My question may seem a bit weird, and I kindly ask to forgive me if it comes off as not very polite, but I can’t miss the opportunity to ask it: you were born in Lithuania, you have Russian roots and you are an internationally recognized artist. How would you define your identity? Do the principles of “blood and soil” influence your personal and artistic profile?
Oh, if I got a nickel for every time someone asked me this type of question! To me, “blood and soil” is a phantasmal connection, an illusionary dinner with no food – Barmecide’s feast, which leaves even the guests unfulfilled. Instead, in the manner of an angsty teenager, I’ve recently started using the word “thrownness” a lot. I’m trying to understand what is happening “here” where I’ve been thrown, while finding a language for resistance, hopefulness, humor, queerness, critical thinking and political engagement. I admit that the chosen topics of my interest are often related to the past – quite local political specters – I haven’t witnessed. However, as Avery F. Gordon puts it, “following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located”. So, I follow and summon them to process particular heritage and collective experience, and refer to a myriad of ways they may be connected to some bigger currents permeating the world. Because, as Povinelli famously wrote, “as we stretch the local across these seeping transits we need not scale up to the Human or the global, but we cannot remain in the local. We can only remain hereish”.
“Don’t get me wrong, but it’s… It’s like Mad Max meets Rococo” said one architect who has recently helped me with a sculpture. I think this is somehow applicable to the cultural references, material relations, and visual expressions I’m using in general. A fitting metaphor for the stitched assemblage I am myself.
In many of your works, you analyze structures that are fundamental but hardly recognizable in the context of everyday life, such as language or religion. These structures are so deeply rooted in one’s consciousness that it’s hard to grasp and reflect upon. When was the moment you discovered the power of language or religion for yourself? And what language do artists speak nowadays?
Navigating the charged grounds of language and religion, and being torn between various opposing sides sometimes feels like living in a volcanic crater and trying to keep going about with the usual everyday stuff. Yet we’re on top of a volcano. We are sitting on top of a volcano and brewing coffee over its heat, while there’s so much going on down there: there’s the power of language to forge the perception of reality, call things into being by naming them, create communities and their metanarratives; there’s exploring religion to realize how stuck, in most cases, we all are in the transition from religious to secular with our recycled logic of magical thinking, rites of passage, and a mix of authority, sacredness and political myths. For instance, Graeme Gill in the text “Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics” sums up that there are basically three myths of particular importance: “the existence of an evil conspiracy against the community, the presence of a savior who can release the community from this threat, and the coming of a golden age”. When you know this, either making a coffee while sitting on a volcano, or sitting at the family table becomes part of the field research.
I think I discovered the power of language quite early. For example, understanding that Russian was a language that only I and a few of my friends could speak in the first years at school made it feel like a secret language, but also the language to be ashamed of: “you’re not allowed to speak the language of occupants”, “go home and speak it there”. This reaction is understandable having in mind the history of aggressive russification policy and generational traumas of Lithuanians.
Since the Spring of Nations, we know that language is one of the most powerful tools of nationalisms. Yet, I haven’t managed to articulate all the subtleties of this shameful language experience clearly, it often takes me a lot of paragraphs to rationalize and unpack it. So when Maggie Nelson writes arguing with Wittgenstein “I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought”, this sentence struck me. Maybe some things are speaking most generously when they stay as a metaphor like this, an event, a juxtaposition, or a recording, an image, like in this beautiful phrase by Toni Morrison “How can I say things that are pictures”.
Partly dodging and partly replying to the comment on the language artists speak nowadays, I and American artist Ellie Hunter made a two-channel video “Shadow Tongues”(2020) narrated in a fictional vernacular spoken only by two people in the whole world. The initial inspiration for this piece was a novel The Dictionary of Khazars by Milorad Pavić, which the author himself described as “a metaphor for a small people surviving in between great powers and great religions.” And we wondered, what was the power of naming and renaming? Could creating our own symbols and words be a strategy of everyday resistance against nationalistic policies and normative languages of our backgrounds?
The topic of the language as an aggressive power and the Russian language in particular as a language of an aggressive state, willing to conquer more and more territories has been a genuine concern for a decade now. I refer here, first of all, to the Russian-Ukrainian war and the Crimea issue or the influence Russia has on Belarus. You once mentioned the Russian minority as the linguistic and cultural minority in Lithuania. How do you see this dialectics of the majority, which keeps a part of the world in fear, becoming a minority in other contexts?
Yes, while Russia keeps colonizing nations or making use of them to establish or reconfirm its geopolitical dominance, Russian minority in Lithuania, which was once on the side with the people in power, now is a heterogeneous, partly assimilated diaspora, bearing a complicated legacy mixed with all kinds of emotions ranging from guilt to defensiveness, from arrogance to self-victimization. But the disillusioned yet constructive position that many folks from my generation usually declare, having no homeland and no ethnicity at all, interests me the most. Interestingly, we are neither chasing the unattainable horizon of becoming fully “Lithuanian” nor have we ever felt fully Russian. Exactly this disillusionment makes us most perceptible to the idea of an unstable, fluid, creative, fragile identity, at the intersection of self and others. Perhaps we identify with something that belongs to the future – rootless, fluid, confused and ever-changing. Errantry, that Edouard Glissant was writing about.
When I once took part in a heated panel discussion in Klaipeda whilst presenting two of my moving image works, I was asked a question in the end “so what do you think our Russian diaspora’s identity is based on in the Post-Soviet space?” I answered something like ‘I think it’s based on myths of a huge Empire, myths of belonging to a great culture…” to which someone shouted “So you say it’s a myth?!”. Suddenly, the whole audience went furiously loud. I was astonished that it triggered them so much. Yes, I do think that we are being fed discourses drawn from imperial narratives, or what Alexievich means by “Secondhand Time” – recycled, secondhand beliefs that aren’t exactly helpful in building anything new.
In your work “Таинство” (Tainstvo / Sacrament) you reveal the deep sense and mechanism of appearance or existence of sacral in non-sacral contexts. Which refers to the practice of mysticism as an essential part of human sacral being from the pre-Cristian times, which then was abandoned by the Christian Church. How do you define the Sacrament and Sacredness? Is it mostly individual practice, in a term of escapism, or rather a source of collective rituals to set the possible freedom in opposition to strict power of state or church?
When I was working on Tainstvo, I interviewed several priests and believers around Lithuania, which resulted in around 10 hours of recorded conversations and a million thoughts in my head. Visiting priests wasn’t an easy experience because it often triggered some kind of a trauma response of mine, but simultaneously it was also very healing. We were talking about politics, aggressive messianism of Christian Orthodoxy, homophobia, modern society, the importance of mass and church versus social work “outside”, superstitions versus theology… And all the things that are unquestionable and sacral. One of the places I visited but where I wasn’t allowed to record and film was Mikhnovo, a community in the Vilnius region, which is sometimes referred to as a cult because it was gathered around the personality of the deceased priest Pontyi (who was the founder of the community). While the community still hasn’t achieved canonization of Father Pontyi as a saint, Mikhnovo has a very special status among the Orthodox believers in Lithuania on a folkloric level. It’s a prayer-charged place having this alternative, underground quality.
On the one hand, the Orthodox Church still holds its influence in the society through a high demand of Sacrament rites like baptism, Eucharist, confession, anointing or matrimony. On the other hand, most people practice them not as acts of conscious and deep transition from one state to another, but as magic bullet rituals, and we have to remember that it’s exactly this kind of idolatry that Christianity has always opposed. A sorcerer’s spell that will just make things happen. When you think of it, baptism of a baby who neither consents nor comprehends what is being done to it simply wouldn’t make sense for the early Christians. And from here we can talk about placebo effects, magical thinking and the power of authority as something that is universal to our society in general. “That which is postulated and unquestionable may but need not be religious. It may but not have to do with mystical forces and the spirit world. Unquestionability may instead be vested in a system of authority or a political ideology or other matters,” write Sally F. Moore and Barbara Myerhoff. For instance, Treptower Park in Berlin, Vytis monument in Kaunas or some artworks of immense value are great examples of a mix of authority and sacredness. There are so many non-religious things that we practice, and we practice them religiously. So, the question of sacredness can be related to all of the things mentioned by you and many more – I’m talking about it more in my recently published notebook “Express Method”.
Creating the works that reflect on technological fluidity, rituals, sacral and site specific context (like in Habitaball or Agents) you often refer to very archaic practices as well as to marginal scientific experience (like in the case of Demikhov Dog). How do you see the relationship today between science, spirituality, art and ethics as an artist?
I do refer to archaic practices, but when referring to them I am trying to be clear that they are, using Asimov’s expression, “wronger than wrong”. I either criticize and raise questions – like with the video work Agents, where I highlight an instrumentalized nature of the Lithuanian wood sculpture in relation to the ethnic renaissance that started in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and creation of new narratives with the made up myths that are camouflaged as old. Or… I’m engaged in a subversive reworking and invention of certain structures to highlight their fictional character, absurdity. Like creating a site-specific installation Habitaball in the open air paintball field for the Riga Biennial, an ethnographic museum of fictional playful entities.
In terms of science, so much time was lost. So many absurd ideas lie in the foundations of myths and pseudoscientific theories that haunt us to this day. “While the repetition and representation of fantasies doesn’t make them any more real, the repetition and representation of violence does amplify violence,” says Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in “Those who are dead are not ever gone”. I’m trying to be aware of this all the time. Art has an intrinsic right to fantasize, but some fantasies can be violent. What soothes me is the idea that getting things wrong is probably an important part of the road towards getting things right, and that’s why we should keep talking about things that went wrong.
An artist always faces the question of exclusive gallery representation of his or her art, from the point of working medium. How do you deal with the institutional world, taking into account your multi-medium experiments with video, graphics, installations, and site specific works? How do you see the effective collaboration between artist and the gallery today? Or do you prefer to work mostly with big institutions taking into account the issue of visibility?
I have just recently had my first experiences of working with galleries and I haven’t been represented by one yet. Most of my experience so far have been related to non-commercial project spaces, institutions or virtual and off-site events. In the book “The Delusions of Care”, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung calls an exhibition an “event of knowledge” and writes: “All “events” that have been considered extra-curricular to curating like discursive programs, symposia, public programs, performances, reading spaces, etc., are actually crucial components of the exhibition itself, as the artists and topics at stake receive manifold trajectories of exploration.” I guess I deal with the institutional world this way, trying to work with the people who view exhibitions as events of knowledge, and do bother to hold “extra-curricular” events, who truly care about the discourses, artworks and the way they can generate the awareness of change in culture and society. I know I don’t talk about the practicalities here. However, I have been my own graphic designer, application writer, researcher, editor, technician, social media manager, curator and artist for several years already while at the same time relying on the art community – “we have been doing so much with so little, we can do anything with nothing now” as Nora Turato says in one performance, funnily, quoting Mother Theresa. So, in my view, it really becomes a matter of financial security and mutual support, the feeling of partnership and common goals when thinking about effective collaboration between an artist and a gallery. In the end, there’s no art world without artists. Are we supporting each other instead of exploiting, are we participating in the events of knowledge together, and are we opening new worlds to each other?