HISTORY: THE DEVELOPMENT OF A NATIONAL ART
By Neringa Černiauskaitė and Eglė Juocevičiūtė
Lithuania’s cultural development, like that of other countries, was affected by increasingly globalised political and economic processes. The country’s geographic location places it in the sphere of influence of several large countries and cultures; this is why the formation of its national art was complex and late in developing.
The first exhibition of Lithuanian art was held in 1907. It featured work by artists who were later to secure their positions over a period of almost three decades and form the policies and creative direction for art in independent Lithuania during the interwar years.
After the First World War, when Lithuania regained its independence and Poland occupied Vilnius, the capital moved to Kaunas. It was there that the identity of the young country, and its cultural, social, economic and political life, began to take shape. In 1921, a gallery devoted to the work of the famous artist and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was opened. It was renovated in 1944, and renamed the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum.
The thriving art scene in the 1930s gave rise to the Ars group, the country’s most distinctive avant-garde phenomenon, whose members had studied in Paris. These artists rejected the established tradition of illusionist representation, and turned their attention to expressive explorations of style, combined with a novel interpretation of folk art. The influence of the Ars group is still evident in Lithuanian painting today.
World War II and the almost 50-year-long Soviet occupation signalled the beginning of a long, complicated and controversial period in Lithuanian art. The years 1945 to 1956 were perhaps the most difficult and the most repressive. By dictating the themes and the discourse of artistic creation, the Soviet authorities sought to centralise and monopolise the art market. The organisations that were established to implement and monitor it included the Artists’ Association (membership was mandatory for almost all professional artists), the Art Fund, and the state-run Art enterprises (Lith. Dailės kombinatai). In 1940, the Vilnius City Museum became a state museum of culture. In 1941, it was reorganised as the Vilnius State Art Museum, and became the Lithuanian Art Museum in 1966.
After the cult of Stalin was discredited in 1956, the period known as the Thaw set in – artists began actively looking for modern solutions and experimenting in the plastic arts. New groups and exhibition spaces were established: the Art Exhibition Palace was built and opened in the centre of Vilnius in 1967 (it was reorganised as the Contemporary Art Centre in 1992). The Association of Lithuanian Art Photographers was established in 1969 and developed a school of photography which to this day successfully combines the traditions of photojournalism and art photography.
The enforced isolation of the art system through Soviet ideology, which allowed only one form of expression and a limited selection of themes, was responsible for the specific way that Lithuanian art evolved and distanced it from the processes taking place in international art. Only in the late 1980s, together with the birth of the national movement in Lithuania and in many of the other countries of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, did an important turning point occur in art and artistic identity.
On 11 March 1989, the Lithuanian Artists Association (LDS) broke away from the Artists’ Association of the USSR, and a year later, Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union. A new and independent period in the life of the young nation began. The early years of independence yielded experimentation, spontaneity and an abundance of initiatives in art. In 1992, the Art exhibition hall was reorganised into the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), and became the country’s first state-funded contemporary art institution. Directed from its very first days by Kęstutis Kuizinas, the CAC distinguished itself through its high-quality new understanding of art and its representation, as well as for its strategies, offering forms of art never seen before to the local art-going public. A year later, in 1993, the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) was established in Vilnius, financed by the American investor and philanthropist George Soros. It greatly influenced the development of the local art scene, and ‘gathered information, supported contemporary art projects, particularly their dissemination internationally, and published art catalogues and organised annual exhibitions’.[i] In 2000, the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art was reorganised as the Contemporary Art Information Centre (CAIC) under the Lithuanian Art Museum, and later became part of the National Gallery of Art, which opened in 2009. In the 1990s, the CAC, which was actively supported by foreign embassies and received additional funding from the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art, began a broad and high-quality dissemination of international art in Lithuania. In doing so, it introduced a local audience to prominent contemporary artists of that period.
At the same time, the unity and authority of the former Lithuanian Artists’ Association, which had been the only such association during the Soviet period, began to waver. Middle-aged artists, who had abandoned it, and younger artists. who had made a conscious decision not to join it, formed new, more organic, and less bureaucratic associations. In Kaunas, the more radical Post Ars group was formed and became active in 1989. Groups were also formed in Vilnius: 24 (1989), comprised of artists of the middle generation; Angis (1990) is active to this day; and the groups formed by the younger generation, usually students at the Vilnius Academy of Arts – Žalias lapas / Green Leaf (1989), Naujosios komunikacijos mokykla / the New School of Communication (1990), and the group Geros blogybės / Good Evils, initiated by the artist Kęstutis Zapkus, who had come from the United States and had a big influence on young artists. The Good Evils group show in 1992 was the inaugural exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre. The formation of artists’ groups worked as a catalyst both for the disintegration of traditional art institutions and to draw attention to the lack of physical exhibition and creative spaces.
In 1993, the first non-governmental organisation, the Jutempus Interdisciplinary Art Programme, was formed by the artists Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas and the art critic Saulius Grigoravičius. It was housed in the former Railway Workers’ House of Culture and built on the principle of networking and cooperation. Jutempus was the first independent institution to carry out exhibition activities professionally, and to take advantage of the possibilities offered by technological innovations (for example, the internet). In this way, it encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to the possibilities of artistic expression. In 1994, former students of Kęstutis Zapkus, together with other like-minded artists, created the Metastudio organisation, which sought to give creative work a legal framework, and create a new socially supportive artists’ association. The only project presented by Metastudio was Banginio pilvas / The Belly of the Whale, curated by Žilvinas Kempinas, in the former Soldiers’ House of Culture in the North Town (Lith. Šiaurės miestelis) area of Vilnius, which the artists’ association had rented as studios. The project was unique, not only in the site chosen, but also in the way the exhibition itself was presented: the works were in absolute darkness, and the spectators were able to see them by lighting their way and the works with candles given to them on entering the building. From 1998, the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association has continued the work of the Metastudio project, declaring diversity in forms of art and the (at the time) ground-breaking use of new media.
The transition from a planned to a free market economy also encouraged the establishment of private galleries: the Vartai and Lietuvos aidas galleries, which were set up in the early years of independence, are still open today.
After the first wave of transformation, which brought a multitude of changes, the number of spontaneous initiatives declined. The major players, the CAC and the SCCA, began to play an ever more prominent role within the art world. The SCCA, which was led until 1998 by Raminta Jurėnaitė, put on several important annual exhibitions, usually in the CAC. These included Tarp skulptūros ir objekto lietuviškai / Between Sculpture and Object in Lithuanian (1993), Duona ir druska / Bread and Salt (1994), Dėl grožio / For Beauty (1995), Kasdienybės kalba / Everyday Language (1995), Daugiakalbiai peizažai / Multilingual Landscapes (1996) and Sutemos / Twilight (1998).The latter was organised with the CAC, which at the end of the 1990s hosted the exhibition Lietuvos dailė 1989-1999 / Lithuanian Art 1989–1999 and the Baltic Triennial of International Art, which has taken place since 1998. With this, the CAC, without hiding its input, began actively to play a role in the formation of art history. In organising the Lithuanian Art exhibition, which takes place every two years, it attempts to provide an overview of the changing processes in Lithuanian art and systematise them. Meanwhile, the Baltic Triennial of International Art, curated by well-known invited international guests, became the priority and the main event at the CAC. At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the CAC has established itself as the most important art institution, not only in Lithuania but also in the Baltics.
This circumstance partly determined the clear separation between the centre (Vilnius) and the ‘periphery’ (all the other towns) in the Lithuanian art world. Nevertheless, in other Lithuanian towns, usually because of the efforts of active individuals, interesting initiatives have been created and pursued, reflecting a divergence between the centre and the periphery, and its disadvantages and advantages.
From 1993 to 1996, thanks to the initiative shown by Redas Diržys, the first events called Tiesė. Pjūvis / Straight Line. Cut were organised on the streets of Alytus. This later developed into the Alytus Biennial (2005) which declared that ‘biennials can occur anywhere and everywhere, and their too aggrandising spontaneous ‘value’ is a cliché created by ideology, which can only be refuted by implementing it and continually mocking it.’[ii] In 2009, the Alytus Biennial grew into the Alytus Art Strike Biennial, the target of which was the Vilnius European Capital of Culture project and ‘the national establishment as a whole’. [iii] This biennial, which was deliberately established in a region far from the capital, seeks to demolish the established hierarchy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, elite and mass culture, as well as the centre and the periphery.
During the same period, in 1996, the first art festival called Virus was organised in Šiauliai by curators (principally Virginijus Kinčinaitis) from the Šiauliai Art Gallery. From the very beginning, the festival, which takes place every autumn, has been distinguished by its interdisciplinary nature, and its disregard for the boundaries between established and up-and-coming artists: it features avant-garde fashion collections, exhibitions, musical performances, and seminars on theory. In 2002, Virginijus Kinčinaitis founded the Enter media art festival, which takes place every spring. During the festival (at the exhibitions, seminars on theory, and sound art performances), the meeting place of new technologies and the artistic imagination is presented and analysed.
In Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery and the Kaunas Picture Gallery have distinguished themselves by opening their doors to memorable art projects by guest curators and local initiatives. For example, in 2000, the exhibition Intriga-provokacija / Intrigue-Provocation at the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery showcased the work of internationally-renowned artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra, Taras Polataiko and Paweł Althamer. The Kaunas Picture Gallery houses the Fluxus Room, which has a permanent installation by the Japanese artist Ay-O. In 2005, various spaces in Kaunas played host to the Textile International Art Biennial, which has a wide interdisciplinary view of textile art: it combines visual art with contemporary dance and music. In 2013, the Biennial freed itself from the term ‘textile’, and wove itself into the general fabric of contemporary art biennials. In 2015, the main exhibition at the Biennial was curated by the renowned French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud. The aim of the Biennial has become to establish networks among a variety of artists and audiences, and so in 2017, the Biennial was dedicated to the universal and timely question of commemoration and the implications of public spaces throughout the world.
In 2005, the Klaipėda Culture Communication Centre (KCCC) was established in Klaipėda, the only port city in Lithuania. It comprises exhibition spaces (the former Klaipėda Art Exhibition Palace and the Klaipėda Artists’ House), and a wide range of institutional activities: the organisation and production of exhibitions, the maintenance of the web portal www.kulturpolis.lt, and the implementation of a residency programme, as well as many other local and international projects. The active and professional KCCC seeks to enlighten and expand the audience for contemporary art in the coastal region.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, smaller players began to grow on the contemporary art scene in Vilnius. In 2007, a modern commercial building in Vilnius became home to the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Centre. Its mission includes the preservation for posterity of works by Jonas Mekas, George Maciunas, and other Fluxus artists, as well as the organisation of contemporary art projects, working with guest curators, institutions and associations. However, its sparse exhibition programme reduces the visibility of this institution and its importance in the artistic life of the country. Somewhat earlier, the Vartai Gallery, one of the largest private galleries, began exhibiting important international and local art, as well as participating in international art fairs. The contemporary art Ibid Projects Gallery, established in 2007, for the two years of its existence put on several exceptional exhibitions of international art. In 2008, the Tulips&Roses gallery opened in Vilnius, and operated for two years before it moved to Brussels. Tulips&Roses demonstrated exceptionally successful international management, and fostered a close artist-institution working relationship, helping the gallery to create the impression of seamless activity. Still, the lack of a contemporary art market together with its delayed formation is hindering the opening and successful running of private galleries, necessitating the need to look for other kinds of institutions or initiatives.
Awards and prizes are some of the possible points of direct contact between art and commerce. In 2003, Hansabank, now called Swedbank, established a prize for young contemporary artists from the Baltic region. The prize sought not only to encourage artists, but also to foster a closer relationship between the Baltic States. In 2008, several people from the Lithuanian Artists’ Association and a few independent curators established the Young Painter Prize, which sought to recognise the most promising young painters. Within three years, it had become an international competition. However, these initiatives involving art and commerce are rare examples, which in fact only a few representatives of the business world have chosen to follow.
The year 2009 was a banner year in Lithuania because of two special events: Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture, and Lithuania celebrated its millennium. These two large-budget events not only prompted a whole host of unique initiatives, but also paved the way for ongoing projects and even opened the doors of some venues. The Vilnius–European Capital of Culture (VECC) programme provided the occasion for ArtVilnius, the first international art fair in Lithuania, which attracted the participation of galleries from 31 countries. The aim of the ongoing fair is to stimulate the art market and educate the public.
A smaller but no less important initiative was Kultflux, a temporary stage erected on the bank of the River Neris, which in the warmer months of 2008 to 2010, hosted an array of interdisciplinary programmes, including lectures, exhibitions, film screenings, and live music events, attracting large numbers of visitors.
The VECC programme also brought together residents of Vilnius for the Night of Culture and Art in Unexpected Spaces projects, which opened up spaces in Vilnius never seen before by its inhabitants and attempted to bring art to a wider audience. The cyclical and on-going Artscape project, organised by the Vartai Gallery, which shows contemporary art, together with the Cinema Spring and Vilnius Jazz festivals, was also notable. Artscape hosted monthly events that featured the brightest stars in the visual arts, film and jazz, from former, current and future European capitals of culture. At the same time, the events encouraged a creative dialogue with Lithuanian artists.
The most important event of these two decades was the opening of the National Gallery of Art, a division of the Lithuanian Art Museum, in the former Museum of the Revolution. This multifunctional cultural centre has a permanent exhibition that shows works of 20th and 21st-century Lithuanian art. Temporary exhibitions usually feature Lithuanian and international art, in an attempt to show Lithuanian art in a wider cultural context. The National Gallery of Art also works with various independent initiatives, by organising projects that are presented in the multifunctional auditorium and in the general gallery spaces.
In 2009, the long-awaited new building of the Vilnius Academy of Arts opened its doors. The design and innovation centre was given the witty name of Titanikas (Titanic). The building not only provided space for several departments of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, but also the opportunity, previously unavailable, for students and staff to exhibit their work in the spacious exhibition halls.
For one year, Vilnius was flooded with a stream of projects of various kinds and quality, although it also made possible the implementation of strategically important long-term projects.
After the multitude of events in 2009, single, often individually-motivated, projects were put into practice. In 2010, the Fluxus Ministry was established in an abandoned Ministry of Health building in Vilnius and relocated to Kaunas in 2012. The ‘ministry’ which was set up to promote the Fluxus movement, often utilised by people in Lithuania for alternate purposes, took under its wing wildly different forms of creative expression – from the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association to films by Jonas Mekas shown in the basement and a mini roller skating rink.
The MO Museum, which began its activities in 2010 as the Modern Art Centre, was set up and supported by Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus, collectors of modern and contemporary art, is the most ambitious private initiative of the last 20 years. Working with professional art specialists, they have already built up a representative collection of modern and contemporary art from the 1960s to the present day. They plan to make the collection accessible to the public by constructing a building for the museum with their own money in the city centre. They intend to donate the building and the collection to the state, and in so doing revive the lost tradition of patrons supporting the arts in Lithuania.
In 2011, the Vilnius Academy of Arts opened a new branch far from the capital, the Nida Art Colony (NMK). It is known for its international residency programme, the first of its kind in Lithuania. The Nida Art Colony attracts artists from all over the world, who find inspiration in aspects of local culture and nature for their work. The Nida Art Colony hosts exhibitions, international seminars and conferences, and in so doing places a new marker in the cultural geography of Lithuania.
In mid-2012, an innovative project-based interdisciplinary and para-academic educational programme called Rupert started in Vilnius. In 2013, it expanded its mission to include an international residency programme and a public gallery. Each year, Rupert chooses a small number of participants, whose proposed projects – from shows to the architecture of ideas – are developed with help from tutors and visiting lecturers from various countries.
Over the last few years, curators and artists of the younger generation who have appeared on the contemporary art scene have become known for their proactive approach and their close cooperation with established institutions, such as the Contemporary Art Centre, the National Gallery of Art, the Vartai Gallery, and with institutions of higher learning – the Vilnius Academy of Arts and Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. Cooperative projects that have evolved into long-term initiatives include The Gardens exhibition space (2012-2014), housed in the unusual space of the Planetarium in Vilnius, which kicked off with several highly conceptual art projects, and in 2014 organised five projects with Art in General in the project and exhibition space Musée Miniscule in New York. The Vytautas Magnus Gallery 101 in Kaunas (2008) and the contemporary art bookshop [six chairs] BOOKS (2012-2015, 2017-present) has reimagined the traditional concept of a bookshop. In 2012, the art scholar Ūla Tornau and the artist Žilvinas Landzbergas initiated a project space called Malonioji 6 (the building’s street address). The administration and programme coordination of the space was turned over in 2014 to the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association, which in 2016 moved the work over to a new location, also named for its street address – Sodų 4. The space is dedicated to the projects of the members of the Association, but also to cooperation with Lithuanian and international artists completing residencies in Lithuanian, and to thought-provoking outsider projects.
The activities of non-profit galleries and artist-run spaces have also intensified. The non-profit gallery POST, established in Kaunas in 2013, collaborates closely with working artists and instructors, as well as students, and also participates in international projects, focusing on the development and dissemination of performance art. The non-profit gallery si:said, established in Klaipėda in 2014, seeks to present the work of local artists and those raised and working outside of the port city and to highlight the most relevant art processes active in Lithuania today. There are several artist-run spaces that opened in Vilnius in 2016: the artists’ ‘day care centre’ Autarkia which is open to performative visual, musical and gastronomic art happenings; Studium P (a pop-up project space), which together with the Juodas šuo [Black Dog] bookshop, reimagines the concept of an exhibition space in a private residence; and a project space titled Editorial that hosts the editorial desks of the daily online art magazines Artnews.lt and Echogonewrong.com, and also operates as a space for shows, talks and activities.
In recent years, new active players have arrived on the commercial gallery scene. From 2013, they have become more active participants at international art fairs, presenting Lithuanian artists. The contemporary painting gallery Meno niša [Art Niche] active in Vilnius since 2005 has gradually expanded its roster of artists to include conceptual and interdisciplinary artists. The only commercial contemporary art gallery in Kaunas, Meno parkas [Art Park] (2007), primarily represents painters working in Kaunas. Younger contemporary painters are professionally and successfully represented by The Rooster Gallery, which has had a virtual presence since 2008 hosted exhibitions in various spaces in Vilnius and worked with exhibition spaces throughout Europe. In 2016, the gallery moved into a space in the Vilniaus Vartai shopping centre for a period of time. AV17, established in 2011 as a contemporary jewellery gallery, has recently expanded its profile by exhibiting the work of the younger generation of artists, who in one way or another incorporate sculptural objects into their work.
[i] Skaidra Trilupaitytė, Lolita Jablonskienė, ‘Šiuolaikinio meno kontekstai Lietuvoje ir pasaulyje’ (Contexts of Contemporary Art in Lithuania and the World), in ŠMC – 15 metų (The CAC is 15 Years Old), Vilnius: Šiuolaikinio meno centras, 2007, p.16-18.
[ii] Redas Diržys, ‘Apie Alytaus bienalę’ (About the Alytus Biennale): http://www.alytusbiennial.com/component/content/article/9-bienalelt/60-apie-meno-streik-alytuje.html (viewed on 04.07.2012)
Shifts in Lithuanian Contemporary Art Practises and Ideas
The most significant changes in the Lithuanian art scene began in the late 1980s, together with new developments in politics that led to the reestablishment of independence in 1990 and the reorganisation of the art field. At the time (from 1987), musicians and composers began to put into practice new, Fluxus-inspired[i] ideas by organising festivals of both conceptual art and happenings in various cities with students from the Vilnius State Institute of Art (renamed the Vilnius Academy of Arts in 1990). Shortly afterwards, the first independent artists’ groups were established and their members began to bring new forms of contemporary art into the practice of Lithuanian art. The Žalias lapas / Green Leaf group (established in 1988 in Vilnius), consisting of musicians and art students at the Vilnius State Institute of Art, organised actions of a humanistic character in public spaces that combined visual, audio and performance elements. The Post Ars group (established in 1989 in Kaunas) became known for its land art and actions on industrial sites, as well as controversial installations that highlighted social and existential issues. The establishment of the first artists’ groups marked the weakened Soviet institutional and ideological system which had controlled the arts, as well as the challenge to it by artists, inexorably changing the traditional understanding of art.
In fact, some artists from various disciplines were already guided by the principles of contemporary art. In the early 1980s, Mindaugas Navakas, a pioneer of conceptual sculpture in Lithuania, who is still active today, produced large-format objects that interpreted geometric and technological forms. In these works, he highlighted the importance of a specific location and the spatial context in viewing a work of art. Through this, he formed a new vision of art for public spaces. His innovative approach influenced the development of the concept of sculpture in the expanded field in Lithuania.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of photographers, who embodied in their work a turning point in art photography, initiated the appearance of postmodern tendencies in this area. This was due to the efforts of Vitas Luckus, a pioneer of conceptual photography in Lithuania, Algirdas Šeškus, and Alfonsas Budvytis. At that time, these photographers were working on the margins of the important and acclaimed ‘Lithuanian school of photography’, represented by such classics of modernism as Antanas Sutkus, Aleksandras Macijauskas, and Romualdas Rakauskas, among others.
An important figure in the context of international contemporary art is the godfather of American avant-garde film Jonas Mekas, who is of Lithuanian descent and who lives and works in New York. His rare visits to Soviet Lithuania in the 1970s and 1980s were of political and artistic importance. His poetry and experimental films inspired Lithuanian video art in the late 1980s and influenced those artists who chose film as their medium.
After Lithuania re-established its independence in 1990, artists began to participate freely and directly in the global art world. Fundamental changes took place in the work of the younger generation of artists who were completing their studies in painting and sculpture. Almost all of them were studying at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, the only art school in Lithuania, where at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, local academic traditions were still strong, and the ideas of contemporary art were almost unknown. Young artists ‘discovered’ them on their own, studying the information about new Western art that was available to them and looking around outside of Lithuania when they travelled abroad for a shorter or longer time to participate in exhibitions and to work in creative centres. Thus, the work by Lithuanian pioneers in the field of contemporary art is known not only for its innovativeness, but also for its individuality, in terms of the subject matter addressed and the artistic language used.[ii]
The 1990s were marked by the shift from medium-specific to discourse-specific art practices. New forms of art, such as objects, installation, art action, performance, contemporary photography, collaboration and new media-based art practice, as well as the medium of moving image and film that was popular in the late 1990s, highlighted the critical relationship of contemporary art with social, political and cultural phenomena. The artists addressed the body, daily life, the problematic relationship between art and life, institutional criticism, and especially questions of post-Soviet (artistic) identity and (cultural/collective) memory.
The central themes, particularly in the late 1990s, of Deimantas Narkevičius’s conceptual objects, (video) installations and films were and remain the memory of the utopia of modernism.[iii] Narkevičius examines it by combining two perspectives: individual oral stories and history as a validated discourse, by reworking and interpreting (by personalisation) various found footage: documentary film that formed a collective memory, feature films and literary narratives that had become rooted in the post-Soviet consciousness, as well as works by other artists. The art practice of Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, which often begins with archival research, is based on collaborative participation. Their complex work investigates the urban environment, architectural developments, and cultural and technological heritage, raising questions about community, citizenship, and economic and environmental consciousness. Discourses on institutional critique and national identity are inherent in the work of Artūras Raila, who works closely with various specific social groups and subcultures. By giving them the freedom to engage in their regular activities in the field of art, he highlights the role of creativity in an everyday social setting, and questions the divergence between the institution of art and life. The exploration and re-evaluation of the local context, its history and national identity, are characteristic of the films and installations by Audrius Novickas and Gintaras Makarevičius.
The work of Eglė Rakauskaitė in the mid-1990s stood out because of her attempt to re-examine issues of female identity. She worked with materials that were unconventional in Lithuania at the time, such as human hair, jasmine petals, honey, lard, and chocolate. Sensuality and intimacy became intertwined in her bodily objects, performances and installations. In her later work, an intimate look at a person through the lens of a camera became a tool to reflect issues of social phenomena and universal existence. The question of human nature, presented in hypertrophied constructs of death and eros in large-format photographs, drawings, sculptures and films, became for Svajonė and Paulius Stanikas the focus of their creative work. Jurga Barilaitė explores the construct of femininity and uses various artistic media to confront the dominance of the male gaze in the social and cultural environment. In his installations, films and performances, Evaldas Jansas raises questions about radical and abject aspects of social reality and morality in art, by exposing social states that ‘normal’ society does not want to see: an ambivalent existence and cracks in the social system. Žilvinas Kempinas, who moved to New York to live and work at the end of the 1990s, uses magnetic tape with coded information on it, light and currents of air to create installations in which he explores the aesthetics of movement and the optical experience of space.
Many of these artists, whose work is associated with the emergence of contemporary art in Lithuania, established themselves on the international scene at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Because of the geographically expanded postcolonial discourse, the international art community became interested in East European art and began organising exhibitions that explored it in the context of Western tradition. In 1999, Lithuania for the first time had its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2002, the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius renewed the vision of the Baltic Triennial: it initiated a collaboration with international guest curators, and it has transformed from a regional to an international platform for contemporary art. Lithuanian artists took part in contemporary art biennials in Berlin, Istanbul and São Paolo, and in Manifesta, and then a little later in the first decade of the 21st century in documenta (Germany), Skulptur Projekte Münster, the Guangzhou Triennial, and elsewhere.
The younger generation of artists who appeared on the art scene in the late 1990s continued the prevailing themes and modes of expression while maintaining an investigative strategy and emphasising the period of fluctuation/actuality. The object of their analysis was the thought processes involved in attempting to adapt to a capitalist society, as well as new social and cross-cultural ties – the discourse of encountering the Other. In the films and installations of Kristina Inčiūraitė, the female gaze and worldview become the central object of analysis, and a tool for the (de)construction of reality, utopia and fiction. The art practice of Laura Garbštienė, who delves into multicultural contexts, is marked by her understanding of her identity as a woman artist and a woman through a foreign culture, language and role. Through their interest in language, identity and stereotypes in post-Soviet popular culture, the artists Laura Stasiulytė and Paulina Eglė Pukytė explore the transitory situations and states of shifting symbolic status, adaptation and knowledge of the Other. Using multi-media, Dainius Liškevičius looks at socio-cultural phenomena through the prism of irony and the absurd, while not shying away from poking fun at himself and stereotypical beliefs entrenched in culture; in recent years, he has been developing complex installations of an archival nature, experimenting with the possibilities of constructing an exposition creating several parallel narratives.
At the turn of the century, there was a tendency to question the medium of painting. After the universally declared ‘death of painting’, it again gained importance through a radical rethinking of the medium.[iv] Materials and modes of expression unfamiliar to traditional painting were used, with the aim of conveying a conceptual message. Both older and younger artists moved in this direction: Jonas Gasiūnas, Eglė Ridikaitė, Patricija Jurkšaitytė, Agnė Jonkutė, Ričardas Nemeikšis, and others. Jonas Gasiūnas, one of the most influential artists in this regard in Lithuania, uses a technique of painting and drawing with the smoke of a candle, which creates a cinematographic effect on the canvas, and a conceptual juxtaposition of fiction and reality. He explores the themes of personal, historical time and its changes, as well as the processes of obliterating and reclaiming memory. The artist Eglė Ridikaitė chooses not to paint on canvas but instead uses large-format industrial textiles, and ‘paints’ with aerosol paint, emphasising the flatness of the image. Patricija Jurkšaitytė paints historical pictures taken from poor quality images in books, eliminating the figures in the works, thus proposing a contemporary perspective on classic images.
The emerging generation of painters who view painting as a representational medium, explore questions of self-reflection (Andrius Zakarauskas), collective and personal memory (Eglė Ulčinskaitė and Eglė Karpavičiūtė), and social constructs of gender (Alina Melnikova and Adomas Danusevičius).
The boundaries between documentary and fiction and the dilemma of the medium as message are explored by the artists who work in photography and film or video. Gintautas Trimakas, who from the late 1980s has worked exclusively with analogue photography techniques, continues to develop in his work the idea of photography of becoming ‘something else’ other than an image, going deeper into the technological specificity of this medium. He formed a new approach to photography, together with like-minded artists Alvydas Lukys and Remigijus Treigys, who are interested in concepts of the displacement and prosaicism of time and objects. Darius Žiūra constantly records, selects and composes visual information in his photography and moving images; like an anthropologist, he creates portraits of people, objects and places, touching on sensitive issues and maintaining a humanistic approach.[v] Indrė Šerpytytė uses photography as a mode of expression of emotion and inherited memory in her works that analyse history and trauma.
After Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, many more opportunities were available to the younger generation of artists to begin or continue their studies in other countries and in doing so, to integrate more quickly into the international contemporary art scene. Some artists, both those had begun their careers in the early 1990s after the reestablishment of independence, and younger ones, began to be represented by private galleries in Western Europe (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere) or the USA. Local private art galleries, such as Vartai, Tulips&Roses, and The Rooster Gallery, began working with promising young artists. Today, Lithuanian artists actively participate in the dynamic international art field – in various networks of institutions, curators, gallerists, and artists, validating their activities in the various spaces of this field.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there was a clear aspiration to articulate the deepening relationship between artistic strategies and academic analysis and its parallel use in diverse fields of art. Depending on the country or the language (of the academic school) and the particular field of art, the terms that define the analysis of art have not become fixed to this day, although the elements that unite the projects encompassing this phenomenon are: a methodology rooted in the practice of art and a work of art as the result of inquiry. This tendency was also evident in the Lithuanian art scene and assumed various forms. The central thematic field explored in artistic projects, compared with the 1990s, is a more complex analysis of the active identity of the contemporary ideological, economic, and cultural condition. This analysis is conducted using methods proposed by the academic fields of history, sociology, anthropology and psychology, combining them with interdisciplinary and staged artistic notions. Eglė Budvytytė explores how a person’s intellectual and emotional relationship with the environment is construed and defined, and the ways to experience that environment. With partially staged and choreographed sound, radio transmission interventions in public spaces and films, she fuses that which is recognizable, familiar with that which belongs to the sphere of imagination. The films and video installations of Emilija Škarnulytė are known for their construction and deconstruction of an anthropocentric landscape, coupled with partly staged performance. Gerda Paliušytė is interested in the limits, shifts and delays in representations of identity, and the ways in which these are determined by politics, social needs and time. Žilvinas Landzbergas in his work combines archetypal elements and current social reflections, weaving all of this together in experiential spatial narratives. Arūnas Gudaitis compares everyday occurrences to do with politics, history and art history, occurrences that encompass consciousness and wit.
An important aspect of the contemporary condition is the influence of new technologies on our surroundings and our understanding of our surroundings. So, there are many more artists examining this issue in their work: they experiment with capabilities presented by these new technologies, and offer alternative and critical possibilities for their use in art. The work of the art duo Pakui Hardware spans the relationship between materiality, technology, and economy. They are interested in how technology shapes today’s economy and the physical realm, including the human body. Robertas Narkus, in his multi-layered work, analyses enthusiasm and pessimism that is connected to the development of education, technology and economics. He applies concepts of artificial intelligence and technological innovations of an ‘augmented reality’ in an artistic context. Ignas Krunglevičius explores power structures formed by new technologies, and the mechanisms of the workings of the human psyche.
One can also notice a renewed tendency toward criticising institutions. Augustas Serapinas’s interventions resurrect the historic or social and institutionally structural aspects of (art) institutions that have been forgotten or that there is a desire to forget. A dialogue with individuals working within the institutions is a stimulus for the work, and this often results in the creation of space for further dialogue. Juozas Laivys is concerned with the search for and dissolution of authorship, institutional power, the economic value of art, and the boundary between art and life. He seeks to delegitimise the art work as an object and commodity, exploiting the level of reality that at first glance is insignificant and imperceptible. In his work, Tomas Daukša examines closed and hybrid systems, and in so doing he deconstructs scientific logic and the imperceptible manipulation in everyday reality of the cyclical nature of cause and effect.
Alongside these practices, we see a strengthening of artistic research strategies that work in opposition to scientific and academic methods. This trend elevates intuition, allusion and mystery as values in a work of art.[vi] This tendency is tied to the curatorial practice of Raimundas Malašauskas that is outstanding in both the local (Lithuanian) and international contexts. A good example of his practice is the international exhibition that he curated entitled oO, which represented Lithuania and Cyprus at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The exhibition was not considered a national entry, it was presented in an atypical space in Venice, and it did not identify a unified concept, but in creating a partially automatic model of the exhibition, called a ‘sequencer’, it generated and fractured the concepts in that very space. In this way, the exhibition worked as a radical deconstruction of the rules of the Venice Biennale, one that sought to find an alternative. Several Lithuanian artists who work in this way – Elena Narbutaitė, Gintaras Didžiapetris, and Liudvikas Buklys – were invited to participate. These artists propose a different, ostensibly more open, not completely defined relationship with the world and an affinity among the things, events, news, ways of thinking and other phenomena that exist within it. They base the language of art in sensitivity and an attentiveness to what at first glance might seem inconsequential: they are concerned with microhistories and microfeelings that are born when one delves into the connection between intellectual and material heritage, modes of production, rhythms of daily life and life styles.
[i] In Soviet Lithuania, Fluxus ideas first appeared in music. In the 1960s the musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis corresponded with his childhood friend George Maciunas (Jurgis Mačiūnas), an artist and the founder of the Fluxus movement. In his letters, Maciunas wrote about the ideas of this anti-artistic movement and sent recordings of Fluxus performances and Fluxus instructions. Landsbergis used this material in public presentations on modern music.
[ii] Lolita Jablonskienė, ‘Dešimtmečio fragmentai’ (Fragments of the Decade), in Lietuvos dailė 1989-1999: dešimt metų (Lithuanian Art 1989–1999: Ten Years), exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, 1999, p.15-19.
[iii] Boris Buden, ‘In Memory of Utopia or In the Utopia of Memory. An art that interpellates subjects as individuals’, in Deimantas Narkevičius. The Unanimous Life, Ed. by Chus Martínez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2008.
[iv] Milda Žvirblytė, ‘Keletas pastabų apie naująją lietuvių tapybą’ (A Few Remarks on New Lithuanian Painting), in Kultūros barai, No 8/9, 2001, p.63-66; Milda Žvirblytė, ‘Contemporary Lithuanian Painting: From Projection Point to the Shine’, in Studija(Latvia), No. 72, 2010, p. 46-53.
[v] Anders Kreuger, ‘Selected Takes’ (on the exhibition of Darius Žiūra), 2010. Source: http://www.antjewachs.de/Darius_Ziura_-_Selekted_Takes.html
[vi] Chus Martínez, ‘How a Tadpole Becomes a Frog. Belated Aesthetics, Politics, and Animated Matter: Toward a Theory of Artistic Research’, in The Book of Books, dOCUMENTA (13) Catalog 1/3, ed. by documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH, texts by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Ayreen Anastas, Franco Berardi, Iwona Blazwick, Rene Gabri, Dario Gamboni, Pierre Huyghe, Marta Kuzma, Raimundas Malasauskas, Chus Martínez, Kitty Scott, Andrea Viliani u.a., Kassel, 2012, p. 46-57.