On 23 January, a lively crowd filled the National Opera and Ballet Theatre to witness artist Emilija Škarnulytė performance which launched the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art. Her work Aphotia and the 1st Biennial of Performance Art are a gift to Vilnius and its citizens on the occasion of the city’s 700th anniversary.

The inaugural Vilnius Performance Art Biennial will take place in venues and public spaces across the city and was initiated by the team at Vilnius City Gallery Meno Niša, who have been an important part of Vilnius’ arts ecology for two decades now. The founder of the gallery and director of the Biennial, Diana Stomienė, hopes that the festival will find its audience and become a long-term, continuous event. The main Biennial programme will take place from 23 July to 6 August 2023.

VB 23 press conference. Photo by Marius Žičius

According to Stomienė, Vilnius has not witnessed such an event before. “Through organising the ArtVilnius Contemporary Art Fair every year, it became evident that art lovers’ attitudes towards performance art are changing and we’ve seen the audience for it grow. This year, Vilnius is celebrating its 700th anniversary, and so we have a historic opportunity to create a continuous event, bringing performers and fans of performance art together in the city, and establishing Vilnius as an international performance venue,” said Stomienė at a press conference held just a few hours before Škarnulytė’s performance at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre.

The international programme of the 1st Biennial of Performance Art has been conceived by contemporary art curator Neringa Bumblienė. The Biennial consists of two parts: a programme of invited artists, curated by Bumblienė, and a programme of works by artists selected by an international jury through an open call. The high-profile jury, including Maria Arusoo, Director of the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art; Joanna Zielińska, Senior Curator of the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art M HKA; and Neringa Bumblienė, the Artistic Director of the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art and the Curator of the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius as well as the Lithuanian National Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, selected 10 performance artists from 286 applications received from 58 countries around the world, who will present their work in Vilnius this summer. A total of 40 events will take place in the city’s public spaces, from squares to tennis courts, from contemporary art venues to traditional art spaces among others.

Photo by Gintarė Grigėnaitė

At the press conference, Bumblienė identified the main theme of the performances: the artists were invited to think about the city as something artificially created that is constantly undergoing change—a place that is born, thrives, but also declines or is destroyed. “We asked the artists to think about the city in the broadest sense of the word, to consider its present and to try to imagine its possible future,” said Bumblienė. 

One of the artists invited to perform in the Biennial is Emilija Škarnulytė, a Lithuanian creator known internationally mostly for her video work. In Bumblienė’s words, “Emilija’s projects revolve around themes of the ocean that threatens to submerge some cities. We decided to implement her work Aphotia in the National Opera and Ballet Theatre and, together with the audience, consider how such site-specific work opens a dialogue with the building, questions established rituals of behaviour and changes the perception of the environment. The familiar chandeliers of the theatre did not emit light that evening: illuminated from below, they resembled underwater plants or jellyfish.”

Having briefly participated in the press conference herself, Škarnulytė expressed her joy to have been able to work within building of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. “I have always been interested in how people feel in certain spaces. In this building, we can celebrate architecture: Lithuanian architect Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė has really unfolded a unique feeling here, and that feeling will help viewers to dive into the depths of the ocean through my work. They will recognise different layers that all have their own parameters and characteristics, allowing them to go through and beyond those layers and look inside themselves. I am really happy that this work has also allowed me to expand my own possibilities and move from video art to theatre and music,” said the artist at the press conference. Škarnulytė believes that the ocean holds more still unknown to us in its depths than the earth, both in terms of ecology and archaeology. Storms in the ocean reveal not only long-since-drowned cities, but also ecological, political, and energetic aspects. “Water has so many invisible layers,” says Škarnulytė, whose recent practice includes at least four projects that deal with water and the ocean.

Photo by Andrej Vasilenko

According to Bumblienė, Škarnulytė’s work is unique in the context of Lithuanian contemporary art due to its thorough analysis of ecological themes, its aesthetically powerful and immersive nature. The artist has been actively working abroad for more than a decade and presenting her work at important art institutions across the globe. Škarnulytė’s films shown at exhibitions often turn into immersive installations, and a few years ago she started experimenting with the genre of performance art. “The theme that accompanies Škarnulytė’s Aphotia—invisible worlds (of water and the depths of (sub)consciousness)—continues the artist’s enduring field of interest, and at the same time interacts closely with the Biennial’s main theme, the city, seen from different perspectives of a speculative future, and in the face of climate change and rising water levels,” says Bumblienė.

The organiser of Emilija Škarnulytė’s Aphotia – the opening event of the 1st Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art—is the Vilnius City Gallery Meno Niša. The Biennial 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. Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is part of the official Vilnius 700 programme.