After a six-year break, the sculptor Mykolas Sauka returns with his third solo exhibition ‘Vaikų kambarys’ (The Children’s Room), at the VAA exhibition hall Titanikas. Although the artist’s work is rarely seen in exhibitions, his sculptures can be encountered in various public spaces: in a park in Viršuliškės and Vingriai Square in Vilnius, in the Asveja Regional Park, in his home town Dusetos, and elsewhere. Sauka (b. 1989) studied at the Kazys Būga Gymnasium in Dusetos, graduated from the Department of Sculpture at Vilnius Academy of Art, lives and works in Vilnius, and is an artist in residence at the Sculpture and Stained Glass Centre. Apart from making sculptures, he has also written a collection of short stories Grubiai (Roughly), for which he received the Kazimieras Barėnas Award for Literature. We discussed his latest exhibition, sculpture, and creative work in general.
Agnė Mackevičiūtė: I would like to start with the most relevant topic, your latest exhibition at the VAA exhibition hall Titanikas. Is ‘The Children’s Room’ a room of toys and fun for kids, or a reflection of a room of the inner child in Mykolas Sauka?
Mykolas Sauka: Creative work has a lot in common with playing. So in this case, the children’s room, in other words, a playroom, symbolises both the artist’s workshop and an exhibition hall. If we get rid of the distinction between creating and playing, and look at a sculpture as though it was a big toy, we will see that sculptors are people who make toys for themselves, but without the ability to play with them, only to exhibit, contemplate and admire. It is a sort of masochism. So if, as you say, an inner child takes part in this game, then he should be dissatisfied. But I didn’t want the artwork-toy creation to be too ironic, like something immature. I was attempting to create a church-like environment, since sculptors who work in churches, especially in the past, would be given a chance to express themselves. They’d get clear tasks of what to depict, but with some freedom to improvise and deviate from the plots and cannons. The exhibition is about this deviation.
AM: You’ve said that, for you, sculpture is like an idol, that when you carve wood, you engage in religious sculpture-making. Indeed, as you say, there are some religious symbols visible in your exhibition, namely, the pulpit and putti. However, the deviations you’ve just mentioned are clearly visible too: the pulpit is decorated with animal embryos, while the putti look somewhat deformed, armless, or with open stomachs. Is it a critique of faith? What role do religion and faith play in your creative work?
MS: All of this comes from the tradition of religious art. For example, religious art is full of caverns. What I have in mind are the monstrances, reliquaries, stigmata and holy places all full of holes. There’s a hole at the centre of faith. Plus, Christianity has a cult of body parts and organs. My exhibition isn’t a critique, but more a commentary, related to religious representation rather than religion itself. Faith is a very personal thing. I can talk only about having faith in my craft. It may always fluctuate and disappear at any time, but without it I would have done nothing.
AM: For many years, you worked with concrete; meanwhile, ‘Vaikų kambarys’ is made solely of wood. As you said, you began working with wood around three years ago. The works by the Lithuanian folk artist Lionginas Šepka made a strong impression on you. What is the most memorable aspect of his work, and what made the biggest impression, or influenced you the most? And what relationship with wood have you discovered over these years?
MS: The impression was made by the immediate realisation, on stepping into a small museum in Rokiškis, that there lies the whole life of a person. It means there was also faith in one’s work, one’s calling, or perhaps in God. The abundance of works is impressive too, which nonetheless still seems to be a fragment, a remainder, or the start of something much greater that could have been created but wasn’t.
Šepka’s personality is just as interesting. He wouldn’t show off, and simply did his thing. He spent part of his life in an underground hideout that he had dug himself. He’d lift rocks to stay fit and protect himself. His simplicity and focus on one thing deserve respect. You can’t imitate Šepka or learn from his work, because you’ll end up with kitsch. However, you can learn that simplicity.
It’s a sort of ritual: every day I go to my workshop, take a new block of wood, brush the sawdust off my tools, and carve. It could also be the dust of stone or sheets of paper. It’s not the material, but the act of going to work, getting used to it, and visiting the workshop that’s important.
AM: In the description of the exhibition, you talk a lot about naivety, the naivety of wood as a material, and naive thinking. In fine art, naivety is linked to primitive, amateur, folk art. Would you describe your work as naive?
MS: I ask myself what naive art consists of. In my opinion, there are two components: a strong urge to make, and not knowing about the craft, the history or the context. In our times, this lack of knowledge carries a strong taboo. To be on the edge of naivety is probably worse than being on the edge of kitsch. But why is this so? The subject interests me, and I want to raise the same questions you are asking me right now in my exhibition and its commentary.
AM: Do you consciously seek to disgust or repel? I don’t think undeveloped or dissected figures and worms are often associated with beauty. Whereas naive religious woodcarving (in Lithuanian dievdirbystė) depicts predominantly divinity, folk art is mostly decorative, showing the beauty of people’s lives. You’ve also mentioned that you’re interested in trypophobia (the fear of small holes), which gave birth to your ‘insect hotels’ (petrifying to the trypophobic).
MS: No, I don’t make what is gruesome to me. Quite the contrary. Worms, embryos, microorganisms, they are all manifestations of the divine. Once the material changes and the forms are enlarged, they cease to be gross. We can find plenty of such sculptures around churches, such as gargoyles or chimeras; it’s just that the ones I depict have recently been photographed with electronic microscopes, so what was thought to exist only in the imagination during Medieval times now appears to be real. And regarding the fear of small holes, that’s a different story. I am very interested that about 16% of visitors, those who have the phobia, will definitely not be unaffected by the exhibition.
AM: Six years ago, you presented three-metre-high naked human body sculptures at the same Titanikas hall. Your human figures can be seen in the park at Viršuliškės, your portraits have been presented at the ArtVilnius art fair, and last year your ‘Eels’ were erected next to the MO Museum. This special kind of realism is characteristic of your work; however, today we often hear that realism is outdated, even dull, and easy to learn. What attracts you to it?
MS: Movements, styles, trends and types of expression come in and out of fashion. What interests some people now is boring to others. It’s relative, and it keeps changing. The bigger problem, I think, is that you can easily get too much of any kind of art, despite its expression or style. I’m not interested in a specific means of expression. I wouldn’t single out one as being superior to the rest, and realism isn’t in any way distinguishable. But I’m interested in finding a way not to overdo it. Because once you overdo it, any art can look old, irritating, boring, hackneyed, banal, or otherwise. And when I work, I don’t think of creating realism. I know that I’ll do it how I’m going to do it, but whether it is realism or something else is a secondary thing.
Photo from personal archive
AM: When looking at your work, there’s no doubt that you are truly skilled at sculpture. In contemporary art exhibitions, it seems we encounter deep concepts or artistic research, rather than aesthetic imagery. Moreover, not all art academies still have practical courses that allow students to develop a craft. Quite often, contemporary artists use craftsmen to carry out their big ideas. You work in the opposite way: your works tell of hours and hours of work, accompanied only by brief thoughts. What prompts you to choose such an artistic practice? What is important to you personally when you create sculptures or three-dimensional imagery?
MS: I admire the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s characters, who devote all their lives to some utopian goal: to write a monograph on hearing based on Urbanchich’s method; to build a cone-shaped mausoleum in the middle of a forest; to teach a circus troupe to play a Schubert quintet. They all do things that are doomed to fail. I remember the true story of Josep Pujiula ‘Garrelli’, a ‘Tarzan’ who built magnificent castles around the jungle that the local government and outsiders kept demolishing. Works by Lionginas Šepka and by Vilius Orvidas were destroyed by the government of the time, too. And if not that, time would have destroyed them. In all such cases, what’s left of a big aim are the stories and some fragments, traces of great efforts.
To me, it isn’t so important if an artwork is made by hand or by a computer, or with the help of a craftsman, or anyone else. What’s important is that constant endeavour and movement towards an abstract goal, a goal that must be unreachable.
AM: It is somehow the destiny of artists’ children to be compared with their parents. Do you think your parents’ work has affected yours, or do you want to rebel and escape any comparisons?
MS: I think it’s easier to tell from the outside.
AM: You have also published the collection of short stories Grubiai. Although you don’t call yourself a writer, would you consider taking on that role again?
MS: If I have something to say, and the way to say it.
AM: Thank you, Mykolas, for the conversation.