Hard as a Flint

Anna Iltnere

Anna Iltnere

After meeting Darius Mikšys (1969), the metaphor “flint” comes to mind. The encyclopedia says that “When struck against steel, a flint edge will shave off tiny particles of steel or another material that, heated by friction, will oxidize in the atmosphere and ignite.” Darius’s personality seems dense and unshakeable. He himself doesn’t burn, therefore he doesn’t call himself an artist. But with a curious passion he ignites situations and processes, observing how they will naturally turn out. In 2008, at the 16th Sidney Biennale, Darius organized a performance where he invited participants’ parents to a meeting with the creative director of the Biennale, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. During the meeting, Carolyn informed the parents what their children were preparing for the Biennale. The guideline was to let the parents realize that they, too, had unconsciously become Biennale artists, because they were the authors and creators of their children. In other projects, Darius has sold an empty perfume bottle on eBay, documented the Vilnius Parapsychology Fair, and been late to a lecture on procrastination. Last year he participated in the European of Biennale Contemporary Art Manifesta 9, and this year he will represent Lithuania at the 54th Venice Biennale, with the work Behind the White Curtain. Residents and guests in Vilnius had the chance to view this work up close in April, when the Contemporary Art Center exhibited a “general rehearsal” for the pavilion. I met Darius at the CAC café, while the test pavilion was being set up one floor above us.

Anna Iltnere: How would you characterize yourself as an artist? There are painters, video artists, sculptors. Would you call yourself an artist of processes, situations, or contexts?

Darius Mikšys: I don’t think in those categories. I don’t attach myself to one genre or medium. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t formulate it like that. But I don’t know whether the medium is so important.

But there must be some personal formulation about what, precisely, you do, and what it is engaging for you to create?

In the latest issue of e-flux [the April issue of the New York virtual art magazine –A. I.], the editor’s column said that any good artist can develop himself very well in at least two or three professional fields. And the question is, why do they nonetheless continue to do art, which demands an investment of time and money, with only nominal feedback? 

I don’t think you could receive a clear answer. (Pauses.) There was a time when I educated myself through a work of art. To do art always means to solve some problems. You develop, select, control. That means something for me each time.

Looking at your projects and your way of thinking, I get the impression that your approach to art opens up an incredible number of possibilities, and it’s very engaging for you to notice and emphasize relations between objects, people, and processes.

Yes, but I wouldn’t call that art. (Pauses.) Let’s turn it like this: For a long time I completely stopped using the word “art” in relation to what I do.

And you didn’t replace “art” with anything?

Right, and it worked perfectly. Recently I began to use this word again, but for a time it didn’t cause absolutely any problems. Perhaps in this interview we could leave out that word again?

OK, but then describe with other words what it is that you do? Is it a creative process?

Any process is creative, otherwise it wouldn’t be a process. 

You’ve been chosen to represent the country at the Venice Biennale. And that’s an art biennale. Therefore the project Behind the White Curtain is a work of art.

Well, yes. This work is art. I don’t know how to get out of this now. Can we erase this? Because I promised not to use that word anymore… (Laughs.) I’d rather talk about design. It’s possible to design in various fields—in industrial design, you create objects, but you can also design performances, processes, texts. Anything. In this respect I sooner see myself as a designer.

Speaking of the Venice Art Biennale, you will create a sort of private gallery milieu, which will compile and display those works by Lithuania artists which have received financial support from the state in the last decade.

Yes, but the gallery isn’t the main idea. The concept is to create a metaphorical mirror for the state and society, where they would be reflected or metaphorically see themselves. This takes place as follows: the state [from 1992 to 2010. –A. I.] selected artists to support, but I combined them in a catalogue, where they can all be see in one place.

Were artists interested in collaborating and participating in your project?

Yes, very. Two-thirds of the total number of grant recipients will participate. 173 artists. Each of them will have one work, created at approximately the same time when the funding was received, taking into account that sometimes it is difficult to define a fixed moment of creation for works.

But I allowed each artist to chose precisely which of his or her works to present. My goal is to show this totality of works as fully and clearly as possible. Various media are represented, including installations and video works.

But the works in the pavilion will not be on display like at an exhibit, but rather in a catalogue. Visitors will have the chance to inquire about a certain work, which will then be brought out from backstage. Is that correct?

Many of the artists…(pauses, as if considering all 173 of the participants)…yes, I think that several of the artists could criticize or object to the fact that their works were displayed on the walls or set up on the floor in a way that they didn’t like. That’s why there’s this performance similar to a gallery. Because this is what happens at galleries: works are either displayed first in a catalogue, or there isn’t a catalogue at all, just names and titles from which to choose what to see. In our catalogue, each artist has been given one double-page spread.

Though you stress that the similarity to a gallery isn’t the main idea, nonetheless I associate a gallery with a private exhibit, whose goal is to sell works of art. Doesn’t this image contrast with the involvement of the state and its financially supported artists?

In our case that wouldn’t be this private gallery, but rather funds and private collections that don’t sell works, but buy them. I’m not asserting that our compiled works are not for sale, but in this case that is not so important.

What encouraged you to participate in the selection competition for the Lithuanian pavilion?

This is my second time; I participated in the competition for the first time six or seven years ago. This time you could call it a coincidence of circumstances. The idea for the project is very old—I started working on it five or six years ago. During the time for submitting entries, I wasn’t in Vilnius. I called Kestutis [Kestutis Kuizinas, director of the Lithuanian Contemporary Art Center –A. I.] and asked if he was interested, and if he’d  prepare the project application. Somehow we quickly arrived at the decision to participate in the competition. That’s why you could say that everything happened coincidentally or even accidentally. No matter what we discussed, there was barely any time. I had a clear idea, the project had been around a long time and was already developed, yet there wasn’t even any time for an email correspondence, that’s why I quickly had to decide. Speaking of competitions, they require a large investment without any guarantee that you’ll win. What is more, there is only one opportunity to take part at Venice. I doubt you can participate more than once. Either now or never. It’s more like that. 

Does participating in the Venice Biennale mean a lot to you?

This time, yes. Because the idea behind the work is consistent with the fundamental idea of the Venice Biennale. I wouldn’t be satisfied by just the chance to participate. But this work is consistent with the Biennale’s political idea.

Consistent with the “ILLUMInations” idea?

No, I almost never take into account the curator’s concept. What is more, the “ILLUMInations” concept came later, the curators changed, but our project was ready before the announcement of the concept. I’m talking about the Venice Biennale’s idea as such, where each country is granted a national pavilion in which to present itself. And Behind the White Curtain displays precisely state-initiated projects, state-supported ideas. That’s why it seems meaningful to present them in Venice.

What do you think about that fact that there are more and more cases where the work of art in a country’s national pavilion is created by an artist with a different nationality?

It’s wonderful. Art is international. I’d thought about that too, yet within the framework of our work, only Lithuanian artists are entitled to government grants.

Does humor have an essential role in your art?

It’s naturally present, at least while I still have a sense of humor. I don’t try to exaggerate it, or to otherwise consciously influence it.


* Latvian folk riddle.