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Bodies that act beyond expectations 0

An interview with Lithuanian artist Eglė Budvytytė about her recent solo presentation,Skateboard Prayer, or Head Below the Heart, at the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius

Weronika Trojańska

Photos: Contemporary Art Centre Vilnius and Andrej Vasilenko

Eglė Budvytytė, a Lithuanian-born artist, has developed a certain unique relationship to the environment. A graduate of photography at the Vilnius Art Academy, and of audio-visual studies at Gerrit Reitveld in Amsterdam, she is best known for her choreographic performances and actions in public spaces that, through analyzing the construction of social identity and its relation to reality, question the reception and sensitivity of what surround us. Her artistic projects make use of social consciousness as an extension of public space. Budvytytė – oscillating at the borders between fiction and reality, and between staged scenario and documentary – worked out her own relation to language; this then became a very important component of her work, and can be seen to be very present in her previous projects. To mention just a few examples: in the video “Secta”, she depicts a community in which language is a primary tool; the repetitiveness of the choreographed movements in “Choreography For the Running Male” creates its own vocabulary; and the soundtrack being played loudly from passing cars in “Inauguration of the Loop”, changed the street into a dreamy land. Whether it is a word, a literary reference, or a sequence of gestures, it creates the community and the norms of belonging.

Her recent solo presentation,Skateboard Prayer, or Head Below the Heart, at the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius (curated by Virginija Januškevičiūtė and Rūta Junevičiūtė), was an exhibition organized around a daily ritual that featured seven performers who slowly traced a route through the gallery spaces. Their practice – a choreography of gestures reminiscent of various spiritual traditions – carried them to and through various states of inwardness, intimacy, playfulness and humbleness.

In many of your projects, spirituality plays an important role. It manifests itself not only in the presence of discourses like magic or imagination, but also in the repetitiveness of gestures which, much like a mantra, helps one to forget reality. What is your relationship to spirituality, and how is it communicated in your recent exhibition in Vilnius?

I think that spirituality is somewhat inherent in many artistic practices. I am drawn to some aspects of spiritual practices because of the poetics of language or gestures that they use. Although I don’t think I am all that interested in forgetting reality, (making) art could work as a practice of accessing it on deeper levels. I was gathering a lot of images of people in different prayer postures, such as groups of Muslim men bowing down, when a friend sent me these beautiful photographs by Pozerskis featuring Lithuanian Catholic communities during a religious festival: women and men of different ages were lying flat on the ground (in the shape of crosses ), in open fields and meadows. I thought there was something inherently performative and very poetic in those gestures, and I wanted to explore that further, and to see if it would be somehow possible to abstract them.

The title “Skateboard Prayer, or Head Below the Heart” sounds like a line from a weird poem or incantation. Can you explain its origin?

‘Head below the heart’ was actually almost like a choreographic principle: it is a task-based piece in which performers mostly try to trace a line with their head on the floor (either solo, or in combinations where they assist each other). The bodily position in which the head is below the heart is inspired by certain prayer postures. Specially-made skateboards are one of the props that performers use to also trace the line with their heads.

The published information stated that the ritual starts daily at 6pm, and lasts an hour. What did people see if they go to the gallery before 6pm?

If people came to the gallery before 6pm, they saw the metal bars on the walls over which the black carpets and the clothes of the performers have been draped. The carpets were used in the beginning of the piece – to form a space for warming-up, and to protect the performers from the cold floor. There were also skateboards stored in the room.

You work very closely with space. However, the relation to, and experience of, a closed environment (in this case the gallery) is different than in the case of the outdoors – movement in a limited space creates a larger contrast between the motion and the homogeneous architecture. You seem to go even beyond that – when the performers go to places that are usually hidden, like a storage basement or a roof, it make the architecture even more visible, tactile. But they do it in a very subtle way. Their bodies move close to the ground. They sit, crawl, lay down… What was the point of departure for the show at CAC? What inspired the choreography of the performers inhabiting the gallery?

Yes, the indoor space definitely provides fewer unexpected encounters, of which there are plenty in outdoor spaces. Things look much more monumental inside, when they are framed by white walls and strict lines. When thinking about this piece, I wondered how I could treat the CAC building as a landscape or a city that the performers travel through. Therefore, the piece has a structure of parkour, and it drifts through different spaces of the building: from the exhibition halls to transitional spaces, storage areas, and even the rooftop. The point of departure was to explore this gesture of bowing down, its performativity, its effect on the environment and performers. I really like how Benoit Lachambre described it as a gesture of recognition, rather than submission.

“Through gestures of care, they embrace their independence, remaining mostly indifferent to the presence of an audience”, it states in the accompanying exhibition texts. What immediately comes to my mind is your previous project, “Some were carried, some – dragged behind”. The notion of care seems to be an important issue for you, but it is not really associated with public spaces much. How do you see its role in relation to your projects?

Well, in the performance “Some were carried, some – dragged behind”, the gestures of care came from very pragmatic, practical reasons – we did not want anyone to get bruised or hurt while performing. So, these gestures became an integral part of the choreography: someone is dragged for a bit, and then she or he gets their clothes or body parts adjusted so that they can continue to be ‘safely’ dragged. The piece was also task-based – bodies dragging each other – so it was also important to play with this contradiction in which a body being dragged in a public space might look like a violent thing at first glance, but if it’s done tenderly and slowly, it becomes something else; it becomes more ambiguous.

In “Skateboard Prayer”, we use a similar logic: performers help each other keep their heads on the floor. So, this notion of care is somewhat there, but it’s not a separate thing – it’s more like a part of the piece’s structure.

I am also very curious about what part the audience plays here. Do visitors act only as observers? Their role seems to be different than when experiencing your performances in outdoor public spaces. It seems to me that in the gallery situation, there is almost no space for accidental witnesses – everyone has come for the sole purpose of seeing the exhibition; or at least they are aware of the purpose of the space in which they find themselves.

Yes, the audience watches, but they can wander around – the proximity and distance to the performers is constantly changing. I heard that during the last performance (I was not there myself), the audience joined the procession and offered their version of the piece. So, sure, there were much fewer accidental encounters, but there were a few, nevertheless! – There was a group of Belgian ministers visiting CAC, and at one corner the two groups met in silence and by chance: a group of men in suits walking vertically, and the performers moving horizontally, on the ground.

Do you feel the difference between staging a piece in an organized structure – like the gallery, for example – as opposed to an outdoor environment?

Yes, of course. The previous performances (“Choreography For the Running Male” and “Some were carried, some – dragged behind”) were very ‘dependent’ on public space, which I see as a kind of unstable surface. A public space (I always choose locations for performances very carefully – they are quite soft acoustically, and mostly free of commercial signs and hardcore traffic) and all of its living and moving things and surfaces ‘complete’ the work in very unexpected ways. (During a performance of the Dragging piece near the river in Basel, a rat passed by us – that has been one of my favorite encounters). But it was also a good choice to make this last work indoors because we could use the floor for a sliding prayer! You can never slide so smoothly on the kind of surfaces you find outdoors.