Vilnius is a town like any other one in the world; it’s an ‘anytown’ with an old city, suburbs and has a legend concerning its founding. According to the myth, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf on top of a hill where he was supposed to (and eventually did) build a city. So, Vilnius was reputedly born out of a dream.
This myth inspired Kestutis Kuizinas and Ann Demeester, curators of the X Baltic Triennial of International Art, to create an exhibition about an imaginary city. The title of the exhibition, Urban Stories: Black Swans, True Tales and Private Truths reflects upon the fact that the triennial was arranged during a time of crisis—the term ‘black swan’ referring to surprise events of significance and upon the idea that every image, reconstruction or recollection of a city, contains a high degree of the ‘consciously false’. Artists were invited to ‘discover’ Vilnius both physically and intellectually, and to create works according to their personal visions of the city. The exhibition was also to feature international works that reflected on diverse experiences of city life and the peculiarities of urban society.
Works commissioned for the triennial reveal an aspect common to such events and one that organisers often choose to ignore. It is the fact that foreign artists pass through, discovering neither the city itself, nor the specific features of the local context, instead choosing to take the easy option of adapting their personal, already-developed artistic strategies and preconceived ideas to the local context. Alternatively, they simply reflect the fact that they have stayed for a short period in an unfamiliar country. This was the format of reflection employed by most invited artists here.
‘Panorama’, 2009, for example, by Amsterdam-based artist Frank Koolen, assembles an internal vista of the city by collecting and arranging cheap housewares and food products in his room at the Panorama Hotel. Although the artist uses the ‘instant-response’ strategy inspired by the unusual, self-reflective travelogue by Belgian artist Henri Michaux, ‘Panorama’—unlike in its source of inspiration—reveals few deep insights about the place in which Koolen has been staying.
Meanwhile, Japanese artist collective ChimhPom re-creates a plastic fragment of their ‘Kuru Kuru’ party (which in Japanese means both ‘dumb’ and ‘come on!’). Among Asian noodles and sweet cream cakes, Lithuanian viewers joyfully discover bottles and glasses of local spirits, while an accompanying video demonstrates the wild ‘creative process’.
But what does this reveal about the Japanese take on Vilnius, except that the artists have been drinking Lithuanian alcohol while making the work? Another neighbouring ChimhPom work titled ‘Black of Death’ reminds viewers of mysterious image of a black crow—a symbol of Vilnius, which is also beautifully explored in ‘Vilnius Jazz’, a work by controversial Lithuanian writer Ricardas Gavelis. Using a stuffed crow brought all the way from Japan, ChimhPom tried to seduce the Vilnius crows by carrying the dead bird through town. With the help of pre-recorded cawing sounds, the collective managed to attract the birds to the city’s various popular tourist spots, took pictures of these black clouds above them, and printed postcards for the visitors to pick up.
Kevin van Braak, another Dutch artist, chose to analyse the relationship between printed word and political power in Lithuania from the 19th century to the present. Creating an installation of books alongside a lifesize model of a crematorium, van Braak intended to burn the books (mostly Russianlanguage titles) that he had collected from various sources, including local artists, curators and the Vilnius Library. The latter had supposedly scrapped its books because the titles had reminded them of the despised Soviet regime. But however relevant van Braak’s work appears to be, the books displayed in his project are, in fact, morally and technically out-of-date (some contain reports of the Supreme Soviet sessions, for example). The library had removed them only because they had become irrelevant, rather than as a result of historical and political loathing. Thus, the artist’s attempts to invoke François Truffaut and Ray Bradbury in this case only illustrates the superficial nature that arises when ideas from the outside are brought into a place without the foundation of understanding specific to the local context.
Perhaps because of this superficial attitude of the incoming artists and their inability to discover anything singular or new about Vilnius (besides already wellknown stereotypes and the type of concise information found in tourist guides), it is the Lithuanian artists commissioned by the triennial who make stronger statements.
The Second Royal Palace Club, founded by three Lithuanian artists, presents a project that interprets the story behind the Club’s founding—the expendable ‘gates’ of the recently re-created Royal Palace in Vilnius. The palace currently serves as the central subject in recent local debates, due not only to the reconstruction of the site’s ‘glorious past’, but also because of the uncertainty surrounding the historical period the palace represents. No precise graphic representations of the original palace remain, and thus the building has become a simulacrum of statehood.
‘Shanghai’, a video by Vita Zaman, transforms the city (two of its districts, to be precise) into a set. Using the aesthetic of a soap opera, the artist creates a fictional love story between a boy from the dangerous and genuine wooden slums (called ‘Shanghai’ by the locals) and an affluent girl from the neighbouring business and residential district. The physical proximity and co-existence of these two spaces already seems fictitious and cinematic, so Zaman merely provides the context with form.
Maybe the Lithuanian artists here are receptive to simulation because of the enforced experience of simulation during the Soviet period. Now these artists appear eager to point it out everywhere they find it. Meanwhile, an increasing proportion of the rest of the Western world accepts the prophecies of Jean Baudrillard, and lives carelessly among the simulacra in secure residential areas—places illustrated in their most extreme form by Florida’s Celebration, a town created by Disney.
In the triennial, Celebration is portrayed vividly by Dutch artists Quirine Racké and Helena Muskens in a film of the same name. Like ‘A Necessary Music’, a film by Beatrice Gibson and Alex Waterman that blends fiction with true stories about New York’s Roosevelt Island, ‘Celebration’ aptly depicts contemporary city life as a cinematographic experience, guided by non-existent scenarios, stuck between rehearsal, shooting and screening. Both of these films discover specific features of every city.
Meanwhile, Vilnius COOP: gaps, fictions and practices, curated by Ula Tornau and Vera Lauf, forms the significant, second part of the triennial. Located in a former medical clinic in the centre of Vilnius, this project comprises a series of meetings, film screenings and public events. Tornau and Lauf not only chose the ‘gap’ as a research object for their project, but in doing so, also successfully bridged the gaps unresolved in the main display at CAC.
Neringa Cerniauskaite is a writer and curator based in Vilnius