An Interview with Robertas Narkus

October 21, 2020
Author Linas Bliškevičius

Linas Bliškevičius: I recall how at the launch of the publication for the Rupert fifth anniversary, you did a performance in which, as a former participant in Rupert’s alternative education programme, you prayed to art. Now, with the same somewhat literary fervour, you invite us to visit your exhibition ‘The Board’ (Valdyba) at the Vartai gallery. However, one might see a contradiction here between ironic sacrality and the materialism and precision of the corporate world.

Robertas Narkus: Indeed, there are many contradictions in this exhibition. Contradictions, essentially, are one of the main stimuli for my whole creative practice; but I haven’t tried to count exactly how many contradictions there are in this exhibition. Nevertheless, first and foremost, it reveals my own inner battle, or to be more precise, it is a collaboration with a certain field, with a gallery space, with the art scene and the viewer. On the other hand, in a way, it is a retrospective look at my practice and its results over a decade; therefore, it’s made up of many different things that are important to me. I had been working for a very long time on projects outside galleries and institutional spaces, very ephemeral projects that could hardly ever be put into a standard frame. Perhaps this exhibition, in turn, is very like an exhibition. That’s exactly what I wanted.

Moreover, for the last five years, I’ve been trying to find ways to speak about literary things, without getting into literature itself. I think this exhibition reflects on questions that are very important to me: about how everything goes according to plan, what certain decisions depend on, and how, as an artist, I make these decisions. The exhibition’s comprised of many great or small decisions which, on one hand, can be called inadvertent, and on the other, are very calculated. Thus, I am fighting my eternal battle with chaos here (damn it, that word ‘battle’, well … let it be), while also trying to comprehend the equilibrium between order and disorder.

A return to the roots, to photography. I can still remember from our conversation for the publication ‘VAA Interview: Art School’ how you discovered photography in America, where, so symbolically, your art journey began. And now you’ve chosen such a traditional, clean, aesthetic form, like an advertisement, which you then fill with objects that might appear dirty, even unnecessary, to some people. You, an artist, insert your studio (the autonomous creative space that it is) into an institutional gallery space, and in this way you expand the photographs into a field of a certain contextuality. So then I have to ask why you have chosen such diverse pieces for your exhibition. Are you trying to reach that retrospectivity, or is it only a contradiction between your personal space and the need for public representation?

I tend to think in spirals, and it seems that perhaps ‘The Board’ is a slightly more mature exhibition that the previous ones, since it is not the first loop in the spiral.

I used to be really focused on rethinking and expanding the means of expression of photography as a medium. Therefore, the experimental aspect of photography was always important to me. It’s actually connected to the fact that photography was my first admiration or belief in the promise of technological progress. So, in the first stage, it was photography; but later, I started to overstep the limits of the photographic genre. Then came the time to dive completely into technology, for example, into virtual reality, expanded reality, and so on. What was behind the genre wasn’t so interesting to me any more. What became important to me was society’s mindset in striving forward, and I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to believe that artists were visionaries, and so on. Sure, a certain degree of caution was always present, or maybe vice versa, a resolute wish to be one step ahead of all the trends, to work with technologies that no one was working with at the time, which seemed to be intrinsically valuable, even though you knew that half a year later this technology would be popularised and many artists would be using it, while I would have lost interest and would have started working with another, newer, technology.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a different experience; however, it is now quite common, even among tech types who are top specialists in their field, to go away with beads around their necks, to search for some form of spirituality. To me, this exhibition is like a second take on the same things; but this time it is completely different, because I know very well what I am doing, and what understanding, what elements I actually need, what will be of importance. Thus, I am not stepping into new waters; I am coming with a clearly grounded statement and choices. Of course, I am taking a degree of risk, by giving the exhibition such a sonorous, perhaps even pretentious, title, which could therefore easily make it crumble; however, even that wouldn’t be so terrifying.

Robertas Narkus’ exhibition ‘The Board’ at the Vartai gallery, 2020. Photograph by R. Narkus.

As I entered the exhibition, I heard an informal story about how some visitors to your exhibition perceived certain contradictions there; perhaps due to their somewhat reserved point of view, or the expectation to see a common, conventional way of representation. What would you say to those who are indignant after seeing such props of an ageing civilisation, such objects from an artist’s studio? What instructions would you give in order to spark a dialogue between you and those who don’t want to understand you?

What do we expect from contemporary art? When you walk through the gallery door, you are greeted by an anecdotal situation, not just by an actual pile of rubbish dragged into the gallery. Perhaps this is uncommon for commercial galleries, but that moment of entering into the space repeats the usual cliché; on the other hand, it is proper humour, which in this exhibition is an important key that you acquire, and which is related to that pile as well. Later, you realise that it’s comprised of functional pieces, which are not rubbish, neither in photographs nor in the installation itself. These are things which accumulate in the studio, and which reflect slightly on my chaotic existence, as well as on my absorption. Perhaps like the majority, I have to multi-task, to have a variety of tools, to collect them somewhere; therefore, resituated inside the space of a gallery, they become the theme of the exhibition themselves. After walking around the first pile, you start noticing more and more vectors, which, whether you like it or not, you begin to actually see. A composition from chaos becomes an abstract composition which has a direction, and which is supplemented by characters and avatars that you have to walk past if you want to see the exhibition in its entirety. The staging eventually leads to a significantly more ordered space, the last room; its form and structure is much more organised. That’s an extension of my thought, which is that all of this actually leads to something.

Maybe here we can proceed to another subtopic, an expressed sense of connectedness with business, with boards and corporate peripeteias. You often mention in interviews that this link is common in your practice, and that it enables the viewer to discover or comprehend the logic of corporate life. What do you want to achieve by exposing it? Does one need to get an understanding or tools that would enable one to disrupt that logic, or is this choice of flirting with ‘the system’ a subverted means of collapsing it from the inside? Or maybe, conversely, of expanding it?

Probably, I’d start by saying that the chosen space, the commercial gallery, is truly privileged. In a way, it is oriented towards members of the board, the ‘one per cent’, if one can say that. This is a very thin layer of the elite (and it’s irrelevant what that means in a broader sense, it isn’t necessarily a financial or an economic power). Although we are used to talking about democratisation, about bringing art closer to the people, my aim here is twofold. On one hand, in the broader context of aesthetics, I simply want us to get used to more down-to-earth conditions, to images that aren’t ideal; thus, corporate aesthetics aren’t present here. However, the exhibition is aimed at a corporate audience, and I’d like a connection to appear between those sometimes unrelatable worlds. Maybe I do provoke the audience through these works; so I suppose subversion can be found here; however, I don’t limit myself to only that.

And yet protest, which is actually quite common in such artistic strategies, becomes a somewhat old concept. Here we can see silent resistance, interruption; but wouldn’t that slowly turn into collaboration? Isn’t the danger of becoming commercial, obedient, rather common here?

My collaboration (although I am not sure if it can be called that) with business or science, with technology, is quite conditional. I am interested in the whole nature of the human being, with the progress it creates, but not necessarily with the aesthetic concepts or the images themselves. As the exhibition converses or flirts with the audience, it takes over concepts such as transparency, and becomes related to them by declaration. Here we can see that, for example, a piece stands on its back, or that some works are hung, see the constructions behind them, how everything is held together. So from this point of view, the exhibition is really transparent, and it kind of reflects on the ideology of all the clear glass and cooperation. In a way, it is a skeleton without an outer layer; you can see through the whole mechanics, see how the separate elements conjoin into greater systems.

I keep remembering that neorealist idea and the postulate that had an influence on us even during the early days of independence: trickle-down economics, which claims that taxes for businesses and the rich should be reduced, as this would stimulate investment, and thus, in the long term, the profits generated would trickle down to the lower social classes, therefore making all of society richer. It seems we have an inversion here: you insert yourself into the structure, and expect your ideas to trickle down from the art world, to become some sort of ground base of thinking for the people and the corporations that hold power.

Well, yes, essentially, I do want to rethink our value concepts, prestige, and perhaps try to accept trash.

Here a long-awaited question arises. You often say that artists are visionaries who lead the way towards progress, who seek new forms. Perhaps the field of art is some sort of experimental space, which allows us to try out new ideas; but there are a number of examples which quite often prove that the creative production of artists or philosophers is used for the benefit of, or even for tightening, the already-established system. It is evident that freedom is being lost a lot more easily right now, when one has plenty of beautiful and stylish objects, or when one is being ecologically and socially responsible, open-minded. Isn’t it the case that artistic activities can also bring danger, that they can anaesthetise corporate entities in terms of public relations, that they can provide power structures with new tools, or simply create a mere illusion of conscious consideration?

The expectation of or from artists to offer new visions of cohabitation, to try out or expand ethical and moral perimeters, does indeed exist, and maybe it is even the main part of any creative work. I think this isn’t going away, and those forms sometimes simply become utilitarian, they turn into pure activism, and so on. I myself have never identified or tried to identify with any particular set of ideas of the day, but the work I do directly, the social work of an artist, allows me to contribute my part too. For instance, while pursuing my other projects, I can see the mechanics by which everything functions, while direct work carried out with other people allows me to keep close to art’s social implications.

But I don’t think it should change anything. This exhibition appears as a statement, which says I am not an artist focused on social activism, but despite that, I care about it; and I think that an artwork as a sign of its very times can be used by a viewer, or creator, to read questions and find answers to what those times are actually like, to what is commonly accepted and important. Sometimes tying yourself to a tree, or other forms of direct activism, isn’t the most effective way, while effectiveness isn’t always even at stake. All forms can and must coexist, and supplement each other, by constantly intermingling and sizzling together.

Nonetheless, there is also a degree of ease in this exhibition. Perhaps we particularly need that bit of ease, which would allow us to solve things in a different way. Although now, when a few weeks have already passed, I’ve realised that viewers are able read it, and seem to agree; but then simultaneously, you come to the realisation that it is liberating you as well, that it allows you to see certain things as less complicated.

Didn’t you mention once that a look backwards might actually have been conditioned by the lockdown conditions? That the retrospective look was perhaps caused by unpredicted circumstances, Covid-19, which froze time and gave an opportunity for self-reflection?

It could be the case that almost everything that’s been done as of late is an outcome of it, whether you want it or not. The exhibition has emerged from that deep lockdown, from the time when social interactions were reduced to a minimum. I am a social human being, so perhaps some of the works even have that zoom conversation structure reflected in them, for example, within all the thin frames I’ve used. That’s not an accident, but a sort of reference. I wouldn’t call it a topic in itself, it is a secondary theme; but in truth, I haven’t given it too much thought.

I’ve noticed in my own perception that in that secluded state of mind, one’s view of the current moment changes. And while the moment disappears as the situation gets normalised, the realisation of the vulnerability of everything remains, and, it seems, the significance of one’s responsibility grows. These unexpected circumstances, the virus, would probably be likely to change an artist’s state of mind as well. Then I ask, in which direction? Towards angst, or some potential discovery?

I think we had been waiting and preparing for a crisis for a long time. I remember that feeling well when the lockdown began. It reminded me of situations when the electricity would go off in all the district. In the first few hours, you’d be extremely excited, lighting candles. That is exactly the feeling I recall from childhood: when you see that everything is suddenly dark, and, it seems, quiet, you start to think ‘What would it be like if the electricity didn’t come back on for a year, how would we live’? I think my return from technologies has been paradoxical. However, in fact, I have never been a technologically oriented person; I’ve always been very poetic; it’s just that I’ve always tried fighting that stereotypical image of an artist; I’ve never wanted to admit that artists are the disadvantaged ones, constantly seeking help. Anyway, I’ve drifted away.

So, nonetheless, I tend to believe that we will exit this crisis with the ability to rethink our position, to rearrange the pack of cards, and restart the game. However important the imperative to return to the status quo may be, in my opinion, we will never live like we did before. I hope we will understand even better what we care about, and get rid of the things we don’t need. We have been leading a very good life as a society, and so now this question of constantly moving forward (though I don’t want to appear to be against it) will definitely make us get a grip and catch up with that scientific and technological progress with the spiritual and moral structures in our minds and hearts.

You will find full photographic coverage of Robertas Narkus’ exhibition ‘The Board’ at the Vartai gallery here.