By Rosana Lukauskaitė
Main photo by Benoit Muñoz
The first Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art starts with Aphotia; a new piece by the internationally acclaimed Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė, which will be performed on 23 January at 7pm at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (LNOBT).
Škarnulytė has been actively working abroad for more than a decade. Her works have been presented at major institutions and events across the globe, such as the Venice Biennale of Architecture, SIART Biennial in Bolivia, the São Paulo and Riga Art Biennials, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Centre Pompidou, and the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, among others. Working between documentary and the imaginary, the author creates films and immersive installations exploring deep time and invisible structures—from the cosmic and geological to the ecological and political.
Rosana Lukauskaitė: Your artistic projects are expansive and fascinating. You recently spent a lot of time in Brazil. What creative projects are you working on at the moment?
Emilija Škarnulytė: 2023 begins with the presentation of my new work at the LNOBT, and will be a pretty intense year for me. I am preparing for the Henie Onstad Triennial in Oslo, the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, a solo exhibition in Sion, Switzerland, the Helsinki Biennale, the Ars Fennica 2023 Prize Exhibition at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Finland, and the Ljubljana Biennial. This year will be full of new points of view and works that have been waiting for the right moment to be realised.
My last trip was to Amazonia, where I was preparing a piece for the Gwangju Biennale. I filmed where one of the largest rivers in the world is formed, where the left tributary of the Amazon, the Rio Negro or the “Black River”, and the Solimões River meet. I will return there in February to complete the piece in collaboration with researchers at the National Museum of History in Rio de Janeiro. Later, I plan to participate in an expedition with a team of underwater volcanologists, exploring a newly formed magma world near La Palma.
The opening event of the first Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art of your latest work Aphotia, will be presented on 23 January. Can you tell us about the creative process behind this site-specific and one-off performance and why you chose to realise it at the LNOBT?
A frequent starting point for my creative activities is the desire to see the invisible, to look from new points of view, and other perspectives. I often find inspiration in the works of other female creators and artists, such as Marija Gimbutienė or Aleksandra Kasuba—women of Lithuanian origin whose visionary work encourages me to act myself. The performance Aphotia is inspired by the architecture of the LNOBT building designed by Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė. The performance functions in an active relationship with this architect’s work and becomes an act of homage to this space. The piece involves the spaces from the entrance and foyer to the theatre’s main hall, providing the opportunity to rethink how this building functions and think in layers. Making Aphotia encouraged me to look at the building and my own creative practice from new, yet unexplored perspectives.
When I explore the world in my work, it’s essential for me to go through layers, to make cross-sections. In Aphotia, I look into the layers of the ocean—its surface and what lies beneath it. This translates into the structure of the work, which becomes a three-part journey into the depths of the oceans, with differences in temperature, oxygen content, forms of life, etc. On the surface, there is sunlight, plenty of nutrients, and conditions favourable for life to thrive. Going deeper, the light grows dim; we see a huge variety of life forms and luminous organisms. At the very bottom, it’s pitch-black, and very cold; the environment is highly nutritious but harsh for life, posing the risk of suffocation. These areas are not static, currents stir the water, and the various life forms migrate freely, seeking to feed themselves and avoid be consumed. The creative process behind Aphotia was shaped by reflecting on these oceanic environments, while at the same time engaging in a dialogue with the space of the space.
I read that it was Jonas Mekas who infected you with the virus of creative travel. What other personalities of the art world inspire you?
I could mention again the Lithuanian artist Aleksandra Kasuba, whom I had the opportunity to meet in person. I also worked on an exhibition dedicated to her at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. I am also inspired by the US avant-garde jazz musician Marshall Allen, and the Italian-born Brazilian architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi. I have always been interested in older-generation artists, who have a great creative legacy.
Besides these art world personalities, I find inspiration in non-human phenomena: geological, landscape and other spatial experiences that bring me closer to a different kind of time flow, or so-called deep time. Equally important to me is the figure of the mermaid or the siren, as a link between the known and the unknowable world; the divide between human, animal, deity, and myth.
You studied sculpture at the Brera Institute in Milan, Italy. How did you discover the medium of film—currently one of the primary forms of your creative expression?
These discoveries began with my first trips to South Korea and my encounter with the scars left on the landscape by industry and humankind. As I continued my studies in sculpture, I began to see video art from a sculptural perspective. Each pixel is like clay that can be used to create space. I often work with architecture and site-specific installations, so the sculptural basis has not disappeared; its elements can be seen in my video installations, which function as landscapes that viewers can physically enter.
When I was making the film Aldona—whose protagonist lost her vision as a result of Chernobyl—what was important to me was a different way of seeing. A blind person cannot see, but paradoxically sees much more intensely, much more sensitively, because they use a different form of sensation—touch. In other films, I use extended sensoriality—footage from the deep water, sound inaudible to the human ear. The medium of film allows me to combine all of this into a different way of looking to create a new kind of sensitivity.
I also read that during your Master’s studies in contemporary art at the University of Tromsø in Norway, you started to play music and formed a student band with which you performed in Brazil, Germany and France. How has this involvement with music influenced your cinematic gaze?
For a long time, I saw video art and music as two completely different, separate practices, but I am always looking for the point where they meet and overlap, a point where their synergy can be activated. This moment can be grasped in Aphotia, because this performance combines video art, installation, music and performativity. Just like in my other works, the role of music is not secondary; on the contrary, it is an essential component. I often create sound in collaboration with other artists, which also allows me to expand the boundaries of my own knowledge and perception. An example of this is my long-term collaboration with the artist Jakub Čižikas, which has led to a certain kind of creative growth.
Neringa Bumblienė, the artistic director of the Biennial, mentioned that you started experimenting with performance art a few years ago. With your latest work, you seem to go beyond the boundaries of familiar media.
The genre of performance art emerged quite naturally in my work, while I was seeking to combine sculptural and spatial elements with immersive experiences. My creative experiments are dictated by the performativity of spaces as well as the aforementioned sculptural nature of video art.
In exhibitions, it is always important for me to initiate a kind of ritual so that the installation does not remain an object in itself, but can instead be seen/heard/felt/touched as an immersive experience that activates different senses. So performativity is familiar, but unlocking the performativity of each new space is always a new challenge.
Tell us about the Polar Film Lab, which you set up. What challenges did you face in establishing it and inviting other filmmakers to contribute to it?
When I was studying in Tromsø, an island in the Atlantic Ocean with less than seventy thousand inhabitants, I realised that it had significant potential for analogue film experimentation because of its very expressive light situation: for half of the year there is the polar night, and the other half, the polar day. I thought it was a great niche for experimental cinema. In addition, it connected to the long tradition of the Tromsø polar expeditions and the video archives of scientific trips to the North Pole. The Polar Film Lab maintains the spirit of a climate change research station through collaboration with local and international scientists and artists.
Among your very wide range of thematic and geographical works, there are several made in Lithuania, such as Aldona, The Valley of a Missing City and Graveyard. Is making somewhat such somewhat more personal films easier or harder?
In order to avoid subjectivity, my personal working method requires a certain distance—both historical and physical. However, as I travel and observe, I increasingly discover that phenomena existing somewhere far away can also be found right next to you, in everyday detailslife. However, what was most important to me while making these films was not a particular place or phenomenon, but the formation of an unusual, distorted perception of space and time, which can evoke a very special spiritual state. In order to empathise with a grandmother’s lack of sight, or to see a lost city or radiation, you need to give up your personal gaze.
In the film Sirenomelia, you became a character yourself, taking on the role of a mermaid. How much preparation did such a role require?
The preparation took almost a year and required a lot of both physical and psychological effort. The filming process itself was very intense—I had to swim in water at -4 degrees Celsius. Experiencing the limitations of the body becomes a way to comprehend something bigger—to be in the cold for a few minutes, where objects made by humans will remain for tens or hundreds of years. It was one of those ‘death of the ego’ experiences, the principles of which I often apply in my work—in the form of a challenge. The mermaid, as a mythological creature that relates to and blends into its ever-changing environment, is both a fish (from which humans evolved) and a posthuman; a human and a technological being.
This year you chose not to accept the art prize of one of Berlin’s biggest galleries, GASAG, because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. How important is it for an artist to express their civic position?
It is very important nowadays, because in this geopolitical climate we don’t have the luxury of being apolitical anymore, especially in the shadow of an ongoing war. Each step of every person, each choice they make and every position taken matters. Instead of presenting my work, the empty space left in the gallery questions problematic choices—both individual and societal. It is incredibly painful to think about what is happening, so I try to do what I can in my position.
Last year, your first feature-length documentary, Graveyard, premiered at the Scanorama European Film Forum. This film takes the audience to places that are otherwise impossible to enter—closed, empty nuclear reactors, pulsating geothermal power plants, frozen oil terminals, and even the decommissioned Ignalina nuclear power plant. You are not only documenting the world, but by using an expanded cinematic narrative, you are also conveying future perspectives, looking at the world from the perspective of a future archaeologist. Are your visions of the distant future positive or dystopian?
The most important thing for me is to give the viewer the time and space to sit, meditate and raise questions; to give them the freedom of choice and the right to decide what kind of future they see. Graveyard does not seek to provide answers, but rather questions the current situation. In other works of mine, it is also important to create a space for reflection, to refuse positive or dystopian evaluation or judgement. The archaeologist in the future does not judge, but only tries to understand, see, and feel. Evaluation and judgement imply humanity, while it is more interesting to ask: What does all of this look like from the perspective of an atom? How does radiation see and feel? The question of scale is also essential: a positive or dystopian evaluation may cover a hundred years, but how does meaning change over millennia? The performance becomes an invitation to feel these alternative perspectives.
The opening event of the 1st Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art, Emilija Škarnulytė’s Aphotia, will take place on 23 January at 7pm at the LNOBT.
The organiser of the Biennial is Vilnius City Gallery Meno Niša.
The event is funded by Vilnius City Municipality, the Office of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Council for Culture. The main partner is JCDecaux Lithuania. The Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is a part of the official Vilnius 700 programme.