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Deimantas Narkevičius. Photo: Saulius Žiūra

“To Comprehend All of This – It is an Elite Circumstance” 0

An interview with Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius

Interviewed by Agnese Civle,

Deimantas Narkevičius' exhibition, “Sounds Like the XX Century”, will be on view at the Vartai gallery in Vilnius, through October 24

On the list of famous Lithuanian pioneers in art, the video artist Deimantas Narkevičius now sits proudly alongside such names as Jonas Mekas, Žilvinas Kempinas, and George Maciunas of Fluxus fame. Narkevičius was born in the Lithuanian city of Utena in 1964 – which, coincidentally, happens to be around the time when this relatively-new art form's originators – Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman – were making their mark. Deimantas Narkevičius, however, joined this super-group of internationally-renown video artists a bit later. Having graduated from the Vilnius Art Academy with a degree in sculpture, it was the forceful winds of change that were blowing through Lithuania in the 1990s that made Narkevičius sense that, perhaps, sculpture was not enough with which to reflect what was going on. Narkevičius then turned to the study of the mediums of film and video – and the various narrative structures to be found within them; in addition, he took advantage of the era's transitioning from analog to digital technologies.

Narkevičius' creative body of work is characterized by the manipulations of time and space, and of sound and image. He has not only represented Lithuania at the 41st Venice Biennale, but has also received the prestigious Vincent van Gogh Award, has taken part in the grand exhibitions of Manifesta 2 and Manifesta 10, and has participated in the Berlin International Film Festival. His works are part of the collections at New York's MoMA, London's Tate Modern and Denmark's Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and they can also be found in several private collections in Europe.

Narkevičius takes a deep look at national themes and analyzes the relationships between individual and collective memory, and those between personal and historical narratives. In his works he uses material that he has filmed himself, as well as documentary archives, voice recordings, photographs and drawings.

For his work “Once in the XXth Century” (8 min., 2004), Narkevičius edited together archival footage (sourced from both Lithuanian National TV and an independent video reporter) depicting the “iconoclasm” of the early 90s, when soviet-era monuments were pulled down and thrown into the rubbish bin of the past. Narkevičius depicts the story of the Lenin statue in reverse: instead of showing how it was torn down, it looks like it's being built up – and accompanied by a torrent of applause.

In his film “The Head” (12 min., 2007), he used materials sourced from East German television video archives depicting how the sculptor Lev Efimovich Kerbel – an adherent of social realism and creator of many monuments to Lenin and Gagarin – works on his legendary 40-ton bronze head of Karl Marx. It is the world's largest bust, and it can still be seen, in all its glory, in the German city of Chemnitz. Next to this huge head sitting in the urban environment, people go about their daily lives... How did they perceive this monument back then? And how about now?

In “Revisiting Solaris” (18 min., 2007), the astronaut Chris Kelvin (played by the famous Lithuanian film and theater actor, Donatas Banionis), a character from Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 intergalactic fantasy film “Solaris”, returns to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris, 40 years later; Kelvin now plays out the scenes from Stanisław Lem's science-fiction novel that Tarkovsky didn't include in his film. The narrative in Narkevičius' film is composed of photographs of the Russian city of Anapa, taken by Mikalojus Čiurlionis in 1905.

In the exhibition “Sounds Like the XXth Century” (ongoing through October 24 at the Vilnius gallery Vartai), on view will be Narkevičius' video installation “Books on Shelves and Without Letters” (39 min. 28 sec., 2013), in which the rock group Without Letters perform in a used bookshop in Vilnius. The video is filmed in modern days, but it looks authentically vintage. It's practically impossible to tell in which dimension of time it is set...

Deimantas Narkevičius , “The Role of a Lifetime”, 2002

On exhibit in another room is “The Role of a Lifetime” (16 min., 2003), in which the subject is British film and television director Peter Watkins; tired of the negations of the British government and film industry, he sought refuge in Lithuania for a while. In the film, Watkins reflects upon his political and social views, and reveals the reasoning behind his overstepping of the dogmatic boundaries of realistic cinema. More about this film can be gleaned from the following interview with Deimantas Narkevičius, which took place in the offices of Vartai on the day after the exhibition's opening.

The exhibition opened yesterday. How do you feel today?

It's like a pleasant routine. You know, I've had more than a hundred exhibitions, so it's hard to say if this one feels any different from the others.

But this is the first exhibition in Vilnius after a lengthy hiatus – the capital hasn't seen a solo show of yours for a whole decade...

This has been a very engaged time for me. Actually, I don't even know where those ten years have gone, but I have taken part in several group shows during this time – at the Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), and elsewhere.

You have curated this exhibition yourself...

The whole exhibition project has been authored by me. I chose the works that I wanted to show, and I decided on how they would be displayed in the space of the Vartai gallery.

We invited the architect Lina Ozerkina to do the practical side of things – from estimates to the ordering of materials. She also voiced her suggestions, but in the end, it was I who selected the sound-proofing material and the wall coverings – ones which I had used before in an exhibition in Florence. This is a solo show, and all of the fundamental and essential decision-making was done by me.

You were the curator of CAC in Vilnius for more than ten years. What is your current relationship to curating?

I left the position at CAC after my last solo show there, in 2004. I must say that I don't particularly miss it. I am very busy with my own work. I don't even remember having curated anything since then. Except for my own exhibitions, like at Kunsthalle Bern and at the Van Abemuseum in Eindhoven. But I don't see that as curating because, when it is in relationship to your own works, then it's more like “artistic supplementation”.

What do you think about this process of organizing exhibitions?

I remember when I was still working at CAC, I asked Hans Ulrich Obrist what does this job really mean, and he said that everything comes down to the ability to organize – to create exhibitions by finding the funding for them. I was in shock. That was the beginning of the new millennium, when state funding for the cultural sector was being sharply cut.

It's very complicated to be a curator today, too. It's hard to maintain the freedom to realize your intended projects. Of course, ideas, conviction and drive are the main things, but whether you're dependent on somebody or able to do it by yourself does influence your future actions. In my view, the job of a curator is mainly about freedom.

Has Obrist curated your exhibitions?

I've been in group exhibitions that he's curated, for instance, in the 50th Venice Biennale project “Utopian Station”, at the Arsenale; at the Paris Museum of Modern Art, and at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, Italy.

Deimantas Narkevičius, “The Role of a Lifetime”, 2002

You and Obrist have something in common – you like to interview people.

He likes it; I... not so much. I use recordings of conversations in my works. Like in the video work “The Role of a Lifetime”, which can be seen in this exhibition.

Then how did the recording of the conversation come about – it wasn't an interview?

It was a conversation we had in 2001. Most people probably don't know that Peter Watkins lived in Vilnius for a while. Then he left. I was sorry to hear that he was going to leave, so I asked him if I could record our final meeting. It was, in a sense, a conversation, but like in a monolog form, and about various subjects. I chose to use this conversation as the basis and starting point for this film – it is like my reflection upon British culture.

In my works, I often work together with the cameraman, and in order to instigate a certain scene or situation, I work as a third person relaying between the subject and the cameraman. Or more precisely – I'm like a sound effect, but that doesn't mean that I like to interview people.

What was it that inspired you the most in terms of Peter Watkins' persona?

He is a special person, a great director. In 1966 he received a “Best documentary” Oscar nomination for his film “The War Game”. It was about nuclear war and its consequences – it was so realistic that the British government thought it dangerous to society, and forbade it to be shown. The worst thing was that the government denied this, and they let it be known that not putting it on the screen was a BBC decision. The BBC then rolled the ball back towards the government. It wasn't pleasant. Watkins' later works were, consequently, criticized. He left England and became a refugee of his own volition. He traveled around Scandinavia and France, and continued making his experimental and innovative films. He didn't have big budgets at his disposal, but he managed to do a lot anyway.

By the way, the “docudrama” is his invention; he also introduced things like reality and survival shows to cinema before it was adopted by TV, and many other things.

In the mid-90s, he was already tired from traveling, and came to Vilnius. Since his second wife was a Canadian with Lithuanian roots, he got himself a home pretty quickly in Lithuania. Watkins was staying here for life, hidden from the world. Here, nobody knew who he was. I didn't know who he was either, at the time. We met by chance, and then we would meet up every now and then. I wanted to see his films; he wanted to see mine. That's how I got to know him.

Deimantas Narkevičius. “The Role of a Lifetime”, 2002

Which video archives did you use in making the film?

In modest South East Archive, I found privately donated 8 and Super 8mm film material shot in Brighton in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I used this material as a model for a typical English city.

The second source is drawings featuring scenes from Grūtas Park, made by my good friend Mindaugas Lukošaitis. This sculpture park contains statues and other ideological relics from when Lithuania was a soviet republic.

Why Grūtas Park?

Because in the film, there's a scene in which Peter says something while he is in this park. You see, in the film I don't use direct footage showing the main character. I always use something else – some surrogate. Some drawings are shown in place of Peter Watkins. The film doesn't show anything that is being spoken about. Sound is one thing in it, and the visualization – something completely different. Usually in films, the sound and the image are always the same; they copy one another. We see and hear one and the same thing. Reality is different; for instance, right now I see you, but through the window I can hear the hum of cars outside. It is important for me to use this zone of separation between sound and image. In this sense, I expect a certain intellectual effort and participation from the viewer, so that he can put these things together again, in his mind.

Through what sort of prism do you tend to look at reality?

That's complicated. Humor, drama, everything... There are various components. Sometimes I'm told that it's difficult to understand what I've tried to say with a certain scene. It's a complex of aspects that seemed relevant to me.

Is it important to you that everyone can understand your work?

That is important. And that is my wish. But I take it that many don't understand... (chuckles). To comprehend all of this – it is an elite circumstance that requires intellect, specific knowledge, and the wish to understand.

But don't you feel a certain obligation to make people understand, to explain...?

I cannot explain anything to anyone. I can only do that which I do. I follow my conscience in doing everything I can to make my work accessible, and to as many people as possible. I think that those who have an interest will find a way to approach my works, and also a way to understand them. They're not that complicated. I try as much as I can to make them accessible and understandable. But still... perhaps not everyone is able to do so.

Deimantas Narkevičius. “Disappearance of a Tribe ”, 2005

There are many contrasts in your works. It seems like you look at reality from two opposing viewpoints...

Life is complicated. You can't look at things from just one side. I try to look at them from as many sides as possible by showing their diversity. Especially in works about so-called recent history – I try to show these various sides of the past in relation to the subject of the work. And also in relation to the present. It's like a mix. There are several positions from which to look at something... And then I've been asked – am I a leftist or a liberal? Well, that depends on the work... on what sort of methods, interpretive structures and time periods are utilized in looking at one issue or another. In that way, I create an open field in which the viewer can choose.

How does the younger generation perceive your work?

You'll have to ask them.

But you've seen how they react...

Well, they don't react in front of me (chuckles).

You're an associated professor at the Vilnius Art Academy. How would you judge the state of art education in your country?

It may still use a thoroughly old-fashioned structure that hasn't changed much, but there are departments that are really good – for instance, the media and sculpture departments. The all-around atmosphere is good. Theory is a weak point. But Vilnius is not an exception – that's a problem in many Central European institutions of art education. And also at Western educational institutions (unless they're in a large city) – their theoretical base is also weak.

What, in your opinion, do students expect will come along in the package of having achieved the desired title of “artist”?

I think that they want to be creative, authentic, innovative and successful. And many believe that the field of visual art will give them that.

Do you believe in your students?

I do. I take it all very seriously. Otherwise I wouldn't be at the Academy; I have no reason to be there. There is no other reason than for the joy that it gives me. And the students also take it seriously. If you approach it seriously, then definitely something can come of it. Maybe not exactly in the field that they're studying, but still... Art – it is an open field. Studying, and the time spent at the Academy, open up a wider view on how to solve various problems; it develops one's imagination and anchors a feeling for intellectual freedom. I can't prove this – I've only been working at the Academy for two-and-a-half years – but I truly believe in this. I've met classmates that I went to school with – they are successful in various different fields, including business. They also admit that, without having studied at the Art Academy, they wouldn't be where they are now.

By the way, through October 19, CAC is showing “The Unanswered Q”, an exhibition of works by Lithuania's youngest generation of artists. Many of them are still students at the Academy, and some are even students of mine.

What are you most grateful for in your career?

It is a very special way in which to live. My job gives me the opportunity to live as I wish. I am very grateful for that. I am constantly in contact with various people – sometimes I even have a team of up to 15 people working on one of my projects. Meeting with collectors, curators and museum staff is also a privilege. It is a great experience and opportunity; I wouldn't change it for anything.

What is the greatest thing you've discovered in the mediums of film and video?

I used to work with sculpture and installations. Then I came to the understanding that the time in which we live is changing so quickly, that I need a narrative form with which I can somehow reflect it. Especially the changes that were going on in our part of the world in the 90s. I chose film as the best medium for that. It was a truly great experience to be able to work with the analog technologies that were quickly going out of use at the time. Around the turn of the millennium, digital technologies were beginning to overtake everything, and I managed to catch the tail end of this transition process. This transitioning from one technology to the other was a powerful factor in keeping me interested, and it gave a sort of impetus for me to continue. Many of my works echo this change in media. In some of my works, one can see a very archeological approach to the medium. They contain materials and technical processes that are no longer used. The film is shown as if it were taken 30 years ago. In this exhibition, you can also see the utilization of analog audio in the installations. Each work's audio is played back using the old sound system; even the exhibition's title is – “Sounds Like the XXth Century”.

Deimantas Narkevičius. “Books on Shelves and Without Letters”, 2013

What sort of relationship do you have with the new digital technologies?

It's a great medium! I'm not a retro-technology fetishist. When the transition was happening, I really studied it quite deeply, but now, when the digital technologies have greatly developed – it's good to use them. I've created my latest works with digital cameras. They offer new possibilities. The footage for “Books on Shelves and Without Letters” was filmed with the old BETACAM technology, but it was transferred to HD.

As a video artist, how do you feel being part of the art market?

I've been working with commercial galleries for twelve years already – Galerie Jan Mot in Brussels, Barbara Weiss in Berlin, gb agency in Paris. Many curators and collectors find me directly through them. Very much depends on those who represent me. Thanks to the commercial art world, I have been not only making enough money to live off of it, but also enough to invest money into the development of my work. I am financially independent from any other sources of money. There has been, of course, support from public institutions as well, but income from sales was a significant part. I am a rather positive example. Maybe I'm an exception... Maybe I've been lucky.

Deimantas Narkevičius. “Disappearance of a Tribe ”, 2005

What do you think of mega-exhibitions – like the Venice Biennale and Manifesta? Are they a real platform for video art? These events are always accompanied by crowds and hastiness, after all... Do people have the time to sit down and watch a video work?

I think they definitely do! But it must be a good work. And well represented. When I showed at Venice for the first time in 2001, I exhibited two video works. One was 17 minutes long, the other was 68 minutes – more than an hour! Many said to me: “What are you thinking by showing such a long film at the biennale? And one in which nothing happens – it's just captions and a little bit of slow motion visual material!” Yes, even though the story was engaging, the film itself was minimalistic; nevertheless, I stuck to my decision of showing it. Surprisingly, people lingered in the cool exhibition space, spending an hour or more in there. The film turned out to be a successful choice for the biennale!

Don't worry about what could or couldn't happen. If it's a good piece of work – it will be noticed.