In 1997, a mere seven years later after Lithuania regained their Indepence, the Kaunas chapter of the Lithuanian Artists Association founds Meno Parkas Gallery, which has been going strong ever since, well-known and respected on the national art scene.
Fast forward to 2018 and the 100th anniversary of the original restoration of independence. Meno Parkas Gallery is holding its 8th international art festival, Kaunas in Art, with the intriguing motto „So Close, So Far“.
Indeed, although Lithuania is only a 1.5-hour flight away from Berlin and 2.5-hour flight from London, it seems like somewhere near Siberia rather than the geographical centre of Europe.
The importance of art festivals such as Kaunas in Art as a way of making the country more known on among the international art audience cannot be stressed enough.
The dense and ambitious festival programme, spread all over the city, included a group exhibition with 13 international artists, performances, gallery talks with the likes such as Berlin-based top gallerist Gregor Podnar, and an lecture by the South African artist Christine Dixie about her „To be King“ installation, which uses the iconic „Las Meninas“ painting by Diego Velázquez to explore the concept of today´s art and question the idea of a masterpiece.
The Meno Parkas staff first encountered the „To be King“ mixed-media installation when exhibiting „Willow´s Lake“ by the Lithuanian artist Jonas Gasiuanas at the „PERSONAL STRUCTURES – open borders“ show during the 2017 Venice Art Biennale. As a result, they invited Christine Dixie to show her “To be King” installation and video work at their 2018 Kaunas Art Festival alongside Jonas‘ „Willow´s Lake“, thus creating a powerful overlapping narrative in that they both use the image of a floating girl.
Talking about synchronicity..
Another work that left a significant impact at the festival was the video “The Martyrdom of Professor Sanchez” from the ongoing fragmentary film project Word Count by Kasia Fudakowski.
The video pictures a very near future in which scientists have proven a direct correlation between dramatically rising sea-levels and the number of words we speak. Professor Sanchez is an anarchic professor who refuses to adapt. The work was shown in a darkened space surrounded by thick black curtains. To watch it you had to sit on an enormous and slightly threatening black waterbed that sucked you downwards, requiring you to crawl on all fours to get off.
The effect this had in conjunction with the sound of crashing ocean waves and the haunting video, in which Professor Sanchez is forced by the word government to sit in a divers bell in which the water rises with every word he says, thus literally drowning himself by refusing to stop speaking, was chilling and unforgettable.
The second festival location was the Photography Gallery, which showed Marcelo Brodsky´s “1968: The Fire of Ideas” exhibition featuring photographs of protests all over the world and over the decades. The results of Brodsky’s research was also presented in a catalogue containing the nightmarish example of a Lithuanian hero, the 19-year-old student Romas Kalanta, who set fire to himself in 1972 in Kaunas to protest Soviet rule of Lithuania. His death lead to the biggest post-war protests in the country and 13 more self-immolations.
To this day Romas Kalanta is a symbol of resistance.
The contrast of the photos of the protesters with their colourful signs and the events that took place shortly beforehand and afterwards was easy to understand but difficult to forget.
The Meno Parkas Gallery itself was also a festival site, starting in the basement with an installation of pétanque (a boules-like game) in progress by the French artist Alexandre Astier. This created an interactive, unusual setting and an opportunity to play pétanque and experience the overall installation, which included various slender wire works attached to the wall and finely-executed paintings, strikingly contrasted by the uneven stone rubble of the basement floor.
The uneven pétanque surface acted as a playful starting point ultimately leading to the hilarious “Attic Games” installation by Vladas Urbanavičius on the top floor. I laughed out loud (a welcome but rare side effect when observing art) on seeing the artist’s installation description: “I hung a cavalcade of empty barrels in the gallery attic, to which I laid the scroll of a cut-out red plastic and its cut-out shadow. I strongly affixed the remaining items to the chimney.”
You always want to do something secret and without reason in the attic.
The whole scene looked like a giant had his way with the attic, which is not surprising as Vladas Urbanavičius is a sculptor generally known for his minimalistic, enormous and works and uncommon materials. A case in hand concerns his infamous “The Arch of the Quay” sculpture, made from pipes used in the Soviet Union for the Družba crude oil pipeline. Installed next to a river in Vilnius in 2009, it caused a wide-spread controversy about contemporary art in general in Lithuania.
Fun fact: The folk in the suburbs call the installation the “Vilnius Pipe”.
In a complete and welcomingly calm contrast to the basement and top floor, the first floor of the gallery offered the „Art Deco“ video installation by the Lithuanian artist Neringa Naujokaitė, which showed the delicate and complicated process of the renovation of an Art Deco flat in Kaunas from its glorious Interwar years of Independence.
By choosing to present this work and the nuances of the restoration in the form of slides on an old-school slide projector, the artist created an environment that felt nearly sacred, accompanied by the still-familiar and somewhat soothing clicking noise that occurs when the next slide is picked by the projector. This conjured up a not-so-long-ago past yet a completely different time, one that seems far away.
Throughout the renovation process, the artist highlights its visual reality, opening a space for the visitor to step in and encounter part of a past that is being recreated and restored for future generations, thus mirroring Kaunas and Lithuania in the present day.
So close, so far…..
Presented Festival artists:
Alexandre Astier (FR). „Feet Rooted to The Ground“.
Neringa Naujokaitė (LT / DE). „Art Deco“.
Vladas Urbanavičius (LT). „Attic Games“.
M. ŽILINSKO DAILĖS GALERIJA
Hermione Allsopp (UK). „Mantle Deposits“.
Eglė Ganda Bogdanienė (LT). „The Second Skin“.
Christine Dixie (ZA). „To be King“.
Gregoire Fabvre (FR). „KINO-balopox“.
Kasia Fudakowski (UK). „Word Count 04: The Martyrdom of Professor Sanchez“.
Jonas Gasiūnas (LT). „Willow’s Lake“.
Allard van Hoorn (NL). „065 Urban Songlines“.
Vytenis Jankūnas (LT / USA). „J 2 Manhattan – The Eternal Traveler Syndrome in a Circular Motion“.
Evaldas Jansas (LT). „The Embassy“.
Simonas Nekrošius (LT). „The Flow that Struck The Wall“.
Laura Zaveckaitė (LT / USA). „In Between“.
Francisco Janes (PT / LT), Laura Zaveckaitė (LT / USA). „Untitled“.
Marcelo Brodsky (AR / ES). „1968: The Fire of Ideas“.
Festival is partly financed by the Lithuanian Council for Culture, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuanian and Kaunas City Municipality programme „Iniciatyvos Kaunui“.
Author: Esther Harrison
Photo Credit: Meno Parkas and the Author