Memory and Deceit: The Green Bridge Case

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Green Bridge in Vilnius, Lithuania, after the removal of the sculptures, 2015; Photo: Viktorija Peleckaitė

‘There are eloquent silences, and guilty silences, and silences of genuine bewilderment, and silences of creativity. The trick is to know what kind of silence you are hearing…’

Le Carré, John (2009), A Most Wanted Man. Hodder.

This article focuses on an act of colonialism, more specifically, Soviet sculptures from the last century – remnants of a time of immense change. It was one of the most problematic and violent ‘games’ played in the furthering of our social development, and of European history. By discussing their relevance to present day Vilnius, I try to show how art ‘voices’ change along with the changes that surround them. In short, artworks, placed within a different context, speak with a different voice. Art’s language, like our spoken tongue, changes. It can either disappear or transform beyond recognition. Even the words that I write here will, in time, change. And let’s not forget that the social and political contexts that envelope public artworks such as the Green Bridge sculptures, are usually manipulated for the benefit of those in power or those who seek it.  In this case we could witness the colonial interventions that have formed the tragic past history of Lithuania.

And let’s not forget that the social and political contexts that envelope public artworks such as the Green Bridge sculptures, are usually manipulated for the benefit of those in power or those who seek it.

This article will focus on typical actions that establish a changing regime – placing, replacing and removal of public artworks. The American artist Robert Smithson appropriated a scientific term ‘entropy’ to describe the disintegration that takes place in artworks. The actual process of creating art never, in his opinion, ‘resolved itself into the ‘fiction’ of the art object1’ This, in my mind, refers both to the continual becoming of an artwork as its context changes, and the strange belief that it is possible to imbue material with the quality of art. Philosopher Jacques Ranciere maintains that, art, simply by being art, pokes a finger at society, questions its values, and that this view, from a different angle, is necessary. Although he maintained that this included more than political art, while I agree with this only in part, I can only include certain artworks in this idea. And this article simply questions whether this act of art poking a finger at society can be done through absence as well as presence.

 

Presence and Absence

This article attempts to problematize the phenomenon of ‘presence and absence’, coupling this to the notion of ‘becoming’, and, more specifically, to public artworks. The acts of erasure and replacement that I focus on are cultural interventions related to colonialism. Colonialism can be seen as the ethnocentric belief that the morals and values of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized. The term colonialism refers, too, to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote such a system.2 Colonialism in art manifests itself usually in acts of placing, replacing and removal. These are typical actions that establish a changing regime. It is obvious that there is greater awareness of acts of placement or replacement, because the physicality of this effect is there before our eyes. When looking at sculptures or exhibitions, it is easier to condemn or laud, simply because it is available for our scrutiny. The traditional effect of colonialism’s placing or replacing has, in the main, taken the form of sculptures that glorify rulers, military men, and, too, poets and playwrights who have contributed to a desired national identity. However, acts of removal are destined to be forgotten, which is, after all, their main purpose. They can either take the form of grand destructions to the approval of a crowd of onlookers or a quiet even clandestine erasure done stealthily in the hope of avoiding attention. Either way, the intention is to remove an artwork that has become abhorrent to the majority of society, usually after a change of regime. The presence, or, for that matter, the absence of an artwork is seen as a symbolic gesture.

 

Presence

Problematizing presence, Jacques Derrida claims that ‘While we remain attentive, fascinated, glued to what presents itself, we are unable to see presence as such, since presence does not present itself, no more than does the visibility of the visible, the audibility of the audible, the medium of “air,” which disappears in the act of allowing to appear.'3This inability to perceive the presence of whatever is present before us is attached to our inability to see beyond our own cultural limitations, our language of interpretation and our susceptibility to seduction.

The British artist Stuart Brisley once said to me that the Mona Lisa no longer functions as an art work. Leonardo’s painting has become, rather, an art world icon, and consequently, its original power has been transformed. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa was a disappointing experience. I needed to jump over the heads of numerous viewers, in order to get a glance of it. The glimpse that I had experienced, was an art-world icon that no longer possessed the power to intervene in my life. I should have ticked it off my list, just like any other tourist. Here presence becomes a form of weakness, a mere shadow.

The removal of the sculptures, July 2015; Photo: Gintarė Matulaitytė

The process of removal of the sculptures, July 2015; Photo: Gintarė Matulaitytė

 

Absence and Erasure

In my opinion, acts of removal can create an absence that is as at least as powerful as the original artwork. It is not just a residue from the original, but rather the tangible presence of absence. I see absence as one of art’s most powerful compositional elements. In my opinion, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased De Kooning Drawing’ from 1953, possesses such power. Rauschenberg explains in an interview4 that he had tried to erase his own works without any real success. The act of erasure required an important work of art, hence the De Kooning drawing. De Kooning, apparently not too pleased about the request, gave him a drawing that consisted of charcoal, oil paint, crayon and pencil. Rauschenberg spent a month erasing the drawing! Yet, once erased, why is the fact that it is a De Kooning so important? Does a trace of the original work remain powerful, or is it the knowledge that a ‘great’ artwork was erased that counts? Does not the loss of aura of the ‘original’ affect us, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin maintained? Or is it the concept that creates the greatness? As Danto claims, this idea constitutes the artwork, while the material forms it. Yet, it is debatable how destroyed the original artwork is. There do not appear to be any records of it, even though the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art attempted to enhance the remaining traces.

Approaching erasure as destruction, the British artist John Latham participated in international gatherings known as Destruction in Art Symposiums.5 He created Skoob (books in reverse) towers which were burnt before an audience. Latham claims that his intention is not to destroy books, but to suggest that this culture is burnt out. Yet the traces of this act are, in themselves, a created art form. The renewal refers to Nietzsche’s concept of destruction and creation. Evidence of the trace that is continually renewed, and will not be erased, can be observed in the digital world of the web. The expanding imagery of the virtual multiplies and transforms, ensuring that presence is virtually impossible to erase. Yet, simultaneously, we find, in this surplus of imagery, problems in believing the imagery that we see.

The empty analogue space left after removal can possess a mystical quality, where, curiously, the dynamism of the original remains. The remembrance of a presence can define this, as the power of absence stifles whatever attempts to replace it. An example is the two Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The former relies on presence, and although the remaining buildings with their contents of clothes, hair etc. are grotesque and shocking, in my mind, Bergen-Belsen’s empty grass mounds have a sinister presence and power in the absence of any remaining physical evidence. When I was there, I found myself surrounded by the camp, its inmates and guards. No doubt, I am not the only one to doubt my imaginative powers in that place. The power of absence can ‘materialize’ in all kinds of memories.

Erasure was a modernist intervention, used to obliterate tradition. The De Stijl movement, for instance, sought an essence, a perfection through its radical form of erasure, obliterating ‘unnecessary’ ornament. Worship of the new through progress, demanded immediate change and mass erasure of past beliefs, and it is still with us. Adverts guide us to new trends that establish themselves through erasing the outdated. Their presence is omnipresent and the onslaught of information is both relentless and excessive in order to obliterate any remains of the undesirable.

 

Green Bridge Sculptures, Vilnius, Lithuania

Similar icons of perfection – men and women, sculpted with a steady gaze towards a better future, were, until recently, rusting away on either side of a bridge crossing the River Neris, in the heart of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. However, the Green Bridge6 (former Ivan Tcherniakhovski Bridge) in Vilnius, has lost its sculptures7. An act of removal has taken place again. It occurred in the evening. Among those present, I am told, were a few older Lithuanians who were crying, and younger people, artists among them, opposed to the act.

Let me say at the outset that I do not feel qualified to judge the political motivation behind this act of removal. I am a so-called ‘Westerner’ who watched the Soviet era from a safe distance. I was not here in Vilnius when the KGB imprisoned Lithuanians in what is now a museum, or during the trauma of the Siberia-bound trains. Neither was I here to experience the heady days of independence. Yet, as an art professor and practicing artist, I believe that I am justified in commenting on this act of removal because it raises questions regarding shared memory, art’s relationship to the notion of history and to our continual creation of realities, both physical and virtual. In short, what interests me is the act of removal itself, and what it entails. Yet what has been removed? Artworks or propaganda pieces? Both, presumably. And what was the aim? Obviously these are removed for political reasons, but at one time in Lithuania’s recent history these works were clearly art pieces, even ones of high regard. They were made in the spirit of Soviet Socialist Realism. The interesting aspect of this style is that, in my mind, it appears to be a far earlier version of postmodernism. The eclecticism of Greek columns placed outside ornamented modernist brute-style buildings adorned with red stars had forgotten constructivist principles. This unholy mix of styles, aimed at presenting the party line to the-man-in-the-street, without any undue art-shock. This anticipates the Western postmodern style of the eighties by approximately half a century. Whatever we think of this pragmatic style, it places these sculptures firmly within the realm of art. Denegrate them if you wish, but they are art. Now, could this fact be a reason to rethink their value today? Could they be seen as valuable art objects or is this inherent characteristic subsidiary to political wishes? We can hardly apply the same value system today to these sculptures, since politics and art appreciation were often mixed then. Yet, what value system should we apply to them now? Even more to the point, should their artistic value (if we agree that they possess it) be a criteria for their preservation? And if they are to be preserved, should this be a mixed political/art appreciative gesture? My questions lead me to the conclusion that whatever the fate of these sculptures, their political association is too strong and too new to give them a ‘fair (art appreciative) trial’.

 

Another Voice

It would have been evidence of the confidence of independent Lithuania, proud of its heritage, and willing to visualise some of its more problematic historical moments.

At the outset, when I first arrived in 2008, I was, personally, impressed by a Vilnius capital city that could accommodate its Soviet past in the form of these sculptures, and even more important – left in their original setting, namely, the Green Bridge, where they were allowed to talk to us, still. Yet, the surrounding environment is radically altered – both physically and ideologically. So, what they have to say – their speech – is now altered too. In my opinion, their voices appeared quieter and calmer than I would have imagined them in Soviet times. The elevated working class symbolism had become subdued, not only through time and the effects of physical rusting, but through political and social context. And it is precisely here that I wish to make a point. I would claim that these sculptures hardly spoke with the voice of dissent at all anymore. Rather, my belief is that leaving the sculptures in their original setting would have allowed another voice to speak – in a different more complimentary tongue – one that would speak of assurance in the nation’s credibility. It would have been evidence of the confidence of independent Lithuania, proud of its heritage, and willing to visualise some of its more problematic historical moments.  As far as I can see, there are few European nations that can lay claim to such a problematic past as Lithuania, and that it is a miracle that it is, today, an independent thriving nation with, not the least with its own language and culture. It is a nation that has survived numerous attempts at erasure. Yet, according to Laimonas Briedis in his book Vilnius – Savas ir Svetimas, it appears that the Vilnius we see today stands on the grounds of a number of Vilniuses that have been erased in the past. So, when we perceive this act of survival, we see how independence must be created and visualised, in the main, through symbolic gestures. Artworks play a vital role in this.

Photo: Gintarė Matulaitytė

Photo: Gintarė Matulaitytė, 2013

 

Discussion

Although I am, in the main, in favour of keeping the sculptures on the Green Bridge, I dismiss arguments in favour of keeping them as a tourist attraction. That loss is merely economical. More relevant is the opportunity that has been squandered; one of creating a more challenging setting for the self-same sculptures. Imagine placing an artwork within proximity of these sculptures and creating space for a dialogue to take place between them? This could have challenged the four sculptures, while still allowing them to remain in place. In my mind, sculptor Antanas Snaras’s ‘Kaip Namie (Home-Like)’ from 2008, which problematises what Snaras terms ‘Poisoned Space’, would be one obvious candidate. The effect of this would be to counter the Soviet mythical ‘figures looking to the future’ with a more provocative sculpture that has no plinth, only leans on a wall, has no permanence and can even be stolen, if anyone brings a lorry. The work would have been tentative and questioning – inviting the viewer to make up her own mind. It would have challenged the space itself and invaded it with doubt. Another sculptor springs to mind too – Mindaugas Navakas, whose dark humour, coupled to the sheer size of some of his sculptures, would certainly have created an irreverent polemic with the Green Bridge sculptures.

 

Impotent Present, Potent Absence

It appears that the fate of the Green Bridge sculptures is uncertain. When they were removed, the official version was that there was a need to repair them, but rumours say that they will not be returning to their original place on the Green Bridge. They may end up in Grutas Park, a kind of Disneyland world of Communist ideology. Understandably, independence meant that the usual standard Lenin sculptures needed to be removed and the transportation of Soviet sculptures to Grutas Park was a shrewd business deal meant to offer a chunk of memorabilia, presumably to tourists. Yet, take a closer look at these sculptures, out of context and without plinths, and you can see how they have lost their previous vigour. They are, in the main, reduced to pathetic shadows of their past. Corrosion or surface damage is not responsible for this. Their present context enhances their present state of impotence. Standing in front of one of the few Stalin sculptures remaining, becomes a harmless experience, as he remains in residence, plinthless, among the trees. There are those who may think that this demoralization of these artworks in their new setting, is just reward. However, I maintain that the Green Bridge sculptures changed their voice with time, even in their original setting. Reducing them to a Sunday afternoon theme park event relates more to our modern need for nostalgia than anything else. Imagine a more extreme act, where a grand destruction of the sculptures, in public, would at least leave a clear memory of a more decisive and meaningful act. Opponents could cry ‘Vandals!’ and those in favour of demolishing could cry ‘Good riddance!’ It would have been a spectacle, as in the Middle Ages, not the kind of indifferent removals that characterise the postmodern state. Then again, a more profound view of this challenge can be given by quoting Georges Bataille: ‘For me nothingness is a limit of an individual existence. Beyond its defined limits – in time and space – this existence or being no longer exists, no longer is. For us, that non-being is filled with meaning: I know I can be reduced to nothing’ (Bataille, 1992). The power of absence is shown when non-being is filled with meaning. In the same book On Nietzsche, Bataille is even more ominous: ‘When an object appears in the beyond of nothingness – in a certain sense, as a given fact of nothingness – that object transcends us.’ It is exactly this that happens when we assume absence is more preferable to presence. We are at fault to believe that removal will eradicate the issue. Removal or erasure can, as Jacques Derrida so rightly points out, leave a trace. And this trace can be a far stronger critique than the presence of, in this case, the sculptures. The removal of the Lenin sculpture in Lukiskiu Square in the nineties, left such a clear trace. By not replacing the sculpture, the whole structure of the square remains, and this is challenging. This removal is a more powerful act than the Green Bridge. The removal was, too, straightforward and daring, together with public outcry. However, this trace after the removal – the empty square with its original structure intact – was not an intentional decision. It was rather a case of suspended decision. Now there is a decision, and Lukiskiu square will be radically transformed.

We may believe, erroneously, that acts of removal remove colonialism itself.

The four Green Bridge sculptures were made by four sculptors and placed on the bridge in 1952. ‘Guarding Peace’ by Bronius Pundzius, depicts two soldiers guarding and defending, presumably the Vilnius population. ‘Agriculture’, by Petras Vaivada and Bernardas Bučas, shows rather, a proud working class couple, ready to toil for the Communist dream. ‘Youth and Science’ by Juozas Mikėnas and Juozas Kėdainis, promotes the idea of progress through education, while ‘Industry and Construction’ by Bronius Vyšniauskas and Napoleonas Petrulis, commemorates the industrial worker, with a clear mission for building the future. They were fascinating because they were not overtly political, but were nevertheless clearly from Soviet Lithuania. The removal caused a lively debate in the Lithuanian media that reached The Guardian (British press). I have followed some of this, but am fascinated to know whether anyone actually asked one of the Lithuanian artists who made the sculptures to voice his opinion about the removal. Bronius Vyšniauskas, who was a professor at the Vilnius Academy of Arts during Soviet times, was still alive during the years of debate that preceded the final act, dying a few months before his sculpture was removed. Political discussion aside, how relevant is the discussion about their artistic quality? Leni Riefenstahl created a brilliant Nazi documentary film called ‘Triumph of the Will’ (1935) while Sergei Eisenstein created one of the world’s best films – ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925). What is interesting with these films is that they are still highly regarded in the West, but for their aesthetic and formalistic qualities only. The blatant propaganda of both films is meant to be overlooked or even ignored, if possible. I, personally, do not think this is possible. In the case of the Green Bridge sculptures, it is the opposite – the focus remains on their propaganda values while their artistic qualities are neglected. Interestingly, the artist Daniel Buren once claimed that ‘Art is not free, the artist does not express himself freely (he cannot). Art is not the prophecy of a free society. Freedom in art is the luxury/privilege of a repressive society.'8 So, at first glance, acts of colonialism may not always be apparent. We may believe, erroneously, that acts of removal remove colonialism itself.

 

Whatever the work of art appears to say, it crosses out

If, indeed, the iron, rusted, sculptures on Green Bridge actually sang the praises of an independent Lithuania, secure in its nationhood, then what ‘voice’ was silenced and what voice has the removal encouraged? Albrecht Wellmer problematises this art voice in a wonderful way. He says: ‘…specifically aesthetic experience consists in the continual discussion, by virtue of the materiality of its semantic elements, of whatever is semantically comprehensible in an artwork. In other words, whatever the work of art appears to say, it crosses out at the very same time.’9  And this is the correct explanation for the changed voice of the Green Bridge sculptures. The voice that should speak of the intention of placing them there, crosses out very language of its sources. Michel De Certeau in his The Practice of Everyday Life shows us how artworks are transformed by those who see them. Each of us completes meaning in our own way. We personalise these public icons and privatise them. Who knows what each of us had created from our own version of the Green Bridge sculptures?

‘Memory and Deceit: The Green Bridge Case’ is a part of series Art in Multimodernity.

  1. Costello, D & Vickery, J (2007). Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers – Robert Smithson.. Berg Publishers.  
  2. Loosely from http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Colonialism. Accessed 26.10.2015  
  3. Derrida, Jacques (1981). Dissemination. University of Chicago.  
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpCWh3IFtDQ Accessed 26.10.2015  
  5. http://www.richardgalpin.co.uk/archive/erasure.htm Accessed 26.10.2015  
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Bridge_%28Vilnius%29. Accessed 15.10.2015  
  7. http://coldwarsites.net/country/lithuania/soviet-sculptures-on-the-green-bridge/ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/16/russian-speaking-lithuanians-upset-plans-remove-soviet-era-monuments  
  8. Costello, D & Vickery, J (2007). Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers – Daniel Buren.. Berg Publishers.  
  9. Costello, D & Vickery, J (2007). Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers – Daniel Buren. Berg Publishers.  
Ian Damerell
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November 25, 2015
Published in Tribune
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