The city of Riga is famous for streets lined with Art Nouveau architecture and powerfully patriotic statues. It’s not uncommon for the immaculately crafted pieces on buildings to turn heads, particularly in Old Town or on Alberta iela…but now and then, you may pass by a piece of artwork that causes you to come to a full stop and do a solid double-take. Two-and-a-half meter tall snails tend to have that effect.
In May 2014, citizens and visitors in Riga suddenly discovered giant, brightly-colored mollusks scattered across the city. They stood quiet and tall, occasionally moving from one location to the next, and their photos quickly appeared on Baltic travelers’ blogs all over the internet. True to their character, they symbolized a quality of movement.
Paris has the Centre Georges Pompidou and London has the Tate, and it may come as a surprise that Latvia is the only European nation that does not have its own contemporary art museum. Organization Mākslai Vajag Telpu (Latvian for “Art needs a home”) was established in 2001 with the goal of securing such a facility in Riga. But as the government continually avoided the issue of funding, MVT cofounder and representative Katrīna Lieškalne explains, “we were looking for ways to tastefully form dialogue […] Snails weren’t chosen accidentally—they symbolize the slow pace of the establishment of a contemporary art museum.” The fourteen snails were made by The Cracking Art Group, a collective of artists based in Italy, who have also sent multicolored penguins, turtles, and crocodiles around the world.
After a few weeks of solo sightseeing, the snails converged at Strēlnieku Square, each displaying its very own expressive makeover. Local artists were asked to decorate the sculptures for the event; the result was a medley of cow spots, pastel landscapes, and antennae topped with black skulls. The square saw dozens upon dozens of visitors, old and young, stopping by to admire the sight.
While MVT may have been primarily attracted to the symbolism of the snails’ speed, the creatures’ unique sense of home provides another relevant parallel. As participating artist Alise Mediņa notes, a snail “doesn’t separate from his home; he always carries it with him and hides from all threats.” A recent burglary at her house had caused her to reflect upon the meaning and feeling of ‘home.’ A snail’s special relationship with its shell, as well as her sculpture’s original yellow exterior, inspired “colors of a sunset with tree and plant silhouettes, which to me symbolize the peace and harmony that we can find in nature.”
Since their showing in Strēlnieku Square, the snails have sped away in all different directions, now bringing surprised smiles to the faces of bystanders across Latvia. Tourists may be most likely to come across Dārta Leiškalne’s sparkling creation, which keeps a lookout in front of the Freeport of Riga building in Kronvalda Park. Decorated with hundreds of tiny mirrors, the snail’s body is reminiscent of a disco ball, and is topped with a sky-and-cloud painted shell.
Far removed from a natural setting, a black snail adorned with white lettering spent this past summer on the roof of Vest Café in Kalnciema, proudly proclaiming a temporary home for postwar art directly below. The building hosted a rotating installation of artists’ works, commemorating painter and MVT cofounder Džemma Skulme’s 90th birthday. Even if tourists had missed out on the other local snails, they were sure to spot this one out their taxi windows while driving to the airport.
A handful of the snails have found homes with MVT supporters in the capital city, and can be seen at venues such as Riga Zoo and the Children’s Clinical University Hospital. Others have traveled further to destinations in Inčukalna, the Mark Rothko Art Center in Daugavpils, and Mālpils Manor.
Riga has yet to open a contemporary art museum, although its status as the European Capital of Culture last year no doubt raised international awareness of its thriving artistic community. MVT has stated that it would be willing to convert an existing structure rather than constructing a new one. A building at Riga Technical University has been considered as an option.
Despite the continued snail’s pace of the project, Mediņa and Katrīna Lieškalne agree that the exhibition was a success. “So many people were overjoyed by the colorful snails and maybe it helped them to no longer see art as foreign and egocentric, but instead as personal and tangible,” says Mediņa.
Indeed, as chilly winter weather causes people to bundle up and hurry through the frost, perhaps a giant, summer-colored snail will invite them to pause, take in its beauty, and contemplate the promise and warmth of home.
Photos by Emma Ikstruma, Monika Tomsevica, and courtesy of Alise Mediņa