On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Vilnius, residents and guests of the capital are offered a special gift—the first iteration of the international Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art:, which will take place in various public spaces across the city. The festival will start on 23 January at 7pm with an exclusive opening event, during which the renowned artist Emilija Škarnulytė will perform her new work Aphotia at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (LNOBT).

A new international biennial to mark a meaningful date

According to the director of the Biennial, Diana Stomienė, the idea to initiate the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art was born organically. The genre of performance art has been presented at the international contemporary art fair ArtVilnius for a decade now, and the public’s taste and interests have been changing over time, so the impetus to organise a festival dedicated especially to this genre came about naturally.

The team of Vilnius city gallery Meno Niša—an institution which celebrated its own 20th-anniversary last year—responded to this unique opportunity and applied to a competition initiated by the Vilnius City Municipality and organised by Go Vilnius with a proposal to launch the Biennial as part of the 700th anniversary celebrations of Vilnius. The Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art was selected alongside six other projects dedicated to celebrating the city and its name. This opportunity enabled the embodiment of an idea that had been floating in the air for some time already. “We believe that the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art will find its audience and hopefully become a long-term, continuous event,” says Stomienė.

VB23 Artistic director Neringa Bumblienė and artist Emilija Škarnulytė.

New York analogue

There are not many biennials specifically dedicated to performance art in the world, but one example that inspired the upcoming Vilnius event, as cited by the Biennial’s Artistic Director Neringa Bumblienė, is New York’s Performa Biennial, whose team she visited last autumn. The contacts made there also offered hope for a potential future cooperation. Like its American analogue, the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is organised as a sequence of events that will spread across various public spaces of the city, from open squares to tennis courts, and not forgetting the traditional cultural spaces, which are perhaps less often used to present this kind of contemporary art activity.

The achievements of Lithuanian artists

Since the restoration of independence, many Lithuanian artists embarked on self-guided research into contemporary art to catch up with the rest of the world, which is only one more reason to be amazed by and proud of the achievements of Lithuanian artists at the Venice Biennale and other significant international art events. “We can certainly see that we are catching up with global trends, and in some cases, we are even leading the way,” continues Stomienė, adding that “ironically, sometimes the work of our internationally renowned artists is not always that well known to the Lithuanian public.” The wish to profile the work of Lithuanian artists who are more active on the international scene is partly why the first Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art will begin with Škarnulytė’s ambitious new work Aphotia.

Lithuania’s contribution to the genre of performance art

The Biennial programme 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 international jury consisted of 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, Artistic Director of the Vilnius Biennial and Curator of the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius and the Lithuanian National Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. A significant Lithuanian contribution to the development and spread of modern performance art is the performance-opera Sun and Sea (Marina) created by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė in 2019, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and brought greater visibility to Lithuania on the international performance art scene.

In this context, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the open call for proposals for the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art received almost 300 applications from 58 countries. Having thoroughly evaluated the proposals, the international jury selected the projects most worthy of being presented at this year’s Biennial. In addition to these performances, the local public will get the chance to see eight yet unannounced performances by well-known foreign artists, created specifically for the Biennial’s curated programme and reflecting on the festival’s central theme, the city, from different perspectives.

An opportunity to rethink Vilnius 

“When I was invited to be the artistic director of the Biennial, it took a long time for me to devise a suitable theme for the event. Ultimately, I decided to focus on the city—as a human-made and human-dominated environment that we share with other species, where different histories, myths, activities, interests, desires and visions overlap and coexist. It is interesting to analyse the city as an artificial but living structure that is born and thrives but also dies or is killed, as is happening right now. It also seemed to me that it would be strange to explore anything else, because the event, after all, is part of the official programme of the 700th anniversary of Vilnius. So it offers a great opportunity for the citizens of Vilnius to rethink their city—not only its past but also its present—and to try to imagine its future. Visitors to the Biennial will not find direct statements about how the city functions, but rather visions and insights into what the city is, how it works and what could be improved,” says Bumblienė, introducing the main theme of the Biennial.

An ambitious piece by Emilija Škarnulytė

According to Bumblienė, Škarnulytė’s work is truly unique in the context of Lithuanian contemporary art, due to its thorough analysis of ecological themes, its aesthetic, visual impact and inclusiveness. The artist has been actively working abroad for over a decade, presenting her works at important global art institutions. The films Škarnulytė has presented in exhibitions often turn into immersive installations, and a few years ago she started experimenting with the genre of performance art. The determination of this world-renowned artist to go beyond traditional and familiar media and present her work live at the LNOBT is, therefore, truly exciting.

“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 the rising water levels,” says Bumblienė.

“The title of the piece is based on the term ‘aphotic zone’, also known as ‘dark ocean’—the depths of the ocean that are inaccessible to sunlight. In the summer of 2022, Škarnulytė’s video work with the same title was presented at an exhibition in Venice. The new title created for the one-time performance at LNOBT personifies the term, combining aspects of nature, deity, man and animal, and unfolding a special medium for mixed forms of being to coexist,” adds Bumblienė.

“The theatre has had a long-standing relationship with Vilnius city gallery Meno Niša; we participate in their projects, including, most importantly, in the annual art exhibition ArtVilnius, directed by Diana Stomienė. This new partnership between the LNOBT and the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is a prelude to a great interdisciplinary and inter-genre future,” says Director General of the LNOBT Jonas Sakalauskas, presenting the context of the theatre’s cooperation with the first Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art. According to him, the fact that contemporary opera and performance art can perfectly coexist was already proven a few years ago by the triumph of the opera-performance Sun and Sea in Venice. “It is obvious that the genres of opera and ballet have much more in common with contemporary art than it may seem at first glance, and I believe that this event will give audiences the chance to discover this special synergy under the roof of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, and experience this great potential themselves,” says Sakalauskas, excited about the first event of the Biennial.

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 Biennial is organised by Vilnius city gallery Meno Niša and financed by Vilnius City Municipality, the Office of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Council for Culture. The main sponsor is JCDecaux Lithuania. Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is a part of the official Vilnius 700 programme.