“Dignity” –– with such a brief title how does the exhibition avoid becoming a dictionary entry? Before the prizes are awarded and exhibits recognised, a shared space for ideas and objects to roam must be formed. The third JCDecaux Prize exhibition is the outcome of more than six months of work by five young Lithuanian artists, and sets up a conversation between their works and the audience. Why is dignity singled out as something we think and make art about today?
Lithuania repeatedly becomes a space for the intersection of global interests, but we still remain in the role of spectators. The grand narratives of the Baltic region are usually written for us –– often of our own accord –– contributing to our inherited and self-imposed insecurities. We seem to have become stuck in the waiting room, albeit with a complimentary coffee or tea. Our perfectionism and lack of confidence is exploited by the lawmakers, which do not necessarily represent public interest. Even though we work with increasingly shorter holidays and unfavourable contracts, we stigmatise protests, rallies and other grassroots initiatives that remind us of the failed leftist utopia and the lasting doubts it planted. Our unvoiced and unhealed traumas prevent us from not only forming stronger labour unions or engaging in protest, they hinder an understanding of our own and our loved ones’ emotional needs, of the public, embodied declaration of disagreement with the normative of socially acceptable identity. The demand for dignified living conditions –– the opportunity to not only survive, but to remain socially active well into old age, have access to reproductive rights, and live in an open society rather than the flat narrative of “one nation” or “the successful individual” –– turns into yet another trap (“you don’t deserve what you don’t earn”), or, in extreme cases an outsider’s disgrace.
The prevalent issues revealed by the artists in the exhibition are also significant to young art practitioners who are not yet entrenched in the art market. The exhibition, therefore, encourages us not to position dignity within a particular individual, community, behavioural pattern or political system. Each work in the show communicates the effort to articulate one’s stance through personal experience or presence, a community or system to belong to, a situation to confront or conform to. Anastasia Sosunova’s video installation Tainstvo explores pathways towards faith, as well as the zones of empathy and security found alongside them. Meanwhile, Goda Palekaitė’s work Advertising Anarchism documents an unexpected political shift; a destabilising action within the corporate body. Matas Janušonis’ audio installation Gate divides sound and space, in which the contours of private and public experience are disrupted by the intertwined pulsations of a human heart. The artist collective Money Haven present a seemingly a light-hearted installation and performance which explores global financial schemes and their long-term consequences. Gabrielė Adomaitytė’s Dreams and Desires bring us back into the realm of the family and the body, and questions of experience and origin, dispersing into abstraction.
While reflecting on all of this, we went through many different words or combinations, but “Dignity” stuck with us. The exhibition does not demand a dignified posture from the viewer, and encompasses a wide field of questions: not only how to survive, but how to enjoy one’s existence? How to forge a sustainable reality on the remnants of the one that failed? How to withstand economical, social and biological pressures, insulate oneself from the tension caused by an abundance of contradictory information? The artists in the exhibition are looking for fairly simple solutions, just like the rest of us. Dignity here, proposes that as well as worrying or fighting, we can also play, make love, rally, and gather to pick mushrooms or berries –– not because it is a tradition, but because it is a shared and indiscriminate activity, which allows us to co-exist in a fulfilling present. The latter is, on its own terms, a continuation of a complex past. With it as our starting point, we can form tangible dignity-sustaining infrastructures on individual, communal and systemic levels. Works of art could be some of them.
Dignity is an omnipresent condition of creativity and contemporaneity, an inexhaustible need that is no longer possible to ignore. It is imbued with a sense that the jokes are over but that does not make things instantly unfun. Instead, it allows us to rethink the failed economic hopes and communal needs of the present, the expectations of our parents, the meaning of protest and the retro-whirlpools of art history. All that makes up and enforces our personal and shared backbone in the face of unpredictable processes and powers. In this exhibition we can be each other’s vertebrae, a dignified body of culture, with the power to not only follow, but also influence its own plotline.
Monika Kalinauskaitė and Adomas Narkevičius
JCDecaux Prize 2018: Dignity
Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius
Photography: Inga Jankūnaitė