International Biennial of Contemporary Art Ljubljana,
23 June - 24 September 2000
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Cankarjev Dom
M1 & M2

Picturing a Place


Liutauras Psibilskis

From my subjective perspective, the city of Vilnius is something completely different from what you may see from some other point of view. A plentitude of associations may break every surface of every picture: I see endless lines of images behind every image. After you have spent years in a relatively isolated place, every image you encounter is covered by memories, by experiences that are invested in it. They may appear not even beyond but above those objects, completely re-shaping their reflections. Objects may seem like those forgotten, buried bodies whose surfaces are inhabited by shells, minerals or grass that grows higher and higher, more visible than the object itself and in the end substitutes for it.
In a way, you can say this about everything that comes into your sight, since it is the internalized absence and the impossibility of self-seeing in any visual representation that makes you think there is something hidden, something present beyond it. However, because of the radical political changes in Lithuania the same images may carry completely different messages today than yesterday. In this act of observation, it is not only the object but also the subject that changes and the memories of former meanings are present in every reflection.
I have a pile of pictures from my summer 1999. I spent it in Vilnius. Most of them I shot in darkness without really knowing what was in the frame of the lens. I was going around in the parks and peripheral streets of the town. The only limits were the physical borders of space where I could go for my explorations. These places felt like internalized states of mind, through which you can go around in your memory without losing your path. The views you encounter now connect, in a very direct way, to invisible maps you carry in your mind. They settle there once and do not let you go. These are maps you unconsciously reproduce wherever you go.
Human sculls and bones kicked out of the ground in virtually every building site are one of my memories of Vilnius. They could appear in the most everyday and unexpected environment: on a street crossing, in front of the window of your room, in the courtyard of your school. They reinforced the idea that this site is made out of layers of permanent disappearances, unsolved mysteries that were mixed with fictional interpretations and rumors. It was never clear what actually happened there. Is the entire city built on cemeteries? You could not know what was situated there some fifty or hundreds years ago: another church with a graveyard around it, another monastery with plague victims in the cellar, another burials site for victims of killings.
Lithuania is obsessed with archaeology. In cities, in small towns or in the fields of the countryside you may find sites of excavations of different kind of temples, towns, and fortresses. When I was studying at the Academy of Arts in Vilnius one obligatory part of the summer vacations had to be spent in archaeological pits. We had to dig deeper and deeper, in order to find something that would prove again and again the power of ancient Lithuanian tribes, some kind of pagan or Western-Catholic (as opposition to Russian-Orthodox) superiority. In Soviet times, it always seemed that in excavations you might find the truth, that it is there, somewhere deep inside that the answers to questions that do not give you rest today can be found. Maybe this trust is also connected to the fact that the Earth exposes the insides of the human body, since it strips all the meat out of the skeletons and leaves them to lie like expositions of something hidden. It is possible that the urge of trying to look for truth in the ground came from the feeling of claustrophobia in that unbearably closed space which was the product of Communist occupation after the Second World War. By going deeper and deeper, one could produce more and more space for new fantasies, one could forget about the present, even questions its legitimacy. Those gaps in the ground opened endless spaces that may have testified to the illegitimacy of today. The paradox is that in the end they could testify to anything you wanted, since the interpreters supplied the meanings. The objects had no voice. The interpreter or analyst is the one who may disregard or give importance to any of the findings. The past belongs to the world of the day.
Can we say that excavations are just a way to travel out of the context or the normative into the endless spheres of the unconscious? Sometimes archaeology can be brought to the attention of the normative; more often than not in order to be used for proving some kind of power position or ideological statement. Maybe this is why meaning is constructed as you already look back at things. You just narrate happenings into a form that can be read as a fluent story from somebody's point of view. Maybe this is why representatives of different ideologies can narrate the same things in such a completely different fashion.
There was a funny small incident in the field of archaeology in Lithuania a couple of years ago. While excavating the former palace of the Vilnius bishops that had to be adapted for the Presidential Palace, archaeologists found an object that did not fit with the common ideas of the past. It was a mediaeval cup in the form of an erected penis. In order to use it you had to suck the contents out of it. Unable to place this into a construction of identity, some scholars developed the theory that it was a healing artefact with emphasis on the magical power of fertility, and that it must have been used as a drug inhalator. Naturally, it had nothing to do with sexuality and gender relations. It is interesting to see to what length ideological fantasy may go in order to avoid facing the possible existence of excesses in history and in the present. On the other hand, this exposed the fears of society. The example is just an anecdote, but it can be applied in relation to the sexually, culturally, or gender-motivated discriminations a small national context can be drawn to.
The process of photographing as well as interpreting of anything is more than just a framing of pictures. It is an interdependent relation of object and subject where you, as the eye, participate in the shaping of representation. It can also be compared to the process of narration through psychoanalysis. As Katharine Young notes in Narrative embodiments, experiences of the body or mind through medical examination and psychoanalysis are put into a story in order to get hold of your life, to control unrelated and uncontrolled experiences. Through that, the identity of a person may be built. The framing of what comes through your vision and the classification of the images that follows the process of taking pictures may be like the process of making sense of the relations between you and your surroundings in time.
Even a holiday trip may, in some cases, be a complete mess of impressions before you develop the film and get the images that put it in order day by day. As Paul Virilio notes in "The Vision Machine", the camera may even replace your natural vision. The relatively unframed view of the chaotic world that comes through the natural objective of your eyes can be just too much. In his last days, Andy Warhol was always carrying a camera and a tape-recorder in order to frame every moment of his life, thereby distancing himself from them and keeping control of his instinctive response to any situation. In the end, he just piled thousands of recordings in his huge house without really revisiting them anymore. Drugs can comfort you in a similar way. They produce a distance to your emotional and confused self, to your own seeing and experiences. They help to order them, developing a more fluent image of a personality out of all those unrelated bits of movements you perform every day. Through narration, you can start thinking of yourself as a continuous subject in a continuous space and time.
The process of making sense in retrospect is like a return that gives meaning to past experience. The camera may help you to distance yourself from an experience as you are having it. It substitutes your eye and injects the presence of the Other into the act of seeing. It re-focuses, re-frames the pictures and formats them through the rational reflection of the return. When you return, vision passes through the conscious self, thus restructuring the unconscious, the emotional, the unfocused. With the camera between you and the world, you return without having left, you impose meaning without the need for revisiting. In some sense, you are never there. I remember what children at school used to say when speaking to somebody wearing spectacles that in a way separate your gaze from the environment: Don't look through the windows, come inside.
Vilnius is a place where people are expected to be similar. The notion of redevelopment of the national context is mixed with internalised experiences of the Soviet occupation when virtually every member of society was under the surveillance of a highly developed control machine. The suspicious and power-based relations that resulted from the experience of communism acquire new forms in society today. When in communist times people just were objects under total scrutiny, today that position splits into small pieces and is distributed to the individual subjects. Streets and public transport are full of gazes that try to possess and make everyone similar, gazes that police the borders of the norm.
In Lithuania, society often tends to disregard its experiences of Soviet occupation, sometimes almost pretending that it never happened. In the decade after the reconstruction of independence, all new moves were like an attempt at returning to the innocent state that seemed to have existed before the trauma of communism. However, reality took over, the return to the past can never be distilled from the foreign elements that actually became the very essence of the new context. What happened in Lithuania was a return to a different, other self. In relation to the analysis of excavations of the Rose Theatre in London Peggy Phelan writes: (archaeology) is a hazard of politics, of money, and of ideology. It participates in and is a product of cultural attitudes towards history. These attitudes, like the unconscious are informed by selective memory, anxiety, and desire. Is it not avoidance of some topics that produces cultural absences? Is it not how the production and abortion of the other happens?
Making pictures is like an attempt to stand on the power side of the vision division, accepting your urge to place and frame your experiences, your memories of place. Comparing it to revisitations of the experiences of the primal scene, you can say that only with a look back can you try to make sense of it, to name the scene. In a psychoanalytical sense, the primal scene is the experience of the world without you. This can reflect, very truthfully, someone's place under the power of an oppressive norm.
The memories I have of the process of photographing are of the strong light of the flash, a light that blinds you for a minute, a light that overexposes all the objects that surround you, that sharply cuts and disturbs all the inaccessible stillness of that moment. The flash that fixes and deviates, paralyses and deforms, brings into context and does not represent; that worships and kills. There is something extremely cruel about the flashlight of the camera. It makes things look similar. It reminds me of those faces of celebrities that look at you from the pages of glossy magazines. However, that flesh is the only window to the world that you can open. The rest, all the rest, stays in darkness.

(Extracts from a visual and textual diary, summer 1999)

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