Thoughts that drive you insane. Vsevolod Kovalevskij's project in the Venclova House Museum in Vilnius

May 2, 2014
Author Kęstutis Šapoka
Published in Review from Lithuania


Small art projects in unexpected places are interesting if only because they expand one’s “inner geography” both literally and figuratively speaking. Vsevolod Kovalevskij’s exhibition 3600 Opportunities of Understanding Everything or Nothing, which opened on 15 April in the house-museum of Antanas Venclova, one of our Soviet heavyweights (34 Pamėnkalnio Street, Vilnius), mixed up my habitual gallery-visiting routes. I had never been to this house-museum and, thanks to Kovalevskij, I visited it. According to Kovalevskij himself, it all started with an unplanned get-together with Justė Juozėnaitė (a curator-coordinator at the Venclova House Museum) in the CAC café. I had known about the Venclova House from other events and I was infatuated with its interiors, so down-to-earth and cozy, so I offered to hold an exhibition there.((Quoting Vsevolod Kovalevskij))

One online blog presents Vsevolod Kovalevskij as a “social critique” artist… So in this project, the Venclova House suggests very “critical” readings. First of all, given the historical background, Kovalevskij’s remark about the “down-to-earth and cozy” interiors of the Venclova House could be taken for an ideological statement. It is perfectly correct, since many Soviet heavyweights, including leaders of the intelligentsia, lived very comfortably and interiors in their superstandard flats or private houses did indeed come across as “cozy and out-of-this-earth”, in sharp contrast to stuffy dwellings of many an ordinary Soviet prole.

Meanwhile Kovalevskij’s statement about his admiration for Venclova’s “cultural and political life”, his “open-minded views on people and the world” could, ideologically speaking, be seen as scandalously chauvinistic and plain shocking. Especially since Kovalevskij is not in the least ironic, judging by the context, he is perfectly earnest. This is why I am not going to dwell on ideological subtexts, as I am not entirely sure if Kovalevskij and I understood one another adequately. Also because it might be a question of entirely detached psycho-social, socio-cultural narratives, something which merits an in-depth discussion of its own.

Besides, Kovalevskij later specified that he was primarily interested in the “historic” context of the interiors in question and not that much in their “ideology”. One would be hard-pressed, though, to see how one could divorce “history” from “ideology”, but if Kovalevskij himself rejects “critical” or “ideological” subtexts of his statements, one should not pick on the artist’s words.

He must have cared mostly about the deeply intimate, subjective subtexts related to notions of time and space. While the interiors simply lingered as a space that used to be intimate but had since become a museum. Eschewing ideological refrains, one could say that these interiors are a meeting point of subjective and socio-historical spacetimes, which creates a rather paradoxical atmosphere.

Kovalevskij exhibits two video recordings where he is shown simply giving a hand (as I understand it) to his grandma and grandpa in petty chores of hygiene. At the same time, the videos give a sense of a particular space which is formed not just in an encounter of youth and old age, but in between people related by blood whose encounter in this world is time-bound and whose separation is already in sight. Moreover, people related by blood are, in some sense, the same person divided into a chain of bodies, times and spaces. As one link in this chain disappears, the rest too, to an extent, die. One is thus alive and dead at the same time.

Kovalevskij’s videopieces are therefore original in that they speak (perhaps indirectly) about a rather unpopular topic in contemporary arts, senility. It’s something I touched upon while writing about Andrius Kviliūnas project The Silent History. Moreover, the pieces are exceptionally affectionate and emotional, without quite crossing over to pathos or affectation. It might sound banal, but Kovalevskij’s pieces are honest in the good sense of the word. True, there are other subtexts at play, since the artist uses the intimate space and the subjective mini-biography to talk about paradoxes in perception of time, space and identity on a much wider scale.

Parallel displays of simple everyday scenes, their duration, verbal or, in other words, sociocultural plane expressed through language, relations among the people in the video (one of them is Vsevolod Kovalevskij himself) – all this is used by the artist to slowly reveal alternative existential planes. Indeed, watching the videos, one gets a sense of gradually alternating times of leaving, (non)being, the past, the present and the future, a denial of habitual time-perception hierarchies, something that is even further heightened by the Venclova House interiors and is physically experienced against the background of subjective and collective memory, using the house-museum as a site of subjective-collective biographical narratives. To conclude my story, it would probably make most sense to let Kovalevskij himself to be the DJ and mix the subtexts of his project.

In early 2013, I took part in Auridas Gajauskas’ curated project, Anne. The project gave birth to the piece 3600 Possibilities of Understanding Everything or Nothing. The title and the concept of my piece – a space, a period of 60 minutes contains 3600 possibilities of understanding everything or nothing. Human consciousness processes data in the speed of milliseconds and thus stops at one precise moment (what is that precise moment?) where time is irrelevant. The moment where one’s body is smashed into the fabric of two-dimensional space. Like an astronaut during launch plunges into some sort of non-physical state, where it seems that the force of gravitation is projecting all of the dimensions at the same time, even layering them onto one another. The moment where body becomes something else and one can not recognize oneself. And then the aftermath – the present moment. So the idea came from a sentence in Maurice Blanchot’s book, Thomas the Obscure: I would live all the hours of my life in the hour in which I could no longer live them.

I instantly recalled the image of my grandpa and, as if by a stroke of destiny, I had a photo of him four months before the death of his physical body, although his consciousness had left the body long before. He reminded me of an astronaut, stuck in outer space, lost and receding further and further into the unknown.

So let’s return to the exhibition at the Venclova House. To sum up, the idea of the exhibition is/was to reflect on the potential of spacetime perception through experiences of non/physical death. The title and the concept of the piece that emerged from Anne became the starting point for my exhibition. A video on the Venclova Museum website, Promise, shows ritualistic actions of keeping a promise. In October 2009 and 2010, twelve days apart, my Mother’s mother and my Father’s father passed away. Right before their deaths, both asked to help them. But I was away and could not do it in time. In the next room, there hangs a photo of an unknown man. For me, this man is the grandpa I spoke of before. For someone else, he either is or might very well not be. The astronaut caught up in the vacuum of space. Where time no longer exists, where everything seems to smash into a continuum and all experiences lose their meanings.

I also neglected to mention another exhibit, Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Ubik, where he ponders on the existence of consciousness after death. People in the future don’t get buried, rather, when they are almost at the point of death, they get frozen in special chambers and someone close to them can come any time and communicate with them via thoughts. This way people of the future live on after a sort of death. There is also a silver train put on a shelf. My grandpa was an engine driver. Trains played a big role in his life and mine. However, when I see the train and the astronaut photo, it brings to mind the 1979 movie Galaxy Express 999. I recall a crystal planet which serves as both a prison and a trap for those who are lost. If they overstay, they get crystalized and swallowed up by the planet, becoming part of its body. There is only one being who lives, or rather exists, on the planet, shaped like a woman in constant sorrow. The only way to communicate with others is to touch the surface of the planet, but since there are too many people trapped therein, all thoughts turn into a din that drives you insane.((Quoting Vsevolod Kovalevskij))

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Photographs by Vsevolod Kovalevskij