Saulė Mažeikaitė: What are the similarities and differences between the two higher education institutions you studied at? You studied stained glass techniques at Vilnius Academy of Art from 2002 to 2008, where you later taught, and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where from 2011 you studied sculpture under Professor Nicole Wermers in her glass and ceramics class.
Neringa Vasiliauskaitė: It’s really hard to find similarities, because these two schools have essentially different study systems. At the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, instead of choosing a specialization, as in other art schools, you study under a specific professor, so before enrolling on the programme, prospective students choose the artist whose creative style is akin to theirs or whose direction they’d like to follow.
In the classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich there’s an open and voluntary discussion about students’ work, involving both the professor and the other students. There aren’t yearly courses, that is, all the students study in the same class, no matter when they enrolled on the programme. There are no exams or grades, you don’t have to get a formal assessment. The academy consists of classes and different workshops in which students can move and experiment freely, they can try out their ideas. At the end of the academic year there’s a final exhibition, the Jahresausstellung, although participation is also voluntary. During it, works are exhibited around the classes, other small exhibitions are held, and they are visited by gallery owners, collectors and other experts. It’s a great opportunity for students to find new contacts, while the galleries discover young artists.
Studies can take a while, up to ten years even. After graduating from the academy, one gets a diploma, but no formal degree. Actually, the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich has seen some changes recently: if there’s a need, you can choose to study for a BA degree and attend both theoretical and practical classes.
Students have a chance to become workshop assistants. I worked in the Glasmalerei, Licht und Mosaik workshop. I was an assistant to Thiery Boissel, the head of the workshop, so I had a chance to work with students. I would help them carry out their glass-related technical work.
Regarding Vilnius Academy of Art, I was invited to teach stained glass composition and materials in the Department of Monumental Art (now the Department of Site-Specific Art), where I also taught the history of monumental art for a while. So I was able to get to know both institutions well.
My studies at Vilnius Academy of Art were oriented towards fulfilling our study programme, which gave me a strong foundation in drawing and composition; while Munich was dominated by a spirit of freedom. I focused on my personal creative work, on discovering my individuality. Both schools have their pros and cons.
SM: Are your latest ‘experiments’ prompted by the fragility and instability of glass, by mistakes while working with it, and by the recognition of the possibilities and technical limitations of glass? After all, the creative process working with glass is extremely precise, for any careless move can ruin the work. Have the qualities of glass and your experience of working with sculpture contributed to the emergence of your hybrid creative work?
NV: After starting my studies in Munich, I went on working with glass for a few more years. During my studies I began working with other materials: metal, wood, silicone, latex, and print on different surfaces.
While working with glass, I continued to follow strict guidelines for realizing creative projects, so before creating something I would have to pay more attention to the technical requirements than to my creative propositions. I would have to count the millimeters, constantly solve technical issues, and then put the work together. At times, just one misjudged movement meant extra expense or redoing the whole thing. There were a few cases when after transporting a work I’d find it smashed to smithereens just before the exhibition. Nonetheless, I see my time working with glass as something truly meaningful and valuable; it formed me, and motivated me to seek further, to unravel other types of matter.
The new materials I employed fundamentally changed my way of creating. I’m glad when I can change a work, as I create it, and each material gives the work its own context. I find it curious to control it, or to let it go. To me, the materiality of a work is very important, so having learnt the qualities of glass as a material, other materials don’t seem so complicated.
SM: What usually inspires your work? What role do science, research and technology play in your experiments? Can the consideration and recreation of your experiments ‘results with leather’ or the hybridity of surfaces be used in practice? Does glass, as a material, find a place in your latest creative work?
NV: I often get my inspiration from ordinary everyday objects, or forms of them, in various surfaces noticed in public spaces or in nature.
I use rather traditional materials in my work, and work with them in a traditional way. Perhaps the techniques I use aren’t new, however. I look for unusual combinations, which leads me to look to technical advancements, say, in order to learn what reacts with what, and how. I often experiment with the material I’m working with, which leads me to unexpected places. After my ‘Skin’ series, I’d be approached by fashion designers looking for interesting solutions in textile technology; however, I don’t think silicone-coated surfaces can be used in practice.
I’m not currently working with glass, but I don’t dismiss the possibility that it might return to my creative practice some time later, although in different forms and with different implications.
SM: What does working with various materials, the ones you’ve lately been employing in your work (remaking, inscribing, bleaching, cutting), mean to you? Perhaps greater freedom, an exciting experiment, an (un)expected result?
NV: Materiality is extremely important to me. As I work with different materials and their surfaces, I create certain cultural, polysemantic layers, as though understanding the work gets you through memories and experiences, be it personal, social, historical or cultural. I often obtain a material or a specific object, disassemble or deconstruct it, and recreate my own version of it. I am interested in the narrative of the object itself. I investigate what things can say about their owner, what is said by the environment, clothing and even surfaces, all of which I understand to be a reflection of our inner structures. It’s also interesting that these objects have their own context and information, and frequently give my works anonymity and distance. These objects or details are often manufactured industrially, not by hand, which creates an impression of reproduction or repetition, giving my work new meanings.
I naturally gravitate towards some materials rather than others; each of them has particular qualities or codes which you have to crack in order to ‘juggle’ them, to jump from one to another, and adapt them to your work however you like it.
SM: It looks like, on one hand, you’re concerned with the ‘technical’ symbiosis of different materials and their communication: after all, you often try to join different and often synthetic, recycled materials into one surface, be it silicone, metal, wood, plastic or fabric. At the same time, you can sense a contradiction between those materials, they are passive, and may be associated with animal skin left-overs, slough, they speak of the end. They can be understood as contemplations of our cultural behavior, a representation of the self or of others. ‘New Skin’ is also about materials that separate and unite, about both animalistic and human nature. It is a critique of human behavior and activity.
NV: The passivity, anonymity, neutrality, distance and the juxtaposition, as well as the negation, of opposites that you mentioned are very familiar to me. It’s as though the objects invite you to touch them, while at the same time repelling you. In this way, I try to manipulate the viewer’s senses. When I create, I often imagine a space that is looked at from the perspective of the future. I imagine objects, bodies that are discovered after a long time; they have cultural layers, stories about them, they have grown wild, they have faded, lost their purpose, and acquired an unexplained power or spirit; new, not yet discovered and even surreal forms are found in or within them. It is like trying to reconstruct the nostalgic atmosphere of a dream, linked to a brief episode in your everyday life, repeated, stuck within the timeless space of memory. It’s important to me that the objects, be it everyday objects or the bodies or skins we mentioned, don’t lose their aesthetic presentation and their original order. I achieve this mood by using specific materials, by fading, erasing them, while at the same time positioning them in a well-known order based on conventional social norms; it might even be purposely staged. I am interested in how objects absorb the environment, and reflect it through their surface, their skin. As though they were carrying information from several different cultural layers and generations. Through my work, I speak about the past and the present from the perspective of the future. It also explains the complexity of the works: I don’t reveal what it actually is, that is left for the viewer to interpret.
SM: I noticed your work Braid (Supinta kasa, 2020). It is a decorated braid made of fake (?) hair. Were you expressing your surprise about social gestures and stereotypes with this piece, or was it something else?
NV: In the exhibition ‘Haut Muster’ (which took place at the Editorial project space in Vilnius in 2020), I showed my work from the ‘Skin’ series: surfaces and skins that one sheds to renew oneself. It could be an animal’s skin or a person’s piece of clothing. Each of the objects shown had strands of fake hair on it, to emphasize corporeality. Braid was one such detail; it was small but very important, it helped decode other works. Through this work I talked about the relationship between artificiality and sincerity, with the prevailing clichés and stereotypes in the social environment.
SM: One of your latest artworks shown in Lithuania, Situation with a Shelf (2022, in the exhibition ‘Embracement’ at the Vartai gallery), gave me a lot to think about. Did you have any previous relationship with the creative work of Antanas Mončys? How did such an intricate and complex work appear? It might seem that you continue to focus on the topic of the ambiguity of materials, on the possibilities for manipulating them (technically, it was a print on textile/an imitation of a marble surface). On the other hand, you created a paraphrase of a mysterious meeting with another artist’s work. At the same time, this work brings out many cultural associations. What were your creative intentions?
NV: This work was created independently of any links to Mončys’s work. I hadn’t consciously investigated Mončys’s creative work before the exhibition, I simply continued working on the topic of artificiality and imitation which I had been pursuing since 2017 with my series ‘Tablecloths’.
I wanted to create a surrealist, illusory, anonymous and utopian space that consisted of three works, Situation with a Shelf, Situation with a Vase and Situation with a Curtain (2021). This small ‘chamber’ space reveals itself as an ideal, although unreal, actuality, where you could find parallels. To quote the theory of mimetic desire of the literary critic and anthropologist René Girard: when a person’s desire is imitated by someone else, he or she becomes an ‘intermediary’ or a ‘model’. By imitating one another, they can begin to desire the same things and can easily become rivals. You could say the objects in the exhibition were competing with each other through their patterns and surfaces, deceiving and manipulating the original, having lost their function, re-embodied, adapted, hiding behind a fluttering curtain, having turned into recognisable bodies, already seen somewhere. The objects that were put on the walls and on the floor emphasized the complexity and the synthesis of decorative aesthetics and formal attractiveness, as though they had become someone’s lustful witnesses in the colorful, blooming world of the imagination and fantasies, where archetypal symbols were combined with unexpected visual inventions, matching organic materials with non-organic, and sharp surfaces with glossy ones.
By using various surfaces, I attempted to open up stories from my personal everyday life, layer by layer: silicone casts strengthen the sensitivity of bodily surfaces, the skin; while clear and orderly sand-covered architectural details serve as imaginary, sterile artificial spaces, from where human fantasies, dreams and daydreams arise; they were directed in a strict, perfectionist manner.
In Situation with a Shelf you can recognise certain motifs: poisonous ivy turned into stone, a hanging fabric with a snake, ‘frozen’ wood smoke and other artifacts from everyday life, which help build up a portrait of the main character. The materiality of the objects reveals a sensual variability highlighting the deception created by their surfaces, the manipulation of materials, and visual intuition. Even though the items that comprise the work seem abandoned, they are permeated with an unusually joyful and ironic colourfulness. They are like theatrically staged products that have turned into a complex collage, with the atmosphere of a dream or a fairy tale. The unifying colour tone creates a two-fold narrative that invites us to consider the place of the body in our digital and social world, where cultural layers are revealed and are observed from the side, through subjective experience, as though we were sinfully rummaging through other people’s belongings in an undefined cavity of time, like cinema films keep rolling one after another.
SM: In 2018 you won an artist’s grant from the Bavarian Ministry of Culture for a residency at the Villa Concordia in Bamberg. In 2017 you were awarded the Art Karlsruhe art prize. Your work has been acquired by the Villingen Schwenningen, the Karlsruhe gallery, the FER collection, the Alexander Tutsek Foundation, and other private collections. Which or whose recognition is most precious and meaningful to you?
NV: I appreciate all awards, because each one has pushed my creative work further in some way. I am very grateful to the Alexander Tutsek Foundation: they have sponsored my projects year after year, ever since my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and acquired my finished works for their collection. Another memorable and important prize is the Debütantinnen Preis, thanks to which I was able to publish my first art catalog Seductive Skins, and hold my exhibition in the historical spaces of the Galerie der Künstler.
SM: What are your plans for the future?
NV: I am currently working with architects on a few large-scale projects around some architectural spaces in Germany. I’ve been invited to create a concept for two different spaces. It’s a long-term work, it has a couple of stages, and the results will be seen in the middle of next year.
I am also working on a series of new objects and drawings for which I’ve been granted a Stiftung Kunstfonds stipend. These works will be shown in my solo exhibition at the Vent gallery in Munich in the summer of 2023, and in an exhibition devoted to the artist Eva Hesse (curated by Katie Jayne Britchford), which will take place at the Galerie der Künstler space in Munich.
SM: Thank you for the conversation.