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Andrew Miksys. Publicity photo

Dancing Between the East and the West 0

An interview with Lithuanian photographer Andrew Miksys

Ieva Raudsepa

In a dark room a frail figure appears – a girl with black hair and a white dress is dancing under a disco ball. In another scene there’s a loving couple leaning against a cold tile wall. We don’t see their faces, but they are wrapped around each other – his hands around her waist, her face turned towards him. They transmit love and warmth next to this chilling, almost hospital-like background. All of these young people are dressed in their most stylish clothes, and yet each and every one radiates shyness and fragility. We’d never meet the characters of Andrew Miksys’ Disko in a rave in Ibiza. This is a different type of party – more awkward, less posh, and, essentially, more genuine.

Andrew Miksys. From Disko series 

Miksys photographed discos in Lithuanian villages for ten years – his images have captured not only young people in a process of transition, but also a country during a period of change. Disko attracted a lot of attention – the series appeared in several publications and online, notably, Vice, HOTSHOE, Wired, BuzzFeed, etc., but caused a storm of discussion and disapproval by the general public back in Lithuania.

Miksys is a critically acclaimed American – Lithuanian photographer, a recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright and Aaron Siskind Foundation. For the last fifteen years he has been living and working in Vilnius, where he also runs his own imprint – ARÖK Books. Miksys had an artist talk in Riga onMay 14th; the event was organized by ISSP, and was a part of the Riga Photomonth 2015 programme. 

Last year your project Disko became very popular – not only was it noticed and praised by photographers and experts from the industry, but also by the general public. I got a feeling that the project went ‘viral’ – even now I still see Facebook friends who don’t have a connection with the art world sharing Disko because they are fascinated by your images. In a nutshell – what is the project about? What do you think has drawn so many people to this series?

The art world can be very boring and elitist.  I’m very happy that Disko has reached beyond these borders.  It’s much more interesting to have a dialogue with as many people as possible. Disko is specific to Eastern Europe, but my youth in Seattle was not so different.  We had school dances, tried to dance with girls, got drunk and high and had fights. So, while the project seems to be about some exotic subculture in a dark corner of Europe, I think the series speaks about universal themes and about teenagers tying to find their way.

Andrew Miksys. From Disko series 

Meanwhile, in Lithuania the project became controversial – I read that Lietuvos Rytas, the biggest newspaper in the country, published a claim that you’re conspiring to destroy Lithuania’s image abroad, and this became the fourth most read article that year. Why do you think people in Lithuania were so outraged by your photographs? Did you also feel support from some local photographers and artists, or was the feedback mostly negative?

The stories published by Lietuvos Rytas were fake news stories. It’s a very cynical newspaper and doesn’t reflect the opinions of all Lithuanians.  They think most Lithuanians are stupid bigots who are easily manipulated.  The underlining aim of those articles was to perpetuate fear of outsiders and the idea that Lithuania is under attack by some foreign conspiracy.  This is a very old story with roots in the USSR.  When I read the stories, I laughed out loud, but they also made me very angry and a bit fearful.  The very first article actually suggested that I was part of a conspiracy with the UK to damage the Lithuanian economy and deter investment here.  The articles repeatedly referred to me as an outsider. They would write things like “Andrew Miksys often comes to our country…” The same kind of language was used by the KGB to suggest that certain people were provocateurs and agitators: Be careful!

In the next article the president of the Vilnius Photo Union, Jonas Staselis, accused me of manipulating the foreign press to get rich and famous. What? The Lithuanian embassy in London even went out of their way to translate one of these articles into English and post it on their official Facebook page.  I guess they really thought my photographs were a threat to Lithuania. 

And yes, many other photographers and friends have supported me.  The articles were an embarrassment for many people here and demonstrated that newspapers like Lietuvos Rytas haven’t advanced very far since the fall of the USSR.  And also how some of the contemporary defenders of Lithuanian culture and identity aren’t much different than Soviet apparatchiks.  Without any facts or research they don’t hesitate to smear people who they view as a threat to their worldview.

Andrew Miksys. From Disko series 

You shot Disko for ten years. A decade is a long time to work on one project – what do you think inspired you to begin this series and then continued to motivate you in the years to come?

Most of my projects start by accident or some chance meeting.  I had no idea village discos existed until I stumbled upon some kids going into a building carrying beers.  For whatever reason I decided to follow them and found a very simple room with a disco ball and Lenin head on the wall.  The place was amazing.  The interior was still from the USSR, but you could tell the people were changing as Lithuania began to transition away from Russia and closer to the European Union. 

But it’s not like I hatched some clear idea about what I wanted to do right then or that I knew it would take me 10 years to finish the project.  I often feel like I’m a bit lost in searching for something very elusive, but I just keep photographing and don’t stop until I feel satisfied.  It’s not exactly rational or very easy to explain.  Spending 10 years on a project to make a book with only 45 photographs might sound strange to people.  That’s a rate of about 4 photographs a year.  But photography is a complicated activity – all the experiences you have along the way, good and bad, teach you about your subject.  I’ve never found a way to speed up the process. 

Andrew Miksys. From Disko series 

Disko was self-published by your imprint ARÖK Books. Book making is becoming more and more popular in the photography world – tell me what attracts you to this format?

I like how self-publishing allows me to see a photography project all the way through to the end.  Traditionally, photographers invested a lot of time and energy into photographing and then handed their images over to a publisher to make it into a book.  Of course, some photographers have a say in the design and production decisions, but not always.  And many publishers have their own brand or style of making books.  The books aren’t always the same, but they generally have some consistency.  With ARÖK Books I have complete control over the process and think it’s the best way to make a book that best reflects my work. A self-published book has the possibility to be more like a unique work of art.

You were born and raised in a Lithuanian family in the US, and now you live in Vilnius. Why did you decide to move? What do you feel are the biggest differences between life as an artist in the US and here?

Actually, my mom was born in the US and has Ukrainian and Italian parents, only my dad's side is Lithuanian. And I'm from Seattle where I didn't know any other Lithuanians growing up. I didn’t speak Lithuanian as a kid and hadn’t thought much about Lithuania until I came here for the first time in 1995 to visit my relatives. I guess what interested me most was the fall of the USSR and all the change that followed.  In the 90’s and early 2000’s there was a lot of excitement about change, but also uncertainty about the future.  It created a very interesting atmosphere to photograph in.  Having the family connection also made it more real and personal.  I wouldn’t have just moved to some city in Europe without this connection. 

Andrew Miksys. From Disko series 

I was also drawn to the artist community in Vilnius.  It’s not a very big city, but there is a lot of intensity in the arts and I’ve found it an inspiring place to be.  Similar sized cities in the US rarely have such a strong art scene.  But there are still some things in Lithuania that are much more conservative than in the US and there is a real lack of alternative or independent art spaces.  In the US people seem to get ideas and then just make something cool without thinking too much about traditions and institutions. This is missing in Lithuania.  All the museums in Vilnius are owned by the government.  Many artists and other organizations rely on grants from the cultural ministry.  I don’t think this is healthy for independent thinking and diversity in the arts.  There are good curators in Lithuania, but I still think it’s a bit weird when all the cultural experts are employed by the government.  As I experienced with the backlash against Disko, you can run into trouble if you do something on your own.

Just recently I rented a small space near the Vilnius train station where I plan to have mini exhibitions by photographers who have made books.  The plan is to have around five photos on the walls and a table with a book by the artist.  It will be an intimate space where people can stop by to see original prints and look through a photo book.  I think we need more of this in Vilnius. 

Lithuania has a strong tradition of photography – we’re all familiar with, for example, the work of Antanas Sutkus or Romualdas Požerskis. What do you feel is the situation in contemporary photography? Is there interesting work being created nowadays in Lithuania?

Unfortunately, contemporary photography in Lithuania is mostly dead.  There are many reasons for this.  A lot of young people find contemporary art more compelling than photography.  I don’t blame them. For a long time the only place to show photography was at the photo unions.  But as I already said before, these institutions are very conservative, and there is no room for young photographers.  Most of the dialogue is about “reportage” or documentary photography, but without any new ideas.  And the unions still spend a lot of time promoting the work of photographers like Sutkus, who haven’t taken a photograph in many years, and then they travel to art fairs around Europe as the “official” representatives of Lithuanian photography.

Personally it’s not a problem for me.  I just do my thing.  But I see how it’s been killing photography here.  When young Lithuanian photographers ask me for advice, I tell them to work DIY [do it yourself – ed.] and stay away from the old Soviet system.  If you remain focused you can make a very high quality book on your own – it’s not like the only possibility is to make a DIY zine at the copy store. I wish the cultural ministry would realize this too and stop giving money to the photo unions.  It’s our tax money. It would be much better to give grants to 10 photographers to work on individual projects. 

Andrew Miksys. From Tulips series 

You are currently working on a series about Belarus – Tulips. Can you tell me about it? Why ‘tulips’?

I started seriously photographing in Belarus about six years ago when I went to the Victory Day parade in Minsk.  My first impression was quite similar to the reaction I had when I found a village disco.  There were uniformed WWII veterans with jackets full of medals, young pioneers performing, and members of the communist party marching with paintings of Lenin and Stalin.  And, of course, the streets were lined with red tulips, a traditional Soviet symbol of spring and the Soviet victory over Nazism.  The whole thing was quite disorienting. 

Andrew Miksys. From Tulips series 

In the beginning, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Vilnius is only 30km from the border with Belarus.  The countries share a similar history, but have very different views of the Soviet past.  The Lenin and Stalin statues were torn down in Lithuania 25 years ago and Soviet symbols are officially outlawed.  Lithuania sees the Soviet army as an oppressor and an occupier.  The Belarusian government works very hard to preserve Soviet traditions.  There is even a new Stalin statue in a park outside of Minsk.  In many regards, the border between Lithuania and Belarus is the “new Berlin Wall”.  Over the years, I have travelled to Belarus on all the Soviet holidays like Victory Day, May Day, and October Revolution Day.  But like all my other projects, I get lost and find other people and places to photograph.  However, later this year I’ll be publishing a Tulips book.

Andrew Miksys. From Tulips series