A Wider Jump, a Smaller Splash. ‘Sheets and Splashes: Leisure in 20th and 21st-Century Lithuanian Art’ at the National Gallery of Art, Vilnius

August 22, 2022
Author Alberta Vengrytė
Published in Review from Lithuania

It seems unnecessary to lack labour in an exhibition about leisure. Without references to professional self-realisation, emptied printer cartridges, unrewarded efforts, Microsoft Excel functions, creative meetings, a proactive approach towards work requirements, or exploitative structures in the contemporary job market: through the sheets laid in intimate home spaces as well as splashes in the Baltic Sea, in five parts of the exhibition recreation practices are made meaningful and billow through different creative media. This is the only ‘job’ of the vacationers; therefore, the structure of the exhibition suggests a thesis without an antithesis; here to earn leisure it is completely unnecessary to engage in any labour. However, the range of activities conveyed in the works is vast, and the scope of the exhibition will make even the most patient visitor work a little.

Works by more than a hundred artists who worked in different periods of the 20th and 21st centuries are successfully organised into home, city, nature, seaside and ‘overseas (abroad) environments. This ideological, as well as the physical, architecture of ‘Sheets and Splashes’ determines the narrative of leisure practices extending from private to public spaces, which in turn has an impact on the exhibition dynamics. From chamber spaces, often through specifically interesting ‘minor’ works in the exhibition, one enters settings available only to closed circles of the like-minded (for example, colourful artist gatherings immortalised in photographs, the parlour of countess Kašovskienė, or the Wittgenstein family’s villa in Nice in France), to the spaces established through commonly enacted social rituals of vacation communities (i.e. leisure spent in cafés, art galleries, amusement parks or on public beaches), to the cosmogonies of leisure realities based on individual rituals (such as trips and picnics in nature, during which as in the hierophany of Mircea Eliade, a temporary cosmos of civilisation is established in the chaos of the wilderness).  

We can consider a series of photographs from the Vilnius Television Studio by Algirdas Šeškus (Untitled, 1979-1983), who was working there at the time as a cameraman, to be an evocative example of the ‘minor’ works in the show. Alongside his main duties and the televisual aesthetics obeying the mouthpiece of the Soviets, the artist secretly made thousands of images capturing, as stated in the notes to the work, ‘the artificial light shadows, the fringes of conceived movements’, in such a way eternalising not only the choreography of exercise-at-home programmes, propagating the healthy lifestyle of Soviet man, but also an authentic approach towards the materiality of the televisual image, the corporality of colleagues who were participating in the show being filmed. No less impactful is the photographic study by the famous Lithuanian physicist Henrikas Horodničius of the iconic sculpture Eglė, Queen of the Serpents in Palanga (a resort town in Lithuania) by Robertas Antinis. While returning to his favourite resort every year, the self-taught photographer observed subtle changes in the light and shadows cast over the statue, captures details in the work that are not visible to the ordinary tourist, and hence makes meaningful not only his creative inclinations but also the ritualistic bond with the leisure site and its symbol.

Even if the narrative of the show is characterised by linearity (which, it seems, is becoming a tendency in the shows recently organised at the National Gallery of Art, such as ‘Shaping the Future: Environments by Aleksandra Kasuba’ in 2021 curated by Elona Lubytė, ‘Kazys, Ona, Juozas, Agota, Katrė, Stepas, Pranas, Eugenija, Vincas and others: Indigenous Narratives’ in 2021 curated by Margarita Matulytė, or ‘Restless Bodies. East German Photography 1980–1989’ curated by Sonia Voss), ‘Sheets and Splashes’ is sure of a one-way journey from private to public spaces by the variety of media selected for the exhibition, as well as by the shift in leisure seen in works that require active or passive engagement. From the video work Belarussian Wallpaper (2009) by Jurga Barilaitė, in which we see the author lying on a bed in a Soviet-designed room and observing a wall plastered with dull wallpaper, and later starting to highlight its pattern, creating a hopelessly gloomy atmosphere through this monotonous and pointless activity, which makes the viewer ‘exit’ the room depicted in the video and enter the field of socio-political criticism, to the sensory Odours of Rest (2022) by Milda Dainovskytė, which supplements the exhibition with an intimate act of smelling, as well as the experiential ritual of feeling the personal ‘fragrance formula’ of the artist.

At home it is slept, read, listened to music, engaged in hobbies (i.e. Balcony with Flowers by Silvestras Džiaukštas, 1969-1974) and games; it is referred to in memorabilia of trips and practices of collecting as meditative memory exercises; in a video-installation of an unexplored dream ‘high’ and ‘love’ cultures are reflected (Dainius Liškevičius, 2004). In the city, banquets and eccentric parties, as well as discotheques (Vincentas Gečas, 1984-1996), are organised. One can enter exhibitions and amusement parks, and sports are practised while playing tennis or riding a bike in the easily recognisable landscapes of Vilnius and its surroundings: in perhaps the earliest piece in the show (Vincentas Sledzinskis, 1896), Sereikiškių Park is bathed in a warm afternoon glow; we secretly observe bathers at Valakampiai and Trakai. Having entered nature, we wander the meadows in the evening together with lovers, we venture on a hunt with the 20th-century painter and scenographer Barbora Didžiokienė, we pick mushrooms and embark on hiking expeditions. Aspiring to a certain oxymoron of civilised nature, the recreation in public pools and spas hovers somewhere between nature and the seaside in the exhibition architecture; however, in a moment, the viewer lets himself be carried away to the seaside, perhaps the most direct and uncomplicated part of ‘Sheets and Splashes’, through the well-articulated motif of travelling there. Unlike in Sun and Sea by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, here we behold vacationers who do not burden themselves with existential questions about the fate of the planet: American Lithuanians pick the amber cast out by the Baltic Sea as if it were crumbs of dark local bread; the most varied silhouettes sunbathe in the flickering, impressionist landscape of the seaside (Vytautas Kairiūkštis, Palanga Beach, 1939); nude figures tan themselves on designated women’s and men’s beaches, as if embodying the famous argument of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham that the value of pleasure can be determined while multiplying its intensity by its length … After sunbathing, our characters are drawn to the touring summer theatre plays; and the most famous 20th-century resort restaurants with their evening raiment-wearing guests shine in the photographs by J. Berlinger.

Finally, abroad, where via a two-way road one returns to the point of escape, or perhaps to the per se motivation of it (Dainius Žiūra, Road Movie, 2020). Vitas Luckus captures the vivacity of youth in Bashkiria, and Miša Skalskis uses a tourist narrative to create a digitalised meta-story. Perhaps the most sophisticated part of this part of the show is the series of drawings of hotel rooms by Linas Jablonskis (Untitled, 2019, 2021), in which watercolour figures find themselves in nameless rooms, giving meaning to the lassitude (unnecessarily physical) of travel and the atmosphere of ephemerality and transience. The interpretation of the same topic by Patricija Jurkšaitytė eliminates figurability from the always foreign hotel room, thus becoming a hermetic and slightly uncanny anachronism of a Renaissance view with a window.

On the other hand, exactly in the plenitude of different art forms and media, it may become complicated to keep the view and mind of the visitor equally sharp. Sweet wrappers (Wine, women and cards) created by Gerardas Bagdonavičius in the 1950s, large-format canvases by Arvydas Šaltenis, Šarūnas Sauka, Vygantas Paukštė and Kostas Dereškevičius, photographs by Virgilijus Šona, luckily discoverable in Lithuanian museums and art galleries more and more often, and contemporary works by Ignas Maldus, Milda Laužikaitė and Eglė Norkutė, all weave seamlessly into a logical sequence home – public leisure sites – nature – spa – gardens community – seaside – mountains – unfamiliar territory; however, the quality, as well as ambition, of the works is not paramount. Although the narrative of ‘Sheets and Splashes’ aims to reveal the genesis of the contemporary notion of leisure, the socio-political situation of the second half of the 20th century is straightforwardly attested to only by the numerous Soviet documentary video essays, as well as the posters ‘Let’s do sports, let’s do sports, let’s do sports’, ‘Let’s travel around our native land’ and ‘We invite you on tourist trips by plane’, created at the beginning of the 1970s by Juozas Galkus, and characterised by sloganeering rhetoric, as well as tiny flags of the Russian empire seen only by an especially observant visitor in the background of certain paintings. In other cases, it seems, it relies on the viewer’s ability to analyse the artistic expression of the exhibited works, as a product of a specific historical period, with its characteristic cultural and socio-political conditions. Thus, the visitor to ‘Sheets and Splashes’ is likely to expect an extremely wide range of 20th and 21st-century painting, graphic art, sculpture, photography, applied art, advertising, amateur art, artistic and documentary cinema and contemporary art, as well as to have a consistent knowledge of it all … A chaise-longue with an umbrella placed in the centre of the hall becomes a promise of even a short respite from the abundance of visual information for the fatigued viewer.

The exhibition dictates the character of the text, so we should not be too surprised by the narrative nature of the latter. On the other hand, the exhibition, which attacks the eyes of summer visitors to the city with bursts of non-stop visual content, attracts with the rippled motley in the twilight of the gallery, and excites all the receptors of sensory sensations, thus expanding the functions of intellectual cognition as well. The external world and the stimuli of internal desires merge here in a common kaleidoscope of lulling experiences, in which the ability to choose valuable and enriching information becomes the main work of those who are resting, so how much ‘water’ will run off the viewer in the exhibition becomes exclusively a matter of personal zest and interest.

I’m never stressed, never ill,
never late, never had a tic,
never asked for help, never bit
a pencil, but I know how you are feeling, and
I will stay nearby, because I am

– Your Talking Cube
(Gailė Cijūnaitė, Talking Cube, 2022).

Let’s see this exhibition as a cube trying to contain the century of Lithuanian art.

Photography: Gintarė Grigėnaitė