Strange Events and Mythological Materials: A Conversation with Ojars Feldbergs

By Bates, Megan | Sculpture, July/August 2015 | Go to article overview

Strange Events and Mythological Materials: A Conversation with Ojars Feldbergs


Bates, Megan, Sculpture


In June 2014, Latvia's Pedvale Open-Air Art Museum hosted its 7th International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art (ICCCIA), organized by Ojars Feldbergs, KaÈCrlis Alainis, a teacher at the Latvian Academy of Art, and Tamsie Ringler, a sculpture professor at St. Catharine University. Described by Allison Hunter in 2002 as 'Part nature trail, part pagan playground, and part Northern European art hub' (Sculpture, Vol. 21 No. 6), Pedvale has earned a reputation as an international destination for outdoor sculpture, attracting both working artists and tourists with its singular blend of site-specific installation work and Latvian folk culture.

A series of symposia, participatory performances, and technical exchanges, the cast iron conference culminated with a massive iron pour and all-night solstice celebration on the final night of JaÈCnÈLi, Latvia's traditional midsummer festival. Participants donned flower wreaths, imbibed local libations, and weathered a summer downpour in a gathering that connected millennia of Latvian history to contemporary art focused on materials, ritual, and working within and in reaction to the landscape.

It was a fitting tribute to Feldbergs, Pedvale's founder (23 years ago) and a patriarch of outdoor sculpture in the Baltics and beyond. An accomplished sculptor, Feldbergs has been facilitating art spaces since before his country gained its independence from the USSR in 1991. Valda Akmentina interpreted for Feldbergs during our recent conversation.

Megan Bates: Is there a tradition of cast iron art in Latvia?

Ojars Feldbergs: Traditionally, there was no cast iron art in Latvia; iron was cast for industrial means. During the Soviet occupation, there were some cast iron facilities for industrial objects ordered by the state. And there were quite a number of bronze and aluminum sculptures cast in the style of Socialist Realism-statues of communist leaders, flowers, and athletes. The creation of abstract sculpture was not allowed.

MB: The ICCCIA billed itself as a celebration of "15 years of iron casting in Latvia." What event does this anniversary reference?

OF: After 50 years of Soviet occupation, Latvia gained its independence in 1991, and many artists and curators from the West arrived to see what had been happening here during the occupation. The American sculptor Carl Billingsley¡Xwho had seen my work in a catalogue for a Japanese exhibition¡Xcontacted me, and we met in 1993. At the time, Pedvale had no iron casting equipment or resources. Still, we continued to discuss a collaboration, and we finally found a justification and concept for conducting an iron casting event here, 'Valley Fire' in 1999.

To explain this, I will go back in Latvia's history: in the 17th century, the Courland area of Latvia was ruled by a very clever German Duke, Jacob Kettler. He brought craftsmen from around Europe and established a shipbuilding and trade empire. But his ships needed anchors, chains, and canons. And for these, they needed iron ore. In Latvia, we don't have any big mountains to mine, but we have bogs. So, technology was developed to extract ore out of the swamps to produce metal. To this day, the places where bog iron was produced are preserved in the landscape and even place names. For example, there is an area nearby called Fires, so named by sailors on the Baltic Sea for the smelting fires that they saw from the coast. Billingsley and another American sculptor, Kenneth Payne, based 'Valley Fire' on this story, and we used local clay and rocks found in the landscape at Pedvale to create the cupola.

MB: Has the introduction of iron casting influenced the contemporary sculpture scene in Latvia?

OF: 'Valley Fire' and later Pedvale iron pours led by Billingsley and Payne were observed by many people. Around the cupola, odd figures congregated and called out to one another, wearing masks and helmets and leather outfits. KaÈCrlis Alainis, a young Latvian sculpture student at the time, attended one of these events. …

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