The idea for this conversation came up last autumn. At the time, as I was writing my MA thesis on the philosophy of Jacques Rancière, I was very preoccupied with working out how everyday objects become works of art, and how new structures of sensible are generated at the surface of the common form-sign sphere. Eglė was simultaneously trying to find the third variable in the formula of her doctoral project: a find (pre-painting plane) à a clue/trace (painting plane) à a symptom (post-painting plane). Today, the painter Eglė Ulčickaitė has PhD degree from Vilnius Academy of Arts, her final work entitled ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’ (Paralelinė kartoteka) was accompanied by the exhibition with the same title and shown at Titanic, the VAA exhibition hall from 25 October to 3 November 2018. During our conversation, as we scrutinise the efficacy of the creative process, Eglė remarks that that is exactly what makes the process seem banal. But what detective investigation can be carried out without a magnifying glass, or deviations and returns to course?
Karolina Rybačiauskaitė (KR): To be perfectly honest, I’ve only prepared one question for this interview. I have a quote from the philosopher Jacques Rancière, which I would be very interested in discussing with you. But before that, I’d like to make sure I have the right idea about what the creation of art means to you. When you write about the process, you state that creative research has a lot in common with detective investigation, and yet it differs in that the creative observation only generates a hypothesis, and does not confirm or discard one. On the other hand, you say that while painting, you create facts, “products of the consciousness.” Don’t these two paths of thinking cross? What would you say is the relation between a fact and a hypothesis? The creation of a fact: what is that, for you, in general?
Eglė Ulčickaitė (EU): I suppose I should start by pointing out that the idea for my project originates from situation of paradox – the union of faith and doubt. In this case, it can also mean an intersection, not only of contrary states or experiences, but also of different ways of thinking. As a source of knowing, art generates knowledge, not only by using and filtering reality, but by adding meanings to it, for instance, by conjoining seemingly contrary things. Within my art project, I explored the means of perceiving time by applying analogies from different disciplines, linking them by associative principle characteristic to creative thinking. In my artistic practice, I’m trying to find a relation between distinct images; and the same goes for writing, since one of my main goals has been to telescope, or even to ‘cosy up’ verbal and visual languages not by translating one into another, but by finding equivalents instead.
I use the notion of a hypothesis metaphorically here: I consider it to be a personal assumption discovered through a creative polylogue (from the dialogues between a thing and the creator, the creator and an artwork, as well as an artwork and the viewer). I think that an artist who builds his artworks from both intuitive and pragmatic insights behaves similar to a detective, gathering pieces of evidence, and trying to determine the relationships between them. A detective collecting the facts draws a map of past events, this way recreating a previously unknown scenario. I rely on the similar method: I find and collect artefacts that are signs of the past, I document them as if they were archaeological finds, and investigate them within/through painting. Factum in Latin means ‘what is done’, that is, a true, real phenomenon or occurrence, able to bear witness. One of the main tools of creative archaeology is the imagination, since it helps one create something qualitatively different, and so the artefacts captured in painting become real items, that is, facts. As I paint, or in other words, create facts, I catalogue objects and places that I experience personally in my here and now. I seek to define the intuitive principle of making my card catalogue, and to recreate an identifiable image of present, an equivalent of that unknown scenario. However, each new painting for me is like a fact in the riddle of time. In no way is it an answer, or the ‘true’ version of events; it is only a hypothetical guess, as the spectator interprets it according to facts of his own. In this case, an artwork also becomes the intersection of different paths of thinking. But, as I have already mentioned, that intersection can also be seen as a conjunction generating a new kind of knowledge.
KR: What happens when you take an object containing a trace of history, say, thirty or fifty years, and transfer it to the painting medium?
EU: Interestingly, during the process of painting you never think of what is happening with the object that you paint. Actually, you are thinking, but with painting itself, not with words. Later, as you reflect on it, you may find a way to figure out what ‘has happened’, but you need the right words for that. In this case, as an artist, I can only talk about the shift of the meaning happening inside my consciousness, when the painted object, on the one hand, states its authenticity, and on the other, loses it by becoming a reference or a ‘clue’ (I use the term ‘time-clue’ in my dissertation). In my case, painting is a medium for an image of altering body of a thing and/or its meaning. I juxtapose “space” as unfamiliar, alien, opaque environment to “place” as something familiar, having vernacular character. The motifs I paint are oddly anonymous to me: anonymity here should be regarded as something non-personal, closed upon itself and so inaccessible in its essence. The painting process for me is like a visual expertise, an intention to perceive not only object itself, but also the present context from which perspective the object is looked at. In the process of painting, I reflect an object by allowing my conscious to fill the lack of certainty with live experience. Therefore, to paint an object is to experience it. That experience (already in the form of a painting) is encountered by a viewer’s authentic interpretation. So to me, turning an object into a painted image is not only a way to tame an ‘alien’ thing, to diagnose the character of my own gaze, but also to comprehend what kinds of meanings it holds, and not only to myself, but also to the viewer, who, in addition, broadens it with his interpretations. Thus, we can speak of the disembodiment or transfiguration that the painting medium enables. In a way, this proceeding enlivens an object, it constantly puts it in the now. And that concerns not only the object itself, or the plane of meaning which is in or behind it, but the attempt to name, to define the relating context in which that object and its image dwell. In a way, my paintings are like traps: the viewer can recognise painted shapes, specific objects, and colours, but actually paintings are just a mediator of the shifting meanings.
KR: But if I understand you correctly, painting new objects, as compared to old ones, which, for example, have a strong Soviet connotation to us, doesn’t follow the same process, does it? How do you choose the objects to paint? Why do you so rarely, if ever, paint objects from today, from the various technologies of our age?
EU: On one hand, I’d say I do not choose the objects, they choose me. I find my motifs in my everyday environment, as if they ‘happen’ to me. On the other hand, I select the motifs to paint relying on my intuition that is a particular criterion, even though based on sensations or feelings. I conceptualize the notion of impression linking it to an ‘imprint’ or a trace, which in this case is twofold: an accidentally encountered object disrupts the continuous flow of time, leaving an imprint on one’s consciousness, while at the same time consciousness itself perceives it as a trace of something in particular.
Yes, the objects, interiors or landscapes I paint are usually reminiscent of the past. I think that impression mentioned above is caused by the awareness that the function of those things, so to say, their role in everyday life has changed. Whenever consciousness comes across the difference (or the absence) in the function or nature of things, even though their physical appearance remains roughly the same, in the mind’s eye they appear ghost-like. I am referring here to the context of the commonplace. Also, old things have a certain charge, scars, traces of usage. I am particularly interested in interiors or details that attest to changes to everyday routines, customs or events of the past. I see these things and interiors like shells or discarded skin, testifying to the fact that something has been, but isn’t (like that) any more. These things are not necessarily from the Soviet era, as I am not concerned with any particular period, unless in the sense that my work includes place-specific images, that is, the main resource for my paintings is directly accessible environment, bound to place and the living time as well as “live” memory of three to four generations. Through painting, I attempt to contemplate and articulate the experience of time, by choosing everyday objects that are still present in our surroundings and our manifold memory, and yet do not function (in the same way) any more. What’s more, I observe ‘how’ the viewer recognises them, how over time, not only his own gaze, but those of different generations, is changing. That’s what attests to time and is a possible way to perceive it, I think. So I wouldn’t say that I eliminate today’s objects; it’s just that I am interested in the objects that call out for a multitude of memory-related interpretations. And that’s where the state of experiencing parallel times originates: past is absent, and yet the object in front of you forbids you to doubt its existence.
KR: In the article ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’ (2002), Rancière says that these days an artist who works in the aesthetic mode works not only like an archaeologist, digging up fossils in order to reveal their poetic potential, but also as a kind of symptomatologist, rooting around in society’s dark side, or the unconscious, and deciphering the messages hidden inside the very flesh of everyday objects. For Rancière, this action not only makes them intelligible or as a part of the presence, but it also holds the promise of the future. What do you think about that? Does that resonate with your creative practices?
EU: Yes, that’s close to what I am trying to consider and question in my work. I apply analogy from archaeology in creative research of everyday surrounding. Things as well as the living environment are utensils of human activity that, like archaeological finds, help to uncover the underlying intentions. Material culture is a tangible residue of the past. And while things themselves are still reminiscent of the past, in the present they live independently from lives of their makers and users – a kind of descent life. We can call them remains. The Lithuanian word palaikai, “the remains” in English, in both languages refer to verb “hold”. Therefore, it’s possible to say that things, or the material culture in general, is something that holds the past. I regard my paintings as visible remains for painted bodies of things to take shelter in.
I really do believe our constantly (re)constructed environment resembles the structures of our unconscious. An interior is a frequent motif in my work: I consider it to be a metaphor for the inner space or a milieu. I treat the living space, which the human transforms into his own environment or dwelling, as a token, or even a symbolic, place, where many experiences, thoughts and memories are concentrated. Moreover, such dwellings have peculiar systems of things or layers of time that witness, point to a specific period or segments of time. Thus, an interior could be regarded as a particular structure reflecting traits of a subject’s and the context’s existence as well as the changes in these qualities.
KR: Could you tell me more about how parts of your work are conceptually interlinked? What was the course of it? How did you choose the pieces for the ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’ exhibition?
EU: If we speak of creative and theoretical (thesis) parts of my project ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’, they are inseparable; however, first and foremost, the totality of this research and its visual articulation are determined and defined by the ‘knowledge of art’. When writing my thesis, I was focused not on reflecting specific works, but on the creative process (the before, during and after of painting). I tried to reveal it by reflecting the movements of body and mind, the wandering – both in the direct and metaphorical senses of the word – at the common-places that I explore in painting.
As we have already said, substantive notions borrowed from a few different disciplines (a find [archaeology], a clue or a trace [forensic science], a symptom [psychology]), allowed me to conceptualise the creative process and the consequent significative shifts: the detection of a motif à painting à a painting. In the first part entitled “Time-find”, I discuss where and how I encounter the tacit experience of time (or temporality); in other words, I examine the pre-painting time. And so here I formulate my method of search for motifs to paint, as well as define the discovering of the motif or a find as coming upon mental obstacle. In the second section (‘Time-clue’), I display how time-find turns into time-clue. I do this by discussing, how the process of painting shifts the meaning of the motif (considering subjective experience being the point of reference of that meaning). And in the third ‘Time-symptom’ part, I reflect on the causes that have prompted me to embark on this research and on my own painting, which in itself becomes a symptom (or a diagnosis), when paintings appear in public. Therefore, the course of this research was directed by creative practice itself, as well as by the motifs discovered, and sometimes by conditions determined by coincidence. As it was an inquiry through experience, I put the emphasis on the ‘presentness’; that is, I attempted at contemplating everyday objects and common-places from my surrounding ‘here-and-now’. That allowed me to come up to the principle behind constructing and ‘reading’ ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’. I created it from what was at the same time familiar and alien, recognizable and unrecognizable to me, from the parallels proclaimed by the objects that function ghosts-like, rather than utilitarian things in everydayness of present.
Selecting pieces for the exhibition was not an easy task, since over the five years preceding my doctoral project, I had already gathered quite a collection. Choosing by a process of elimination, I was finally left with the ones that seemed to present the main idea behind the project the best, and so were the most important works in my card catalogue. Also, I was concerned with how they connected with each other, creating a manifold narrative, how they revealed the parallels of subjectively experienced times.
KR: Last autumn, when we spoke about the difference between a clue/trace and a symptom, the meaning of the latter was not fully articulated. And how about now? Does this element of your creative formula connect with the fact that we are usually perceiving time over a certain period of time, as if making a diagnosis?
EU: Exactly. We perceive time when we detect a trace, change, hence, post factum, as if constantly overpassing it. I consider images I paint being sensory symptoms of time. I believe an artist is able to capture time and symptomatic information beneath it. As has been mentioned previously, invoking the notion of symptom, I analyse what happens, when time-clue turns into painted image, that is, how it’s meaning is changing. However, that doesn’t only concern the reflection of my own works, or the search for reasons that prompted me to choose specific field of research. As I was developing my project, I realized that the experience of multi-layered time stretches not only within painting. Time continues on layering even when my paintings are no longer under my control, when they appear in public spaces, and so encounter versions of events different from mine. Therefore, I attempt not only (or not to the same extent) to figure out what phenomenon my painted motifs point to, but what content discloses when the intention encoded in the painted image meets the meanings that the spectators bring to it, what narrative structure the motive as a symptom moulds, and what it diagnoses, or even forecasts. So the time-symptom, or the post-painting plane, is settled through painting.
KR: When we are speaking about time, we often thrust it into a linear past-present-future frame. In ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’, you note that experiencing time is inseparable from a state of experiencing parallel times. Could you elaborate on this idea? How do you usually tend to think and experience time: as a linear or as a cyclical process?
EU: Time alters the approach along with the nature of our gaze. This leads to a change in interpretation. Maybe the aforementioned feeling of detecting time overdue originates from that. I associate notion of overdue with characteristic of parallels – of things being similar, but always at the distance. Hence, I apply adjective ‘parallel’ to my card catalogue: in painting, I try capturing bygone time in the present, though the presence of a thing that I have captured is not the present of the past, but the present of the present. On one hand, this means bringing different elements closer, telescoping them one into another, rather than comparing them. On the other hand, that’s where the feeling of distance constituting separation, the state of experiencing parallel times, stems from. Surely, kartoteka, the Lithuanian word for ‘card catalogue’, refers to the word kartoti, meaning ‘to repeat’, and repetition is characteristic to perception of time as cyclical process. As I was carrying out my project, I asked myself: what is being repeated while painting? Specific shapes. If time appears, or is actualised, during painting, then ghostly (because no longer functional) guises are brought back to life. Thus, in the ‘Parallel Card Catalogue’, time does not repeat itself, it layers itself. Yet these are not some specific times, they are repetitions of certain impressions. Surely, these impressions (the paintings) are nonetheless links to something else: maybe to some non-present time. Well, actually, not necessarily to the past. The iconography of painting – perhaps, but the embodiment of an object or of some other scene of reality in the painting medium is more likely to be treated as a promise of foreseen future, just as Rancière says in your quote. Memory recognizes images in paintings I create at present. However, will same images be recognized by future generations (the same)? That only reaffirms the difference of present time from the one of the past. Or maybe it simply confirms that today the past has been losing its genuine meaningfulness in the eyes of the present. On the other hand, it is constantly gaining new modes of meanings. So, to answer your question about how I tend to experience time myself, I can probably say: in a parallel way, both as cyclical, and as linear; it repeats itself, but in a completely new way; and so that line of past-present-future forks into parallel pasts, presents and futures.
KR: During your doctoral studies you probably spent a lot of time thinking about time and the experience of it. Doesn’t that particular train of thought, as well as the constant need for self-reflection, limit your creative process or your choice of medium? Is the topic of time still relevant and intriguing to you? What are your future plans?
EU: It did limit me, in a way. I was ‘wandering’ a lot, and even called the strategy of searching for motifs as ‘wandering around daily paths’. So, I needed those limits. During the course of this project, I recurrently went searching for time. But I would almost always come back with my pockets of my clothes and those of my memory, full of finds, some of which turned into paintings. Searching for time, I did not find it, I have only found a persistent difference. So when you think about it, all those searches were an involuntary aim at identifying with places that I was wandering around. But that doesn’t have anything in common with the generic search for identity or identification; maybe just in the sense that either case is concerned with existence. In things and places, I was looking in vain for an identity; fortunately I did not find it. Instead, I ‘discovered’ time, which I created (for myself) when painting. That allowed me to understand that a repeated action, or a constant need to self-reflect, as you say, refers to the reason I’d been searching for. Searching for identity as concurrence, I found difference instead, which uncovers the alteration. And that creates multiplicity. Or, to be precise, that difference witness the experience of time as it forks into streams of parallel truths. Thus, the purposeful thinking-through-painting allowed the creative process to happen.
All that time, I was seeking to define why the gaze involuntarily turns to particular objects, and ‘sticks’ to them; why some places act on us psychologically, or emotionally. Not in the sense that I needed to know what was behind a certain door, but the principle itself: that the gaze and the consciousness covet something that’s behind a shell, behind the lack of recognition and experience. That still intrigues me. I’ve found some answers, but I will definitely continue on searching for time. After all, as you said at the beginning rather rhetorically, what detective investigation can manage without going astray and then coming back?
KR: Thank you!