A started and unfinished reality
A started and unfinished reality
What could be more interesting than sketches which the artist abandons, which he never comes back to, sketches – or billets of future artworks – which suddenly become artworks in their own right? Can it be that Algis Griškevičius’ photographs, meant as prototypes for paintings, not merely capture the time of boredom, but also become a space for urban sculptures where banal objects seem to acquire new life?
These questions inevitably lead to other questions. For instance, are all of the works we consider unfinished (or know as deliberately or accidentally left unfinished by their authors) indeed unfinished? Unfinished in relation to what? The author’s intention? The object of reality itself? The work’s future perceivers, i. e. the ones who partake in its space and constantly reactuate it?
Herein lies the intriguing question: what does a started and unfinished artwork mean? Furthermore, we are compelled to answer yet another one: was reality itself ever started, and can it essentially be finished (or brought to complete perfection in the eyes of the Creator)?
The humanist circles which emerged in the Renaissance era changed all Europe’s perspective on the classical languages, rhetoric, art, literature and politics, because the notion of humanism had the idea of incompleteness of reality at its very core. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man (Oratio de hominis dignitate), the Florentine humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) openly set forth what was undoubtedly perceived as a horrible heresy in the Christian world.
He claimed that God had intentionally left his creation unfinished, having abandoned it as an open project. To make the world complete and perfect, which is a neverending work and an open project in itself, God needs a creative partner. It is the human who assumes the latter role. Not just any human, but the one who chooses the work of constant self-perfection and spiritual cultivation. Such an individual can be l’uomo universale, in the sense of this term used by its author Leon Battista Alberti, but at the same time he or she can simply be an artist.
Hence, being an artist automatically lands one in a started and unfinished world. By working on it, we create ourselves. The human life is an open opportunity for constant self-correction and compensation of one’s imperfection through creative activity. Since we are the intermediate link between the animal and God, we must constantly choose between two vectors. It is either degradation to bestial state or elevation towards God.
This is the essence of Pico della Mirandola’s statement: the human dignity arises not only from likeness to the image of God, but also from constant effort to overcome one’s imperfection by perceiving oneself and the world as an always open and uncertain existential and creative project.
We know that many artists consciously or accidentally left their works unfinished. Occasionally works remained unfinished due to a very important new commission which could not be rejected. That was the case with Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi painting (stored in the Uffizi gallery in Florence). We know that the Augustinian monks of the Florentine San Donato a Scopeto monastery and church commissioned this work, but Leonardo had to leave to Milan on short notice and did not finish the painting. To me, this early masterpiece has always been among his most misterious works, much more so than the Mona Lisa – precisely because his Madonna Litta, Benois Madonna, Mona Lisa or Cecilia Gallerani will never let us into their space as finishers of the divine creation. Theologically or from the point of view of Florentine humanism, Leonardo might not have objected to that, but it is simply impossible for us technically – the works are too perfect to reveal a single prospect for future correction or alternative. Meanwhile, The Magi allow us to constantly partake in an open structure which contains endless possibilities for the completion and continuation of the work.
I could say the same and even more about one of my favourite Florentine artworks – the Masolino and Masaccio frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of the Santa Maria del Carmine church. Masolino and his apprentice Masaccio painted most of the Brancacci cycle in this collective early Renaissance masterpiece, but it so happened that they did not complete it. The cycle was finished later by Filippino Lippi, the son of Sandro Botticelli’s teacher Fra’ Filippo Lippi. Masolino and Masaccio’s unfinished project not only enabled Filippino Lippi to reveal his talent of a religious painter and fresco master, but also posed a question: how is it possible (if at all) to finish an unfinished work?
There is no answer to this question. Although we are fascinated by Filippino Lippio’s works in this cycle, we cannot know if it would have been even more interesting had the work started by Masolino and Masaccio remained unfinished. Just as in the case of Giorgione’s unfinished Sleeping Venus, completed by Titian (Dresden Old Masters Gallery).
Another category comprises intentionally unfinished works. Rembrandt left particularly many of them. Such a deliberately unfinished artwork compels us to not only symbolically do the remaining work and complete the piece by our participation and imagination, but also redefine the notion of an artwork and even art itself. And then, perhaps, the very notion of reality.
Hence, Algis Griškevičius’ urban photography is not merely raw material; it becomes an invitation to redefine boredom, the mundane, architecture, construction, the city, art and reality. The photographs turn into urban poetry discovering the everyday and that which must either develop into beautiful objects or vanish, but always has its future as an open possibility. We do not know which is better: temporary existence and disappearance or being an intermediate link between absence and becoming conventional beauty or even canon.
We do not know that. If we did, we would have no need for art, and it would transform into something else.
These photographs not only provoke us to decide whether we want to and are able to participate in the completion of the started reality (for what is finished dies and fades away). Each artwork contains the possibility of self-destruction and destruction of the world, thus these questions are far from being innocent. Who are we to say which fragments of reality or an artwork are valuable and which are not? Does it not resemble our confidence in knowing which life forms deserve continuity and which do not?
For all beautiful fragments of reality are similar, while all ugly fragments are ugly in their own way. For beauty is already finished, while its ugly masks conceal new existence. The question is how to discover it.
Algis Griškevičius’ works relentlessly tackle these questions. Let us remain in their space. Satisfying and convincing answers hardly exist. We would hardly become happier even if we got them.
Let us live without knowing them.
LAYERED ACCUMULATION OF RUSTING TIME
LAYERED ACCUMULATION OF RUSTING TIME
On May 12, 2016, the exhibition “A Take on Vintage Photography” was launched at the Šiauliai museum of photography, curated by the director of the Vitas Luckus photography center, Ieva Meilutė-Svinkūnienė. On display are the works of thirteen foreign and Lithuanian authors that have to do with the photographic archive of the past. The conceptual exhibition will go on for the entire summer, and I invite everyone who appreciates photographic art to visit it, as it is not only a significant artistic event but also a topical study of visual culture.
The starting point of the exhibition is the concept of Luckus’ album, A Take on Vintage Photography. Is it still relevant today? If so, how is it developed and in what directions? Possible answers can be found in the works of the artists exhibited here: Maurizio Anzeri (IT / UK), Dovilė Dagienė (LT), Kęstutis Grigaliūnas (LT), Vladislav Krasnoshek (UA), Vitas Luckus (LT), Galina Moskaleva (LT / RU), Saulius Paukštis (LT), Roman Pyatkovka (UA), Igor Savchenka (BY), Gytis Skudžinskas (LT), Pavel Maria Smejkal (SK), Vytautas V. Stanionis (LT), Indrė Šerpytytė (LT / UK).
Artists tend to engage in the past as documented by historical images, trying to reveal what is hidden behind the documents. However, there are more general reasons explaining the blossoming of such art in the past decades. In the early 20th century, avant-guarde movements such as futurism, dadaism, constructivism and surrealism used photomontage and photonarrative techniques as revolutionary tools for predicting the future and creating imaginary, unseen, desired worlds. With the downfall of modernist utopias, the past, as well as collective and personal memory, came back into view.
What historical processes led to the rise of the culture of memory? In the past decades, many countries and most social and ethnic groups have experienced drastic and quick changes in their traditional relationships with the past. The changes are expressed in a variety of forms, be it criticism of textbook history, restoration of destroyed individual or social historical memory, mystification of the root cult, popularisation of politicized memorial events, founding the oddest memorial museums, sensitive reactions to archive collection methods and opening archives to the public… Whatever the combination of changes, one thing is clear: the world is flooded by a wave of memories. Another reason to look back onto the past is anxiety about the future and disappointment in its perspectives. Particularly given that when “scores have not been settled” with the nightmares of the individual or collective past, mostly caused by repressive regimes, the future becomes even foggier, and the threat of painful and traumatic history repeating itself – even more real.
Such dreary predictions have made relevant the notion of collective memory. Very recently history seemed to belong only to politicians and artists, but the modern powerful surge of both collective and individual memory has achieved a new shape of freedom and protest. It may not guarantee historical truth, but it is efficient in restoring self-respect and providing at least moral satisfaction to individuals and groups that have been degraded, hurt, inhumanely and cruelly traumatized and deprived of their own history. Artists, too, have taken an active part in actualizing memory. Although an objective study of historical events is not their domain, but simbolically powerful works of art can be much more precise than science or politics in conveying the links between the past and the present. For art is in a way a substitute for memory, emotional compensation which gives the social impulse to release suppressed recollections and have them become part of social and cultural memory.
In this way, individual and collective memory, individual trauma and collective nightmares collide, combine and intersect. The catharsis caused by a wark of art wakes the petrified mind, distanced from the suffering of “others” by a wall of indifference, in order for us all to try and regain the lost balance of memory together.
The traumatized society of post-colonial Lithuania and neighboring countries is only just beginning its somnambulist journey down memory’s mazes. The role and input of artists in successfully numbing the pain of past traumas is exceedingly vital.
Even more vital are photographic images – mute yet reliable witnesses. There are increasingly few “living” memories left as the last participants of those dramatic events pass away. The discourse of memory is revived by images, but in order that photographic images may take part in the exchange of meaning, the tomes lurking in the twilight of archives must be made to speak.
This is the context in which the work of the artists in the exhibition at hand must be seen, and their efforts to “grant speech” to the mute witnesses of the past so that the present may “assimilate” the historical images.
Then again, they are interested in archives not only of history in the broad sense, but also of familial images. Personal photographs, too, testify to the crises of the era and portray society’s dramatic evolution.
Photographic images have another trait, which I could call post-modern and which was particularly important to Vitas Luckus. Once immersed in the general stream of visual culture, they separate from their context and reveal unexpected layers of meaning by colliding and overlaying, by digressing and approaching again.
The image poetics, based on the principles of collage, release the power of the metaphor. Vitas Luckus wrote: “In the beginning I tried to classify my work according to social phenomena and photographical style, emphasizing the topic of life and death. This suddenly made me feel like a Lithuanian artist carving statues of God. When I put everything on the table, however, I felt like a god myself. Lying side by side were an Asian and a Red Indian, a black man, a white man, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Christian, the Czarist army, the Polish army, the Kaiser, the war, funerals and weddings. I shuffled thousands of images into a heap and found that order still remained.”
Such a visual counterpoint expands the limits of the world by connecting an image to the contexts of other images, creating a tension and a harmony between them, reconstructing space, reversing time, retracing the trajectories of life and death…
This is a total trance of visual powers, a kaleidoscopic dance of images, an optical utopia. A most obvious continuation of Luckus’ palimpsest iconography within the exhibition is seen in the images of Saulius Paukštis. The overlapping layers of past and present in the photographs show that instead of recording a crucial point in the present, the author slowly and gently immerses us into a visual world unlimited by the laws of gravitation and causality, inhabited by immortal souls and costumed dandies of the past staring out of the windows of Vilnius’ Old Town.
Interestingly, most of the artists in this exhibition apply the strategy of materializing the photographic image. By deforming the images, sketching over them, wetting, coloring or embroidering them, using layered exposures, connecting images and objects, forming various textures or installing the images in boxes, they seek to add a modern flavor to historical photographs and make them physically more palpable. Like fishermen, they catch old pictures, flying towards oblivion, and hang them on the walls of the present. The instinct of ritualizing time, central to all memorial culture, is what encourages them to appropriate the past.
This strategy is displayed most clearly in Vladislav Krasnoshek’s macabre surrealist collages of images and objects congealed in the lava of transformation. Another, volume-based way of reviving photographs is seen in Gytis Skudžinskas and Dovilė Dagienė’s compositions of boxes, mazes of theatre curtains and secret spaces, and Kęstutis Grigaliūnas’ weighty album. Maurizio Anzeri (Italy) has a unique method of emphazising the physical architectonics of the images: by embroidering the photographic paper, he awards laconic and very expressive definition to the compositions of the images. The tension energy of the thread contemporizes the distant historical landscape and seems to objectify it.
An illusion of present time is also formed when old photographs are colored, painted over, glazed, overlayed with transparent paints. An even thicker accumulation of rusting time appears when the layers of images and paints are placed over each other. This homemade photo coloring aesthetic is characteristic of most of the exhibition’s participants, but is expecially notable in Vladislav Krasnoshek’s collages and Roman Pyatkovka’s dreamily layered documentation of the past. How else would one assimilate an image one did not create? It is not enough to emphatize; color, texture, collage traces of individual takes, emotions and evaluations must remain as the historical horizon becomes ever more distant.
Going back to the challenges of traumatic past, to art as a meditation and therapeutic practice, we must not forget that the authors in this exhibition come from lands still bearing the heavy ramifications of Soviet and fascist colonialism. Yet as progressively fewer direct victims of violence and witnesses of repressions remain, collective memory’s connection to the past weakens. It is ideologically divided, brutally ravaged by colonizers, burdened by post-traumatic shock silence, leveled by wan political rituals, vulgarized by pseudo-historical television shows.
In the life of post-colonial Lithuania, the occupation experience is most often expressed in post-traumatic symptoms accompanied by metaphysical stiffness or hysterical attacks of memorial activity. The stress experienced by the victims of military violence is too deep, their losses too painful to became public narrative. No wonder that it is usually the third generation that undertakes the duty to sum up, reflecting on the fate of the victims.
This is the generation to which Kęstutis Grigalūnas belongs; he attempts to review the Soviet occupation and its consequences through the prism of his own time. His photographic notebooks and the fragment of the installation “I did not know, my love, that I was kissing you for the final time” displayed in the exhibition, cause an avalanche of emotions: dismay and shock, marvel and the pain of loss, empathy, bitterness, pity, curiosity… This is not an instrumental archive catalog where emotions are neutralized by the very sight of an historical document. Grigalūnas’ archival notebooks demand not a scholarly take, but a careful touch: for us to look the victims in the eyes, remember their faces, their smiles, their hand gestures, to stay with them a while.
The Soviet Ukrainian apocalypse of the Holodomor is dramatically expressed by Roman Pyatkovka. In the photographs are figures of humans ravished by hunger, still alive but already dissolving like ghosts.
Indrės Šerpytytė’s photographic installation, “The Pedestal”, reveals the underside of representative ritual culture. The monument of Lenin and Kapsukas that loomed over the student campus of Saulėtekis in Soviet times, is reborn in the artist’s visual counterpoint as a tragicomic conjunction of modern tourist pop and Soviet ceremony. More poetic reflections of Soviet reality shimmer in Moscow-born Galina Moskaleva’s works paraphrasing photographs taken by her father. Belarusian Igor Savchenko “improves” his family pictures through iconic hand touches. His attempts to add a dimension of value and beauty to harsh reality could be called choreography of humanity.
Vytautas V. Stanionis successfully applies a kind of photographic ready-made strategy. He has printed from his father’s film pictures taken in 1946 for Soviet passports. These are normative biometric documents of statistic units, a visual symbol of Soviet coercion. Such photographic iconography is typical for institutions of imprisonment or extermination. On the other hand, these passport photos are very human, and beyond the arranged and unified portraits we can see the biographies and hidden emotions of individual persons.
Among the most complex work in the exhibition are cycles by Pavel Maria Smejkal (Slovakia). He dissects the iconography of cult images of photographic journalism, replacing the characters, inserting his own portrait, manipulating the environment, and thus questions the objectivity of an event, which is so vital to photo journalism. By changing the meaningful visual optics, he forces a more critical take on the links between images and contexts.
Time destroys and erases every form of memory, to be replaced by official rituals of memorialization. By bypassing the formal narratives of scholarly history and officious memorial rituals, the artists suggest new non-traditional methods of appropriating or internalizing recollections. This exhibition is primarily an attempt to structure this kind of creative searches.
The authors, sensitive to the past, encourage us to take a closer look at phenomena of crippled historical memory. There can be a great variety of ways to learn the past. For example, individual memory and a school history textbook have absolutely different standpoints of seeing the world, not to mention the memory of families, generations, social groups and communities. The situation is much more complex than we can imagine, because the work of memory is incessant – thickening, thinning, blocked or encouraged. The dynamics of recollection keeps changing, so it is especially important to hear the voices of forcefully silenced people, listen to their stories.
The work of “restoring” memory is just starting and will be very complicated. The participation of artists is particularly significant, for they are the ones preventing politicians and scholars from taking over living history.
Modern Art Centre – about Algis Griškevičius
Modern Art Centre – about Algis Griškevičius
Games people play when they are being played with
Games people play when they are being played with
The shooting session starts with a curse: “Your damn photographs”, – says pani Aldona in the impossible-to-master tutejszy1 vernacular, bitterly seeing off the “session participants” and running after the scattered sheep. Meanwhile, these participants – mature men and women – are about to wade into the nettles, undress and squat down to pose, convinced that in this way they refute the Lithuanian folk wisdom that cautions one against wandering “naked in the nettles” at the minimum. Everything is possible when you do it with a smile on your face and see the absurd winking at you.
The photographs themselves, with their innocence and mild irony, wink at the viewer, and one couldn’t expect it to be otherwise: two men seated on a board and sawing a log with a huge saw remind of a familiar folk toy with two bear cubs. As we know, this toy doesn’t ride or do anything else that could be considered practical – it’s just a product of a folk carver’s engineering imagination, which condemns the two interlocked figures to saw that wood eternally.
In Algis Griškevičius’ photographs, a toy gets transformed into a big game played by apparently mature people, which is supposedly meant to trick the viewer, yet the mechanism of trickery is not hidden at all. Furthermore, the latter reveals that those involved in the creative process themselves merrily play photography: some joyously pose, the other, invisible, shoots them. The mutual benefit of art is evident: the scheduled time drags on in a more entertaining way for everyone.
In one of Griškevičius’ early photographs, appropriately titled The Director, the interdependence of the photographer and his objects is conveyed yet more explicitly: a squat naked man appears to manipulate the marionettes with his fingers, yet in reality the strings extend from the fingers to pegs hammered in the ground, so the actual question becomes obvious: who is really being manipulated here? Both sides are tied together by that tight existential string, forever bonded by profession and mutual dependence, and won’t grow apart if they want to stay in this sphere and retain the same purpose of existence.
The dependence is mutual. Algis Griškevičius is also tied to his pegs – not just the models (who are, in fact, friends or family members, and are available to him at no cost, since they are invaluable), but also objects of professional desire: painting, things “weaved” from wood or metal, and photography – the latter essentially unites all of these. Not just because the photographed objects – knives, rockets and scaffolds – first need to be created much like separate items, autonomously displayed in an exhibition. In addition, the photographs expand the space of painting.
It is strange that photography can expand the latter, since it itself is essentially tied to the image of reality, and Algis uses the almighty Photoshop with extreme caution. In painting, one can splatter paint and draw fish in the sky, but photography requires the imagined world to be put together in reality first, so that it could be reflected on the camera’s film later. The demiurge’s work, usually scheduled for weekends, is fairly exhausting after all.
As if aware of the Creator’s only essential difference from any other craftsman – the ability to create time, Algis Griškevičius proceeded to work on the Calendar series after the first photographic experiments. Initially conceived as light-hearted and playful, at present his Zodiac signs are something very different from an interior accessory hung in the kitchen. In fact, they have nothing in common with time, but fill the world with their odd anthropomorphic bodies, the additional attributes of which – the likes of Pisces’ wooden fins and Scorpio’s scythe – become not-so-necessary attachments: Scorpio’s female substance dreamily gazes at the sky, and appears far from being dangerous, while the very poses of maidens sitting on the bridge make them resemble live mermaids. The same bridge will later be occupied by apparently male birdies, birdlike primarily in the way they perch, while the nibs, made from osiers, will be merely hints of nibs, a possible evolutionary opportunity. The Zodiac is thematically continued by the Sharp Woman, a combination of a blade and scales: the female body becomes inseparable from its extension. It’s a bio-object like those created by theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, only framed within a photograph.
Yet even wooden or any other extensions of the human body are not necessary when the power of the word is employed: it’s enough to write “Virgo” in the title to make everyone believe that this is what the image really portrays, since the wreath-wearing guy with an ironically romantic look in his eyes suggests certain mythologems – Copenhagen’s Mermaid or a line from Pushkin’s poem: “[T]here’s a mermaid sitting on branches”. Algis enjoys mythologization, which is the underlying principle of his work. He looks back to the Bible and makes the demented Judith run around the village of Bijutiškis with an axe in her hands, so that a new myth is born out of the so familiar reports of domestic violence. He confines the Sphinx among the small village houses, squeezes the bodies of the Atlases into the porch of an old cottage: the Antiquity is here, in the countryside, and even though this juxtaposition of the “high” and the “low” makes one smile, in reality it negates the very notion of aesthetic hierarchies; neither Egypt nor Greece and Rome are superior to a village pond if one had spent one’s childhood near the latter. That is a perfect example of topophilia, love of one’s own place and even place in an ethnographical sense. If only Griškevičius could, he would drag that small homeland together with the house, well, barn, and pond along wherever he went, so that it would always be beside him.
The characters and their stories hark back to Algis’ painting, and that is where photography comes as close to the latter as it can: the colours in both images of different origin look identical, the soft light of the dusk favoured by the painter’s brush washes over the girl holding a stone in the photograph in the very same way. The only difference is that Algis usually portrays the city in his painting works, whereas he doesn’t even take his camera when going to it. His photographs require a wide and open space. Yet the figures seen in the photographs adopt and continue his paintings’ mythology so actively that one might have an impression that the artist had first painted and later “reanimated” his characters in reality, making them travel from one album page to another, and the distinction between drawing them with paint or with camera lens is irrelevant here. Aquarius the boy will become a man and will soar in the sky in a couple of years, while the Sky Shepherd, who used to herd fish, will later become the Surveyor, even though he will measure water (and the same fish in it) – quite possibly, together with the clouds reflected on its surface. The painting’s pilgrim will exchange the chair for mill fans in the photograph, and later will saddle a unicycle to perform a circus number (which is in reality an eternal juggler’s journey). The frozen time is not a stopped instant here; it is a way of life and a perpetual state of this peculiar toy-game-existence. The principal attribute that Algis endows his protagonists with is the myth. In the end, although the travelling characters offer surprising inversions and plot junctions, they cannot escape the space created by the director (or his subconscious). There are clouds and grass, and in between unfolds all this Bible of Mikališkės.
Another realm of being, already much more static, motionless and almost unrelated to mythical characters in the photographs, is that which is much less definite and intelligible. Even the titles reveal it: Swallowing the Rope, Getting Woody, Man with a Black Board, etc. These are utterly tautological, since they say exactly what we see in the images. Tautology does little to augment the theme – on the contrary, while contradicting our emerging thoughts (“what is the real meaning of this image?”), it creates a sense of something being wrong. This very confinement of thought liberates the suggestion of the image, since the plot is pushed to the background as unsound and intentionally incomplete: Man with a Black Board is spectacular due to its contrasts, while the plot is eliminated as such. It resembles a riddle for which the director doesn’t provide the answer – he only warns the viewer that not everything can be grasped. Something remains beyond, even though everything appears to be emphatically close, situated in the studio or some other more limited space.
I write “the director” consciously. Not just because Algis Griškevičius’ shooting sessions themselves resemble the process of making a film – cranes, props, shouts instructing the models to keep a straight face, etc. Algis’ photographic works themselves are still frames from a film that the viewers themselves have to create. Often a pose or a movement come by as the next-to-last sentence of an anecdote: this is Hitchcockian suspense, still tension, and who knows what came before or is to come after it. There is nothing worse than concluding an anecdote: the declining laughter leaves a void. Thus the Observers look just as comic as the characters waiting for the eclipse. Yet they also look just as tragic: a premonition of impending disaster lingers according to the viewer’s wish.
In one draft photograph a performer of the Mikališkės circus holds an upright staff, on which another acrobat “waves” in the place of a flag, although one can see the supporting rope hanging from above. Even though this rope will not be in the image after digital manipulation, what makes this photograph look beautiful to me is something that exists in its final versions as well – the disclosure of the mechanism, which reveals the creator’s evolution from the mentioned concept of the “director”: we depend on not only each other, but also the one who pulls the strings from above. The strings or ropes extend beyond the frame. When the Cloud Catcher attempts to lasso the clouds, he essentially throws a loop towards the impossible: a comprehension of what is up there. He is Mikališkės’ own astronomer Šmukštaras2, who can’t find peace of mind on the ground because he knows that there probably is something out there. He rises in the air as the first Lithuanian space rocket, manifests himself to a girl in the guise of a kite, glides above his homeland like Icarus – maybe that explains why in all of Algis’ photographs the homeland appears so small, as if seen from a bird’s-eye view. The previously earthbound world experiences an inversion; small mechanical toys rebel and rise up in the air – to question and try to comprehend the world. The essence of the timeless Lithuanian myth – the craving for rising up to the sky – is exposed: far from being a desire to overcome the pull of the Earth (the latter always persists, no matter what), it is a game turned into an existential myth. One can bear the earthly reality only from a distance, through aesthetic experience – not touching the ground and loving it from afar. Simple games become games through which someone might well be playing with us. In the photographs, the place of the photographer, much like that of the viewer, is clear – the gaze comes from the same direction. Yet even though the creator’s gaze here is purely directorial, manifested through the “actor”, the whole scene becomes an object in another director’s hands. The space surrounding the “actor” is activated, expanded and extended beyond the frame, augmented by our guesses and premonitions.
Something probably exists out there, beyond that space – something unknown, though possibly knowable; maybe a hope, maybe a reluctant wish. Something or someone this world is handed over to. The Big Viewer.
The photography of Algis Griškevičius is easily recognizable as probably the only body of
work in this style in Lithuania. Its interdisciplinary nature is most memorable, related to traditional
art forms such as painting, sculpture or theatre, rather than to modern art practices. Griškevičius’
photographs represent the end result of a long creative process, depicting complex structures and
precisely engineered situations produced by the author. As a professional artist with a background
in painting, illustrations, posters, set design, and creating objects of wood and glass, Griškevičius
seems to apply his creative experience and craftsmanship to photography. The images portrayed
in his photographs must have been born in the artist’s imagination, and realized especially for
the purpose of the shot. In this, they differ essentially from candid shots noticed and taken by
photographers in the natural flow of life. Griškevičius in this way transcends the stereotype of the
photographer as a keen-eyed observer, choosing instead to play the part of the active creator, which
enables him to unite different art realms.
While this creative method is well-established in the international photography scene (e.g., the
orchestrated situations portrayed in the photographs of Austrian Erwin Wurm or Japanese Tatsumi
Orimoto, where people become sculptural objects of sorts), Algis Griškevičius is probably the only
one to adhere to it in Lithuania. The creative outcome is just as unique in the context of Lithuanian
photography. At first sight, Griškevičius’ photographs may seem full of absurd details: the looming
bodies of models frozen in gravity-defying positions; the real people replacing atlantes bearing the
weight of a Lithuanian log house’s porch roof; the man blowing at clouds. However, these and other
seemingly nonsensical discrepancies in Griškevičius’ work can be easily “read” as meaningful signs
which evoke existential questions. Can man defy the limitations of material existence and rise to
the realm of dreams? Do the various beauty ideals and other social and cultural stereotypes men
harbor have anything to do with reality? Is it possible to find points of contact between earthly and
ideal “heavenly” life? Is it because most of us live our lives trying to answer such questions, that
artists are able to convince their models to create a “circus” in the middle of a field?
Despite being evocative of existential questions at a closer look, Griškevičius’ photographs
remain studiedly mundane. The artist creates symbolically meaningful mise-en-scenes, yet their
symbolism clashes with the ordinariness of the applied tools and the material character of the
human body. The photographs emphasize the opposition of generalized philosophical meaning and
the triviality of the symbols it is expressed through, thereby supporting the statement that dreams
must always be realized in very earthly ways. This contradiction often makes us seem like clumsy,
strange circus actors, determined to perform impossible tricks.
The author of these photographs takes a similarly eccentric role in the Lithuanian photography
scene. The conceptual basis and the irony of his works connect them to the context of modern art,
while the tendency towards philosophical generalizations, visual metaphors, and rural motifs echo
the Lithuanian philosophical traditions.
This dualism may well be the most interesting feature of Algis Griškevičius’ photography,
uniting local photographical traditions with a (self-)reflective view characteristic of the international
modern art realm.
A city seen in a dream
The works of artist A.Griškevičius fit into the traditional boundaries of painting, yet express the spiritual condition of contemporary man. One can feel echoes of the past, as well as the accepted values and uneasiness of the present. The works are fluid and conform to the standarts of contemporary art, enriching the discoveries of the postmodernist period.
Within the frames of the paintings the artist attempts to capture the enigmatic forms of reality, existence. A city seen in a dream, or in a moment of painful relevation, the people of the city, caught in a moment of loleness… The empty city‘s landscapes. Tje architecture, the court yards, buildings that are being restored, the bridges – each seem to live a life of their own, independent of human beings.
All is concrete, detailed, material. The paintings are structured as a harmonious whole, complete, with stable compositions. The surface is created methodically, with small, precise brushtrokes, each detail is orchestrated; a gesture stopped in midair. Within this static stability lies an important secret without which the painting would be meaningless. There is no ramdomness in the world of A.Griškevičius, and nothing can be changed – the events cannot be altered. The painting is a statement of existence, and there is a little room for error. The paintings visually stun, and we find ourselves in a space where time has stopped, and the most important player is irritating, expressive light. It grabs a hold of reality beyond the mask of the visible and the familiar. The tension of the bright colours and the contrasting light suggest the formlessness of the artistic vision.
The visible world invites us to feel the metaphysical world. A.Griškevičius‘ works are many layered; concrete scenes become magnifying glasses for the hidden world. One also feels an indefinite sense of waiting. The painful harmonies and ominous seriousness are present not only in the motive, but also in the colours and style of painting. Various dimensions of reality are exposed, and we feel that the gap between existence and non-existence, the temporal and the eternal, is not so great, and these states or conditions are all within our grasp.
The artist expresses his inner world, which is often pain filled, calmly, without anger or aggression. His feelings seem to thicken the light and the colours in his works.
A belief in the power of harmony, trusting one‘s own intuition and experiences. Reality is as rich and interesting as the person observing it. This is all a part of the artist‘s craft. Artist A.Griškevičius knows that better than any of us.
Art historian Aldona Dapkutė
A Bit of Rough A PAINTER TURNS TO PHOTOGRAPHY
A fairly monotonous repetition of exhibition cycles is sometimes interrupted by surprises provided by artists, which equals the pleasure of reading an unsuspected denouement.
The painter Algis Griškevičius, 49,instead of a safe demonstration of his seemingly recognised painting, has put on a display of photographs in a small picture gallery.
Life is theatre
Algis Griškevičius is best known as a painter who occasionally creates sculptures. However, photography has always existed in his paintings. Not just because they look faithfull to reality (although the imitative nature of his paintings is a disguise), not just because they often give an impression of accidental snapshots, but mainly because the artist has used photography as a way of sketching and memorising impressions since the 1980s.
What is painted has been photographed beforehand. But photography is necessary not only to help the memory. It has become instrumental in the artist‘s relationship with reality.
As he says, ‘’Reality itself starts to dictate. One gets involved in that straightforward recounting of the story. There is no distance left.”
The distance is needed in order to transform a specific subject, to move it into the realm of fantasy.
“It’s more interesting for me that way. An atmosphere appears, a distance. It is a state of seeing some simple thing or a building in a dream, but the mood is somehow inadequate to that thing, for instance, horror. I have always wanted to connect them. There is a state of mind and a completely different object.”
If we invoked the spirits of Freud or Jung, the two experts in the human psyche would eagerly dig into Griškevičius’ paintings, sculptures and photographs. For simple things, so real here, often have hidden meanings that always point towards the imperfections, inabilities and fears of constantly dreaming human beings. But the highway in this direction is blocked by irony, which leads the viewer to a different kind of origin of Griškevičius’ world.
As he himself admits, this all started in the early 1980s at the end of Soviet era. “When I was young I used to sit and discuss ideas, with the writer Juozas Erlickas and the theatre director Eimuntas Nekrošius. Theatre, litterature and the visual arts merged in our fantasies.“
This instance was very important under the ideological control of the 1980s. Soviet reality could only be criticised or laughed at indirectly. Theatre with Nekrošius in the lead created a metaphorical language, a way of saying things by not saying them openly, and thus escaping the scrutiny of ideologues.
But unlike the creators of theatre, Griškevičius was always a nonconformist on the art scene. For instance, his works belong to the section for alternative Soviet art in the New Jersey Museum in the USA. And not only because he exposed the artifice of Soviet life.
He also rejected mainstream Lithuanian painting, which has always been tightly connected to some form of expressionism, and ,,literature” was considered to be a fault. On the contrary, literature, or the subject, has always been most important to him.
“Then it is unimportant whether it is painting of photography if there is a essential principle, an original idea.”
Thus there was something that displeased both ideologues and the artistic elite in Griškevičius‘ paintings. At first they look like naive, faithful representations of reality made to please people, those uninitiated to art.
,,As one of the starting points they used to ask me: What are you doing here? People won‘t understand. And then I thought it would be interesting to satisfy a wide range of viewers. An old village woman could read the surface, and then there would be layer for different levels of intellect. This is when I started using strange colour combinations, such as apple green for the sky.“
However, this pleasant, and distributing, if you think of an apple green sky, surface should not be seen just as a mask which the artist would throw off if he could. The present demands of the market also make artists wear this mask. This layer, or kitch, is where Griškevičius finds and places emotions, nostalgia for the primitive carpets explored so often as a child, all human sentimentality, which is simple, unintelligent, trivial, but universal, connecting us all. Then the artist started weaving or making “wicker” paintings from metal wire, as an allusion to the metal wicker baskets you can buy in a crafts market, just a different kind of meaning can spring from what everybody sees and takes pleasure in possessing, holding and touching. And it is kitsch that creates the subtle irony for those who know that it is kitsch.
Kitsch, which was „bad“ in Soviet times and apreciated in contemporary postmodern culture, is what disguises other meanings, all levels of meanings, in Griškevičius’ paintings. The straightforward nature of kitsch sometimes prevents the viewer from seeing how much reality has changed. A sentimental apple green sky is connected to an unmatching ugly building.
Then you notice that trees and bushes have faces, that a house makes love (with its other self?), that fish fly away in the sky or that landscape assumes the shape of a gun, a skull,a fish. But that is not all the unreality there is.
Often it is quite imperceptible, because it is created exclusively by light, the phenomenon, the discovery of which the artist credits to the prewar surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico.
Then it is in this light that simple real things acquire the power of existential symbols in Griškevičius‘ world, such as paper boats or airplanes, or anything from paper.
“Paper or anything made from it for me is a symbol of temporariness, and not even that, but of the change of meaning.”
When a paper boat is reflected in the water, it might become a Star of David, a religious symbol. And there is quite a number of those Griškevičius‘ paintings, sometimes obvious insertions into a “normal” scene, such as the replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in a decaying house.
Sometimes it is not so clearly visible, such as the picture of an eye on a kite flying high up in the sky above the most derelict part of Vilnius, aptly called “The Colosseum”. The underlying, flying or hanging fish (“Pieta”) is an old symbol of Christ.
“I find this idea very beautiful, that the most silent creature in the world is God,” says the artist.
However, although Cristian symbols are frequent, they are just hints or openings on universal existential perceptions, a way to speak about the world beyond this one.
“I see those symbols and the Christian religion itself as legends. That’s all. A beautiful legend, useful,but no more.”
He only uses existing religious symbols instead of creating his own.
To Renovate the Flower
However, there is one thing which has become for Griškevičius as a symbol of his own. This is the constantly reappearing scaffolding in his paintings, sculptures and photographs. It seems that the artist wants to renovate everything, not only an old castle, but also a chair, a flower, a tree, a man, whatever. He calls it his idée fixe. It started from his painting “The Castle”.
“I saw so many meanings there, it reminded me of Kafka’s castle. It was phantasmagoric.”
From then on, his obsession has included not only painting this visually complicated, protective and at the same time threatening structure, but also making and photographing it. The artist, who has always used photography, makes every piece of scaffolding he draws. The act even resembles some sort of ritual.
“It takes a month to make the scaffolding, and then I photograph it in a few seconds.”
Perhaps this is why things hidden in scaffolding in Griškevičius‘ paintings and photographs seem not just to be undergoing renovation but rather waiting to be born, as if something so far unseen is forming underneath this elaborate shell or nest. Thus the artist nurtures his fantasy. And in his sculpture, scaffolding loses its original core, the object to be renovated, and becomes independent, a different mode of reality. However, with all his inventiveness, around the year 2000 the artist felt that something was happening to his painting.
“I felt that I could not go on painting as if everything was all right. A kind of energy was missing. I felt afraid. And I realized it was time to put those paintbrushes away, to stand down. But how could I do nothing? Then I decided to try photography.
This is how it started, and visitors coming to the exhibition to see the painter found a photographer instead, and a very unexpected one.
Objective instead of A Brush
The content of his photographs is not social. You will not learn anything about the hard lives of the poor, or find an answer to the riddle of the meaning of life. It is not erotic, although the pictures teem with naked bodies, or political (but, who knows, maybe these nudes might be past or future politicians?). Neither is it documentary (what is pictured is not reality) or intended to impress. In fact, these photographs are just short ironic stories.
Some of his photographs reflect what some people refer to with respect and others with scorn as “high culture”. This is a concept of the past, and it is from there that the artist draws popular images that have almost become clichés, and immediately merges them with the plebeian present.
The tired “Prodigal Son” by Rembrant is now replaced by a naked and pretty “Prodigal Daughter” who obviously did not wander off. St Sebastian now becomes the target of darts in pubs, not for his inappropriate faith but just for fun. The saint is shown in the same posture as in the Old Masters, the only difference being the smile instead of the expression of pain.
The smile distorts the understanding of all the images displayed here. Works that once shocked the viewer are now made joyfully banal, and become figures or fun or trophies, which is the case with the crucific placed among antlers, stuffed birds and various other animal skins (“Trophies”). A stuffed God is the only thing left over from religion. The consumption of “high culture” is washed down with beer.
Once lofty ideas are now materialized in a rough form. Coarsely made wings attached to a cow’s back are clearly wooden and not heavenly at all. Therefore, the cow does not become a muse (“Uncle Juozapas Watering the Muse” rather thank milking it, which would be more usual) and does not even try to express some mythological being, which in photographs usually looks funny in the worst possible sense.
The artist construes images that do not bring you closer to any noble experience or beautiful ideas but rather move you away from them. He clearly does not let the viewer in, but remains in the safety of irony. The artificiality of the situation and the exaggerated materiality of the props create absurdity and art are all absurd.
One photograph shows a man standing in a meadow in a posture that is almost identical to the old sculpture or Lenin that once stood in Vilnius, with hundreds of shiny orders, medals and badges collected over the Soviet period piercing the skin. Another photograph features a male making energetic strokes through wooden waves. The artist’s muse finally quenches her thirst with the absurd.
The photographic material itself is also a bit rough: the pink bodies of large men romping in bright seen grass. It represents the naturalism of the colours, a standart rural environment, and a domestic way of taking pictures. There are no subtleties when trying to “hear” the light, or radical angles, textures, shading or retouching.
Nor does the photographer relish the texture of a rusty bathtub showing two men playing in it with toy boats, which is so characteristic of photography.
A practically amateurish, only greatly oversized, photograph is one more layer commenting on a situation, not only showing the absence of criteria for professionalism and the presence of complete permissiveness but also enhancing the feeling of absurdity. A stranger to photography, the artist intrudes into a foreign sphere, destroying its canons, which he does with partial seriousness, seeking not to cause a revolution but only to have fun.
The object of most photographs, a middle-aged, large and balding (usually the same) man is the antithesis of “normal” photography which feeds on nice young ladies with additional retouching. Skin free of wrinkles, spots and cellulite is the most common object in photography. In Griškevičius‘ photographs bright daylight shows the body in an everyday pose. Therefore, it looks unnatural when naked (equally unnaturally pink), just as in everyday life people do not usually walk around undressed.
Thus, those rough, real and unnatural bodies combine into signs of the Zodiac, a fountain or a swing, and try to become symbols.
As a photographer, Griškevičius is a director. With the exception of a few “domestic“ observations, everything is a performance.
The photographs show a drama about everyday concepts, ghosts of the past and even, so to speak, the artist’s calling. I have a suspicion that the photograph called “the Director” depicts the artist himself. His fingers are holding the strings ready to manipulate the puppets, but the strings are attached to the ground. The artist, who is trying to photograph his own imagination, becomes tied to reality like a cow, while his muse makes unsuccessful attempts to take off with her wooden wings with holes in them.
Bridges Between Reality and Fiction
After the exhibition of Algis Griskevicius in Vasby Konsthall (2004) it became obvious from critical reports that works of this artist are understood and reflected in the same way as in Lithuania: The surrealistic effervescence spreading to all forms of artistic expression, literature, plastic arts, theatre, photography and even politics, bridges between the real and the visionary, has visited Stockholm with Algis Griskevicius due to ambassador of Lithuania Petras Zapolskas and Cultural Attache Liana Ruokytë. Multi-expressive artist Algis Griskevicius brings a theatrical spirit to every day usual objects placed in situation unreal, conceived by the sensibility of the artist. It is a dreamlike fruitful arrangement between the natural represented object and the subconscious mood of the artist. The intuitive appearance of the work leads often to an abstract dream. The distance between the image of the represented usual-banal object ant the intellectual creativity of the artist is given by the fact that Algis conceives at first the final work before starting producing it on canvas, with film or sculpture. The essential is communication, says the visionary artist, coming from long years of heavy political regime in Lithuania, as hit predecessors surrealists came out of the dramatic years of the First World War. Algis insists upon the importance of communication, also with materials, among other colours witch have their own powers of life. The work of art without dramatic elements is flat.
Griskevicius – A Contemporary Surrealist’ (Ditt & Datt, 2004 Stockholm)
World According to Algis
Numerous pieces of wattle, handmade from copper, brass and wood celebrate painter Algis Griskevicius’ incessant desire to keep experimenting with new materials. However, it is undoubtedly not merely the artist’s keenness on radical experimentation or his creative exploitation of various materials and techniques that fascinate the viewer. True, the latter will be surprised by Griskevicius’ fondness of such a seemingly female activity as handiwork. Still, what is even more captivating is first and foremost the consistency of his experiments which allows the viewer to follow the artist’s train of thought as well as the slow movements of his characters, caught in a somewhat absurd earthly pilgrimage, or else, in the world according to Algis, a world tinted by autumn melancholy, where the paint of the houses slowly peels away and the living creatures are neither human nor beastly, but both. The copper-brass-wooden spectacle that the viewer is confronted with is neat but intricate. It traps the viewer’s eye in the maze of graceful lines and sleek forms. Griskevicius takes risks – he has chosen the materials that have too much power over colours and forms. Wood dries and changes. Likewise, one is never sure what colour brass will acquire when put into acid. Welded metal strings require space. This incessant fight between the artist’s stubborn hand and resisting material endows these works with vitality. These pieces of art leave a lot of space for improvisation, but at the same time they also play with conventions and the viewer’s expectations.