Her own heritage

Auguste Petre

Express-interview with Lithuanian artist Indrė Serpytyte


In recent years, national symbols as a sign of one’s awareness are increasingly being used on the stage of contemporary art. A sense of human belonging that is remote from geopolitical regulations is being seen in the format of a restoration of memories that returns us to the time when the ancestors of mankind walked the earth.

Indrė Serpytyte is one of those artists who has managed to keep a close connection with the land of her birth while living abroad and rapidly developing an international career. Born in Palanga, Lithuania, she lives in London, has studied and participated in a number of exhibitions there, and has received numerous art awards. Primarily working with photography, Serpytyte often forms her work as sculptural objects, achieving a monumental effect even with relatively small dimensions.

Until 26 July, Gallery Vartai in Vilnius is hosting her exhibition From. Between. To – an investigation of the ceremonial sashes of the Baltic region. invited Indrė Serpytyte to tell a little more about the new works on view at Vartai, as well as to express her thoughts on nationality in today’s art.

From. Between. To is your first exhibition at Vartai and your first solo show in Lithuania since Absence of Experience (at the Contemporary Art Centre/CAC) in 2017. What are your feelings about this exhibition and the fact that it’s taking place in your home country?

It's always a huge privilege to be invited to exhibit in Lithuania. It’s also been an interesting opportunity to work with both CAC and Gallery Vartai, two spaces that are architecturally and historically polar opposites. The exhibition at CAC, Absence of Experience, was comprised of an installation of two works: Two Seconds of Colour (large free-standing light boxes) with the accompanying sound work titled Facing Us, and reflected on the ISIS beheadings. It is in complete contrast to the series From. Between. To currently being exhibited at Gallery Vartai, which consists of mostly wall-based textiles examining Baltic heritage and culture while questioning abstraction. Although the exhibition From. Between. To at Gallery Vartai has the appearance of being more subdued, it nevertheless deals with complex issues and ideas.

You’ve mostly been working around topics concerning the recent history of Lithuania and national identity – especially memorable is your installation (1944 – 1991), which is about former NKVD, MVD, MGB, and KGB buildings. How is a historical and social background embedded in your latest work?

In From. Between. To, I am not exploring the trauma of Lithuania’s past but rather looking into its culture and meaning. I am concerned with exploring the ancient craft of weaving and the way in which the repetition of symbols, colour and abstraction can preserve culture.

From. Between. To seems to emphasise the question of national identity. How important to you is confidence about your national identity?

My roots are extremely important to me, and even though I have been living abroad for most of my life, I still have a deep connection to Lithuania. Being uprooted at an early age gives one a very different perspective on one’s own national identity. I believe this fracture in my early childhood has enabled me to view my own heritage from not only an emotional but also from a critical and observant point of view. It has also provided me with the necessary emotional distance to be able to create works that deal with history, memory and culture. 

The textile works from the series are quite bright and appealing in terms of colour. Did you pay special attention to the colour palette when working on the works?

Before working on the project, I researched the history surrounding the use of colour and meaning in the sashes, as well as the significance of the symbols weaved within its pattern. It was important for me to familiarise myself with the ancient history of the craft before I began reworking them with my own colour palette – this was crucial in bringing the sashes into contemporary discourse. 

The exhibition From. Between. To coincides with another solo show of yours – When the Golden Sun Sinks at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum. How did you decide to organise two exhibitions at the same time, and, are they also thematically similar?

I tend to work on several projects simultaneously – however, they don't have thematic similarities. In 2017 I was commissioned by Grain Photography Hub to produce When the Golden Sun is Sinking, a project resulting from my research into Birmingham's military history. During the First and Second World Wars, the city was home to Britain's artillery shell factories, which were maintained by women while men were sent off to fight.

I grew interested in the significance of the women's role in the war and the shells produced, many of which were decorated by soldiers after use and sent home as souvenirs. I sourced decorated shells through online marketplaces like Ebay and photographed them, bringing to light the complexities of gender, trauma and domesticity during the war. 

Do you believe that through art it’s possible to maintain awareness about various historical facts and experiences, and to create an understanding between different kinds of people?

I believe art has a strong ability to draw attention and awareness to events, both historical and contemporary. It’s much easier for viewers to relate to a visual representation rather than read written accounts. I am not sure how much art can change the social politics of the world, but it can definitely highlight issues and promote awareness and discourse among its viewers.

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