I recently met a Swiss artist who wants to become a Latvian.
Being an artist, however, he wants to do more than just become a Latvian. He wants to study the process, find out what it means (and whether it can be done), and then present his findings to the world.
As Ruedi Schorno explained it to me, he plans to spend 12 weeks in Latvia this summer learning what it means to become a Latvian. Heâ€™s already learned the language pretty well (it always helps to have a Latvian girlfriend) and arrived in Riga in June to start interviewing people, making videos, and gathering ideas and impressions. Sometime in the fall, he will produce a multi-media art project that will demonstrate to the world the fruits of his Latvian labors. Schorno recognizes that a project like this raises a lot of interesting questions. Some, like â€žWhy on earth do you want to do this?â€ can be explained by whatever it is that makes artists want to do artistic things. Given that Latvia has become a symbol for global economic grief, an economist might ask, â€œBut, why now?â€
Ruediâ€™s readiness to invest time, money, and a lot of hard work into becoming a Latvian also raises some metaphysical questions. What is a Latvian? What does it mean to â€žbeâ€ Latvian? Can you become one, even though you started your life as something else? Will your mother still recognize you after itâ€™s done? Weâ€™re not talking about Latvian citizenship here. Thatâ€™s regulated by law, and if he were to live here long enough, his language skills would make naturalization a snap. But thatâ€™s not art.
Art investigates the deeper meaning of things, and one that truly fascinates me is whether picking mushrooms while singing folksongs, and drinking beer in the Gauja National Park can magically transform a Swiss national into a Latvian good old boy.
Schorno follows a long tradition of artists who not only produce art, but become objects of their art. Not all survive. But Ruedi seems to be well on his way into the mysteries of Latvianess, and as far as I can tell, he is no worse for the wear.
Over the next few weeks he will get a lot of advice on how to become a Latvian, (and how not to be one.) In his conversations he will no doubt hear a lot about ice hockey, Riga Black Balsam, rye bread, herbal teas, oak trees, and the magic powers of amber. He may even be asked to join â€“ or start â€“ several political parties. Since he likes to sing he will be sung with, sung at, (and if he meets with the Suitu sievas) sung about. He will never be more than an armâ€™s length away from flowers, and should be prepared to give or receive them at any time of the day for no apparent reason. While I wonâ€™t try to define what it means to be Latvian, I know that flowers and singing figure in there somewhere.
I canâ€™t imagine what the Swiss will say about him ceasing to be one of theirs and becoming one of ours. Or maybe he will be both? If he were to become a Latvian citizen, he would also acquire EU citizenship, something that other Swiss citizens donâ€™t have. But I doubt if Ruedi is becoming a Latvian because he is eager to cast his vote in the next European Parliament elections.
As far as I can see, he is doing this for his art, and for the good of mankind. If by the end of the year Ruedi Schorno can successfully explain why someone would want to become a Latvian, what it means to be one, and how it can be done, he will have made a major contribution to this country. Turning people into Latvians wonâ€™t solve our economic crisis, but it would sure give a boost to our demographic numbers.
There is one way, however, I will know that Ruedi has truly â€žgone Latvianâ€. If he comes back from Kandava and tells me how much it looks like a â€žlittle Switzerlandâ€, Iâ€™ll know heâ€™s become one of us.