Latvian Queerness Mirrored – Grinbergs versus Warhol

The Wedding of Jesus Christ (1972). Photography by Atis Ieviņš. Courtesy of Atis Ieviņš’s private archive.

Latvian queerness mirrored: Andris Grīnbergs versus Andy Warhol

Laine Kristberga 

Kristberga, Laine. 2016. Latvian queerness mirrored: Andris Grīnbergs versus Andy Warhol. In: Vērdiņš Kārlis., ed. Queer stories of Europe. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 195-205.

In  this  essay  I  would  like  to  address  two  queer  artists  each  living  on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain and producing works of art echoing their personalities and lives.

Everyone  knows  who  Andy  Warhol  (1928–1987)  was—he  would usually  be  our  first  association  with  Pop  Art  and  preoccupation  with American consumer culture manifested through  the silk-screened  images of canned tomato soup, superstars, celebrities, and his own self-portraits. Andris Grīnbergs (b. 1946), on the other hand, would only be known to those who have a particular research-related or other interest in Latvia or the post-Soviet region and performance art, as Grīnbergs is mostly quoted as the pioneer of performance art in Latvia with the first Happening dated 1969.1


Perhaps, it is wise to mention at the very beginning that Warhol played a major role in Grīnbergs’s life and creative work as an idol, role model, gay  artist,  and  proof  of  living  art.2   It  can  be  said  that  Warhol  was  to Grīnbergs what Shirley Temple was to Warhol. If this equation sounds too obscure,  a  little  episode  from  Warhol’s  childhood  might  help.  When Warhol was only eight years old, he suffered from disorder of the central nervous  system—St.  Vitus  Dance.  As  a  result,  the  illness  left  him  with large reddish-brown blotches on his face and upper body that periodically plagued him for years.3  The physical appearance and bullying at school laid  the  grounds  for  his  life-long  insecurity  and  even  self-hatred.  It  was during this illness that Warhol began to collect movie magazines and stills. Hollywood  stars  such  as Shirley Temple,  his  favourite,  provided him an imaginative  escape  into  a  better  life,  and  the  material  for  erecting  a compensative, idealized self.4  I propose that for Grīnbergs, in his turn, it was Warhol who provided an equally imaginative escape into a better life. Through  the  mythical  persona  of  Warhol  as  a  commercially  successful artist and a gay man, Grīnbergs could also project an idealized self and a dream  that  he  could  not  materialize  in  the  prevailing  conditions  in  the East—namely, the non-existence of the art market 5 and the strictures of the state-ideological apparatus.


One   of   the   aspects   that   unite   both   artists   is   the   eccentric   self- dramatization  and  even  construction  of identity  manifested  through  style and  fashion.  Indeed,  through  their,  what  some  scholars  would  perhaps deem frivolous preoccupation with looks, they can both be characterized as dandies of their time.6 It must be noted, though, that in Warhol’s case the issue of personal transformation implemented through plastic surgery, bodybuilding,  constant  wearing  of  wigs  and  cosmetics  revealed  his  very low self-esteem, inferiority complex, and continuous attempts to reinvent himself  as  somebody  more  handsome  and  attractive.  Grīnbergs,  on  the other   hand,   never   suffered   from   such   insecurities   or   lack   of   self- confidence, however dandyism is one of the common aspects of both of them. In one of the interviews Grīnbergs mentions it and refers to Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol as his idols: “I was interested in Oscar Wilde— not as a gay person or writer, but as a dandy. I was curious about Andy Warhol as a visual image and gay person. I copied them! I didn’t know anything about Wilde at that time, but I was interested in his aristocratic style as opposed to the cult of proletariat that was present here.”7


Already  from  youth,  both  have  championed  individualism  and  loved standing  out  from  the  crowd.  Warhol,  for  example,  during  his  last  two years at college, in 1948 and 1949, lacquered his fingernails in a different colour almost every day and once even dyed his hair green. In 1954, when he was working in New York as a graphic artist, he liked to create a stir by doing things like slashing his expensive suits with a razor and spattering them with paint.As indicated by Hubertus Butin, with these performative acts,  not  only  did  Warhol  create  a  distinctly  unusual  look,  he  also specifically and demonstratively drew attention to his homosexuality and lived his public life as though he were a character in a play.9


On  the  other  side  of  the  Iron  Curtain,  Grīnbergs,  too,  manifested  his eccentricity as the flagman of the hippie subculture in Latvia in the 1960s. As a graduate of the Department of Costume Production and Modeling of the Applied Art School in Riga, Grīnbergs enjoyed practicing his fashion designer’s  ideas  and  skills  on  his  hippie  friends.  Surely,  as  art  historian Mark Allen Svede has noted, “hippies were particularly ill-served by the state-planned economy, [thus] their performance was more improvisational than most.”10 However, restricted means and a tight budget often resulted in  a  creative  outcome.  Grīnbergs,  for  example,  often  shopped  in  flea markets and used second-hand materials such as parachute fabric to sew classic trench coats and wide, backless mini-dresses.11  Even in Grīnbergs’s happenings,  the  motto  “life  is  a  fashion  show”  was  followed,  and  he implemented his ideas on participants as a fashion designer: “I dressed my models and created an environment, where they could express themselves and which could to some degree ‘rip’ them out of their masks, turn them into  live  human  beings,  containing  more  than  you  see  on  an  everyday basis.”12


Grīnbergs  openly  admits  that  he  admired  and  copied  Warhol,  but  by emphasizing  this  statement  I  do  not  want  in  any  manner  to  diminish  or undermine   Grīnbergs’s   oeuvre,   especially   in   the   queer   context.   The copycat qualities were only manifested as similar gestures that Grīnbergs tried  to  replicate  or  embody  as  an  homage  to  Warhol.  One  of  such gestures,  for  example,  was  exhibited  as  a  Duchampian  strategy  of  the “found  people.”13  If  in  Warhol’s  films  there  were  no  stars  and  the  cast,consisting of his friends or acquaintances, played themselves, in Grīnbergs’s case he addressed random people on the streets asking them to participate in his happenings that often took place in his apartment at Ūnijas Street 5/1 (termed ‘the Saloon’ in KGB records). By inviting these people who had met accidentally to embody a different character or to adopt a different identity, Grīnbergs offered them a chance to feel like a star, thus also appropriating the famous expression “15 minutes of fame” credited to Warhol in 1968.


Furthermore, with the open door policy that was also characteristic of Warhol’s studio “famously dubbed ‘the Factory’, set up as an open playground of subcultural denizens, mass-cultural divas, and ‘superstars’ of his own making somewhere in between,”14 Grīnbergs, too, was trying to imitate the creative and often wild party atmosphere, where artists, poets, writers, and such could mingle. This approach in both cases located Warhol and Grīnbergs in the middle of subculture or even counterculture, as Grīnbergs was the flagman of the Soviet hippies in Latvia and Warhol was surrounded by, as he states, outcasts and “odds-and-ends misfits, somehow misfitting together.”15 As Catherine Russell points out, “in the renewed interest in Warhol’s queer aesthetics, he emerges as an ethnographer of a particular subculture—one that was obsessed with exhibitionism, stardom, and theatricality.”16


Also, by contributing to newspaper columns The Emperor of Fashion (Modes  imperators,  in  1995),  as  well  as  Grinbergs  Lives 17   (Grinbergs dzīvo), The Lives of Celebrities (Slavenību dzīve) and Grinbergs’s Diary in the newspaper Vakara Ziņas (around the 2000s), Grīnbergs tried to mimic Warhol’s  magazine  Interview,  which  was,  in  fact,  a  gossip  magazine, running  “utterly  superficial  articles  with  the  emphasis  on  fashion  and lifestyle,  luxury,  and  glamour,  embellished  with  more  or  less  indiscreet snapshots  of  the  rich  and  famous”18   and  also  served  “as  a  vehicle  for Warhol’s calculated self-promotion,” affirming “his social progress to the heights of major celebrity.”19  Surely, if Warhol constantly worked on his “Andy  Warhol’s  myth  project”  employing  quite  aggressive  branding strategies and mass media, Grīnbergs did not achieve—and did not even try to achieve—the same cult figure status in the post-Soviet society. However, Grīnbergs tried to copy Warhol’s outer appearances, sporting the same hairstyle as Warhol and trying to look like the glamorous, mythical cult figure he adored.



Even in terms of women, Grīnbergs and Warhol had similar attitudes. If for Warhol it was Edie Sedgwick as a “female doppelgänger,” whose ambiguity as both femme and boyish toyed with gender,20 for Grīnbergs it was his life-long partner, now ex-wife, Inta Grīnberga, whom Grīnbergs quotes as his muse, playing as significant a role as “Monica Vitti to Michelangelo Antonioni, Giulietta Masina to Federico Fellini, Yoko Ono to John Lennon, and Gala to Salvador Dalí.”21 The American cultural critic and professor at the City University of New York, Wayne Koestenbaum refers to this kind of relationship as “twinship” and a “homoerotics of repetition and cloning.” However, he also accentuates that it might be seen as “a play with all kinds of likenesses that are only similar enough to be subversively other.”22 In Grīnbergs’s case, though, it is questionable whether the legitimate form of kinship ascertained in a heterosexual marriage was not a form of gender performance, in order to adapt to the homophobic Soviet rule.23

Finally, another common aspect between both is the desire to collect. Warhol was known as a keen and even obsessive collector. He constantly scoured auction houses, antique stores, and particularly flea markets for new treasures to add to his many collections. Warhol collected Fiesta ware, World’s Fair memorabilia, Art Deco silver, Native American objects, and folk art. He often acquired large collections as well— Hollywood publicity stills, crime scene photographs and dental moulds.24 In the spring of 1988, Sotheby’s Auction House sold 10,000 items from Warhol’s  art  collection.  However,  Warhol’s  largest  collecting  project consisted of 610 cardboard boxes called Time Capsules accumulated over the  last  thirteen  years  of  his  life,  which  consisted  of  daily  newspapers, plane tickets, gifts, souvenirs, photographs, etc.


All  of  these  activities  reflected  Warhol’s  interest  in  Pop  art  and  his inspiration: consumer culture. However, they can also be read as a queer archival impulse. By accumulating collections, which consequently serve as a basis for archives, queer artists can produce alternative narratives and counter-archives,  producing  knowledge  in  a  Foucauldian  manner.  As Michel Lobel states:

In the collection objects are accumulated, ordered, and narrativized into a coherent  whole,  an  activity  that  echoes  the  attempt  to  construct  a  stable unity out of the heterogeneous elements. [It is] a sort of playspace of the artist’s mind, a space of privacy and retreat.25


Furthermore,  Koestenbaum  proposes,  through  reading  Oscar  Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, that collecting is, indeed, a queer activity:

Collecting   is   a   code   for   homosexual   activity   and   identity   […]—the collector who, like the libertine, has no family, no social ties, no loyalties, no interior. It’s not clear whether Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray obsessively collects  exotic  musical  instruments,  jewels,  perfumes,  embroideries,  and ecclesiastical vestments because he’s gay, or whether Wilde tells us about collection because he can’t mention homosexuality.26 

However,  collection  can  be  manifested  not  only  through  objects,  but also through collecting the stories of one’s life and the desire to turn one’s life into a document. This necessity for documentation is characteristic of both  Grīnbergs  and  Warhol,  as  they  produced  numerous  photographs  to document their lives and work. They also made films, and though Warhol was  more  prolific  for  economic  reasons—he  made  eighteen  films  from 1963 to 1964, and twenty-six in 196527—and in Grīnbergs’s account there are  only  three,  their  commitment  to  these  forms  of  documentation  show how  important  it  was  for  them.  If  we  prefer  to  interpret  it  from  a psychoanalytic point of view, such a necessity can be read as a latent need for a sensation of belonging to a group and a self-protecting mechanism in a  homophobic  world. For  example,  sociologist  Pierre  Bourdieu  draws attention  to  photography’s  performativity.  He  argues  that  it  creates  the family unit it depicts, gathering the group together to be preserved forever in  the  family  snapshot,  whatever  the  rifts  that  precede  and  succeed  it.“Photography itself,” he asserts, “is most frequently nothing but the reproduction of the image that a group produces of its own integration.”28

Queer content in works of art, especially manifested as homosexual desire, was problematic for Warhol, as he had to struggle against the
prejudice and stereotypes of Western homophobic society in general and the art world in particular. This fact can be illustrated by the subjects he chose for his artwork, as they carried not only public meaning, but subcultural connotations as well, which he neither expected nor wished the general public to discern. According to Bradford Collins:

Warhol’s images of Marlon Brando as a motorcyclist and Elvis Presley as a  gunslinger,  for  example,  carried  two  meanings,  one  of  which  was unavailable to heterosexuals. Because the “macho” cyclist and the cowboy with gun and holster were standard characters in gay  erotica at the time, Warhol knew that readers of such materials would see in his works both an homage to Hollywood and its star system and objects of desire.29

However, given that homosexuality was decriminalized in Latvia only in 1992, queer content in works of art was even more hazardous for Grīnbergs in the East. Although most of Grīnbergs’s performances have been documented in photography by a dozen Latvian photographers, he also produced two films under, I would say, quite Warholian titles: Self- Portrait (1972) and Self-Portrait. Testament (2003) and is currently working on the third. Since Self-Portrait films contain open homosexual scenes, Grīnbergs was subjecting himself to a huge threat at the time when the first Self-Portrait film was made. As indicated by art historian Mark Allen Svede: “The risks that Soviet artists faced if they dared to express affirmative homosexual content were horrific, including incarceration in a psychiatric prison or a staged “suicide” at the hands of KGB agents.”30

When the 1972 Self-Portrait film was restored in 1996 and premiered at Anthology Film Archives in New York, filmmaker and independent film authority Jonas Mekas proclaimed Self-Portrait (1972) to be “one of the five  most  sexually  transgressive  films  ever  made.”31   Svede  emphasizes that  Mekas’s  judgement  is  all  the  more  impressive  in  light  of  his  own arrest record for screening landmarks of queer cinema in the mid-1960s. According to Svede, the 1972 Self-Portrait must be placed in the company of films by Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, and Jack Smith.


As regards the differences between both artists, there is one crucial aspect that needs to be taken into account. To Warhol the question of identity, and especially that of gender identity, was one of the central subjects in his oeuvre. With his films The Chelsea Girls (1966) and the Paul Morrissey-directed trilogy of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972), as well as with his management of The Velvet Underground, the content of the band’s songs and its performances, Warhol positioned himself at the forefront of cross-dressing, in which gender identity was “conceived as an impersonation, a role, a put-on.”32 Moreover, in 1981 Warhol appeared as a woman in a photograph Altered Image taken by Christopher Makos. In this image Warhol is seen wearing a wig and make- up, namely drag attributes, and it is an homage to Marcel Duchamp, who also was photographed in drag and under a different (female) identity as Rrose Sélavy by Man Ray in the 1920s.


According to Jennifer Blessing, there can be several explanations for Warhol’s self-presentation as a woman or in the role of a woman. One of them was the manifestation of delight in high camp. The definition of camp was provided by Susan Sontag in her well-known essay Notes on Camp (1964), where she stated that camp is “Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”33 In her list of camp’s features, Sontag also states that “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness [..] consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”34 Thus, camp through the image of dandysome provocateur 35 posed some challenge to traditional masculinity by laughing at the masculine image and ridiculing strict patriarchal roles. According to Blessing, this “challenge was significantly informed by camp’s relationship with flamboyant male homosexuality.”36 Another reason for the campy female impersonator in Warhol’s case was not so much an artistic expression, as a political act, which must be seen in the context of the contemporaneous gay liberation movement and especially the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Blessing emphasizes that in the 1960s and 1970s “female impersonation was against the law in some American cities, presumably because it was perceived as the domain of homosexuals,”37 thus such gay-identified performances can also be seen as deliberate political acts.


Grīnbergs, on the other hand, never recognized cross-dressing as a strategic decision in art. In his heavily documented performances, he often appears naked before the camera, but never dressed as a woman. There was, however, one regular participant in his Happenings—the artist Eižens Valpēters (b. 1943), who can be credited as the first performer of cross- dressing in Soviet Latvia. There are only two photographs from the performance titled The Old House (1977) taken by photographer Māra Brašmane, where Valpēters can be seen wearing a woman’s dress. In an interview with the author of this essay, Valpēters admits that, perhaps, it was some kind of subconscious act, when he decided to impersonate a female, because in his childhood he was once dressed as a girl in a carnival impersonating a popular girl character in opera at the time. Valpēters states that his cross-dressing performance was not in any way strategic or political and should be seen in light of carnivalistic masquerading.38 However, the visibility of alternate gender presentations in Latvian photographic culture should not be underestimated, especially in the context of Soviet rule and the fact that, similarly to the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, such female impersonation acts would be difficult to explain as “art” to law enforcement agents.


Despite the difference in gender aspect present or missing in the oeuvre of Warhol and Grīnbergs respectively, both artists in their eagerness to work with new media at the time—photography and film—employed quite similar strategies in creating works of art in the sense that the notion of an artist as a skilled producer is replaced with the artist as a consumer of new picture-making gadgets.39 Grīnbergs claims that he started to photograph his performances as his “unrealized paintings”: “I could not draw well to express myself, write well or express myself well in music, yet I had ideas.”40 Thus, it was more the question of organizing and managing all the stages of the processual art—or creating the necessary environment—, inviting the photographers and participants, finding the venue and accessories, setting the time, etc., as opposed to creating a work of art on his own in a studio manifesting exquisite craft skills, for example, in painting. Warhol, too, with his silk-screened images that reiterated or appropriated photo-journalism and a team of assistants around him exhibited similar gestures, claiming that “picture-making skills were of minor importance in making significant pictorial art.”41 In this strategic choice, Warhol was, of course, following the ideas of Pop art, depicting empty, banal images42 and dropping all the aspects that “had been known in modern art as seriousness, expertise, and reflexiveness.”43 Consequently, it can be stated that art as a project and team-work is what characterizes Warhol’s and Grīnbergs’s works best.


As regards queer aesthetics, they have both succeeded in creating self- portraits, which require close and informed reading to peel the visible surface off layer-by-layer hoping to find the “real” Andy or Andris. Whether it is possible at all, can be epitomized by the following quote from Grīnbergs:

Of course, I have often thought that entire life is a theatre and all that we get depends on how well we play our roles. Where is that place where one can be real? This double life continues endlessly.44

1 Romeo and Juliet (1969).

2 E-mail correspondence with the author on June 12, 2015.

See Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet. American Art, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 54–79, for this quote p. 67.

4 Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet, p. 68.

5 Though Grīnbergs states that his performances were never commissioned and never intended for exhibiting in art galleries or museums. http://

6 Mark Allen Svede mentions Andris Grīnbergs and Miervaldis Polis as the protagonists of Soviet dandyism. Svede, Mark Allen. Twiggy and Trotsky: Or, What the Soviet Dandy Will be Wearing This Next Five-Year Plan, in: Dandies. New York University Press, 2001, pp. 243–270.

7 The Self. Riga, 2011, p. 258.

8 Butin, Hubertus. Andy Warhol in the Picture. Self-Portraits and Self-Promotion, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes. Edited by Eva Meyer-Hermann. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008, p. 50.

9 Ibid.

10 Svede, Mark Allen. All You Need is Lovebeads: Latvia’s Hippies Undress for Success. Style and Socialism. Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe. Reid, Susan E. and Crowley, David (eds.). Oxford – New York: Berg, 2000, p. 191.

11 The Self, p. 250.

12 Meistere, Una [Interview]. Atmoda Atpūtai, 1992, March 3, p. 2.

13 “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie.” Warhol, Andy and Hacket, Pat. Popism – The Warhol Sixties. Orlando: Harvest Book – Harcourt, 1980, p. 139.

14 Foster, Hal. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 105.

15 Warhol, Andy and Hacket, Pat. Popism – The Warhol Sixties, p. 276.

16 Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, p. 170.

17 In these series appearing transcribed as “Grinbergs” as opposed to “Grīnbergs”.
18 Butin, Hubertus. Andy Warhol in the Picture, p. 55.
19 Ibid.

20 Foster, Hal. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 108.
21 (2015.10.06.)
22 Hal Foster. A Figment in a Factory, in: A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes, p. 108, reference 12.

23 Grīnbergs talks openly of his sexuality and queerness only in interviews after 1992.
24 (2015. 10.06.)

25 Lobel, Michael. Warhol’s Closet. Art Journal, Vol. 55, 1996, Issue 4, p. 46.
26 Wayne, Koestenbaum. The Queen’s Throat: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p. 62.
27 Ibid., p. 170.

28 Tyler, Carole-Anne. Death Masks, in Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 123f.
29 Collins, Bradford R. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet, p. 54.
30 (17.06.2015 no longer accessible);

31 Ibid.

32 Blessing, Jennifer. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. Solomon R. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 70.
33 Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books, 2009, p. 280.

34 Ibid.
35 Very vividly manifested in glitter rock, which Warhol influenced.
36 Blessing, Jennifer. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, p. 70.

37 Ibid., p. 71.
38 Interview with the author of the essay on 15.06.2015.
39 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art, p. 42. photography/downloads/Wall001.pdf.
40 Meistere, Una. [Interview.]

41 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference, p. 41.
42 Wall reminds us that “the empty, the counterfeit, the functional, and the brutal” were nothing new as art in 1960, as they were all tropes of the avant-garde entering the art scene via Surrealism.
43 Wall, Jeff. Marks of Indifference, p. 41.
44 Una Meistere. [Interview.]


Blessing,   Jennifer.   1997.   Rrose   is   a   Rrose   is   a   Rrose:   Gender Performance  in  Photography.  New  York:  Solomon  R.  Guggenheim Museum.


Buchloch,  Bejnamin  H.D.  (ed.).  2010.  Andy  Warhol.  A  Special  Issue.


October, Spring, no. 132. MIT Press.


Collins, Bradford R. 2001. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet. American Art, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn), pp. 54–79.


Demakova,   Helēna    (ed.).   2011.    The   Self.    Personal   Journeys   to Contemporary Art: the 1960s-80s in Soviet Latvia. Riga: The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, pp. 246–264.


Grīnbergs, Andris. 2012. Yesterday.


Lobel, Michael. 1996. Warhol’s Closet – Andy Warhol – We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History. Art Journal, Volume 55, Issue 4, pp. 42–50.


Meyer-Hermann, Eva (ed.). 2008. A Guide to 706 Items In 2 Hours 56 Minutes. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.


Russell, Catherine. 1999. Experimental Ethnography. Durham: Duke University Press.


Sontag, Susan. 2009. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books.


Svede, Mark Allen. 2001. Twiggy and Trotsky: Or, What the Soviet Dandy Will Be Wearing This Next Five-Year Plan, in Dandies. New York University Press, pp. 243–270.


Tyler, Carole-Anne. Death Masks, in Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, p.123.


Wall, Jeff. 1995. ‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art. The Last Picture Show. downloads/Wall001.pdf. Originally published in: Goldstein, Ann and Rorimer, Anne. Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1975. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995, pp. 247–267.


Warhol, Andy and Pat Hacket. 1980. Popism – The Warhol Sixties. Orlando: Harvest Book – Harcourt.


Wayne, Koestenbaum. 1993. The Queen’s Throat: Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books.


Liminal Performances: In-Between Threshold States

Liminal Performances: In-Between Threshold States

Laine Kristberga

Kristberga, Laine. 2020. Liminal Performances: In-Between Threshold States. In: Lauma Mellēna-Bartkeviča., ed. Contemporary Latvian Theatre A Decade Bookazine. Rīga: Zinātne.

Liminality as a theoretical framework can be used in the contexts of various research fields, yet  primarily  it  is  drawn from the discourses related to social sciences, especially anthropology. The Latin word limen means ‘threshold’, whereas liminality refers to the physiological, psychological and spiritual experience of  threshold  states.  As a concept, it was first introduced by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) in his 1909 book Les Rites de Passage (Rites of Passage). Van Gennep noted the importance of rites marking the passage of an individual or social group from one identity or status to another, for example, the transition from childhood to adulthood. Further on, the concept of  liminality  was  discussed  by  the British anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), American performance theorist and theatre director Richard Schechner (b. 1934) and German professor of theatre studies Erika Fischer-Lichte (b. 1943), to name just a few. In her 2008 book The Transformative Power of Performance, Fischer-Lichte writes that liminality is accompanied by a profound sense of destabilisationin which the traditional dichotomies and binary oppositions are overturned. For example, through active engagement in a performance piece, a spectator may become a performer or a participant and vice versa. The collapse of dichotomies consequently leads to a liminal experience in which it is difficult to mark a boundary between “this is art / theatre” and “this is reality” (or “representation” and “presence”, respectively).2


According to British professor Susan Broadhurst in her 1999 book Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contem­porary Performance and Theory, “all liminal works confront, offend or unsettle”3. She writes that hybridisation, indeterminancy, experimentation, heterogeneity, innovation, marginality and the centrality of non-linguistic modes of signification appear to be among the quintessential aesthetic features of the liminal4. To understand the liminal in performing arts, Broadhurst offers the framework of intersemiotic analysis. This means that, for example, all separate units or elements in a performance piece, such as a dance, costume design, video projections, digital technologies, the performer’s body, etc., can be regarded as separate “texts”, which together create meaning beyond verbal language. Often, such works are experimental, multi- and interdisciplinary and ritualistic.5 One of the examples Broadhurst offers to define liminal performances  is  the  Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, which is a hybrid form between dance and theatre.


In this context, performance art as a hybrid between visual arts and theatre offers a testing ground for liminal practice. In Latvia, performance art has always been marginal and practised rather sporadically by visual artists who from time to time want  to experiment with new disciplines. On very few occasions, theatre actors have also tried out these trajectories, for example, Dārta Daneviča and Elīna Dzelme, who in may 2014 spent twenty-four hours in a transparent box of glass during their performance Dzīvo damies (lit. Live­Ing) at Kalnciema Street Quarter in Riga. As an ephemeral, transient and immaterial process-based act, performance art defies the rules of objecthood and thus commodification – it is difficult to sell. To address this lack of exposure and visibility, the Latvian Centre for Performance art (LCPa) was founded in 2018. One of the LCPa’s initiatives is the annual “Starptelpa” international Performance art Festival, which offers a platform for local and international performance artists to exhibit their works. Starptelpa, which translates as ‘in-between space’, focuses on the concept of liminality, in which the constant dissolving of boundaries, as well as hybridisation, is nurtured.


At the Starptelpa festival, both group performances, devised through collaboration, and individual performances are presented. The festival offers a panoramic and kaleidoscopic view of a myriad of creative and conceptual strategies employed by the artists  to explore the concept of liminality.6 For example, in the group performance Bearman (Lāčuvīrs, 2018) directed by Simona Orinska, the concept of liminality was revealed from multiple perspectives.


First of all, Bearman exposed hybridity in terms of traditions and symbols from three cultures: Japanese, Sami and Latvian. The Japanese culture was introduced in the performance through the Butoh performing tradition implemented by the IDEAGNŌSIS performing arts group. The Sami and Latvian cultures were represented through music, with the Sami singer Torgeir Vassvik singing in the ancient yoik tradition of the Sami people and Sanita Sprūža playing the kokle, a traditional Latvian musical instrument. Moreover, the bear is a sacred, totemic animal in both Sami and Latvian mythology and folklore. Our ancestors believed that the bear was a creature in between a human and an animal.7


Second, liminality was revealed on the narrative level, with the story unfolding as an initiation ritual in which a Bearman (performed by Arvis Kantiševs)  was  born.  The  birth  of a new man was revealed as a complex process  in  which  the  masculine and feminine, as well as the creative and destructive, primordial forces embodied by the Butoh dancers collided in a cathartic, ecstatic clash, leaving the Bearman empty, exhausted and in stasis. The new man could only be born from this empty shell. The birth was also signified through universal symbols of motherhood. The Bear mother and ancestress was performed by voice improviser and singer Dana Indāne-Surkienė, who was heavily pregnant at the time of the performance, whereas the movements of the Butoh dancers were choreographed so that at one moment their bodies formed a nest, and at another moment their rhythmical movements referred to labour contractions. Overall, the performance was devised as a process of transformation, and liminality was presented through the initiation ritual as “a transitional state filled with ambiguities and contradictions.”8


It should be emphasised that, apart from Vassvik’s singing in the Sami language, the performance was absolutely non-verbal; thus, liminality was also revealed through the non-linguistic mode of signification, a feature noted by Broadhurst. The Butoh dancers produced non-articulated sounds, laughter, sighs, cries and groans, and these noises provided a certain rhythm to the performance, yet at the same time they symbolised primeval forms of existence or the pre-verbal stage of human development. Indeed, such an Artaudian devising technique developed a “unique language half- way between gesture and thought”9. In this context, the white bodies of the Butoh dancers in Bearman could also be regarded as semiotic signs and carriers of meaning.10 According to Japanese theatre scholar Gunji Masakatsu, the white colour in Butoh is ambiguous: “On the one hand, white represents a world with no colour whatsoever and is a sign of the world of the dead; on the other hand, it is a sign of the world of the living and denotes the white light of the sun”11 . This  kind  of  in-betweenness  added another layer to the concept of liminality explored in the performance.


Liminality in the work of individual performers is often explored through the problematic concept of authenticity, which is juxtaposed to acting and “pretending” in theatre. Performance artists frequently create works that are based on autobiographical experiences or questions of identity. Consequently, performing in performance art differs from acting in theatre, in which:

The performer goes from the “ordinary world” to the “performative world”, from one time / space reference to another, from one personality to one or more others. He plays a character, battles demons, goes into trance, travels to the sky or under the sea or earth: he is transformed, enabled to do things “in performance” he cannot do ordinarily.12


Instead of playing a fictitious character from a dramatic text, for example, Hamlet, performance artists are suspended in an in-between state in which they perform and act out themselves. For example, in her 2019 performance Genderbender artist Laura Šterna drew attention to the social pressure she constantly experiences because of her androgynous look. The forty-minute-long performance had a minimalistic mise-en-scène – there were just a few props, such as a bicycle and a mirror, and a screen on which various comments that she had heard in real life were projected (“Are you a girl or a boy?” “Hey, dude, pass the ball!” “Do you know that you’re in a women’s bathroom?”). During the performance, Šterna attempted to show that the binary representation of “male” and “female” is a form of social performance to adapt to society’s expectations. By putting on a feminine look with the help of make-up, high heels and a dress and then exchanging them for a boyish look with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, Šterna demonstrated that gender representation is performative and that, like her, some people do not belong to either of the binary categories – indeed, they are in- between. By engaging the spectators in the performance and asking them  to help her wax her legs, Šterna also broke down the binary opposition between the viewer and performer. Such participatory experience was  liminal  to the viewers, because it made them question the prescribed rules, norms and order, as well as boundaries, between art and life.


Performance artists explore another aspect of liminality by testing their physical and psychological limits. Often such performances are durational and last several hours. Fischer-Lichte writes that liminality becomes especially apparent in performances involving self-injury:

These  performances  erase valid rules and norms and establish a state of radical betwixt and between for all participants, even for the artists inflicting injuries on themselves. In this  situation a purely “aesthetic” response would border on voyeurism and sadism. Ethical responses, how-ever, contain the risk of violating the artist’s intentions. These performances plunge the spectators into a crisis.13


Although no artists have injured themselves at the Starptelpa festival, the threshold of endurance has been tested several times. For example, the Mørketid photography exhibition was organised as part of Starptelpa in 2019. It focused on the visualisation of depression by combining performance and photography. At the exhibition opening, artist Anna Maskava stood with her head bent down for two hours while pouring water on her head and long blonde hair. This repetitive, monotonous movement in the quiet gallery space, where only three to four spectators could enter at a time, gave rise to strong associations with the cyclical nature of depression, immobility and feelings of being trapped and caged. Some spectators were touched emotionally so powerfully that they wept. After the performance, Maskava acknowledged that she had lost the sense of time and experienced a state of trance during those two hours.


At the 2018 edition of the festival, artist Daniela Vētra in her performance The Unbearable Heaviness of Oxygen (Skābekļa nepanesamais smagums) asked the spectators to choose a stone, which was weighed and registered by her assistants. Then each spectator put their stone in a special costume worn by Vētra. The total weight of the stones reached 120 kilograms, and then Vētra – in the heavy costume – was lifted up in the air at least three metres above the ground. She proceeded to slowly get rid of the stones, throwing each stone down one by one and saying “thank you”. The spectators at this performance also experienced a liminal state, because Vētra had an attachable microphone and her heavy sighs indicated how hard it was to hold the stones on her tiny body. On a symbolic level, through her physical and mental distress Vētra showed that a person is able to endure only so much.14 Though she voluntarily took on the heaviness from others, she also retained control over the maximum limit.


Because liminality can also occur as a result of hybridity when artists integrate various modes of representation and technologies in their performances, Anda Lāce’s performance All the best! (Daudz laimes!) performed at Starptelpa in 2018 should also be mentioned.15 In it, Lāce worked with several layers of time: the objects (all kinds of crockery inherited from previous generations) represented the layer of past; the big screen behind the installation, where all the crockery was carefully placed in huge piles by the artist during the performance, projected the gaze of the artist that was tracked by a real-time camera attached to her head; and occasionally, the real-time frames were interrupted by a speedy rotation of photographs of the artist that could be found on the internet, registering yet another layer of time. the performance ended with Lāce smashing the crockery while balancing on the installation. not only did she literally and metaphorically destroy this heritage; she also referenced a culturally specific idiom about smashing crockery.16 To a certain degree, All the best! resonates with the performance by Vētra described previously, because both artists rid themselves of a burden.


To conclude, the concept of liminality not only in performance art, but also in the performing arts overall, can be examined from various perspectives. as such, it offers fertile ground for theatre and performance theoreticians. Liminality can be addressed from the point of view of the performers, audiences, engagement and interaction between performers and audiences, mise-en-scène, a system of semiotic signs, and the experience and integration of technologies. This list is not exhaustive, and the next Starptelpa festival will definitely bring new examples of liminality.

1 Fischer-Lichte, e. The Transformative Power of Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 157.

2 The concept of liminality, in which hierarchies and norms disappear, also resonates with Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. Pursuant to Bakhtin’s definition, “carnivals are playful subversions of the established social and political order of things, which might otherwise appear fixed. through common practices of masquerade, the burning of effigies, the desecration of sacred objects and spaces, and excessive indulgences of the body, carnivals loosen the hold of the dominant order, breaking free – though only for a time – from law, tradition, and all that enforces normative social behavior” (Auslander 2008: 41–42).

3 Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory. (Bloomsbury. 1999), 168.

4 ibid. 11–13.

5 An earlier attempt to define a theatre that would advocate a system of signs beyond the dramatic text was expressed by Antonin Artaud in his 1933 book Theatre and Its Double. From Artaud’s perspective, theatre should be seen as a rich source for semiotic experiments with a certain “visual language of objects, movements, attitudes, and gestures, but on condition that their meanings, their physiognomies, their combinations be carried to the point of becoming signs, making a kind of alphabet out of these signs” (Artaud 1958 [1933]: 90).

6 Every year, a new thematic scope is employed (liminality in 2018; control in 2019; ritual and myth in 2020).

7 For example, “Aijā žūžū, lāča bērni” (Hushaby, hushaby, bear cubs) is an ancient Latvian lullaby in which a bear is identified as a human, since according to ancient mythology, humans descended from bears. In fact, a motif from this particular lullaby was also integrated in the closing part of Bearman.

8 Westerveld, J. Liminality in Contemporary Art, 2011.

9 Artaud, A. The Theatre and Its Double. (New York: Grove Press, 1958 [1933]), 84–100.

10 Another non-verbal and yet important component of the performance was revealed through the kinetic, revolving video projections created by the artist Gita Straustiņa. These projections not only served as instruments of stage design to add a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere, but also delivered the concept of the cosmic bear.

11 Masakatsu, G. Butoh and taboo. in: Baird, B., Candelario, r. (eds.) The Routledge Compan­ion to Butoh Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), np.

12 Schechner, r. Between Theatre and Anthropology. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 126.

13 Fischer-Lichte, e. The Transformative Power of Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 176.

14 After the performance, Vētra said that at one point her rib cage was pressed so hard that it was difficult for her to breathe.

15 For this performance, Lāce was nominated for the prestigious Purvītis Prize in 2018.

16 When one accidentally smashes a plate or a cup in Latvia, it is perceived as a sign of luck and happiness.