Magazine reporter Katrina Sproge uncovers the tenacity one must possess in order to persist in the realm of fine arts, through the perspective of artist Janis Dzirnieks.
After twelve years of practice in the fine arts, Janis Dzirnieks, 30, laughs when asked about his success: “I haven’t achieved anything. Here, in my 25 square meter room with no floor.”
Contradictory to Janis’ poor depiction of his living space, the studio is a spacious, charming attic room with, yes, a chipboard-covered ground, but also three large windows presenting a marvellous view of Rotterdam’s aged rooftops. A rarity considering most of Rotterdam’s historical buildings were destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt as modern apartment complexes.
I encourage the Latvian artist, who has resided in Rotterdam for five years since finishing his postgraduate studies at Piet Zwart Institute and has had his work showcased in several personal and group exhibitions, to momentarily adopt a different perspective on his achievements. A task that is surely difficult for a professional whose craft is dwindling in demand in a capitalist world.
The beginnings of Janis’ artistic career are clouded but seem to stem from a minor accident. “All I know is that in 2010, I broke my leg. In the process of rehabilitation, I started editing little films from footage I had done before. Afterwards, I did more skateboarding and snowboarding and filmed and edited short films about the sports. In parallel, I started drawing and creating graphics and finally decided that, okay, I need to try it [art] out for real.”
After deciding to pursue a career in fine art, Janis applied to the Art Academy of Latvia. Known for its competitive intake tests, Janis got in on his third try. “The first year, the circumstances were a bit chaotic. The second time around, I was extremely nervous. The third time I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, if I don’t get in, I’ll go study abroad.’ I didn’t care much for it and then, I got in. Before the third try, I had already visited some art universities in London – Central Saint Martins, Goldsmiths and others. I actually studied engineering for a month. It was horrible.”
“Circulate amongst the right people, hang out with them. I think most success relies on friendships.”
In an age when capitalism makes the world go round, becoming an artist takes a certain kind of courage. Just two entries in the Jobs search bar on LinkedIn to find 14,765 vacancies linked to the finance sector in the Netherlands, and only 853 vacancies linked to artistry (although after looking through most of them, few, if any, are actually related to art). Do we face a new generation lacking in Van Goghs because artists aren’t as crucial to the current economy as sustainable financiers?
After years of experience in the art scene, Janis has learned that networking is key to progress in an artist’s career. “Circulate amongst the right people, hang out with them. I think most success relies on friendships.”
The right social circles can be built by attending exhibition openings at art galleries. While Amsterdam houses numerous compact art galleries, the artist has little faith in the galleries’ loyalty to the cultivation of authentic fine art. “They are purely commercial. No true artistic ideology supports commerce. Sure, some background stories exist for the displayed pieces, but in the long term, in the context of art history, such works tend to evanesce.”
Then, why do these galleries exist? “So people can buy a pretty picture to hang on the wall [shrugs],” an assumption supported by the strategic placement of the galleries – like Spiegelkwartier, close to the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam’s tourist hotspots.
Janis mentions speculations that such art galleries serve as a routine money laundering method for the wealthiest, a place for “dirty money.” But, he notes that art can serve as an investment tool, as well, giving the art scene some points of relevance in a capitalistic economy. “Of course, the investments usually flow to smaller works of the biggest names, not to unknown artists. A small Picasso drawing, for example. This dynamic also presents the reality of great art – most artworks of the greatest names lie in wooden boxes in safeguarded storage rooms. Switzerland is known for such storage facilities.”
Indeed, the belle of neutrality stores some of the greatest art collections in special warehouses so-called “free ports,” where they have been placed by millionaires and billionaires hoping to make a large revenue from the pieces in a few decades. Around 1.2 million art pieces reside behind the walls of a concrete fort, most never to be seen by the eyes of a peasant.
Personal work ethics, such as a stance against artistic commerciality, come at a price. Their refusal to give in to such financial pressures of fine art has pushed Janis and his artist friends to undertake several side jobs that hardly relate to their professional qualifications. “One [of my coursemates] is a social media manager for a beer company, others are doing odd jobs like transporting furniture. Mostly, everyone is doing something completely unrelated while practicing art. So am I.”
Janis just finished a side hustle assembling stages and panels for a tech-expo in Paris. Warehouse work shifts have become vital for the upkeep of Janis’ practice. Although he doesn’t mind the flexibility and salary of the side work, it takes its toll on his true work. “On one hand, I do like it. On the other hand, it is tiring because there is no stability. At one point I thought of this as the perfect combination. Now it pains me. It is even starting to feel like I’d rather do less artwork.”
Yet, there are surprisingly many sponsorship opportunities for artists in the Netherlands. Almost every municipality has an art fund, like Rotterdam with the CBK Fund, or The Mondriaan Fund with several grants, to name a few. In addition, artists have benefitted from COVID resilience funds.
“To be honest, there are many more financial opportunities than I have taken advantage of. Residencies are also an option. They are the ideal option, actually.” However, the Latvian artist is inexplicably held back from applying. “Artists usually apply for around six grants a year. I would apply for two or three. I can’t explain why.”
The reason surfaces without notice after we assess the process behind Janis’ creations.