden – a symbiotic whole and an integral being that the artists Ingūna Skuja and Melissa D. Braden have created by working and living together for more than twenty years, merging two different personalities, skillsets, sets of experiences, collected knowledges, historical contexts and nationalities – chosen such a framework for their exhibition at the Latvian Pavilion? Is it because the coming-to-be of Skuja Braden’s unique selfhood has been influenced by their queer self-identity and the time that the two artists spent together at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California? Or is it that a confidence drawn from Buddhist teachings, when mixed with a Californian free spirit and experiences of post-socialist life into a singular mélange, helps when it comes to finding solutions in both everyday situations and creative practice, and when integrating into a society based on heteronormative ideas? Is the water different in California, where Melissa is from, or in the Daugava River, the Latvian body of water on the banks of which lies Aizkraukle, a town built under the auspices of Soviet industrialization, where Ingūna grew up and where the artist duo lived and worked for many years?
Expanding the concept of home, Skuja Braden’s exhibition comprises a full anatomy of the common spaces in which we live together – the bedroom, the kitchen, the studio and the guest room – as well as areas where our everyday activities assume a ritual meaning, where memory comes alive and the various dimensions of our spiritual and physical bodies are cared for. The past and present converge here, along with illusions, religions and convictions, allowing one to not only critically review different ways of reading the history of our region but also test our social readiness for weathering the challenges of the present day, including the polarisation of opinion. In the exhibition, home and the character thereof are echoed by images in porcelain, a material which Skuja Braden has mastered superbly, making it assume the most surprising shapes. Their porcelain comes to life in the form of luxuriously painted dishes, everyday objects, fountains and bendy hoses, male and female physiques and preserve the traces of nature. One spacious porcelain takes the shape of the bed and by the invisible wave is sent into the air. All the themes of Skuja Braden’s art and life meet here as if in a frantic act of cosmogony.
The water that might surround a home is here embodied materially. It is charged with new knowledge and, drawing upon ideas of hydrofeminism, signals the idea of a radical collectivity, asserting that we all are connected to our planet through the flow and continuity of different liquids. Water flows through and past any differences, offering some of the richest experiences we can have of being together. Having been a witness to global events since the beginning of the Earth, it ties together the present and the past. Just as water, in the Zen master’s koan, teaches us to recognize that we already have everything that we need, we simply have to learn to see it, Skuja Braden’s home asks us to immerse ourselves in and dissolve into the globally connected current, and to make contact and include instead of creating and consuming in excess.
Skuja Braden is an artistic collaboration, born in 1999, between Ingūna Skuja from Latvia and Melissa Braden from California. Their work is a fusion of decorative styles, touching on literary and art historical themes, grounded in the politics of now, and interpreted entirely through the experience of their shared existence.
Their solo exhibitions have been held at the Decorative Art and Design Museum in Riga, the Contemporary Craft Museum in Oregon, and the John Natsoulas Gallery in California. The duo has participated in numerous group exhibitions, the latest being held at the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga and the Whitechapel Gallery in London as well as art fairs, including SOFA-Chicago; Ceramic Annual of America, San Francisco; Start Art Fair; Saatchi’s Gallery, London; and SCOPE Art Fair Basel. Skuja Braden’s works have been published in Contemporary Studio Porcelain, A Human Impulse, and the
Lark Books 500 series on Ceramics. They have also been featured in Ceramic Monthly, New Ceramics, and Curve Magazine. Their works appear in public and private collections including the White Memorial Medical Center in L.A., the Kellogg Art Collection in Pomona, the Museum of Contemporary Ceramics in Santo Domingo, Latvian National Museum of Art, Museé Ariana in Switzerland, World Ceramic Center in South Korea, Changchun Ceramic Center in China, ASU Art Museum in USA, Westerwald Keramike Museum in Germany, and Zuzeum in Latvia.