Stories from our backyards belong to the world. A conversation with Anastasia Sosunova

img_3342aWhen we first began arranging the details for our meeting, Anastasia suggested we should do it in Lazdynai, one of the farther districts of Vilnius. There, besides the modernist apartment buildings so praised in architecture history textbooks, you’ll find the TV tower sticking out amidst a hilly landscape, kinetic sculptures in concrete squares juxtaposed by greenery, fast food stands and quasi-exotic street titles. Having passed by Peony (lith. Bijūnai) bus stop, we met with the artist in St.John’s Wort (lith. Jonažolė) st. no.1, where the usual middle-class life is exposed to the eye. Amongst all this lies a microcosmos, valuable in terms of artistic and anthropologic research.

Hello, Anastasia! Could you tell us about the local spirit of Lazdynai and how your artistic practice merges with the reality of this environment?

The spirit of this place, similarly to the other outskirts of Vilnius, is affected by the centrifugal forces of the city. Anything, that’s not bound to the core of the city, ends up here: newcomers, forests, polygons, abandoned bunkers and cemeteries, hospitals, young families, dogs, poverty, does and squirrels, blueberry pickers with their purple-stained fingers. Such mixture feels very close to me. The connecting material of all these different worlds, first of all, is a theory explaining processes much larger than Lazdynai: it globalises the relation to the closest existing environment and helps me to understand that as authentic as a community or territory may be, it’s still a reflection of different systems, power relations and long-articulated, but unresolved problems.

Another way to feel this place’s pulse is with the help of a representative of the companionable species – a dog. But that’s an entirely different topic, a whole different world with its own semantic system and outlook towards its surroundings, at times very far from being humane.

img_3234a img_3208bYou presented your solo exhibition Puota / The Feast in 2017 at the experimental engineering camp eeKūlgrinda. Photographs depicting local homeless people were placed in relation to natural artefacts encapsulated in polyester resin – one could say, like certain ‘capsules of understanding’. This show evokes countless questions! How did you come up with its concept? What were the theoretical and creative starting points for the work and what did these pieces communicate in Kartena (small town in the West of Lithuania)?

The feast of ‘crawling’ objects dates back to when I was first creating polyester resin sculptures for my MA project In the name of Terra. At the time, I was contemplating interstellar communication and the presentation of Earth and humankind to extraterrestrial lifeforms. This got me dwelling between cultural trends while looking at the communication developing between the alien and the local.  Also myths: I read through everything from Moses to Mickey Mouse. The truth is, after all I understood I had to try out different semantic systems. Collecting and encapsulating forest artefacts marks a certain place’s plot, bringing shape to geographies, creating an ‘ABC’ of a local ecosystem which I began the processes of doing. This became like auto-research as I tried to get to know the environment directly. Everything was meant to appear in one ontological level: bones; ashes from campfires; plants; mushrooms; insects etc. A while ago I found out that mites can’t differentiate between humans and animals seeing them all as simply just mammals. So the polyester resin sculptures had to be transparent and blind – just like ticks, and pieces completely unsuitable for pedestals: crawling, digesting participants that merge unnoticed with the environment.

As you said, The Feast which took place in the abandoned supermarket ‘Slėnis (eng. Valley)’ was comprised not only of sculptures, but also photographs of homeless people and their ‘shanty-towns’: a mixture of tribes, camps and squats. Generally speaking, to me, a piece of art is like an update of reality. My long-term obsession with aliens, bare life, and life itself descended right on Earth with this documentary, but still kept an air of eeriness. It’s like an enhanced reality with an inverted logic: you don’t expect something’s gonna jump right out in front of you until you install a programme in your head that allows it to. A person climbing out of a rubbish container in the centre of a gentrified middle-class neighbourhood, or a tent serving as a home propped on the side of a running path just doesn’t fit into the general pattern – therefore the locals see them as some sort of reality glitch. It can be Vilnius, Kartena, Twin Peaks or Ignalina – no place guarantees you won’t suddenly appear in the outskirts of Earth at any given moment.

Also, formal language doesn’t work well documenting and describing that kind of infrastructure. When discussing ‘Feast’ narratives with curator/writer Monika Kalinauskaitė, she made a very good point about the children story genre ‘through animal eyes’ that have always been written in whimsical, almost repulsive ways. Monika accommodated this genre as she pleased: an attitude towards an excessive state through the eyes of an animal. Such a practice is quite beneficial. A dog most probably wouldn’t see any glitch or any kind of paradox in that.

What’s your relation as an artist to the concept of communal spirit? In your works you discuss communication, representation, identity, language and separation problems. What (artistic) language or methods are both present and actual in your research? Where do you place yourself in terms of belonging or separating yourself from concrete groups and contemporary art trends that aim to, let’s say, determine an individual?

Everything begins with a community, right? All the topics mentioned above. This is an example I love: in different cultures people point differently at themselves with their finger when talking about themselves. In the West, people usually point at their chest, whereas in Japan it’s common to point at your nose. In both contexts it’s not very important—where exactly is it more natural to point your finger—when talking about yourself. People learn through mimetic cultural learning processes: they learn it as children, seeing other children do it, and later on subconsciously copying what they saw. That performative repetition—the appropriation of role and behaviour models—is a powerful force. And when ingrained performatives meet with an unexpected form of reality, those awkward situations and moments of epistemological shock arise. They seem incredibly fruitful to me. Exploring these kinds of situations in relation to signs, language and material research are my present and actual methods. At the same time, I’m concerned with post-internet trends and tendencies of post-humanistic theory… at best, I’d like to keep a healthy distance from it all, but it’s very difficult to avoid, because it’s seen as something current to my generation.

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I would like to ask you an archaic question concerning Nature. How is it you see it and how is it you see yourself in it?

Me, personally, I feel it being like an all encapsulating organism without a central nervous system. It seems to me that everything connects to something else, but not everything connects to everything else. I really like nature’s unintentionality – nature’s processes have no ethical concern. So, when somebody raises a giant wooden cross in the middle of the forest in Lazdynai, I find it really hard to make up to it, seeing it as an act of conceptual constraint against that place.

Last year the Survival Kit 9 festival took place in the former faculty of biology at Riga’s university. All the exhibits, in one way or another, discussed the concepts of dissolving, becoming and merging with reality. One of the most curious found-object exhibits was a crow’s nest made almost entirely of electric wires and metal cables. It seemed like it had fallen from some sort of dystopia. Maybe the city is also part of nature and there’s no point on setting boundaries? I also remember, for example, this monologue from the filming of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) about nature being a violent organism. It’s an excerpt from a well-known documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) by Les Bank, where Herzog’s statement about nature being an all-swallowing, mating and killing density may sound kind of demonising. But all I care here is that it came from the lips of a Westerner who spent three years fighting against it, shocked by its unintentional cruelty. I guess your outlook on nature depends on your position – it’s much easier to speak about the jungle from an artist’s studio, than actually being there.

You have a VAA bachelor degree in graphics and a MA in sculpture, participated in Rupert’s art residency and educational programme, were an intern in the studio of acclaimed artist Laure Prouvost. You also were an intern at kim? contemporary art in Riga.. All these environments are quite different and have brought some really authentic experiences – there you met your teachers and colleagues. What does education mean to you and how does it reflect in your creative process?

Yes, these last years I have been consulting with Marija Marcelionytė, Deimantas Narkevičius and Kasparas Pocius. They are strong individuals and true experts of their field. But the learning process in Rupert, kim? and Laure Prouvost’s studio were, and are entirely different: intense and beneficially merciless. It seems like after years of flight simulators I finally got into a real plane. This kind of practical education works the best for me. Laure became one of my most inspirational figures ever in professional and humanistic terms. It seems in her world there are no boundaries. I’d love to believe that this kind of worldview is something acquirable. So, these educational adventures obviously influenced my creativity – even though I’m aware, that even though it will vanish, little by little, the best part of it all that I have gained is a more realistic understanding of my own abilities, losing the fear to be ambitious.

Probably in any artist’s work you can recognise certain continuities or, the opposite, an aim to distance themselves from previously conceived notions. Could you tell me about the direction of your artistic practice over the past few years? Authentic storytelling is always great… Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you resolved a lot of actual notions in your work while doing your MA.

In my case, the line of authentic storytelling emerges from bilinguality and that liminal state when mind, personality and the representative process translates from one language to another. During that transition, I always feel there’s some sort of in-between kind of language – a rigmarole of images, senses and emotions. The friction between Lithuanian and Russian language is obvious to me, so I know what it feels like to be there. That’s why the topic of communication is always after me. Graphic interpretations of theoretical texts and the representation of time, sound and emotional states in graphic realms made me develop an interest for language manipulation. In my MA work about messages for aliens, three things finally met up: semiotic language research, search for identity and its presentation. SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is a very special field: here there will always be place not only for recognised disciplines, but also quasi-sciences, poetry and irony. Just look at us – we met in Lazdynai and we’re talking about this district’s communities. I find them interesting because they represent common sense.

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Sometimes I wonder about the definition ‘young artist’ (or ‘young art critic’, for that matter). Without any doubt, it’s very much a question of visibility – usually a piece becomes the young artist’s signature. Would you tell us your thoughts about self-representation? What pushes you to improve and choose original methods?

If I understand it right, that ‘young artist’ label is like a gesture of positive discrimination that opens some special financial and career options. It’s nothing more than a beaurocratic category, inevitably associated with culture. When I hear somebody say ‘that young artist’, the air is suddenly filled with belief in a bright perspective future and I swear – knowing that your works will be at least shown to the public/exhibit is already motivational enough. Ironically, the people whose professionalism and work I admire are also often called ‘young artists’, ‘young critics’, ‘young curators’… which makes me wonder whether mentioning one’s age at a certain point of a creative career is inaccurate even? It suddenly becomes very unclear. Is a ‘young artist’s’ art the way it is because of their age, or despite it?

It’s probably much easier to talk about representation from aside. When I chose to study art, I was completely sure that this would be the greatest thing to do for an introvert like me. As I’ve understood recently, everything works slightly different in reality. Therefore, I try to be more open to outside changes and challenges, also to participate and initiate more. I remember being baffled by a very simple psychological fact – that motivation follows action, not that action follows motivation. Turns out, often the first step has to be taken through the void or even inner resistance.

You’re from Ignalina, which was a primary push for a lot of your artistic projects. Could you tell us about your plans in the near future? I’m curious to know how your authentic experiences merge with universal symbols and cultural experience. How is this represented in different mediums?

The easiest way to let go of one’s provincial complex is the ability to see similarities in dissimilarities. Perhaps that’s the reason why another very important city to me, Visaginas, became an attraction centre to so many artists. This town is both authentic and a good environment to research systematic phenomenon’s. Also, talking about locations and locals, the experimental engineering camp in Kartena and Robertas Narkus’s interaction with the town’s habitants, made me seriously consider such a project in a town of bigger scale – and one whose psychogeography is very familiar to me. Just thinking about Ignalina and its people sparks hundreds of stories in my head. Even though it’s really banal, the legend of the cursed Ignas and Lina, who were made to live in the bottom of the lake, perfectly connects with Kitezh and the myth of a lost city underwater. It may be a paradox, but in both cases the disappearing under the water was a salvation, rather than a punishment. Every city and every community has its own underwater story. I love the idea, that stories from our backyards are connected to the entire world. Since the experience of a natal city is made up of memory glimmers, time-based media seems the most accurate tool for it. I’m curious myself, what’s it gonna be of it.

Thank you for an interesting conversation!

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img_3233aPhotography: Tudor Belei

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April 12, 2018
Published in Interview from Lithuania
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