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TS: 12th Kaunas Biennial – After Leaving | Before Arriving

as Jan Ader, Jasmina Cibic, Céline Condorelli, Johanna Diehl, Ieva Epnere, Aslan Gaisumov, Inga Galinytė & Anna Papathanasiou, Alberto Garutti, Francesca Grilli, Laura Grisi, Christian Jankowski, Laura Kaminskaitė, Taus Makhacheva, Adrian Melis, Artūras Morozovas, Deimantas Narkevičius, Robertas Narkus, Tamu Nkiwane, Amalia Pica, Karol Pichler, Andrej Polukord, Ghenadie Popescu, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Mykola Ridnyi, Bálint Szombathy, Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas / After Leaving | Before Arriving / 12th Kaunas Biennial / Elisabeth Del Prete, Daniel Milnes, Lýdia Pribišová, Neringa Stoškutė, Alessandra Troncone / Kaunas / Litva / 07.06-29.09.2019

After Leaving | Before Arriving

12th Kaunas Biennial

Elisabeth Del Prete, Daniel Milnes, Lýdia Pribišová, Neringa Stoškutė, Alessandra Troncone

It is now expected that political motivations born of a global worldview will inform the development of major periodical exhibitions: The international art system is seen as the perfect ground to forecast and plan new projects of political sovereignty through formats that aim to disrupt but also ultimately serve the structures of power that maintain them. Each biennial can be viewed as a model for a new world order, in that they–with varying degrees of success–negotiate between the local and the international, and between different cultural identities in an attempt to reconcile global trends and political relevance in an image of the times. Yet, although these global ambitions are tempered by the geographical context within which each perennial exhibition is developed, there is a tendency to repeat certain characteristics that validate one’s belonging to the contemporary art system. While developing the exhibition concept of the 12th Kaunas Biennial, we acknowledged our entanglement within this system and attempted to move beyond these repeating tropes via more earnest means of embracing site-specificity and local context.

Temporary Legacies

This fundamental question of fidelity to place while seeking to position oneself within a larger geopolitical context resonated strongly with the current ambitions of the city municipality of Kaunas. A desire to extend the reach of the city into a broader European context is clearly manifest in two current large-scale projects: firstly, the successful bid for Kaunas to become European Capital of Culture in 2022; and secondly the city’s involvement as a site in the transport development project Rail Baltica, which will soon connect the Baltic states, and Kaunas, to the European rail network. Kaunas‘ active process of self-reflection on the value and nature of local identity within the global community, both from a cultural and an economic perspective, became the ideal point of departure for the exhibition After Leaving | Before Arriving. It is only fitting, therefore, that Kaunas Railway Station and Kaunas Picture Gallery, key sites in the city’s transport and cultural infrastructure, should serve as the main venues and conceptual vectors for the exhibition project, which looks to the metaphor of travel as a means of unfurling the cultural identity of a city with a complex past.

After Leaving | Before Arriving engages with the story of Kaunas in order to examine broader notions of passage, transition, and repair. The exhibition reflects upon how the feeling of disorientation underlying contemporary existence globally intertwines with the specific socio-political realities of nation-building in the New East, where alternative European alliances are emerging from the knots of past regimes. In many ways, Kaunas can be seen as a microcosm of the multiple narratives of change that unfolded across Europe during the 20th Century. Over the course of recent history, the city has been caught in a state of political flux, transitioning from one regime to the next. Even during its prosperous twenty-year phase as capital city after the declaration of Lithuanian independence between 1919 and 1940, Kaunas remained in waiting, set to fall back into the status of second city after the liberation of Vilnius from Polish control. What followed, however, was occupation by Soviet Russia, then Nationalist Socialist Germany, reoccupation by the Soviets, and finally the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990. This chain of events allowed Lithuania and Kaunas to emerge once again as consciously European entities, with the country gaining entry to the European Union in 2004. But it also raises the question of how the city should position itself culturally and ideologically in the aftermath of such perpetual change and political trauma. In the midst of this shift towards new allegiances, After Leaving | Before Arriving examines the role cultural production can play in processing moments of ideological change and in the construction of regional and national identity. This is signified by the inclusion of a new commission by artist Jasmina Cibic, who playfully interrogates the place of Lithuanian culture within the European community in her performance Changing the Climate (2019); but also by a focus on the architectural history of the exhibitions sites, looking at the close interplay of urban development and political transition in Kaunas throughout the 20th Century.

Architectural Intent

The exhibition stakes out a path in the undefined space between remembering and forgetting, and history and progress, against the backdrop of the city’s Naujamiestis (New Town) district. A sensitive selection of existing artistic projects along with a number of new commissions have allowed a careful dialogue to emerge between the works of art and their location. Alongside Kaunas Railway Station and Kaunas Picture Gallery, we have selected further sites that bear witness to the city’s multi-layered history: the complex at Unity Square housing The Vytautas the Great War Museum and The M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art; The Kaunas House of Artists; and the Kaunas Old Cemetery (also known as Ramybės Park). The historical significance of each these locations has been described in separate extended texts which can be discovered within the fabric of this publication.

Together with exhibition architect Linas Lapinskas, we took the Kaunas Picture Gallery as a starting point to think in more detail about the symbiosis of history and place. The late modernist architecture of the Picture Gallery building favours multiple perspectives, freeing itself from the ideological constraints of a unified vision as prescribed by the singular representative facades of the city’s interwar and Soviet period architecture. In contrast, Kaunas Picture Gallery is in fact shaped as a polyhedron, a multidimensional structure with complex volumetric forms designed to be observed from all sides. In order to highlight this architectural feature, and to break with the institutional structure of the building, After Leaving | Before Arriving relocates the entrance of the exhibition to the back of the Picture Gallery, drawing attention to the facade-like quality of the other planes, including the roof which can be viewed from the adjacent grass verge. As a five-piece collective working in different European cities and in the company of 28 international artists, we hope to perform the architectural intention of the Kaunas Picture Gallery through this exhibition, avoiding a unilateral curatorial approach and instead creating a multiplicity of perspectives based on our different readings of the city of Kaunas. Through this synergetic, “polyhedral“ attitude to site, we hope to activate different loci in the city’s collective memory and foster an understanding of history as something that can exist as a vital force in everyday life. In an extension of this horizontal methodology, which rests on the principle of mutuality, we invite the visitors to find their own connection between the works of art and the location in which they are positioned, and in doing so offer them new means of seeing and reading the topography of the city they inhabit.

Time Travel

The works on display in After Leaving | Before Arriving engage with the idea of travel in a number of ways to assist the audience in deciphering the dense palimpsestual inscriptions that mark each of the exhibition sites. While a few of the works use very direct imagery–depicting the vehicles, vessels, and infrastructural mechanisms that facilitate the movement of people, resources, and ideas–they do so with the intention of speaking to broader historical and sociological moments of transition. Travel thus becomes not just a spatial, but a temporal phenomenon too, with a possible nexus of these two dimensions lying in the disorienting but productive state of being caught in-between the past and the present. While this journey of constant becoming can be understood in terms of progress and forward motion, ever-shifting political vectors can quickly tip this trajectory into free fall, as prophesied by the ghostly apparition of Bas Jan Ader in a suite of three historical videos. Fall 2, Amsterdam (1970), Broken Fall (Geometric) (1971), and Nightfall (1971) act as absurd, yet poignant harbingers of an unknown fate and set a cautionary tone for the exhibition. By rupturing the fabric of the present moment and looking back into the depths of the past, the works on display allow for a moment of reflection on how history affects our immediate experiences, and how a better understanding of this confluence of temporal planes can help us navigate the uncertain terrain of the future.

A number of works in the show address the philosophical implications of the passage of time and its inextricable bond to the notion of place. In the video Measuring of Time (1969), for instance, Laura Grisi meditates on the circular and infinite nature of time by slowly counting grains of sand on a vast beach, looping this poetic image to envelop the viewer into an intimate and dreamlike moment of suspense. Laura Kaminskaitė’s musings on the liquid nature contemporary existence similarly speculate on a perpetual state of becoming that seeks Its own unfolding elsewhere (2019), while the Time-squares (2012) of Karol Pichler offer an interactive situation in which the visitor can consolidate their past, present and future into a single experience. Finally, Alberto Garutti’s paving stones in public space, which bear the inscription Every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now (2007-), offer the passer by a humorous moment of contemplation on the finitude of human existence within the vast expanses of space and time.

Transit Zone

These abstract reflections are lent a more definite form by a number of works that address the confrontation of history with the present day in Lithuania and other post-Soviet states. With To Buy or not to Buy (2019) Andrej Polukord subtly raises awareness of the privatization of public space and the consequent control of pedestrian movement within the urban environment of Kaunas in a gentle act of civil disobedience that installs a sign for a public walkway in a commercial setting. In a newly commissioned series titled Cults of Performance (2019), Johanna Diehl further documents the challenges of transition from a communist to a capitalist mode of living through black and white photographs of interiors in Kaunas that have undergone significant transformation as a result of political change. While these images bear witness to a new self-optimizing subject who can continually adapt to the ever-changing world around them, other works speak of those for whom this transition has not been so easy.

For the documentary photography and oral history project Unrecognized Standing Objects (2019), Artūras Morozovas visited signal guards living at rail crossings in remote locations in the Lithuanian countryside, whose existence is rendered obsolete by the rapid automation and shifting routes of the Lithuanian railway system. While in Potom (2016), an evocative title meaning afterward or later in Russian, Ieva Epnere depicts the figure of a former Soviet navy officer still living in abandoned officers’ house in the Latvian Liepāja and caught in his former routine, unable to find access into contemporary society. But there is also humour and resilience to be found in these moments of adversity, as testified by The Value of Absence (2010/12) by Adrian Melis. Set against a backdrop of lethargy stemming from dissatisfaction with and indifference towards the socialist system in Cuba, Melis offered employees in Havana the chance of professional absenteeism by paying them the amount that would be deducted from their wage in return for the right to record and publish the excuses they use to avoid going to work.

Remembering to Forget

By affording visibility to marginalized members of society, these works issue an imperative to remember rather than ignore or forget the problems of the past that continue to mark the present. With the project Green River (2019) Tamu Nkiwane addresses directly the complex issue of historical amnesia during moments of resistance and reorientation, offering a comparison between the revolutionary struggle in Zimbabwe of the 1980s and the analogue move towards independence in Lithuania of this period. Yet perhaps silence too can be a means of processing the hardship of the past, as Aslan Gaisumov demonstrates. His video Volga (2015) re-enacts the hurried escape of Chechen citizens in a powerful mute moving image that shows 21 people calmly enter into a standard passenger car in an empty field.

Just as Gaisumov circumvents the need to articulate a unified history through the use of poignant imagery, Deimantas Narkevičius also examines the problems associated with creating a cogent historical narrative in the face of individual and collective trauma. In his film Revisiting Solaris (2007) the movement of the protagonists’ mouths seldom matches up with the subtitles that pass authoritatively across the screen below them. In this reprisal of Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel, Narkevičius focuses on the final chapter that was omitted in Tarkovsky’s film in order to infiltrate the blind spots of Lithuanian history. Evocative settings, such as the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius, subtly expose the architecture of trauma that frames contemporary Lithuanian identity. While Narkevičius obliquely references the Soviet deportations and executions of Lithuanian citizens that were until recently left unspoken and unwritten, Mykola Ridnyi’s new installation Lost Baggage (2019) offers a glimpse into a further dark episode in the history of Kaunas: the National Socialist campaign against the city’s Jewish community. At Kaunas Railway Station, Ridnyi has installed reproductions of historical drawings by artist Esther Lurie–which depict the local ghetto and the German atrocities–inside five human-sized ceramic urns with peepholes.

A number of projects posit empathy as a first step toward repair in the face of such past traumas. The act of sharing as a healing process is palpable in the installation Dépendance (2019) by Robertas Narkus, which assembles a set of decommissioned landing lights from Vilnius Airport into a public gazebo that quite literally sheds light onto the multi-layered history of the Kaunas Old Cemetery, a site which still occupies an uncertain status between a place of memory and a place of recreation in the city’s collective consciousness. Francesca Grilli meanwhile reprises her performance project The Forgetting of Air (2016/2019) within the local context of Kaunas, inviting recently arrived migrants to the city to a session of collective breathing with the local audience and offering the sharing of air as a poetic means of fostering solidarity between community groups. Empathetic Body (2019), the latest iteration of an ongoing, long-distance performance project between Inga Galinytė and Anna Papathanasiou, also looks to the visceral and spiritual interaction of bodies with each other and their surroundings as a therapeutic strategy of dealing with traumatic episodes. In this instance, the performance refers specifically to Galinytė’s experience of being dislocated from the happiness of her childhood in Kaunas and cast into the global existence of a travelling artist.

Expansion and Contraction

The attention which After Leaving | Before Arriving offers to processing historical incidents should not distract from the problems of the contemporary moment. A further installation by Mykola Ridnyi titled Gradual Loss of Vision (2017) serves as an acute warning of the pathological dangers that accompany a progressive numbness to various Eastern European conflicts in the mass media, comparing the shifting borders of the ongoing territorial skirmishes in Eastern Ukraine to the spread of medical afflictions of the eye. The ongoing contestation and affirmation of borderlines in the former Eastern Bloc are also addressed in videos by Bálint Szombathy and Ghenadie Popescu. In Breaking-Through (2007), Szombathy urinates into a train toilet and strategically empties the contents of the bowl when passing the border between Serbia and Hungary: an ambiguous gesture which simultaneously questions the ideological constructs and human consequences of political frontiers while also animalistically marking Szombathy’s own territory in no-man’s land. Yet Ghenadie Popescu’s work In-Between (2010) creates a sensibility for the importance borders can have in the creation of a stable national identity from the perspective of his native Moldova. This Kafka-esque video sequence documents a steady flow of strangers who invade Popescu’s space in a tight corridor between two doors, drawing attention to how the sovereignty of borders relies as much on external recognition as it does on self-determination.

The exhibition also problematizes the confluence of political and economic interests in questions of territory, manifesting the ability of capital to shape the lie of the land by visible and invisible means. With the ongoing project Druzhba (2003), the Russian word for friendship, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas uncover the power dynamics that emerge from the politics of resource consumption by tracing the geographical and historical route of the world’s longest crude oil pipeline of the same name, from its source in Siberia, across the Baltic states and into Central Europe. While the political alliances that enabled the pipeline’s construction have since dissolved and recrystallised elsewhere, Druzhba shows how this physical apparatus of power continues to silently extend its tributaries under former domains of political control. In the conceptual installation Ring Road (2018), Taus Makhacheva offers a humorous take on how absurd and aggressive development projects still seek to appropriate virgin land to this day: Her proposal for a prohibitively expensive, inaccessible endless circular highway in the mountains of Dagestan can be read as a soft critique of the disproportionate power of an elite few private investors who have profited from the socio-economic turmoil of the post-Soviet space. But it is the playful yet mournful song of extinct birds that could serve to temper these ambitions. Through a recorded séance titled Cantos de Pájaros Extintos Previamente Desconocidos Por La Ciencia Pero Recuperados Por El Espiritismo, 1 (Songs of Extinct Birds Previously Unknown to Science, But Recovered By Spiritism, 1) (2013) Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa calls these lost species back from the beyond and into our present-day consciousness. The one-sided attempts of the participants to communicate with the birds by mimicking their call is a gentle yet poignant reminder of the dire, irreversible ecological consequences that brutal human projects can have on the natural world.

New Proposals

By documenting the transient nature of political sovereignty, the works of After Leaving | Before Arriving make manifest the need for a constant adaptation and revision of social order and political creed in the face of new geopolitical challenges. Rather than allowing existing architectures of power to atrophy or calcify, the exhibition is a call to action for a more responsive approach to the problems we face and assigns importance to immediate social bonds and larger national and global projects alike. In this constant process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, creative approaches, historical and contemporary, may continue to guide our course. In Models for a Qualitative Society (2016) and an accompanying selection of prints, Céline Condorelli explores the adventure playgrounds of modernist architects and posits play as an important tool for nurturing a creativity and adaptability that can serve a common social agenda. This imperative of play as a means of creating new models for civic participation is strengthened by Amalia Pica’s performative installation A B C (Line) (2013) which calls on the radical social doctrine of the Latin American avant-garde by inviting four strangers to constantly re-shuffle a set of geometric shapes and in doing so abstractly display the many different possibilities of collective action.

But perhaps it is Christian Jankowski’s project My new proposal (2019) that sums up most succinctly how creativity can lend agency to individuals and institutions alike in the face of overwhelming challenges. Born of an unrealisable project of grand scale, this new work issues a simple yet far-reaching message that resonates with the past, present and future of the city of Kaunas, while gently critiquing the institutional power of the biennial project itself: “We would like to ask you to have another idea”. These words, installed on billboards on the motorway from Vilnius to Kaunas and within the city environment, are a perfect point of entry and exit to the exhibition parcours, recalling the process of negotiation that is required between all parties when producing a large-scale event such as the Kaunas Biennial, while also reminding each viewer of their own responsibility and ability to adapt to the challenges around them in spite of the formidable dimensions they may assume. “We would like to ask you to have another idea” invites each of us to find alternatives to the existing and established structures that shape our immediate reality and delineates an imaginary journey to unexpected destinations on the endless route of After Leaving | Before Arriving.