Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art

Asja Lācis. Engineer of the Avant-garde
Exhibition Space, Level 4 of the National Library of Latvia.
31.01.19 - 31.03.19

The exhibition about Asja Lācis, internationally renowned yet undiscovered in Latvia, but one of the most outstanding Latvian creative personalities of the 20th century, is made by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art and curator Andris Brinkmanis. Asja Lācis. Engineer of the Avant-garde will remain open from 31 January to 31 March in Exhibition Space, Level 4 of the National Library of Latvia.

Anna Lāce (née Liepiņa (1891–1979)) is internationally known as Asja Lācis, and her theatre methods are widely recognised on the international circuit. She was a theatre director, actress, theoretician, pedagogue, tireless seeker and experimenter, intermediary between avant-garde German, Latvian and Russian cultures, who inspired many of the cultural greats of the time with her experience and vivid personality. For example, renowned German philosopher Walter Benjamin's collection of essays “One-Way Street” (Einbahnstrasse) was published in 1928 in Berlin. Its title page contains a dedication “This street is named Asja Lācis Street, after her who as an engineer cut it through the author.”

Curator Andris Brinkmanis says: “The visitor of the exhibition will virtually visit all early 20th century focal points of the cultural avant-garde in Europe, from Riga to Berlin, Munich, Naples, Rome, Vienna, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Valmiera and coming back to Riga. At each of these points of reference Asja Lācis met and collaborated with leading intellectuals - Bertolt Brecht, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Bernhard Reich, Erwin Piscator, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin in Germany, with Fyodor Komisarjevsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Vladimir Bill-Belotserkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Victor Shestakov, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Tretyakov in Russia and Linards Laicens, Leons Paegle, Eduards Priede in Latvia.”

The exhibition in Riga is an expanded version of the project that Andris Brinkmanis realised in one of the most significant global art events, which takes place every five years – the Documenta in 2017. In Latvia the exhibition will include a number of new exhibits and documents, presented within a specially created exhibition display structure by designer Rihards Funts. The exhibition will present unique materials from the collection of the Literature and Music Museum (Riga), the private collection of Māra Ķimele, granddaughter of Anna Lāce, Walter Benjamin Archive (Berlin), The National Archives of Latvia (Riga), Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum (Riga), Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and State Archive of the Russian Federation (Moscow). The exhibition will also include materials gathered by the curator personally, while its rich informative contents have been created in collaboration with Beata Paškevica and Jānis Taurens. 

Supporters: Riga City Council, State Culture Capital Foundation, Literature and Music Museum, National Library of Latvia, Arctic Paper, Baltic Proweld, Mass Portal

The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art is the largest institution of contemporary art in Latvia, curating and producing contemporary art events of international and national scale. Since 1993, it has studied and shaped contemporary art processes both in Latvia and abroad in order to provoke critical reflection on contemporary societal issues. The hallmarks of the LCCA include the largest annual international contemporary art event in Latvia SURVIVAL KIT, exhibitions of contemporary art at the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Year of Hardijs Lediņš as well as Latvia's representation at such international events as Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Venice Art Biennale, São Paulo Biennial, Manifesta, Rauma Biennale of Contemporary Art and others. The LCCA holds the only archive of Latvian contemporary art.

About Anna Lāce, or Asja Lācis

Having acquired her education in Saint Petersburg and Moscow during the revolution, Asja was not merely a passive witness to the “time of change”, but an active “pioneer” of avant-garde culture. Having completed her studies in 1918 in V. Bekhterev Psychoneurological Institute, she establishes an experimental children's theatre project in Oryol, also engaging street children, orphans and the homeless (besprizorniki), whose principles were later elaborated theoretically with the help of Walter Benjamin. In the late sixties and seventies, this text and the accounts of Asja's work experience became a “handbook” and point of reference for “Community Theatre” and alternative education as well as theatre experimenters in Germany, France and Italy. In these countries the method of improvisation she outlined remains in use. Asja's early work also influenced the basic principles of B. Brecht's "Learning-plays”, or Lehrstücke. She collaborated with Brecht as actress and assistant director already in 1923 in Munich.

The time spent in Naples in 1924 and the connection to Walter Benjamin is reflected in the innovatory article Naples (Neapel, published in the Frankfurter Zeitung on 19 August 1925), with the principle of porosity mentioned therein becoming a concept widely used by Benjamin, Adorno and other philosophers.

Influenced by Piscator's political theatre and Brecht's early experiments as well as her experiences in Russia, Asja Lācis in Riga became the director and main theoretician of the trade union theatre or Vajātais Teātris [The Persecuted Theatre]. In the early twenties, her reflections on German, French theatre as well as theoretical articles were published in the local press. Asja actively collaborated with the progressive leftist authors of her time, Andrejs Kurcijs, Leons Paegle and Linards Laicens , who published the collection of poetry Ho-Tai dedicated to her, also dedicating other pieces of poetry and non-fiction.

After moving to Moscow, Lācis was among the first to become interested in the effect of the repertoire of children's cinema and the media on young audiences.

In the late twenties Asja became a press representative in questions of culture and film in Germany. In the thirties, her book about German revolutionary theatre was published (Революционный театр Германии [Revolutionary Theatre in Germany], Moscow, 1935).

Following a successful debut and work in the Latvian theatre in Moscow Skatuve [Stage], in 1938 Lācis became a victim of Stalin's repressions and was sent to forced labour camps in Dolinka and Burma. During imprisonment she managed to establish and head imprisoned women's theatre company.

Following her return to Latvia, in 1948 she became director at the Valmiera Theatre, where she worked until her retirement.

Towards the end of her life Lācis actively published various theoretical articles as well as reminiscences in the Latvian and Russian press.

Only after Anna Lāce's death in 1979 German philosopher Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary is finally published. This collection as well as the tendentiously negative articles of several people close to Benjamin create the stereotype of Asja as a sort of femme fatale, who turned him to Marxism. This reductive perspective continues to overshadow her significant contribution to culture. In recent years, thanks to the work of several Western and local researchers, feminist, theatre and art theoreticians, the creative legacy of Asja Lācis is being actively re-evaluated. The exhibition Asja Lācis. Engineer of the Avant-garde aims to continue this important task in Latvia.