Last year, the young painters Ieva Tulaitė and Kipras Černiauskas set out on a painting expedition around Lithuania by rubber dinghy. Earlier this year, together with the curator Darius Jaruševičius, they presented their work at the Maršrutizatoriai/Routers art laboratory in the exhibition ‘Painting the River’ (Tapyba upe). In my opinion, the exhibition was one of the most exciting of the past few months. Therefore, I have decided to have a chat with the curator, and learn more about how it came into being.
One year on after Tulaitė and Černiauskas’ painting expedition, the experience has finally formed in ‘Painting the River’, an exhibition you curated. How did the artists’ project initially interest you? What themes could be found in it?
For me, as perhaps for many of those who are active on the art scene, the appeal of the event was in its innate romanticism. First of all, in a journey as an artistic practice, resembling well-known and actively pursued artistic practices, such as walking or mapping. This journey was an experiential act, conducted by two young painters. What was actualised during the trip only partly became actualised in the exhibition; that is, the exhibition could not really convey the experience itself.
On the other hand, the exhibition acts on different layers. There is the painting part, while the photography, video and text (Facebook posts) complement the gaps that appear at the level of the painted landscapes. And vice versa, the painted landscapes show something that has been left unsaid on Facebook. In the end, the Facebook posts cannot fully illustrate the landscapes, and so the paintings become more general landscapes of a journey.
But to me, the most attractive things were: the romantic origins of the idea behind the project; the slow way of travelling; the slow way of experiencing; the slow way of observing. Ideologically, it is the absolute opposite of consumption and the fast-paced contemporary circulation of images. The slow action and peaceful observation of one’s environment, which is so contrary to contemporary culture, is truly inspiring. Yet the artists did not resist the urge to share their experiences directly from the place of the (slow) action: they posted the details of their trip on their Facebook page like a blog.
There is a clear rhythm to the exhibition. There are the paintings in the same six dimensions; and from most of the locations, we see two pieces that document these places, each one from the two artists, side by side. The works become alike.
Interestingly enough, the works are somehow in tune with each other. Although you can separate them, they merge together into a single assemblage: they become sequential, as if they were extensions of each other.
The exhibition employs many different spaces. How did you manage to deal with them?
One intention of the exhibition was to look at it cartographically, which really intrigued me as a curator. Compared to roads and highways, rivers have very strict flow trajectories, but you could choose more route alternatives from them. In the case of this exhibition, the chosen range of waters (the lakes of Aukštaitija, the River Žeimena, the River Neris, the River Nemunas, the River Atmata, the Curonian Lagoon) forms an artery that runs through the whole country according to a strict cartographic path.
At the same time, the cartographic journey was not as exciting to me as the sensory, experiential journey, because the cartographic or quantitative, numerical layer is actually very provisional. The captured images, painted or photographed, become rather general, and not really representative of anything in particular. These are not landscapes in which you can recognise the Seine bridges or other parts of Paris. The images themselves pass slowly, and change sensorially. In other words, the captured journey has its own sensory or experiential trajectories: you observe the shift in the colour palettes, affected by different temperatures, rain and heat, as well as other factors and real-life situations.
The main topic of the exhibition is quantitative change. If we look at it from a deleuzian perspective, qualitative change is numerical and axiomatic; that is, it possesses particular numerical values. In terms of our journey across Lithuania, this value seems not to be big; it is merely physically substantial, as the distances are not big either. The shift is strongly qualitative, and so it works as a process of qualitative change. What I mean is that those 500 kilometres of river cover perhaps half of Europe, or even a longer distance in terms of the density of the experience. Hence, the slow duration is one of the main topics. To describe this slowness better, it is best to quote the words of the artists themselves: through slow observation and scrutiny, which were the main purpose of the expedition, they were able ‘to make a rock into a mountain range, and a puddle into a whole sea’.
How long did the journey take?
The artists took their time: the 500 kilometres were finished in 35 days. In a way, they reflected the journey by Count Konstantinas Tiškevičius down the River Neris in the 19th century, but instead of five boats, they used a single inflatable boat, which was still able to hold everything they needed. During his journey, the count also travelled slowly, conducting archaeological excavations on his way, collecting Lithuanian folklore, myths and legends; he was investigating the country anthropologically. The artists were observers and recorders of their own expedition, conveying its representation on the different levels they found possible.
You chose a rather unconventional space for the exhibition. How does it correlate with the underlying ideas?
The exhibition space has a double meaning, and maybe even multiple ones. The first one directly and literally means that it can be found by the river that our artists were painting. The other thing is more of a quote from Count Tiškevičius’ journey: it links us to the fact that the count intended to exhibit all of his collected finds and works in a palace. This exhibition resembles that of a traditional museum. It is not purely a painting exhibition, but more of a documentation of travels, presented in a museum-like way. Generally, the spaces here channel a museum atmosphere, they work as if it is a museum. And the museum itself acts both as an architectural monument and as an exhibition space.
Almost all the paintings are exhibited without under-frames, and are in the same six dimensions. What influenced these choices?
This way of exhibiting was chosen on purpose. It seemed necessary to preserve the impression of a journey, which had in fact been quite wild in its nature. To save some space, overall, we chose six sizes for the under-frames, reattaching them each time. The artists did not have an extra boat, as Count Tiškevičius did, for example. The repetition of the paintings’ dimensions gives a certain principle of seriality and registration. Although quite modernist, even window-like, the landscapes are de-canvased, and they lose the usual concentration of a single landscape. With their open ends and loose canvas edges, they interconnect into a sequence, into a unification and a continuation. This was determined by the chaotic circumstances of the whole travelling experience.
The landscapes are unified not as separate pieces, but by the use of a recurring rhythm. Rhythm and sequence are the most important things here. As is the shift in colours, adjusted according to the temperature, weather conditions, or the duo’s emotions while travelling. The artists noted that although quantitatively the distances between places around the country were not so great, the cultural changes observed while travelling were very pronounced. For example, while they were swimming near the town of Rukla, local hooligan children threw stones at them, but on entering the village of Grabijonai, everything changed: the people there spoke Lithuanian, and Lithuanian culture was generally more apparent. The distances between places are not huge, but the impressions and the lifestyle of the locals changed a lot.
And how do the images, the landscapes, change?
The landscapes of the exhibition are not homogenous. Some are wide, with an active horizon, which indicates a certain syncretism; others are more condensed, without an obvious horizon, which work on the basis of emotionally electrified experiences.
The landscape here overlaps with the experience itself, as the landscape is an autonomous, representational layer, which has its own painted representationality and modernist logic. The attempt to actualise the experience through a landscape is a difficult task. It’s hard to say if it has been successful. But all the other objects in the exhibition, the small photographs, objects and videos from the trip, exceed the limitations of a single register, as they expose the multi-dimensionality of the travel experience seen without the representational mode of those panoramic landscapes.
On the other hand, the painting itself raises the question of how sham landscapes can actually be. One of the most difficult tasks is to reveal the sensory powers of landscapes, through their own contours, diagrams and graphs. This goes against representation, which in turn indicates a more general view or an idealised version of it. That is another parallel with why the action of the exhibition is set in this space in particular. The space is surrounded by a rather synthetic landscape: Gediminas Hill, which is currently being reconstructed and reformed, shaven, cut, as if creating an idyllic Medieval open space, found on postcards or lithographs representative of times past. Moreover, here we can also see the ‘Embankment Arch’ (Krantinės arka), with its similarly synthetic symbolic, political and emotional charge.
Ieva Tulaitė’s and Kipras Černiauskas’ exhibition ‘Painting the River’ in Vilnius. Photographs by the organisers and Vytautas Nomadas
Ieva Baublytė is an artist, writer, art historian and art critic. She gained a BA in the history of art from Vilnius Academy of Art, and is now continuing her MA studies there in sculpture.