August 21, 2014
Author Kęstutis Šapoka
Published in Review from Lithuania
Saulius Leonavičius exhibition at JMVMC, Vilnius


Over the last few years since Saulius Leonavičius delivered his famous piece “On the Habit of Using a Pedestal” (2012) – his master thesis, where he took down (and then replaced again) a piece by one of our contemporary “grands”, “Too Long on the Pededestal” (a pair of salt-filled shoes) – he has presented a number of memorable works and, one can say, has become a phenomenon of Vilnius contemporary art scene.

In a sense, he has even exonerated this peculiar mixture of neo-conceptualism/neo-minimalism and “dematerialized” aesthetics that has been somewhat of a fad these last five or six years in Lithuania (or, rather, its capital Vilnius – how arrogant a habit to assume Vilnius stands for the entire country), a self-serving “idea design” that often has little substance behind its obsession with sophisticated puzzles for puzzles’ sake.

The opposite might be true, it turns out. Leonavičius has given us back the belief that even this kind of art can be both felt and understood. That this kind of art can be intellectual and witty at the same time. True, life experience does come into play here, since Leonavičius, despite his manner of speaking so characteristic of today’s young artists, is a member of the generation of a little older peers. This “experience” lends depth and substance to Leonavičius’ “simple” pieces. In other words, the artist simply knows what he means – and consequently form and contempt come into an organic whole, relieving one of the necessity to hide behind pseudo-intellectual pretence.

What Leonavičius does are usually micro-interventions into the institutional (both in its narrower and wider sense) context. In the case of the lifting off the pedestal (he has performed several of those), the action, I’d venture to say, is completely innocent but it nonetheless disturbs, to a greater of lesser degree, the institutional space, thus helping define its socio-ideological outlines. A normative socio-ideological framework becomes visible underneath the “aesthetic” space.

Leonavičius himself explains his work as consisting of violations of some (micro)rules in order to create a situation which makes the piece “grow” into a multi-dimensional, contextual whole. Leonavičius’ actions are impossible without a context, intervention, appropriation and, likewise, are not complete without the sub-situation that emerges in that situation and enlaces the performed action, the (performative) object as well as, eventually, the initial context.

During a workshop that was part of the “Migrating Academias” project in one of Vilnius galleries, Leonavičius’s “final piece” was an inscription pencilled on a gallery wall: “One rule. We can not write on the walls here. M. G.”; he thus made explicit the “rule” of the workshop that was not supposed to be made explicit, creating an “uncomfortable” situation by turning the context upside down.

For instance, Leonavičius once stole the book “Roll Over Museum” by Artūras Raila from the library of Nida Art Colony and gave it to Nida Public Library… During his month-long residence at the same Nida Art Colony he wrote “Ethnography Museum” outside his studio and allowed anyone to visit it. In other words, the artist ironically re-institutionalized the institutional space that was meant as his private quarters (for the duration of the residence), creating a double simulacrum of institutional space.

Before a lecture of Professor H. B. Andresen in the Art Academy, Leonavičius waited until the lecturer and students entered the lecture theatre, then locked the door and snapped the key. This provoked a discussion about the action, the artists’ responsibility and so on. When the discussion concluded, the door was simply broken open.

In other words, Leonavičius questions the system he happens to enter, he intercepts its mechanisms and (minimally) paradoxicalizes them. Simply put, rather than working within the institutional space (e.g., a gallery), he often works with it and its status. Even if a piece by Leonavičius might appear as an “architectural solution” at first glance, it is shaped by a particular institutional situation. Space is politicized.

This is equally true of the “piece” that Leonavičius enacted for the project in the (institutional) space of JMVAC. The process of making the piece is what gave the name to the artwork itself and the entire exhibition. In addition to a small retrospective of several previous works, Leonavičius has offered the Centre an idea for a new piece specifically for the project. Since the idea related to the Centre’s institutional context – or touched on a sore point, if you will – it was, obviously, rejected. It was suggested to the artist to come up with another “piece”. He agreed to think about it, but the original idea preoccupied him, while the interdiction (or rather insistent request) to stay away from “that” context attracted him even more.

Eventually the artist came up with a solution how to “touch” and “discuss” the untouchable and, preferably, undiscussable context by “circumventing” and “hiding” it. He built a wall, blocking the passage to the “untouchable and undiscussable” context (a particular spot in the gallery) and temporarily “erasing” it from the institutional space; he neither spoke of it, nor physically touched it. But it is this very action of “circumventing”, “not touching”, “erasing”, in combination with the title of the piece, that paradoxically foregrounds this context, makes it explicit and gives an excuse to ask: what was this proposal that was not allowed?

Leonavičius uses the “limits on the creative freedom” (just like in the above-mentioned workshop) as material for his “artwork”, allowing, in a sense, this paradoxical situation to shape it. What constitutes the artwork is not just the artist’s proposal, but also the entire process of prohibitions and negotiations by the gallery management as well as the final object which is acceptable to the gallery (and rather pleasing aesthetically) and, at the same time, slightly mocking of the gallery’s own (socio-ideological) space and the process of realizing the project. Leonavičius tests the limits of the particular gallery/institution, trying to determine the extent to which this institutional system is capable of self-reflexivity and/or self-irony.

The exhibition is open until 5th September, for more information see here.

Other upcoming projects: “YOU LOOK SO BEAUTIFUL NOW. 2012 08 22” in collaboration with Milda Laužikaitė

Leonavicius-JMVMC_1 Leonavicius-JMVMC_2 Leonavicius-JMVMC_3 Leonavicius-JMVMC_4 Leonavicius-JMVMC_5 Leonavicius-JMVMC_7 Leonavicius-JMVMC_8 Leonavicius-JMVMC_9 Leonavicius-JMVMC_10 Leonavicius-JMVMC_11 Leonavicius-JMVMC_12 Leonavicius-JMVMC_13 Leonavicius-JMVMC_14 Leonavicius-JMVMC_15

Photographs by Marta Ivanova