Art takes Time

Auguste Petre

One review of two exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius


Photo: Kristīne Madjare

While one part of galleries and large exhibition halls enjoy the summer holidays or continue presenting previously opened exhibitions, the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius revealed two fairly significant but also different exhibitions in the very heat of July. One of them – “New Display of Lithuanian art” – is the updated permanent exhibition that will be on view for the next 10 years, however, the other one is entitled “Sweet Sweat of the Future” gathers political, social and visually powerful ideas, and will be open until 1 September.

Firstly, about the new exhibition of Lithuanian art, curated by Dr. Lolita Jablonskienė, Laima Kreivytė, Jolanta Marcišauskytė-Jurašienė, and Dr. Agnė Narušytė. A change of display not only marks a new chapter in the book of the National Gallery’s of Art collection of Lithuanian art from 20th and 21st century, but also notes on the fact that another decade has passed away and it is finally time to make some adjustments. The charm and meaning of permanent art collections lie in the fact that they really are “constant”, thus they somehow symbolise invariability. Thinking about a vast collection of some museum tends to coalesce organically with other eternal and heart-enhancing things, such as reading a book on a warm spring afternoon or drinking tea at grandmother’s home. Therefore, most frequently the replacement of permanent collections take place only after a greater period of time, when they no longer seem so surprising and changes in the display are required by contemporary environment, as well as technologies. Fortunately or not, but this was my first visit of the permanent collection of National Gallery of Art during the professional career, and therefore it did not contribute to the desire to critically discuss or compare anything. On the contrary, in favour of the stimulating title of the exhibition, in my personal experience this became a particularly new display of Lithuanian art.

The new collection display has been divided into five conceptual chapters (“Explosion”, “Modernization Projects”, “Crisis and Rebellion”, “Transformation” and “The Contemporary: Criticism and Imagination”) which follow the development of Lithuanian art and parade the highlights of it, in the context of a total cultural progress. In whole, the exhibition include works by more than 150 artists of various generations – painting as the predominant art genre of the 20th century Lithuanian art, over the last decades has been convincingly replaced by installations, objects and video art. This show is divergent enough and corresponding to the highlighted period of time, as well as individual artists – the expression and humour of Lithuanian art is perfectly proved in this exhibition. Impressions of 20th century western art, combined with local traditions and often politically ideologized art attracts the viewer and makes one spend twice as long time in the exhibition as previously scheduled. The display tends to show a step-by-step development of Lithuanian art (to viewers it also works as a reminder of how important is the connection between visual arts and the world history), making one keep in mind the significant resemblance of national artistic manner that is so characteristic to this region. Nonetheless the time has changed, Lithuanian artists have continuously maintained specific national features.

The core focus of the exhibition is made on modernity and how it was captured during the Soviet period and later on transformed into Lithuanian contemporary art. “The display suggests a multi-faceted narrative consisting of various small stories; the contemporary viewpoint is emphasized by the interventions of contemporary artists,” says the opening text created by the curators. Indeed, the exhibition reveals to the visitor as a set of small stories, better yet – an attempt to bring these stories together in a wider presentation. It is important to take in account that this distribution has been subjected to the architectural specificities of the building of the National Gallery of Art and, in fact, this kind of setting principle for permanent collections where “one room adjusts to one decade” is not a novelty. But in whole, architecture or scenography of the exhibition (designed by Ona Lozuraitytė and Petras Išora) seems a little confusing. Despite the fact that the architect duo has had prior experience in creating important exhibitions of international level, this time the sense of right order of things differs from room to room, so an idea of the exhibition as a total unit rests absent. The design at moments resembles a playground and symbolizes possible transformations of the space, thus allowing the visitor to enjoy art at very close. This time, however, it is difficult to conclude to what target-audience this planning has been intended, considering that it is almost impossible to obtain a museum-like satisfaction from it.

A completely different impression remains after visiting “Sweet Sweat of the Future” in the temporary exhibition hall. The extensive exhibition space is cluttered with works made by many artists and it encourages different feelings. At the same time, the hall itself gives space to relax and allows the visitor to sense not only individual works, but also the greater theme of the exhibition. Curators Laima Kreivytė, Jolanta Marcišauskytė-Jurašienė, Ieva Mazūraitė-Novickienė, Eglė Mikalajūnė, Agnė Narušytė have focused on the Lithuanian art created in the past 40 years, focusing on the question – what will follow after? The exhibition is powerful and interesting, in addition it tends to undisguisedly analyse the relationship between art and politics. An aspect that has been given less attention in the context of today’s art, has opened some broader discussions about art and culture in general in the past times. Art as an instrument of power, art as a revolution, art as a quest for a sweeter future.

The question that is being asked by the creators of the exhibition - “how do we perceive the future and what do we want from it?” – reveals as a return to the past. To understand what will happen tomorrow we first have to survive today or yesterday, in other words, without the past the future is impossible. From such a viewpoint, the exhibition “makes a connection” with the new permanent display of National Gallery of Art, recalling about the life cycle and phenomena that have always seemed particularly interesting to artists. The most mundane things and reflections of human existence in art are realised by bringing together the naïve truth and the rapid growth of technologies. It seems only logical that this combination of different experiences is capable of stimulating imagination and makes one think about what is going to be expected from us in the nearer or more distant future. The sharp political changes, referred to by the curators of the exhibition, appear to be secondary in the first moment, but in a wider context are revived in each of the artworks that have been included in the show.

The sweet sweat of the future is not fear of the unknown or doubt about how to really clearly and convincingly realise your own ideas. In the many works displayed in the exhibition are shown many examples and strategies on how wo talk about future at all. Splitting time into specific stages – a concept made up by a man – only works when we lack the answer to “what” or “how” time really is. Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art shows that the life cycle imagined by artists can also carry the title of time.