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Exhibition as a crime scene. Ona Juciūtė in conversation with Viktorija Damerell

Viktorija Damerell: It feels slightly awkward talking to you now: we talk so often, but this interview format also demands that we think of the reader. We’re here, just the two of us, but someone is listening. Do you feel that?

Ona Juciūtė: Yes, you’re right. I have a similar feeling. But instead of worrying that someone is listening, let’s say ‘Hi’ to her or him and introduce ourselves: we are two artists, who curates shows together from time to time, and for this reason we are now interviewing each other. Oh, and we’re also good friends, who often talk to each other about various topics anyway.

Viktorija and Ona in a curatorial trip, 2018, photo: Viktorija Damerell.

VD: So, we can start with one of those topics. Since we’re now working on a new exhibition, which opens on 15 February 2019, and which is going to showcase artworks by young, recent graduates that we found while traveling around graduation shows in Europe, and through the endless realms of the internet, what is the most interesting thing for you in this process?

Ona Juciūtė on the way to a graduation show in Franfurt Staedelschule, 2018, photo: Viktorija Damerell.

OJ: You mean in curating? In general, I’m interested in finding: in curating, when we’re looking for art; and also in making art objects, when I’m looking for stories, situations or material. It all starts with finding, and then it leads to turning those treasures into interesting combinations. To be honest, it gets hard to draw the line between curating and producing art. I like the idea that a group show can be like a solo show, or even the artwork of a person who curates. Camille Henrot used a similar strategy in her solo show ‘Days are Dogs’ in the Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2017-2018), where she showed her own pieces together with what she found on eBay, and with artworks by other artists. I like that light-hearted approach towards art: on one hand, it’s shown on an equal basis with mass-produced stuff, and on the other you can indicate the artists if you know who they are. It helps to simplify things, and clears the unnecessary fuss around art. Of course, curating requires a lot of communicating, writing emails, etc. That part is the hardest for me, I often need to push myself. Also, I guess it really helped me as an artist sometimes to take part in a studio visit as a curator: it gave me an understanding of how provisional everything is, and to understand why these studio visits are sometimes so horrible. How about you? What’s the hardest part? Do you see a difference between curating and creating?

VD: It often seems that everything is going quite smoothly: when I’m doing what interests me, it seems as if the situations themselves are on my side. Like you, I sometimes find it hard to cope with all the communicating (as you know, I have a slight phobia of talking on the telephone), but even that is pleasant in the sense that I manage to step out of my usual self. Talking about the challenge, I think it’s quite hard to keep up a fresh approach to one’s own practice. It requires checking from time to time if the idea still holds, if any adjustments are needed. In this case, it’s the same as in producing art: it’s very important to keep a space for change, to react quickly to a shift in the situation, and exploit it in the most playful way. Talking about the differences between curating and making art, personally, while curating, I feel a greater responsibility to find a dialogue with the potential viewer; because the exhibition is the most communicative art form. And when I make art myself, other things take over: for me, the creative process is a way of thinking, it’s the most natural and most accessible way to explore the world. And when I do that, I could say that for me the most important viewer is myself.

OJ: I was secretly hoping that you would remember incidents like when one of our main exhibition participants destroyed his works due to a lack of storage space, or when we ended up on a studio visit with the wrong artist by mistake, and had to start talking about a piece of art about which we had literally nothing to say.

VD:  Yeah, those are exactly the stories that are hardest to tell the reader. We were there, so we know them well, so it becomes quite funny trying to present them to a third person while talking to each other. To cut a long story short: we were at the graduation show at an academy, and we found an installation that we thought was interesting. The map of the show was a very confusing, but in the end we figured out whose work it was. Or, so we thought. The artist came and we started asking about her work. But then we saw a confusion in her eyes as she pointed to her work which happened to be behind our backs.  I wouldn’t have imagined that it’s possible to reorientate so fast and give so many remarks about an artwork we had noticed for the first time just ten seconds ago. In the end she did not realize that we really wanted to meet somebody else and it even turned out to be a quite interesting talk.

Ona Juciūtė during a studio visit in Germany, 2018, photo: Viktorija Damerell

OJ: What really helped me then was a strategy I use very often when looking at artworks. I imagine that I’m a detective, and the exhibition or artwork is the crime scene. I just need to find out what the hell happened, what the motive was, the weapon, and so on. So you just ask questions, and let the artist talk. By using that approach, I can find any exhibition or artwork interesting, because I’m looking for answers, what happened, and why. But tell me, what kind of clue could you offer the viewer of our forthcoming exhibition if she wants to solve that crime?

VD: If we follow the comparison with a detective, my suggestion would be not to look for a concrete answer, but instead to understand that every evidence resonates with the rest, and that their meanings have a tendency to expand endlessly. So the key would be not to hurry towards the resolution, but to give yourself some time simply to wander there, following various ties that interlace the artworks. And not to be afraid of missing something.

OJ: Okay then, tell me: what do you think art is for?

VD: Personally, for me, the main point of art is its uselessness. The fact that humans can engage in an activity which still has the potential to fall out of the pervasive market system gives me hope. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that art still has some space for another kind of existence, which isn’t based on pragmatism. That means a kind of paradox – even people who are interested in art often relate it to some kind of function: beauty, therapy, entertainment, social critique, or an investment. Not to mention the larger part of society which still regards art as a waste of time. I feel the need to clear up a misunderstanding on this issue, but at the same time I think it isn’t art’s role to do it directly. Attempting to provoke a dialogue through an exhibition itself can lead to even more confusion. Instead, I think it’s better to start with a gentler approach, more basic lectures or discussions. I like doing that sometimes, too. And coming back to curating, do you remember when we had just started, we wanted to emphasize that we were doing it from the position of an artist. How do you look at it now? What’s important to you in the process of constructing the idea of the exhibition?

Exhibition view, By a whisker, 2016, photo: Laurynas Skeisgiela.

OJ: Yes, I also wanted to remind you of that. But, let’s be honest, we started curating not because of that, but because nobody else was curating our art. And then we submitted an application to Titanikas, which, surprisingly, was successful. Since we started with the idea to get a chance to show a few of our installations, we ended up having the biggest hall to ourselves. We had to fill it, and I remember thinking, okay, why not use objects of others as well? That’s how it all started. I’m sure it’s so helpful that I am actually an artist, and curating is like a secondary project. It makes things relaxed and easy. I guess for us both it’s fun and curious. Then, and even now, when thinking about our approach, I still find it very important, even crucial, that the artworks themselves form the exhibition and its content, when they aren’t just nicely arranged according to theme, material, or other criteria. Ideas can often turn into great texts, while objects and their quietness have a totally different expression, and, if I can say so, content. I don’t know if it fits here to say ‘constructing the idea’. For me, an idea is more like a vein that goes through all the organs and connects the body. Those elements, organs or artworks can have totally different purposes, but looking at them from further away, they constitute one organism, that is, the exhibition. It isn’t by any means an organism that has no contradictions within. There can be everything inside, from illness to dandruff. That’s how I see a good exhibition: a sort of situation where different objects supplement each other in various ways.

VD: I’d say that kind of organic process is essential to our curating. It’s not about finding pieces to illustrate our idea, but about finding that vein that connects all the work. In this case, the works become communication tools between us as curators. By suggesting one piece or another, by trying to find arguments for or against, we learn about each other’s interests. This doesn’t mean that we necessary start from our own art. For example, in ‘Decent Show’ (2016), which came after ‘By a Whisker’ (2017), we were gathering pieces that had a slight obsession within them. Although we both tend to be rather obsessive sometimes, in the end we realised that our works did not fit the pieces of other artists that we had already chose.

Exhibition view, Decent show, 2017, photo: Arnas Anskaitis.

OJ: Yes, that’s true. Although, during that one I felt more responsible than for some of my solo projects, because I was showing my father’s restored objects. Also, I’ve noticed that our participation in every show is different. Like for this one at the CAC, we have the luxury of making objects that can communicate with other pieces in the show, as we know what is going to be shown there. Talking about the selection, I like this process of ours, we really lean towards different kinds of pieces. And we help each other to understand what really means more, and what only touches our weak point. What do you think is your weak point in seeing works of art?

VD: Sometimes it’s hard for me to resist a really good piece of craftsmanship: nicely finished surfaces, polished wood, shiny metal or glass. I also get attracted by kind of Gothic or romantic motifs. I never thought this was something very particular to me, until I saw your complete indifference to it. Talking about soft spots, I know that for you it’s difficult to resist works of art that include furniture or clothes. I think the awareness of these soft spots has helped us many times. When we write off some of our reactions to that shallow attraction, we avoid long discussions about mismatched tastes. And what do you think unites us in our attitude to works of art?

OJ: It’s hard to name some shared criteria, but I think we’re both interested in work that makes us laugh, which isn’t what it looks like at first glance. So if I see an object which is ambiguously funny, which hides a good story inside it, I’ll probably try to show it to you.

VD: You mentioned the object, that’s probably also something that, as sculptresses, we tend to pay more attention to.

OJ: Yes, objects and their frozen expression attract me. I guess I’m a bit tired of moving images and sound installations. I like it when objects and sculptures allow you to decide yourself how long you want to look at them for, from which angle, and so on. It’s rather ironical that all the video pieces that are going to be shown in our exhibition were suggested by me. And, for some, I had to fight quite a bit.

VD: I agree. And I think I should mention another common criterion. One of the starting points of this exhibition was the writings of Clarice Lispector. We’re both interested in how some aspects of her writing can work in a visual form. How the artwork can change our perception of time, zooming in on the moment, and transforming it through the contemplation of everyday objects. I think this interest unites us in our own art practice as well.

OJ: On that subject, could you say more about your current projects? Right now you’re working on a few: Eye Gymnastics, Casablanca, Severija at The Colleague from another Tribe. Since I know a bit about them, they appear rather different to each other. But maybe there’s something very positive in those differences?

Viktorija Damerell, Severija, 2018, National Gallery of Art, Vilnius. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko.

VD: Well, they are different. I’ve already noticed that people sometimes get a bit confused when they try to sum up my art activity. That’s because at first sight it seems to consist of different themes, different means of expression. I think consistency, self-repetition, is useful for artists, if we talk about a recognisable, memorable style, or the possibility to be understood more easily. I don’t avoid that myself, if it happens naturally, but at the same time, I need dynamics. Not so much to try different media, but to start with a clean slate. I’ve noticed that I work the same way when I write, as well: I like to start a new chapter with a certain jump across time and space. On the other hand, everything I do has the same reasons for me. What about you? How do you see consistency in your art practice?

OJ: Well, I guess it’s not so important how I, or any other artist for that matter, see it, it always exists. For instance, I have recently used casts of bones, the ones that guard the marrow, those little holes that you buy alongside meat in a supermarket. Only recently, it struck me that they’re very closely related to the hollow pieces of furniture I was producing earlier. I felt so stupid then, not only because it was so obvious, although it took me a while to notice, but also because, like, really again? I notice some repetition in your pieces as well; for instance, your latest show, Casablanka, reminds me of that installation at the academy a few years ago, the one with a ponytail. Do you remember? Or now you returned to sculpting with bread, that’s also a technique you’ve used before. And that’s great! I guess there’s no need to run away from yourself, it’s better to embrace it.

Ona Juciūtė, Insects and Midges, 2018, detail, photo: Andrej Vasilenko

Ona Juciūtė, Feast, 2016, detail, photo: Julius Balčikonis

VD: I agree, it isn’t even possible otherwise. If you go into something deeply, some repetition appears naturally. But I think it’s natural to totally change your direction as well. For example, you have a diploma in politics, but you’re now doing something very different. What makes you create? Why do you make art?

OJ: First of all, the study of politics, for me, was an attempt to run away from art. The attempt lasted too long, actually, and now I think it was a bit unnecessary. Paradoxically, when studying, I came up against a lot of strange rules which I couldn’t agree with, and that forced me back into the sphere of art. It’s important to understand that political science is a scientific field. During it, we learned to write scientific papers, to carry out social investigations, and to make an analysis of comparative politics. We were taught that we should always know everything that is said on one or another topic, to synthesise all the information, and therefore become a high-class factory of conspectus. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the goal in science is absolute truth and the production of knowledge, so it’s a careful sphere. However, I’m more interested in the synthesis of facts and opinion. That’s how good art works for me. In it, general knowledge surfaces through very personal stories. In fact, there’s a lot of scientific methodology in art: making hypotheses, checking, comparing similar occurrences. But art, however, is quite a free platform, which draws on different spheres according to the whims of the one particular individual. The same artist can borrow things from mathematics, biochemistry, stained glass or genetic engineering, whatever she wishes. It’s like a draft, consisting of things that did not fit the officially approved production of knowledge or goods. And that’s amazing.

VD: But is there anything you learned there that you can apply to artistic practice?

OJ: We learned a lot about the reasoning of social processes. I still use it in preparing for my art projects. Also, we learned how to simplify texts when they get too complex, to strictly cross out words that are not necessary. I often do that when I read exhibition texts; it really helps me understand what it’s all about. Sometimes I’m left at the end with just a few words, sometimes with almost all of them. Sometimes, I’m sure, I am left completely wrong. It’s actually quite a nice task for the brain. What do you think you would be doing if not art?

VD: I would maybe like to be a filmmaker. Okay, that’s also art. Maybe I would create an app that helps to interpret dreams, or an internet platform for people who want to become apprenticed to craftsmen. And you?

OJ: When I was small, my biggest dream was to work in a kiosk. Not only because they had so much lemonade, chewing gum and colorful plastic hair accessories; the main reason was actually that I imagined a small room behind with a sofa-bed and a telephone (at that time, we did not have a telephone line in our home). I used to draw that room quite often. Today, I think I would like to help my father make furniture, or work with another craftsman. Maybe I could use your platform, in our alternative reality.

VD: Do you ever imagine that you could stop making art for good?

OJ: I don’t think in such absolute categories. I’ve done many things in my life already, and I believe I will do many more in the years to come. Art is good, because it can be anything; on the other hand, I’m very open to new fields. The only idea I would be afraid of is to get stuck at the same point; but is that even possible?

VD: I’m afraid it is. There are plenty of examples even in the art world: how even famous creators get trapped in their own fame and start copying themselves. On the other hand, if we look for the opposite situations, there are probably more of them in the art world than anywhere else.

OJ: One favorite example of mine would be Aleksandra Kashuba, a Lithuanian artist living and working in the USA. A year ago, she awarded me a grant, and so I started corresponding with her by mail. Aleksandra is a special person. As she herself says: ‘My three imperatives are: give free rein to your flair, don’t give up on adventure, and respect the unexpected.’ Bearing in mind that she’s over ninety years old, and during those years she has experienced fleeing war, starting a new life in the USA, and having a successful career as an artist, it’s impossible to not be inspired by her energy. At seventy-eight, she gave up everything and moved alone to the desert in New Mexico, to fulfil an old and very experimental idea on a grand scale. Her home is now famous as an incredible architectural study. Can you imagine? She always reminds me: ‘Don’t wait for something to happen, but be prepared.’ Even now, she doesn’t even think of slowing down, and is busy with all kinds of projects. I’ve met very few people with such optimism and so few boundaries. Every time I receive a letter from her, she gives me the feeling that nothing is impossible. I will never forget that.

Viktorija Damerell, C’est ne pas une, 2015, photo: Viktorija Damerell

Viktorija Damerell, C’est ne pas une, 2015, photo: Viktorija Damerell