More Room for the Imagination in the Shadows. Paulius Andriuškevičius in conversation with Aistė Marija Stankevičiūtė

May 15, 2023
Author Paulius Andriuškevičius

Paulius Andriuškevičius: I’m glad you invited me for this conversation. It’s partly a means to an end, having to do with the opening of your second solo exhibition ‘Loose Ends’ at the Atletika gallery in Vilnius; but I hope it will also function as another hatch that, through which, sooner or later, someone or something will poke their head, tail or tentacle. I’ve recently had many conversations with various players on the art scene in Lithuania. Some of these conversations have become texts, like the one we are sitting down to write together right now, while others have evaporated like phone numbers in our evolving memory.

A conversation, or an interview, is an interesting, and, at least in one respect, timeless genre, and I am slowly becoming more and more interested in its possibilities and limitations. I often ask myself: is it, or could it be, a genre, a medium or a piece of work that is good enough as it is, as opposed to performing a supporting role as a bearer of information, values and insights? Perhaps these contemplations have been intensified by the recent Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre publication Conversations on Contemporary Art in Lithuania edited by the curator Asta Vaičiulytė, which I’m sure you have already held in your hands and felt its weight. Since you yourself have been on this end a number of times and produced some really interesting and memorable interviews with Lithuanian artists, whose practices, by the way, I am quite openly partial to, could you, from your current position as a participant in the art field, reflect on your conversations with people in this network, on the interview genre, and on the aspects of it that you find most interesting? What do you think makes a conversation (un)successful? Why do you need them, and why might the art scene need them? I would also like to add that, I don’t know about you, but as the years go by, I find I want my questions to be as concise as possible, and to the point, so to speak. Yet my wishes disappear like coins in a slot machine (of art) …

Aistė Marija Stankevičiūtė: I am curious to embark on this journey without deciding on a destination in advance. The question about successful and unsuccessful conversations reminds me of the issue of good and bad works of art. We can keep saying ‘There’s all kinds, who am I to judge?’ But when faced with a piece of art, our facial muscles somehow contract into either an expression that says ‘Yikes’ or into a smile of approval, and everything becomes clear without any words. It seems to me that the success of a conversation depends on the compatibility of the tongues: the choreography of our words and our ability to put things that arise in our imagination into pleasant-sounding sentences. Perhaps a text, like visual art, is one of those things where the content is directly dependent on the technique. After all, we tend to gravitate towards the same recurring key words: those puddles of oil, those sad whales and uncomfortable bodies that take on an unexpected sheen thanks to fluent articulation, and then we say: ‘This is something new!’ The conversation genre is interesting to me because of its form and its rules: it’s a game not unlike tennis, but instead of rackets, we have tongues. The roles of the interviewer and the interviewee do not apply, because a conversation is more than just questions and answers. It’s nice to share responsibility with another person who agrees to play with meanings, open hatches, catch balls, and pick up the baton before knowing the next step. This game seems relevant in the art scene, because we have galleries full of works looking like not-too-distant relatives, which is why we constantly need new narratives.

By the way, I’ve noticed lately that art publications are publishing more and more interviews, and fewer reviews. I prefer to read interviews myself, too, because they are somehow more intriguing and branch off into more places.

Studio. Photo from personal archive

PA: The characters in Infinite Jest, a novel by my favourite writer and tennis player David Foster Wallace, often remarked, although in a less original way than you, that a tennis racket is a hand, or an extension of one’s hand, and that a tennis match is like a chess game. I agree that in our game, unlike in tennis, it is more difficult to distinguish the winners and the losers, or it is less obvious, or it varies, or it depends on the point of view, or maybe on the umpires slouching in their chairs, reminiscent of the works of Augustas Serapinas. Nevertheless, there was at least one time when I experienced (as I’m sure you have) that feeling of injecting the perfect ace right into the middle of the eye of the needle on the court of linguistics like a venomous sting. By the way, perhaps it’s serendipity: in outdoor tennis, I’ve heard a good shot being referred to as a rembrandt, as a stand-in for masterpiece. Of course, I’m also no stranger to the taste of a disappointing unforced error

Like athletes, artists are often caught between two poles. One of them has to do with discipline, the persistent honing of skills, the greedy thirst for contexts. The other one necessitates a moment of radical relaxation and letting go, discarding all control mechanisms and entering a so-called state of flow. A rather dramatic phrase uttered by the famous Lithuanian art critic Gražina Kliaugienė comes to mind: ‘Art is about going against the current.’ According to her contemporaries, it was very compelling to Lithuanian artists in the Soviet era, and supposedly reflected the creative atmosphere of the time. I’m curious to know how you interpret it, both from a personal perspective as an artist and more broadly in terms of the current context of the art field. I’m also curious about your relationship with control in your work.

Sketch. Photo from personal archive

AMS: Interesting, I hadn’t heard that about tennis! I agree that Kliaugienė’s phrase sounds dramatic. When thinking about art, I prefer metaphors of dissolution rather than swimming upstream or downstream. Like an effervescent tablet that fizzes up and dissipates, and then we have to craft something again. I mean the episodic nature of it: swimming seems too enduring, too grand and too persistent an action to define art, especially in times of rapid consumption. We are dissolved in each other’s practices and ideas, and sometimes we even seem to be able to read each other’s mind. This explains the similarity of themes and visuals in the works, such a homogenous stratum or flavour; I think you know what I mean. Of course, there are special ingredients too that can be attractive, community-building, and standing out, all of which occasionally bring some joy. I suspect that it has something to do with relaxation.

In my work, control takes the form of the inquisitor and the doubter. I think it comes from the constant observation of the actors in the art field, and reflections that I sometimes have to publish. Naturally, I then start asking myself the same questions, which lead to overthinking, and it binds me. The relentless intake of contexts has a similar effect: it’s nice to be interested in something, to look for commonalities, to draw lines and maps that hypnotise you and take you round in circles. I’ve been stuck in this pattern more than once, and it has taken me a long time to take a step towards the creation of an object or a text. However, there is another side to control that ensures the continuity of the practice, introducing aspects of discipline that are quite useful in the artist’s profession. I find myself between the two poles you mentioned; but to me, flow and chill are distant neighbours; perhaps, rather than being a laid-back blob, I feel a closer affinity with loose ends that something can stick to, where there’s room for unexpected entanglements. I have to admit that the practice of letting go in my work came from my dog Šarka. Even the most valuable things are impossible to hide from her. Once I was watching her on a pet monitor as she took my crochet from the table and freely reinterpreted it, a very humbling moment, but since then I have gained the courage to do that myself. By the way, my forthcoming exhibition could also be described as a kind of play on forms of control, especially asking questions about what we consider finished, showcase-worthy works of art, and so on.

Šarka. Photo: Neda Rimaitė

PA: Before we spill out into the landscape of visual language and perhaps irreversibly dissolve into it, I would like to spend a few more moments on artistic texts and their meaning in the context of your work. Do you read classic and/or contemporary fiction, including poetry, and how? What are your heroes, and how does their writing feed into your writing and art? And again, more broadly, to what extent is it relevant for artists of your generation to be interested in fiction as a source of inspiration, as a context and a material, but also in a broader sense, do you read, for example, Kafka, Plath, Gombrowicz, Atwood, or the aforementioned DFW?

AMS: I read all kinds of literature, from classic to contemporary. Right now, I have five books sitting on my coffee table sprawling in all kinds of directions: one about yarn, one about a man who sleeps, and others about houseplants, ghost birds and tattoos. For some time now, I have been rereading excerpts from Clarice Lispector’s books, bits I have underlined and pages where I turned the corners down. I think she is my hero. Her writing is like cats dancing on the furniture, pushing off glassware, finding the highest places, and then slithering down straight into my heart. I find that she somehow unlocks me, sensitises me, focuses my gaze on the work or writing I am working on at the time. Eliot Weinberger does something very similar, but his writing has more rhythm, more fictional language and more mythical creatures. I suspect it is from them that my writing and work inherit their mannerisms.

I think this is a prime-time for fiction. Well, at least that’s the impression I get from observing what the artists around me are reading, and how they write, for example, the texts that introduce their exhibitions or their work. They are becoming more and more like excerpts from novels, fake dialogues, or works of poetry. They no longer have the peacocking, the hyperbolised emotions, and the fear of the gothic. Kafka and the rest are once again relatable and cool.

Frog. Photo from personal archive

PA: Interesting. Ona Juciūtė, an artist you interviewed a few years ago, and the architect of ‘Loose Ends’, is also a fan of Lispector. Now Ona appears on the screen inside an airplane fuselage trying on The Passion According to G.H. as a mask: the forehead, eyes and ears are Ona’s, the mouth, chin and cheeks are Clarice’s, and they both share half a nose.[1] Perhaps this last line signals that it is time for us to turn our gaze towards the body.

I was researching the documentation of your first solo exhibition at the Artifex gallery three years ago, and thinking about contrast. On one hand, your aesthetic expression and its mood, its atmosphere, from the ‘photographic period’ onwards, can at least be partly described as cold, focused, sterile, sculptural (versus painterly), and sometimes even robotic, like the futuristic leg splint that appears to emerge from the milk in the opening of HBO’s Westworld. On the other hand, your works predominantly feature organic forms, allusions to affection (The sun’s in my heart), intimacy (If you’ll only deign to lend your ear), sexuality (It’s like fingering), and there is no shortage of other references to the human body, which is, after all, soft, hairy and pulsating. Take, for example, the title of the exhibition ‘Ears Lick Lips’. It would make the Surrealists giggle with joy! But then again, your ears are not like Juciūtė’s bubliks, rolled out with care by warm female hands, trickling with fragrant vanilla sulphur, but more like cold puddles of mazut left by some impersonal technology, frightening and at the same time beckoning with their austere chasms (the skin crawls if you think of the kisses they give …). Tell me more about how you view this contrast, about your relationship with the body in and beyond creative work, and how it evolves, perhaps bearing in mind the fact that your second solo show is opening soon.

AMS: Ha! Indeed, a good observation and a great photo. In both the first and the forthcoming exhibition, the body is in one way or another the main player. You’ve made a good point about my ‘photographic period’ and the sterility: at the time, I was immersed in the well-chlorinated pools of all sorts of trans- and post-humanist philosophy, which is why the ears, lips and other parts of the body I created looked artificial, polished and controlled. I find it interesting to think about why it is that things with such nimble, fluid and untamed origins end up turning into solid objects that look like they’re posing. The black puddles of mazut and the dancing leg, and the tentacle-like waves, come from the vernal pools that form in the lowest parts of forests, from the world of underwater creatures and water striders. You could say that in ‘Ears Lick Lips’ I created a synthetic biota from the objects of the exhibition, a kind of dance floor for artificial bodies on the surface of a glass of water, and while they were having fun, I took a photo of them, and then they were left frozen in time. By the way, those black chasms have a strange and dangerous attraction. When we exhibited them at Titanikas, every evening I would see new footprints of children, and sometimes of adults, on the surface.

The forthcoming exhibition will be even more carnal, but in a different way. This time, the objects are as relaxed as reptiles on hot rocks: tongues out, tails loose. They were created by combining elements of architecture, clothing and patterns, which in itself exudes a physicality that is not necessarily human. For me, the most interesting thing is when the imagination creates situations and stories on its own: it knows how to put us in someone else’s shoes, in someone else’s gloves. If the first solo exhibition was a freeze-frame, the second is a loosely tied knot, enjoying its own fragility.

Louvre Museum. Photo from personal archive

PA: Flirting with the abyss and poking one’s nose into the dark recesses is quite characteristic of us humans. This may be too far-fetched an allusion, but from time to time I am struck by the fact that Šarūnas Sauka is to this day perhaps the most ‘desirable’ Lithuanian artist since the restoration of independence (his retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art remains the most visited exhibition of all time in Lithuania). Šarūnas’ art is not for the faint hearted, but perhaps it is a manifestation of the strength of the nation? Darkness, of creation, of life, of the soul, and more specifically the colour black, with which, like a jet of octopus or cuttlefish ink, you have coloured most of your works, seems to function like a character in your practice. What internal wells do you think it comes from? I wonder what your relationship with colour and colour palettes is, how your spirit resonates with the twilight shades of Zimblytė or Rothko, the glow of lapis lazuli, the International Klein Blue, or the Phoenician purple of the murex trunculus

AMS: There are probably different kinds of darkness, and they take your imagination down very different paths. In Sauka’s work, to continue with this distant allusion, the darkness is rather domestic. I mean, it revolves around the self, the mice that will nibble away at your ears and other protruding organs, the spiders behind the fridge, the cockroaches in your throat, and so on. I’m not sure if it’s a flirtation with the abyss and the dark recesses, or if it’s just being spooky.

I’m interested in darkness where something glimmers and reflects but is not trying to frighten or devour. Perhaps the opposite: it’s inviting us to dance, to activate senses other than our sight. When you look over a lake at dusk and there’s a group of water striders between the plastic bottle caps, where the fish are having dinner, and you almost drop your phone into all that, this kind of situation. I don’t want to mystify the colour black. I just like it for its effects, and it’s great for storytelling. And I like its naivety. Black brings out the form, with textures only appearing once you come closer. It’s more conducive to exploration, especially at dusk, as our eyes get used to it, the details emerge slowly, and you can’t look back into the light because it would blind you again. You have to be careful and think through every move. When I think of twilight and objects, I remember Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. His thoughts about candlelight flickering in the darkness, how it brings movement to the floral patterns painted on the bottoms of bowls, or how soft light penetrates into the room through thin paper, flooding the whole space with a shadowy depth, only bring me closer to darkness. Like how light passes through a fine crochet, becoming something different. Of course, it is also interesting that it is so dark and gothic, and has its own ‘It’s not a phase, Mum’ moments that are all par for the course. There’s always something lurking, hiding, the piles of clothes on chairs become monsters at night, and so on. In shadows there’s more room for the imagination.

So my relationship with colours is quite predictable. Monochrome usually wins. But I like to exercise my eye muscles on works by the artists you mentioned, and the gradients of seashells, and, most of all, I like to watch that video where a cuttlefish is trying to camouflage itself by matching its pattern to that of a checkerboard floor in a fake room [2].

Winks on the windowsill. Photo from personal archive

PA: Well, even if the colour black is not a character, that and your ‘signature’ form wink certainly support each other in a way, adding up to a homogeneous (?) character (?). You’ve mentioned that it was at Atletika that wink first fluttered. Maybe it’s a return to the beginning of the relationship for both of you, or maybe it’s specifically for this exhibition that you created the works without winking and we won’t see ~ at all? How has this relationship been evolving recently, and what are the roles, functions and meanings of wink in this exhibition, and in your practice in general, from today’s perspective?

AMS: That little wink keeps changing its shape and its name, but it still travels with me. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s my ‘signature’ form, since it’s probably more of a companion or a riddle that hides answers (and questions!) about my artistic practice. In the exhibition at Atletika, ~ will appear as a kind of action that is echoed in the crotchet patterns. It’s like a tool for me, a mini-stepping stone, a springboard that wiggles through straightforward ideas, helping me find unexpected solutions. Also, ~ is about the shape of laughter, a smile that is not always clear, which at the same time can be a twinkle in the eye, a tentacle, a crack in the room that sucks out all the light, with who-knows-what hiding behind it.

PA: It’s difficult to say whether it’s good, but my hunch is that it’s good enough. I have no more questions. Maybe you have some questions? For me, for yourself, for Sauka, for Šarka, for the readers of this conversation (I wonder who they are) …

AMS: I am also very curious to know who will be interested in our conversation. Šarka will certainly read it, but as for Sauka, hmm … it could go either way.

PA: I’ll wink at you from the other corner of the yard during the opening. Thank you, Aistė Marija, it was fun to talk to you.

Louvre Museum. Photo from personal archive

Detail. Photo from personal archive

The exhibition ‘Loose Ends’ ran from 12 April to 13 May 2023 at the Atletika gallery (Vitebsko g. 21, Vilnius).

[1] Apie liūtus, daiktus ir jų susitikimo vietas. Oną Juciūtę kalbina Aistė Marija Stankevičiūtė.

[2] Can Cuttlefish Camouflage in a Living Room? | Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature – BBC