Homo Absentia. An open-air exhibition in Vilnius


Following the closure of museums during lockdown, the squares of Vilnius became an open-air museum

Along with the second wave of the pandemic, Vilnius Old Town has partially taken over the function of currently-closed museums by hosting the open-air exhibition Homo Absentia (The Person is Missing/Absent).

The exhibition presents artwork by young Lithuanian photographers – Visvaldas Morkevičius, Geistė Kinčinaitytė, Indrė Urbonaitė, Paulius Petraitis, and Imantas Selenis – which examines how the global pandemic has affected and will still affect, in one way or another, human relationships; how things change when people are isolated, public spaces are de-humanised, and human relationships are isolated, broken, and in many cases, transferred to a virtual space.

Photo: Leonas Garbačauskas

The exhibition has been organised by the Lewben Art Foundation, in association with partners Lithuanian Photographers Association and Vilnius City Municipality.

‘We debated for a long time whether opening such an exhibition during the strict lockdown was the right thing to do. But art is also a way to escape psychological tension. Therefore, if there is an opportunity to offer people a way to reduce their stress by visiting an outdoor exhibition while at the same time strictly observing all safety requirements, such an opportunity should be offered,’ says Vilius Kavaliauskas, chairman of the Board of Lewben, in the press release for the exhibition. presents the following Q&A with Gintaras Česonis, the curator of the exhibition.

What is the role of art in the public space, and what has the Covid-19 crisis made us understand about public art that we maybe didn’t before?

All museums and galleries during the lockdown were looking for different ways of how to reach their audience – by creating virtual tours, organising online presentations, artist talks, etc. It worked, up to some level. But it had its limits. One reason could be that most everybody's daily activities had been shifted or transformed into online activities. So, visiting museums online during weekends was a great opportunity, but in the end, after having been online most of the week already, not the most desired adventure. It could hardly replace the need to be face to face with an artwork. For many people, creating the opportunity to see real artwork in the public space became essential during the Covid-19 crisis. This opportunity was very important for artists as well. And I strongly believe that it will stay important when life comes back to normal. Over the last few years we had been talking about various ways in which artworks could find different forms in which to meet their audience outside of museums and art spaces. The lockdown accelerated this process, in a way. Congrats to the Lewben Art Foundation for being a pioneer and lifting up the level of quality in terms of how artwork can be presented in the public space inside the city.

Photo: Leonas Garbačauskas

How were the artworks for the Homo Absentia exhibition chosen? Why was photography selected as the most appropriate medium for this project?

The starting point for selecting images was the Lewben Art Foundation collection. We all agreed that photography is a good medium for these kinds of open-air art spaces for various reasons, including reproduction possibilities and flexibility regarding the making of enlargements – the origin of the medium matches well with the concept. We started discussing human relationships and their level of importance in the context of the pandemic, and arrived to a common endpoint of how greatly we are dependent on each other. We have always been one big organism, but this feeling or realisation was too far removed for it to touch or hurt the whole of society in any significant manner. The selected artists deconstruct this relationship, and in different aspects. The artworks were intentionally chosen not to fill the void of humans in our current reality, but rather to respond to the current situation in society. The majority of the artworks were created before the pandemic. It was important to realise how new personal experiences had shifted the original meaning of the photographs. When our environment loses the human component, we start – more often than ever before – to reflect the changes of different constants in our civilisation.

Photo: Leonas Garbačauskas

It states in the Homo Absentia press release: ‘In these difficult times, art helps to improve our psychological well-being.’ Yet is the average viewer of an open-air museum educated enough to fully understand/feel the power of art, therefore allowing this mental/emotional/visual healing process to happen?

Any statement is always subjective. The way the artwork or exhibition will be perceived depends on so many factors, including education, experience, social background, and other things. If the artwork does not give the answer, and the viewer continues developing this question in their own way, it still makes sense – whatever the artists' or curators' intentions may have been.

The subject will finds its own way into our thoughts, especially considering the current struggles of our daily lives.

Homo Absentia raises the question of what the collections of closed or unvisited museums, the appropriated territories of Mars and the uncomfortably cold, empty cities of the world, are worth.’ What is your personal answer to this question?

An artwork's mission is to change the way we understand the World – to raise the question of why. If it loses the address of whom it has been dedicated to – it becomes dead and worthless. The answer is short – worthless.

Photo: ©Norbert Tukaj

What are the three most profound changes the pandemic has made in the art world – and which ones will probably stay after it’s over?

I believe it’s caused a huge change. Especially in terms of shifting values and opening up new problems and questions, as well as in understanding how dependent artists are on human relationships. The art world is more than sensitive to what is happening around it, on a global sense as well, and it never stays where it was. Upcoming challenges will continue shaping the art scene in the future, too, but this period will remain as the one that was really groundbreaking in this epoch.

Photo: ©Norbert Tukaj