January 3, 2014
Author Kęstutis Šapoka
Published in Review from Lithuania

Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre exhibition “Vilnius Pavilion” in Moscow Contemporary Art Centre

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In fact, I do not believe that exhibitions of Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre (at least in recent years) are worth much notice. However, when it comes to presenting the contemporary art scene of “Lithuania” or “Vilnius” abroad, one is justified in taking a look at how our (?) image is being constructed. Hence the following remarks about “Vilnius Pavilion”, an exhibition organized by Vilnius CAC at Moscow State Contemporary Arts Centre.

“Vilnius Pavilion” is dominated by young-generation artists from Lithuania (Vilnius?) who mostly work within dematerialized aesthetics and engage extensively with the motif of “memory”. According to the exhibition catalogue, even though the art of objects gets dematerialized, is dissolved, the idea of an object is still there, it returns in the guise of “neomaterialism”. That, too, must have something to do with the Lithuanian sculptural tradition of the 1980s and 1990s, but mostly with the “policies” adopted in the Department of Sculpture of Vilnius Academy of Art over the last two decades, whereby object- or installation-based sculpture is gradually transformed into ideas, discursive and mental (memory, imagination) forms. Perhaps Mindaugas Navakas, an older-generation sculptor who recently presented his “Sideboard” in Vilnius, is therefore a good incarnation of this “tradition of conceptualization” in the Academy, especially since many of the young participants in the exhibition are graduates of the department. Meanwhile Deimantas Narkevičius must be there to represent the onset of Lithuanian contemporary art’s preoccupation with “memory”…

At the same time, the young ones seem to reject the monumentality, critical and unmasking intentions, the sheer “messianism” that characterized interdisciplinary artists of the 1990s. In their aesthetic system, the notion of memory is stripped of ideology, it functions less as an “analytic” discourse than a “fairy tale”, a “myth”. This generation consists mostly of people who were born in the Soviet Union but have no (or little) first-hand memory of it, therefore for them, the Soviet era is a terra nova sprinkled with “nostalgia” and “romanticism” of fragmented recollections. Sometimes what you get is a socio-architectural background which is not as much “analyzed” as simply interwoven into the fabric of quasi-fantastic reality.

“Study of a Flowerpot” by Liudvikas Buklys is a shelf that resembles standardized Soviet furniture designs, but at the same time a reference to the 1960s-70s American minimalism. In fact, the “study” is less about the shelf than an (abstract) imaginary flowerpot. The piece creates a context, an intimation, which gives a gentle push to the viewer’s (sub)consciousness towards visualizing a particular object, i.e., a flowerpot. At the same time Burklys is engaging with images of historical (sub)consciousness, studying the mechanisms of their reactualization.

Unlike her colleagues, Laura Kaminskaitė puts tangible objects into contexts of alternative interpretations, understanding, reading by not so much offering to construe an additional mental object as by transferring it into the discursive plane. Thus a square-shaped sugar lump becomes an image of the “white cube”, i.e., contemporary art gallery. As we all know, a sugar lump can absorb liquids (be they art shows, kinds of art, discourse, etc.) or, on the contrary, dissolve therein, yet continue its existence as a flavour.

Similarly, the artist hyperbolizes a translucent rectangular glass vase filled with water and a rose. A vase, some water and a rose (with multi-coloured petals – a metaphor for the entire exhibition) can thus also become a symbol of the exhibition, art or curatorial system. In her own way, the artist thus recodes seemingly banal everyday objects in order to speak about the ephemeral character of art and the art system, their diffusion within the social (or perhaps mental) milieu.

Elena Narbutaitė’s piece “Lady of Dust” speaks about “objects” and, indirectly, about “thingness” and “memory”, perhaps the thing-ness of memory. On the other hand, we only learn about some objects, their consistence (e.g., dough), phenomena via sound recordings. At the same time, the idea is one of mediating memory. Thing-ness is spoken, narrated.

Despite a rather interesting explanation that accompanies Antanas Gerlikas’ “A Stroll”, it does not really stick to the piece itself. To be sure, having an animal run around in a gallery does provide for a capacious metaphor of a man as a tamed beast. And Gerlikas’ piece itself would be top-notch, if it weren’t for an almost identical creation by the Belgian artist Francis Alys, who, in 2006, let in a fox to “stroll” in a London museum.

Gerlikas’ catalogue description does not mention if his piece is a commentary on the Belgian one or whether he simply had not known about the similar piece by his better-known colleague. It might well be a commentary, since young-generation artists are so keen on playing with quotations, replies, remakes, appropriations – in short, they often behave like DJs.

On the other hand, both the Lithuanian and international contemporary art markets regard emulating celebrated antecedents (often verbatim) in a very positive light. If a young artist’s piece cannot compare to one by a better-known colleague, how is one to read it, categorize it under one “style” or another? For Vilnius fine art critics and curators that might present an irresolvable dilemma.

In the exhibition, Juozas Laivys represents the generation of Lithuanian contemporary artists “sandwiched” between interdisciplinary artists of the 1990s and the young “neominimalists” of today. In his video performance, he “addresses” Barbora, a statue by the famous Soviet sculptor Vladas Vildžiūnas (an example of Soviet folk-modernism) erected in Vokiečių Street, Vilnius, in 1982. Laivys reads out a poem, inviting her to take a walk, to go to a café… The artist “dissolves” the situation by way of contrast – the colossal monument, a silent piece of bronze vs. the artist (himself a sculptor, by the way), his body, voice and psychologized language that brings Barbora to life. In a sense, Laivys transfers some of his life to the sculpture, becoming, to an extent, one himself. Simultaneously, we are on a quasi-historic level, witnessing two different eras trying to talk to one another.

The Coro Collective came up with a video that shows, according to the catalogue, people voguing in the 1980s style. Moreover, the dance has been shot against the background of Vilnius Sports and Culture House, a showpiece of Soviet modernist architecture. Once again, history undergoes “dematerialization”, it loses all recognizable socio-political and/or ethical reference points and becomes an element of a new design.

One could take a different look at the exhibition, though. For example, I could venture to say that the young ones are less interested in exploring “memory” or dematerialization than – consciously or not – in emulating the international career of Deimantas Narkevičius (arguably one of the most internationally-recognized Lithuanian artists) that, as we are well aware, has been mostly built on speculations around “(post)soviet history”. Despite efforts of the CAC and the National Gallery to turn Narkevičius into an official idol, within our local discourse there are increasingly many voices saying that he is a rather mediocre member of his generation who built a career for himself by partying with the right people. Simply put, Narkevičius is but a successful apparatchik.

In this sense, having Narkevičius himself take part in the exhibition is conceptually unnecessary, but institutionally – absolutely imperative. The official establishment is doing everything possible to maintain the “bubble” of its leading official artist – to keep his status high at all costs.

Consciously or not, therefore, the young artists emulate the career model (and style) of Narkevičius, thus infecting themselves with the same virus of institutional establishment.

Secondly, when it comes to “dematerialization”, we must talk about another product of the CAC, the “Tulips & Roses” gallery and its frontman Raimundas Malašauskas, Lithuania’s “most famous” art curator. This gallery is, in fact, the main champion of the “dematerialized aesthetics” that often takes the form of romanticized reflexions on the Soviet period. Certainly, the aesthetic itself is not the point here, what matters is that this gallery has, via various institutional simulations and manipulations, created an elite of a small group of people and extolled a particular type of aesthetics. This exhibition (much like almost all more official CAC shows, in fact) is dominated by the “Tulips & Roses” people. Not because they have proven worthy in some “competition”, but because they have “patronage”.

In a nutshell, “Vilnius Pavilion” is dominated by the majority of Narkevičius and “Tulips & Roses” emulators (or followers). This socio-aesthetic amalgamation can be called the official style or neonomenclaturism. And as we know, those who are “in” with the “official style” have always had access to certain privileges and better avenues towards (international) career. Just like in the Soviet times, “going abroad” with institutionally-endrosed exhibition is a privilege granted to the loyal.

On the other hand, the “official style”, disguised though it is under lofty slogans and sophisticated commentaries, often succumbs to triviality. Such is the case with “Vilnius Pavilion” – a typical example of two functionary institutions, the CAC of Vilnius and the CAC of Moscow, engaging in rather trite form of cooperation. The impression one gets is that its curator Julija Fomina is an extra in this spectacle who has no views or vision of her own, but simply follows the directions of the “famous curator” Malašauskas. The latter must have felt he could not be bothered to organize a show for his protégés himself.

Two conclusions beg themselves. First, Vilnius CAC is persistently building an “official style” that consists of the “select few”. On the one hand, the style is not, in itself, a bad one (despite being a rather straightforward emulation of the American neoavangard). The bad thing is that Vilnius CAC and one gallery are building an elite status for a group of artists, thus giving a false impression to the international public that their art is all there is in Lithuania (or Vilnius). In this sense, the CAC’s “exhibition policies” bring us back to the late Soviet period when (official) art was completely subjected to the whims of the officialdom and had itself, to a great extent, become an institutionalized establishment.

For more information see:

Front image: Laura Kaminskaitė “Untitled (four walls and an exhibition)”
©Moscow Contemporary Art Centre

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Laura Kaminskaitė “Sugar Entertainment”


Marija Olšauskitė “Optimist”

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Mindaugas Navakas “Sideboard”

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Juozas Laivys “Cleopas” (left) and “For Barbora from Vokiečių street” (right)

coro colective

Coro Collective “Vocabularly Lesson”

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Elena Narbutaitė “Lady of Dust”

©Moscow Contemporary Art Centre