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Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus in his studio

Antanas Sutkus: Brazil opened my eyes 0

Interviewed by Juste Kostikovaite

“Antanas Sutkus (1939) is justly called the Homer of Lithuanian photography – the continuous oeuvre of his whole life is an epic, assembled from fragments of everyday life.

His distinctive works convey an archetypal attitude that has deep-seated relations with his community; however, the power of his artistic language and the scope of his oeuvre put the name of the photographer into the ranks of the creators of the world's culture. The phenomenon of the artist's oeuvre could be defined by the individuality of his artistic expression, a steady program of his ethical ideas and his existential aesthetics. The aim of this book is to present his creative evolution as clearly and thoroughly as possible, to reconsider earlier interpretations and to get to know the author anew. Having entered the 21st century, Sutkus has not changed his opinion; on the contrary – the exposure of his archives only reaffirmed his unusual artistic sensitivity. The photographer does not drown in the overall havoc raised by the dehumanization of society; he does not betray his hero, that nameless man, that gray mass in particular, that fills up our real life and his photographic reality as well.”

The above is an excerpt from the book “Antanas Sutkus. Retrospective”, written by the curator, critic and art historian Margarita Matulytė.

For this interview, Antanas invited me to his house in a district in Vilnius called Naujininkai, which is located near the train station. We are sitting in the studio with Antanas, where all his books and photographs are scattered and piled up one on top of the other – spread on the floor, chairs, table and shelves. The messy clutter, the curious dog, and a smiling Antanas – the atmosphere is not restrained at all; on the contrary, it's very relaxed and inviting. But at the same time – quite serious. He starts with questioning me.

A.S. So, what did you say you are studying?

J.K. Curating contemporary art.

But what do you mean by contemporary art?

There are different ways of trying to define what is contemporary art. I prefer to answer to this question with the formulation by the curator and critic Dieter Roelstraete: “What is NOT contemporary art?” In his essay, he speaks about several main features of contemporary art, one of them being time, while the others are how precisely art inserts itself into contemporary times, but at the same time, avoids the tropes or practices of being called art.

I can see now that there are a lot of art historians, but curiously, art survives time without asking those who were writing the art history. I noticed that in Lithuania now, several art historians are actively doing research. They chose their phD theme, selected artists, and later, all their life, just modified their theme. I think this way of working – with just one theme your whole life – is completely boring. If I had just one idea and then tried to adapt my whole life to it, I simply could not do it. Someone has to analyze and criticize the process, the change. The creative process, not the result, has to be explored, but without trying to produce some sort of academic illustration of their own thesis. The exception would be the photography historian Margarita Matulytė.

She is an author of the recently published monography “Nihil obstat. Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu”.

Can you tell me more about your success with the exhibition in the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Kuritiba (Brazil), where it was on display at the same time as Francisco Goya’s etchings?

My exhibition in the Oscar Niemeyer Museum lasted for four and a half months. They even asked me to prolong my exhibition for two more weeks – because in just the first two weeks, the usual monthly amount of visitors had come in to see the show.

You will also have an exhibition in Ecuador, then the photography biennial in Brazil, and then the show will be presented in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, in Brazil.

Yes, it seems that I need to visit Brazil one more time. At the moment, the RTR Gallery in Paris, in collaboration with the Agathe Gaillard Gallery, is presenting “Free Love”, an exhibition featuring 45 (mainly vintage) prints by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier and myself. But I am not going to Paris, but rather to Kiev, where I will have an exhibition featuring 120 of my works. As for Brazil, at the moment it is really problematic because I have health problems and actually, my doctors do not recommend flying or extensive traveling. Despite that, the trip to Brazil literally opened my eyes. When I lived there, people were extremely friendly to me. In two days, all of my neighbors, and even the policeman, already knew me and was saying hello to me. I would often visit this cafe near my house; after a couple of days, even passersby were nodding to me. And this cult of children!

At the same time, they have extreme inequalities in Brazil, which form great social fragmentation. For example, extreme wealth, which you have probably seen, and then, not too far away, huge favelas. The favelas formed when the large farmers became rich land-owners, and the country started undergoing a massive industrialization; people from the countryside flooded the cities, where they found themselves living on the fringes of the city and society.

Yes, but I am trying to compare the situation of today's Brazil with our situation in Lithuania.  It was not during the last century when the rich and poor classes formed in our country. What is the meaning of such processes when in one year, 14 millionaires appear in our Parliament? And when in the villages – big, private land properties are forming? And, do you think it is morally ethical when in Lithuania a whole 5th of the population receives support from the “Food Bank” (a charity project which gives people the opportunity to donate food to  those in need)? Going back to the comparison with favelas: here in  Lithuania, we have to be prepared for harsh winters. Favela people do not need heating, they don't eat meat often,  they do not need warm clothes. I must admit that I, personally, was not taken on a tour through the favelas, although I did meet one person who promised to take me there. Unfortunately, that day the police went on strike, and nobody wanted a foreigner to die there during drug fights or something like that.

Maybe this situation in Lithuania is also one of the reasons why collecting art is seen as an unnecessary activity at the current moment?

All I can say is that our country is taking the wrong direction with collecting. I was managing the Photography Art Association – the only such organization of its kind in all of the Soviet Union during its last 20 years – and later on, throughout independence, for an additional 13 years. I think that at that time, my sacrifice of my personal life and time was meaningful for this activity of managing such an organization. I really feel this way when I look back on what we have achieved by our enthusiasm. For example, in the Château d'Eau, Toulouse, where I had an exhibition in 2011, they showed us their archives, in which they had old posters of my and Aleksandras Macijauskas's exhibitions which were shown there 25 years ago.  All of those exhibitions were produced by us at a time when exhibitions like that were almost impossible to even conceive of. Nowadays, photographers in Paris wait for two years to get into the Château d'Eau in Toulouse, which was founded in 1974 by Jean Dieuzaide, and was the first gallery in France to be devoted solely to photography. I realized now, that in soviet times, the fact that we were able to have these exhibitions can be explained only by the wish of the soviet system at the time to use us as a means to demonstrate that soviet artists also are, or can be, modern. They wanted to show that soviet art can be multifaceted and Western, in a way; that there are artists who are critiquing the social-realism style. But at that time, 30 years ago, in order to be able to have these exhibitions, I was involved in a lot of networking – I was spending a lot of time with heads of government, speaking, and having some drinks with them. At that time, curators from Western Europe were much more favorable. I cannot say the same thing about the current times. Only those artists who have left the post-soviet arena are valued. It is hard to understand for me why Western art discourse is not interested in what was done in Eastern and Central Europe during the soviet times. I, myself, feel this reluctant attitude in my colleagues from Western Europe.