Adomas Narkevičius, Monika Kalinauskaitė
Writing an introduction to a guidebook is a peculiar task. Such a text should, in a way, give a tour of what is important and relevant while, simultaneously, pointing towards what ultimately failed to fit within the guide’s itinerary. Usually, it is a simple journey from start to finish, resembling a straight line rather than a knot or a spiral. Ever since MoMa curator Alfred Barr Jr. made his famous chart depicting the historical development of modern art, the linear portrayal of art history has become a standardized explanatory tool. However, as we have witnessed time and again, a variety of presents can change the past, too. Today we read a slightly different history of Lithuanian visual art, in which new institutions, spaces, achievements and hopes have emerged in the time since the last edition of the Lithuanian Culture Guide.
In October 2018, the MO Museum finally opened its doors. It realized the vision of a modern museum, which aims to attract the audience to exhibitions designed to create a relationship between modern art and the public through the use of interactive elements and promotional solutions. The launch of the MO Museum, it seems, thus far had a greater impact on art consumption habits and the perception of patronage than on art scene development. A similar shift has followed the establishment of projects fostering links between business and art or bringing young emerging artists into the market, including active platforms that contribute to shaping the artistic scene. Such projects include the Young Painter Prize and the Young Designer Prize (since 2009 and 2011, respectively), the annual JCDecaux Prize for emerging artists (since 2016), or ArtVilnius, the first and only contemporary art fair in Lithuania (since 2009).
As the present decade approached, new large-scale initiatives of cultural promotion and education emerged, often implemented by adapting successful international models. Gallery Weekends in Vilnius and Kaunas have been galvanizing the exhibition spaces of these cities since 2016, but foreign collectors are yet to be actively involved. One could even assert that, unlike their international counterparts, these gallery festivals in Lithuania, rather than focusing on sales, have thus far focused on visibility which is a priority in the still-emerging market. Also noteworthy are initiatives such as the ‘SuMenėk’ cultural public transport routes or the popular Museum Night, which provide incentives for the public to participate in the activities of art institutions in playful ways free of charge.
Perhaps the most prominent highlight of the past few years has been the significant international acclaim won by Lithuanian visual artists. In 2019, the Lithuanian national pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale was awarded with the Biennale‘s main prize – the Golden Lion. The Opera ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’, by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, expanded the understanding of Lithuanian contemporary art and confirmed that today we are no longer observers but rather active participants in global phenomena: even as culprits and hostages of climate change or debilitating labour conditions, we are still bodies basking under one sun. In the same year, Emilija Škarnulytė’s work ‘t 1/2’ was awarded the Future Generation Art Prize, probably the most significant international award for young artists. Her work transports you to various locations – from the Etruscan cemetery to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant or the CERN laboratory in Switzerland; the ideological constructions of the past are examined under the lens of the Anthropocene era. Comparing both of these works with the equally well-received Lithuanian and Cyprus pavilion ‘oO’ (2015), curated by Raimundas Malašauskas, we could venture to posit a recognisable shift from microstructures and intellectual coding to a more direct dialogue with the world around us.
However, such shifts are only possible in a clearly defined linear trajectory from one point to another. And how should one write about Lithuanian visual art, knowing that its temporality does not follow this pattern in the slightest? It is not defined by a single firmly assembled “scene”, later historically renamed into “a movement”; and newly emerging names, ideas, and practices do not displace already existing ones. The heterogeneous processes of Lithuanian art, overlapping layers of seemingly incompatible periods and practices, form that paradoxical bond which represents the totality of the phenomena supporting the vitality and dynamism of Lithuanian visual arts. It is this bond which becomes the reference point of our updated guide. The current Lithuanian art scene thrives in what philosopher Ernst Bloch, at the beginning of the 20th century, referred to as “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”1 – the coexistence of the past and the present in a sometimes tense modernity. Therefore, reflecting on the latest Lithuanian art phenomena and processes, we would like to imagine this edition of the guide as a restless wandering across various coexisting entities and interwoven time registers that neither permit us to start the story from the beginning, nor to leave decisively behind us that which existed before any of the recent “turns”.
Having abandoned synchronized time, we can take a step back from today and move to the first half of the previous decade. This is a time when the prospects of emerging artists hinge on gaining access to the established institutions of contemporary art – whether it be the Contemporary Art Centre, the National Gallery of Art, among other exhibition spaces in the country’s major cities. Among the most visible artists, the representatives of post-conceptualism remain prominent (Liudvikas Buklys, Gintaras Didžiapetris, Antanas Gerlikas, Darius Mikšys), as do the works of artists such as Elena Narbutaitė or Laura Kaminskaitė – intellectual, dense objects and movements and the subtle ciphers within them. Reflection on these institutional relationships is also taking place – the exhibition dismantling performance by Gediminas G. Akstinas, Antanas Gerlikas, and Tomas Požemis at the National Gallery of Art in 2014 or the ironic interventions of the Coolturistės, who are openly opposed to the politics of contemporary art institutions of the time. During this period, artists generally avoid representational practices: the scene is dominated by intertextuality (inherited from recent art history), restrained abstraction, and concealed political references. In the context of these tendencies, Rūtė Merk (Rūtenė Merkliopaitė) stands out with her early painting – the artist exploits the act of painting to create a network of visual signs and references connected with ideas that go beyond the traditional boundaries of painting. Spaces for collaboration are mostly non-institutional during this period. Alongside the Gardens project space, established by Gerda Paliušytė and Inesa Pavlovskaitė, one recalls Robertas Narkus’s experimental engineering camp eeKulgrinda in Kartena in 2014-2018, and various reading groups: Justina Zubė’s community initiative ‘Santa Fe’, or Eglė Kulbokaitė and Dorota Gawęda’s ‘Young Girl Reading Group’ which eventually takes on an independent performative form.
In the late 2010s, these relatively clearly delineated trends begin to break down into smaller units. Informal links of mutual support and cooperation between artists not only strengthen but also eventually acquire spatial forms in informal exhibition areas or study and event platforms. The visual art scene is increasingly shaped by private galleries (Tulips & Roses, Vartai, Rooster Gallery, AV17, Meno niša, Meno parkas); project spaces run by artists and curators (The Gardens, Malonioji 6, Autarkia, Editorial, Sodų 4, Montos Tattoo, Atletika, Studium P, and others); and alternative education programs and residency centers (Rupert, Nida Art Colony, Kaunas Artists’ House, Druskininkai Art Residence). Artistic practices also take on a variety of hybrid forms that are not identifiable with a single turn or direction. For example, in the works by Lina Lapelytė, Eglė Budvytytė, or Kira Nova (formerly known as Ieva Misevičiūtė), a political and social stance overlaps with a multidisciplinary approach to performance. Sometimes such intersections take on a form closer to post-Internet art (Pakui Hardware, Ignas Krunglevičius). Other artists such as Vytautas Viržbickas, Žilvinas Landzbergas, or Vytenis Burokas continue – with their material, form, and visual narrative – the tradition of expanded sculpture, initiated by Mindaugas Navakas and Gediminas Akstinas. However, many of these artists refuse to “profess” a unified artistic doctrine or limit themselves to the fixed principles of a single medium, form, or style. Often they rather play with these categories as opportunities to keep their distance from one or another direction or position.
These dynamics – and, for a small state, this unusually frequent international acclaim – are determined by the specific dialectic of distance (individuality) and community.2 Although it is not easy to provide generalizations about the youngest current generation of artists, it can be said that it is distance and interconnectedness that have become particularly significant in recent years. Many young artists are not permanently based in Lithuania, often graduating from higher education institutions, or even starting their careers, abroad. Geographical or psychological distance enables these artists to find manifold ways of actualizing their sensitivity: ascetic video stories by Agnė Jokšė tell us, through a personal story, about wider LGBTQ+ community issues (‘Dear friend,’, 2019); Milda Januševičiūtė’s video works examine the imposition of various distances between a physically and psychologically vulnerable person and the conventional mechanisms of the healthcare system (‘hope it finds you well’, 2018); and Beatričė Mockevičiūtė’s ephemeral installations draw our attention to layers of experience that are suppressed in our everyday lives (‘Asukas’, 2018 onwards). Meanwhile, other distances are disappearing: Anastasia Sosunova’s material gestures create the “folklore of contemporaneity” and look for novel forms of coexistence; almost comic juxtapositions, in the installations by Ona Juciūtė, allow things to speak “for themselves”; and the works by Viltė Bražiūnaitė and Tomas Sinkevičius interlace “natural” reality with the politics of virtuality. Andrej Polukord’s performative parodies create a parallel institutional reality, while the artist duo of Monika Janulevičiūtė and Antanas Lučiūnas weave the forms of performance, object, video, and curatorial practice into a single politically engaged cultural body. These artists’ path to visibility has also changed: more artistic processes stem from smaller initiatives and spaces before migrating to major institutions. Programmes of museums, galleries, and art centres increasingly include grass-roots initiatives developed by artists or independent curators which lay emphasis on the need for equal rights, social awareness, interdependence and community. On the other hand, the aforementioned heterogeneity of the small, dense art scene and its decisive contrasts problematize the understanding of community. It is a paradoxical and asynchronous community: informal connections and influential figures of Lithuanian contemporary art history (such as Raimundas Malašauskas, Deimantas Narkevičius, Artūras Raila, Eglė Rakauskaitė) are often both still active artists and the components of the context in which these novel practices emerge. The latter are often in an indirect dialogue with recent Lithuanian visual art history. Emerging artists form micro-communities which present themselves in smaller or larger spaces and often in creative initiatives which receive international prior to national attention. The small distance in time and space between artists, and the relatively non-hierarchical structure of the community, ensure constant renewal, self-reflection, self-irony, and critical stance – the asynchronous elasticity and vitality of the Lithuanian visual arts ecosystem.
As we can see from the phenomena discussed, the diversity of the Lithuanian visual art scene is particularly intense. Its particularity is shaped by two prominent factors. The first is the depth of artistic thinking and creativity inherited through the educational framework and a shared contemporary art tradition, which is formed in an environment where horizontal expansion through market and communication channels still has rather limited opportunities, but the habit of rethinking both one’s own artistic work and one’s own role is deeply rooted. The second factor is the concentration of information, which accumulates due to the fact that those international trends which reach the country promptly do not disperse as quickly as, for instance, they might do in the world’s major cities. Cultural saturation and an unrushed tempo of art circulation gives artists the time necessary to develop distinct projects in both form and content. Fields of artistic interest, which would otherwise remain separate, here combine productively due to the unavoidable close proximity between local artists, curators and thinkers. This renders it impossible to isolate the image of Lithuanian visual arts in a single direction or a single moment in time, even if that time was “the present”.
The withdrawal from linear time helps us to perceive all the more clearly that today is not the endpoint. Leaving our introductory text, we travel along the spectrum of time to Algirdas Šeškus’s photographs, which left historical signification aside (‘TV’ series, 1975-1985) and themselves became independent events, or Ieva Rojūtė’s seemingly timeless folkloric truisms expressed through contemporary painting. Our imagination and experience is mobilized by these very paradoxes – not much stranger than the genre of guidebook introductions.