An Archival Impulse or Touristic Voyeurism? 'After Leaving | Before Arriving' – Kaunas Biennial 2019

July 30, 2019
Author Karolina Rimkutė
Published in Review from Lithuania

This year, Kaunas Biennial invites its visitors to explore modes of liminality and migration in various geographical and historical contexts. According to the exhibition’s official announcement, these modes are regarded not only as anticipatory, contemplative states of doubt, but also as “an invitation to act, both individually and collectively, in order to find one’s place in the world.” [1] The internationally co-curated environment is a fertile soil for a broad range of problematics to develop organically from the outset based on the diverse geopolitical biographies of the six biennial curators, and influenced by their accounts and experiences growing up, studying or working in Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. The curators have invited almost 30 artists hailing from various different parts of the world. Among these artists are names like Bas Jan Ader, Laura Grisi, Jasmina Cibic, Céline Condorelli, Francesca Grilli, Ghenadie Popescu and Balint Szombathy.

Usually held every two years during fall, the 12th Kaunas Biennial is happening throughout the summer this year. And while the timing of such an urban art project may seem perfect, it appears as though the organisation of it all has been rather rushed. One cannot ignore the flaws made due to an obvious lack of time: even several weeks after the opening, the biennial has been teeming with technical malfunctions resulting in an inability to see quite a few of the works that were supposed to be exhibited at that time – a tremendous pity. Surely all large-scale projects are difficult to carry out smoothly without any setbacks, even when deadlines are brought forward pushed backwards and the curators encounter and work with each other for the first time. Nevertheless, these technical issues have really left a bad first impression. Perhaps during a second visit, all of the pieces that were previously unavailable will be on display (personally, I really hope to be able to see at least Deimantas Narkevičius’s “Solaris”). Yet, having in mind that the biennial seeks to attract visitors from Kaunas – that is, the imagined target audience en route in good traveller’s spirit – the technical problems attest to one simple fact: if no objects today, then no visitors tomorrow.

Certain curatorial choices of the biennial are indeed quite interesting. On first glance, it gives an impression that the viewer is not supposed to be identified with a simple tourist; one needs to hunt for the artworks themselves, and although searching slightly complicates the process, it is nonetheless worthwhile. A rather vaguely-defined exhibition map indicates approximate locations where one can find the work of a particular artist. The refusal to map and number each piece separately has been a tactic increasingly employed in the contemporary art world: to turn one’s visit to unmapped exhibitions into more of an individual or personal experience whereby one’s journey to an artwork is as important as the “peak” moment they encounter it. Moreover, it becomes difficult to simply pass by these works without inspecting them more closely. One is constantly accompanied by an odd feeling of doubt and uncertainty, which in turn stimulates further contemplation. On the other hand, the officially organised biennial tours or the guided-only artwork visits definitely turn visitors into tourists, just as much as they compromise the biennial’s initial concept.

Mykola Ridnyi, Lost Baggage, 2019. Photo: Martynas Plepys

Mykola Ridnyi, Lost Baggage, 2019. Photo: Martynas Plepys

A liminal state of being is usually experienced while travelling and is best characterised by an individual’s perception of being “neither here, nor there”. However, Kaunas Biennial suggests exploring liminality in broader contexts. For example, in and through the transformation of Kaunas city’s identity: according to the exhibition’s announcement, the biennial seeks to delve into the journey through the complicated history of this town, which then works as a metaphor [2]. From 1919 to 1940, when Vilnius was occupied by Poland, Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania. This simultaneously solemn and traumatic period is still being used to introduce the city even today. Although Vilnius and Kaunas have been competing, quarrelling, using jeering slurs towards one another for the last couple of decades, this only proves their withstanding connectedness. This connection between Vilnius and Kaunas has appeared to interest German artist Christian Jankowski, who attempts to open a dialogue between those driving from one city to the other through the dual carriageway by putting interrupting messages on nearby billboards to break with the usual road monotony. Such intercity relations are also highlighted by Robertas Narkus’s twin-installation ‘Trust’ (‘Pasitikėjimas’). Two identical sheds constructed from the Vilnius National Airport runway lighting system stand in Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre’s Sculpture yard and in the old cemetery of Kaunas as if connecting confessors of two different religions. While the shed at the CAC merges well into its institutional context, the shed in the Kaunas cemetery seems more like an alien ship transgressing the calm greenery of the park.

The period of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Lithuania with its prevalent anti-Semitic and fascist ideas have been conveniently ignored in our country’s history, and throughout Kaunas’s history, in particular. The interwar neglect and hatred towards ethnic minorities, including Jews and gypsies, are still overshadowed by the lingering romanticism of a small nation’s upheaval, which to this day has been predominantly focused on the the flourishing of Modernism in the country’s arts and culture. However, the traumatic experiences, along with the continuously neglected feeling of an underlying communal guilt, are brought forth by Ukrainian artist Mykola Ridnyi in his work ‘Lost Baggage’. Though seemingly apolitical, even typical in form, the artist’s ceramic works can be found by the entrance to the Kaunas railway station. They draw one’s attention due to being large in scale and the rhythmical dynamics of their layout. Once you come close enough to look inside, you realise the ceramic vases contain photographs of drawings hidden within them that were made by Jewish-born artist Esther Lurie. The site-specific installation introduces its visitors to the reality of the Kaunas ghetto, aspects of which Lurie captured before burying them beneath the ground in ceramic pots. In a way, one’s curious gaze through the holes that have been drilled into the sides of the vases reinforce the narrative of a collective oblivion, while the human-sized scale of the objects directly corresponds to the importance of the problems highlighted and the questions they raise.

The artists of the biennial also explore how the political face of Kaunas has changed after the shift from socialist totalitarianism to capitalist democracy. In her photography series “Cults of Performance”, German artist Johanna Diehl seeks to form a critical view towards the communal spaces threatened with extinction as a result of “wild capitalism”. The artist captures certain public spaces that had once been dedicated to particular communities of Kaunas, and have since undergone processes of commoditisation. It is both comical and sad to see the strange out-of-place interior solutions, which not only highlight the “sovietisation” of architecture (for example, the modifications of the Church of Resurrection as it was transformed into a radio factory), but also the ignorance or the refusal to reverse the buildings to their initial role even after the fall of the USSR. Former Jewish synagogues desacralised into warehouses and offices now host hairdressing salons or garage services. The ideological apparatus of the soviet proletariat has been replaced by the neoliberal church of capitalism.

Amalia Pica, A ∩ B ∩ C (Line). Photo:: Martynas Plepys

This year, therefore, the biennial is dedicated to finding a new identity for the city of Kaunas. Linking the varying experiences of the changing generations by researching the dynamics of the politics of the twentieth century, and by reflecting on how complicated some things happen to be even today, the project has sought to cover the present-day problematics of this city’s identity. Here, the artists have assumed the roles of investigators and archivists to introduce the public to the historical contexts of the city, while at the same time attempting to avoid a colonialist point of view. The curatorial team sought to refute such a view too – they have even included the notion of “egotization” into the official dictionary of the biennial [3]. Nonetheless, while the personal takes on the local issues definitely producing some extra value, the general presentation of the exhibition is by no means superficial. There is a lot of room for discussion on how the public communication has been carried out in terms of the sociological topics previously mentioned.

The state of liminality, of putting oneself in the Other’s position is slightly overshadowed by an unfortunately lingering view that makes the Other’s culture seem as though it was an object. On the one hand, the cultural life of Kaunas is in fact the main object of the biennial, hence, it seems that certain power relations and hierarchies are settled and even unquestionable. On the other hand, if the works of the artists manage to avoid being touristic within their scope of legibility, it means it could be possible to avoid broadcasting the presentation of the biennial in such a tourist-friendly fashion. However, it is impossible to go by without noticing the term “New East” in the project’s official announcement, which, at least to me, has always been associated with an appropriation of Chinese culture at certain kitsch restaurants. The term attempts to be a replacement for the prevailing – and usually pejorative – label “Eastern Europe”. Yet surely “New East” is the same kind of pejorative? Let us not forget how Lithuanians cheered when we were geographically categorised as a part of Northern Europe when in terms of our culture we are hardly northern, nor Eastern European. “New East” only states that Eastern Europe is going through a period of change. However, unfortunately, it settles its own very definition and existence at the same time. It would seem obvious that all of the people being grouped together here in this way should realise that all post-soviet nations are not united by “Eastern” traditions or language especially. Directly, we are only linked by the same occupant who forcefully and artificially thrust its culture into ours at some point in history. In The Guardian, one of Britain’s daily newspapers, one can find under their category “New East” an article on Estonia’s digital technology right next to an article on the ancient architecture of Kazakhstan, which would seem just as colonialist as it was back when we were “with the soviets”. Such superficial attempts to define a broad range of peoples the soviets had once occupied similar to the widely-used term of the “Middle East”, which points straight towards Anglocentrism. Moreover, an emphasis on the word “new” falsely implies as if these countries and cultures did not exist previously. Still, the most astonishing thing is that such a colonial term is used in the main text of the biennial which is devoted to the criticism of the egotization of the occupied nations when it is held in one of those occupied countries itself.

There is no direct link between a European region geopolitically generalising the term “New East” and a few of the artworks of the biennial, especially Argentinean artist Amalia Pica’s project depicting everyday life to interventions of the totalitarian regimes in South America. In the 70s the Argentinian government forbade the mathematical set theory due to its symbolic relation to collectivist ideas. However, it seems that such projects in particular unlock the core of the Kaunas Biennial. It proves that it is in fact about the generality of the experiences of the formation of territorial identity – caused by the changing political structures – from Kiev to Havana. Surely, the exhibition is dominated by the experiences of the post-soviet nations, yet these experiences are common to many other countries that have endured totalitarian regimes. Be it Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonai’s project “Friendship” (2003) – on display in Lithuania for the first time – which investigates the power mechanisms on a fictional journey through a pipeline spanning nine different countries. Or Serbian artist Sonja Jo’s installation “Without Ruins You Cannot See The New World” in which Jo forms a critical view towards the ideological transformations of a 90’s nascent capitalist Lithuania. The main idea behind such works is the harmful wish to get rid of the unpleasant aspects of one’s history, which come to resonate more broadly than with just the post-soviet sense of the world.

Through authentic storytelling from specific geographical areas, some of the artists help reveal a more universal critique of capitalist systems. Andrej Polukord’s zebra crossing at the bookshop in Kaunas bus station presents and cultivates the problematic contrast of public versus private (how?). It questions such capitalist binaries and critiques the commercialisation of public spaces in general. The clever positioning of Polukord’s performative mobile gallery “Galerie Uberall” between other underground passage kiosks speaks about the coopting of public spaces into the places of consumerism. However, the artistic tours offered here are opposite to the “touristic” excursions the biennial offers officially, they are in fact ironic: at first, just as the organisers of the whole project have intended, they confront the estrangement between the traditional art institutions and the general public, yet they manage to reveal the further problems of contemporary art practice in the capitalist system in general. Taus Makhacheva’s project “Ring Road” pushes the issue further. The artist suggests building an absurd non-functioning two-way road around the mountain of Makhot – as a direct illustration of Russia’s tendency to take on overly-ambitious, and essentially useless, grandiose projects. For the funding of the project, Makhacheva offers to give away the project’s model, which is currently exhibited at Kaunas railway station. The capitalist system is also critiqued in Cuban artist Adrian Melis’s humouristic research project “The Value of Absence – Excuses to be absent from your workspace”. Melis asked various inhabitants of Havana to skip work and then paid a salary equal to the amount their absence would come up to. In turn, he asked the workers to record and give him their personal explanations and excuses made to the official employers. The biennial showcases a couple of audio recordings and the statistic data of all the excuses collected. Among the most popular were physical ailments and traumas, yet there were a couple of more chilling made-up reasons, such as domestic abuse or fear of leaving home because of a stalker.

Seen all together, the artworks speak in unison about how the transforming structures of a country’s political system change the personal lives of its people. Although each account is always personal and individual to each artist, it is due to the states of fluctuation and transformation that they all find a common ground. Whatever they might be, power structures are structures of power at the end of the day, and after each and every transformation one still gets to this same underlying general principle. The artworks connect into an intricate inter-web; they carry out deep dialogues between each other and inspire one to rethink the environment in a broader, more global context. The whole underlying concept of the exhibition follows the previously neglected culturally and politically-different Other which in the West has been a prevailing trend of thought throughout the last decade. Although the official public presentation of the biennial makes an unfortunate turn towards a constructed Anglocentric point of view, the content of the exhibition does not follow. Given that some time has passed for the technical issues to already be resolved, the biennial is certainly worth visiting, and not only once.

Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, Druzhba, 2003–ongoing. Photo: Remis Ščerbauskas

Robertas Narkus, Dépendance, 2019. Photo: Martynas Plepys

Alsan Gaisumov, Volga, 2015. Photo: Remis Ščerbauskas

Taus Makhacheva, Ring Road, 2018. Photo: Remis Ščerbauskas

Laura Kaminskaitė, Its own unfolding elsewhere, 2019. Photo: Remis Ščerbauskas

[1] “The 12th Kaunas Biennial : After Leaving / Before Arriving“, exhibition announcement, in: Kaunas Biennial, [interactive], [seen 2019.07.02],

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Biennial Visitor’s Dictionary“, by Agnė Poderytė, in: Kaunas Biennial, [interactive], [seen 2019.07.02],