About Us | Bookmark Us     


One hot August day in 1987, Miervaldis Polis emerged from his flat in Agenskalns to take a walk through Riga's city centre. It would have been a walk like any other that day, except for the fact that the artist was covered from head to toe in bronze paint – from his trousers to his suit jacket, his eyebrows to his fingers, right down to the laces of his shoes. In any other Western European city, such an exploit by an artist wouldn't have turned so many heads, but this was Soviet Latvia.

Polis got the idea for what was to become known as The Bronze Man performance from a German film director, who came to Latvia to film Perestroika, as he remembers. What the director had in mind was for an artist to walk around the city with his head and face painted bronze, while he filmed the reactions of people passing by. When Polis agreed to do the performance, he took the idea once step further, and painted his entire body and outfit bronze.

Preparation for the performance was quite complicated. First, he had to find the special bronze paint that he could use to cover his body. A friend who worked for a theatre helped him make the paint from gelatin, one that was not too toxic to his skin. The morning of the event an entourage of friends and helpers arrived at Polis' flat and began to cover his face, hair, neck and hands with the paint – after he had already donned his bronze suit and shoes.

The infamous performance started out on Tallinas iela, just outside the centre. In order to work up his courage Polis entered a café and had a bronze drink – apple juice – and smoked a bronze cigarette (previously prepared). From there he walked down Brīvības iela (then Ļeņina iela) and over to Vermanes Darzs (then Kirov Park), down toward the Opera, and finally ending up in the Old Town. For a moment he paused to pose on a pedestal in front of the Small Guildhall in Līvu Laukums (then Philharmonic Square), where he stood as a living, breathing statue (incidentally, the pedestal is still there to this day). Finally, he made a dash down Vagnera iela, in order to escape the huge crowds that were following him.

In some Soviet countries, an action such as this would have cost the artist jail time. At some moments in Soviet history, it would have meant banishment to Siberia. But in Latvia in 1987 Perestroika and Glasnost were already causing ripples in the ever-solid Iron Curtain. Polis recalls being followed by the KGB, and mentioned that they even questioned the bus driver, who was responsible for transporting the artist from Agenskalns to the centre. Apparently, many of the onlookers thought that Polis was specifically referencing Lenin – a crime which would be offensive on both fronts at that time. On the official level, such a gesture would have been interpreted as making fun of one of the Soviet Union's greatest leaders. On a popular level, it would have been interpreted as glorifying him – certainly a no-no at a time when republic countries like Latvia were taking active measures to break free from the Union.

Polis, however, denies any such specific reference to Lenin, and says that the performance referenced the bronze statues that have been erected to leaders ever since the ancient Roman times. More specifically, he tells us that it is about "the inherent tendency of men to glorify and be glorified, the inclination for power, immortality, and fame." Still, one cannot help but draw comparisons to the ubiquitous bronze statues of noble communist leaders that dotted the landscape of every Soviet city during the communist period. The resemblance is even more uncanny when we consider that many of those statues were made in a similar fashion to The Bronze Man. The desire for veneration of the Soviet state conflicted with the nation's deficit of materials, and many of the so-called "bronze" statues were actually plaster casts, with a thin layer of bronze paint covering them, in order to look real. What Polis' living statue points out is that appearances can be deceiving. Just like the official bronze statues were presented as one thing – solid, sturdy, even expensive, metal – a slight scratch at the surface would reveal the cheap and less stable reality underneath, in the same way that revealing the truth about Latvian history would quickly unravel the grand tales of the Soviet paradise, the Soviet state and claims of Latvia's rightful position in it.

The Bronze Man made several reappearances in the late 80s and early 1990s. In 1989 he traveled to Riga's sister city, Bremen, to perform an action in the Bremen Market Square called Bronze Peoples' Collective Begging (Bronzas cilvēku kolektīvā ubagošana), or Latvia's Gold (Latvijas Zelts). Polis and several of his cohorts stood around in a circle, dressed in bronze, and asked passersby to donate German Marks to them. The men used the proceeds of their first capitalist venture to buy beers afterward. For Polis, the idea of this performance was simple: "all art and culture is begging. One shouldn't have to be ashamed of that." For Polis, this meant that creating art is not something practical, necessary for everyday survival. As he himself said, "you can't eat an artwork," and remembers that he and another artist managed to collect around the equivalent of 60-80 USD, which they used to pay for food and drinks.

In August 1990 Soviet Latvia's Bronze Man met Finland's White Man, Roy Varan, when Polis was invited to Helsinki to perform with the Finnish artist. They called their meeting a "summit," and it was a noteworthy occasion, not only because it officially opened the annual arts and culture festival in the city, but also because it took place just a few days before another summit between a "bronze man" and a "white man," Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Sr. The performance was not that different from the original Bronze Man performance: the two artists walked around the city and had dinner in a café, all decked out in white and bronze. They even met with Finland's Prime Minister at the time, Harri Holkeri.

By summer of 1991 it was clear that Latvia's entry into the free market was inevitable. Miervaldis Polis, however, made his entry into the free market slightly earlier than his compatriots, when he set up a private sunflower seed business by the Laima Clock with his artist friend Vilnis Zābers. While the latter was dressed in everyday street clothes selling the regular black sunflower seeds for Rubles, The Bronze Man was festooned with his bronze attire, selling bronze seeds for US Dollars only. Needless to say, Zābers sold more – unlike Polis' they were cheaper, and edible.

Finally, in 1992, after Latvia became an independent country once again, for a few moments the Bronze Man occupied the empty space where Riga's Lenin statue had previously stood, on the day after it was removed from its pedestal near the Intourist Hotel (now the Hotel Latvia). Following that action, the Bronze Man made his final appearance and disappearance – in The Bronze Man Becomes the White Man performance. The original idea for the performance was that Polis, with the help of Zābers, would appear in Riga's Cathedral Square (Doma Laukums) painted bronze, and then undergo the same transformation that his country had – changing from bronze to white, communist to capitalist – by being painted completely white, symbolising his becoming a free man.

The artist recalls that on his way to the square he ran into his friend Jānis Borgs, who was with some colleagues from Sweden who insisted that Polis walk over to the empty platform, from which Lenin had just been removed, and strike a pose just for fun. The artist recalls that this short, spontaneous action caused quite a stir – and even stopped traffic, as buses and cars screeched to a halt, wondering whether a new monument to a Soviet leader had been erected. Following a brief photo shoot, the artist and his entourage returned to Cathedral Square and underwent the pre-planned transformation and finally became a free white man.

The Bronze Man never reappeared in Latvia. Perhaps there was no need for oblique references to the false idolatry and false histories of the Soviet Union, once it was no more. Polis did have an idea to literally bury The Bronze Man concept in one final performance that was unfortunately never realized. The artist had planned to lie in a bronze coffin on the spot where the Lenin statue was. He did, however, appear once more as The Bronze Man in Cleveland, Ohio (USA), in 1999, when he was invited to participate in an artist-in-residency program there.

While the bronze, silver or white buskers are a common sight on the Market Square in Kraków, in front of the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, or on the streets of Montmartre in Paris, one never sees such streets performers in Riga. I like to think that this is a silent nod of deference to Miervaldis Polis, who was Latvia's first busker, a daredevil who appeared in bronze in Riga's city centre at a time when such follies were not only unheard of, but were officially not allowed.

Photos courtesy of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (Latvijas Laikmetīgās Mākslas Centrs)

 by Amy Bryzgel