By Federica Martini and Nicola Setari
Looking back at the past three days and recollecting the discussions we had with curators and artists in Tallinn and Vilnius, a thread connecting how artistic projects, organisations and institutions have emerged in the post-soviet era in Eastern Europe starts to unravel. A thread that challenges clear-cut distinctions between private and public and brings to the foreground at one end the role of the Hungarian businessman Georges Soros and at the other the European capitals of culture as well as the European Union culture programme. In between, shows and programmes realized also with the support of foreign national art agencies like the ones that are making this trip happen. On the background, but not less important of course, the governments of Estonia and Lithuania, who rapidly signed in to the creative industries turn of the late nineties. It is a fact, by now well-known and celebrated, that more and less cutting-edge contemporary art scenes have emerged in this context, and, most importantly, that artists participating in it have reached and are reaching international recognition. This shows, if anything, that after the fall of the Soviet Union the thirst for art was stronger than ideological stances and that to build an art system, criticality needs to operate in between the lines, with actions that by over-identifying and apparently complying to external agendas, subvert from within.
A surreal turn of the tables, which this blog entry can only describe, presented itself to us in Vilnius, when on the second day we visited the National Gallery of Art (NGA). As we entered the building workers were dismantling podiums, banners and other installations that one is likely to find in a congress center. As we moved further into the structure posters of the Lithuanian Presidency of the European Council appeared repeatedly. Shortly after we were lead to understand by the curators of the gallery that it had been shut down for six months in order to welcome the main events of the Presidency. The Lithuanian government took this decision, one could say, out of the appreciation for the qualities of the building and its ideal position to host such an event. But the question of why they did not rent a congress centre, or why there is no federal building that could host the event begs to be asked. The nonchalance with which a vital cultural institution was hijacked for such an important European event in a city that just some years ago was a capital of culture is flabbergasting.
The meeting with the museum curatorial staff, Ieva Mazuraite and Dovile Tumpyte, offers an in-depth perspective on the making of the gallery and Lithuanian art national identity. Initially host to the Museum of Revolution, the building shows evidence of soviet modern-classicism of the 1980s. After independence, in 1993, the architecture was eventually devoted to Lithuanian art in the 20th and 21st century. The actual outlook is the result of the renovations undertaken for around 2009, when Vilnius was the European Cultural Capital. There was talk at the time about a Guggenheim-Hermitage museum, meant to reproduce some sort of a Bilbao-effect, but somehow the project was abandoned.
The museum’s main mission is the (re)writing the history of national artistic production. At stake, the necessity to rethink the Soviet past and find new theoretical backgrounds for interpreting it, as well as the need to fill the gaps of national art history. How this discourse is articulated in the collection curatorial project is highlighted in two recent exhibitions: Monuments that are not (2011), a walk throughout Vilnius, as the subtitle suggests, addressing those monuments that disappeared from the city map around big historical turns; and Museum (2012), where conceptual artist Dainius Liskevicius’ undermined the institutional narrative through doubling the Gallery collection.
The National Gallery is also open to projects with a younger generation of artists. Ornaments (2012) was an invitation to five emerging artists from Lithuania to do a project with an artist of an older generation that was influential for them. During our private and exclusive visit to some of the gallery’s exhibition spaces, Dovile Tumpyte, who is one of the curators at the institution, lightened up our day by giving us a copy of a book by Lithuania’s most important art historian, Jurgis Baltrusaitis. The translation from French to English and to Lithuanian of the text and the publishing of the book was Gintaras Didziapetris project for Ornaments. The title is Geometry and Monsters and the book is dedicated to the study of monsters in medieval Romanesque churches… The challenge today is probably how to keep the monsters out of the contemporary cathedrals.
Read here an in-depth article by Dovile Tumpytė and Neringa Cerniauskaite about contemporary visual art practices in Lithuania.
After our visit to the NAC, we walked to The Gardens, a curator-run-space started on January 21, 2012 by Inesa Pavlovskaitė and Gerda Paliušytė. The art centre co-habits with Vilnius Planetarium, built in 1989 as a Soviet architecture at the end of Soviet times. Situated at the end of a narrow corridor, a 11 m2 room hosts around one exhibition per month, involving both international artists and local ones, especially students and teachers from the Vilnius Academy of Arts, close to the buildings where the two young art historians completed their education.
The educational focus comes back at Rupert, a brand new residency space, workshop and art space some 15 minutes away from Vilnius city centre. Countryside setting, elegant wooden architecture, Rupert’s main mission is to fill in the gaps of the official artistic education and offers residencies to emerging local and international artists. On the main floor, the project Jerusalem of Europe by Dora Garcia inaugurates the exhibition programme, curated by Juan de Nives, director of Rupert. Individual studio spaces take most of the building, though in the basement we saw some architects work in a huge open space. More people will join on the way, according to the plan awarded by the Art Incubator grant, aiming at mixing up creative industries and art researchers.
The following day was free, but a special visit was organized to Malonioji, in the Žvėrynas district in Vilnius. Situated in a old wooden house, the space is well known by the local art scene, that supported it by word of mouth since its opening in 2012. Artist Žilvinas Landzbergas and former CAC curator Ula Tornan, the founders, talked about their space as a salon – not in the bourgeois sense of the term, but more in terms of its scale and scope. The will to keep this space flexible and open brought Malonioji to develop, besides exhibitions, also a programme of public talks and, occasionally, of residencies.
Introduction by Inesa Pavlovskaite and Gerda Paliusyte to The Gardens