Deimantas Narkevičius “20 July.2015” at Maureen Paley, London
Deimantas Narkevičius interviewed by João Laia
JOÃO LAIA: You are known for your analysis of history, for example questioning institutional narratives via subjective positions, or emphasizing the shifting contexts surrounding monuments as materializations of ideology. Roland Barthes talks about how photography needs language in order for its information be decoded: its referents and contexts are not preserved in the image as documentation. I was reminded of this while looking into your work. Your show at Maureen Paley groups two videos: Once in the XX Century (2004) and 20 July 2015 (2016).The subject matter of the two works is quite similar—the removal of Soviet statues in Vilnius—but they were done in different historical moments. I would like to start by asking you about the pairing of these two works: how they mutually influence each other and what story emerges out of their confluence.
DEIMANTAS NARKEVICIUS: The events in question are more than a quarter of a century apart: the removal of a statue of Lenin on September 23, 1991, and the disappearance of a Socialist Realist composition consisting of eight figures from Green Bridge in the center of Vilnius on July 20, 2015. Both performances are implemented with similar political motives, but such a time gap probably evokes a reevaluation of the two acts representing a shift in perception of public space—how it has changed, and how much the two acts of similar intention are alien to each other. The images of Lenin hanging above the crowd and waving his hand had been a symbol of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and a failure of the idea of Communism.The materials are edited in such a way that it looks as if the crowd is preparing, and then celebrating, the erection of the statue. The crowd was moving freely in the square, enjoying acting and regaining the public space, which was restricted from the folk by the symbolic weight of the frozen monument. On July 21, 2015, a monument of the Socialist period was removed with no apparent reason. It had been standing on a bridge as a city landmark since 1952. Eight figures had survived the 1990–91 wave of dismantlement of public sculptures of the Socialist period and were listed as protected heritage objects. The only explanation why the monument was removed is to create a broadcasted event, similar to those successfully circulated a quarter of a century earlier. The first event was a representation of the revolutionary moment by following how people have behaved in a very particular historical moment. The second event was a mimicking, well arranged by the city council, but almost excluding the participation of outsiders,implemented with no involvement of the crowd.There were no protests—either supporting the dismantlement or opposing it.
JL: I want to ask about your experiment with 3D in 20 July 2015. Could one read the format’s emphasis on the sculptural layers of the images as well as the bodily presence of the viewer in the space as a means to signal the embodiment of historical narratives in people and objects? Could the friction between materiality and immateriality enacted by this technology echo the tension between daily life / personal experiences and institutional narratives / ideology represented by the monuments the film depicts? And also, could 3D indicate the mutability of historical narratives in light of the different representational formats employed? What do you consider 3D to bring forth in your analysis of collective memory?
DN: Once in the XX Century is edited out of existing footage from more than a decade before. A distant view is prevailing in this work.There is a kind of objective look on subjectively manipulated material of the event. Like 20 July 2015, the film is a clearly participatory view of the happening; there is a direct involvement in the event. Stereoscopic technology is amplifying this impression. In this film the monument can be seen better than in reality. Such scenes could not be seen by occasional passerby, unless maybe by flying swallows or pigeons. Similar viewpoints could be seen by sculptors when they were modeling the figures. The 3D format is superimposed, it sharpens the perception of the event, which looks ostensible, superficial. I wanted to create a landscape as a model, an image-model-impression where the true scenic space is animated by the acts of passersby.The 3D projection of the city landscape filling the gallery room, with visitors wearing stereoscopic spectacles, allows for experiencing the event more intensively by following the preparations and the actual taking down of several sculptures. The action of calibrating the cameras becomes a ritual for the departing object with the immediate involvement of a spectator. The filming process and participation in it is mediating and legitimizing the procedure, even if against the artists’ will and hopefully against the spectators’ will as well. The stereoscopic image is not blocking the viewer from the surroundings of the exhibition space and so the double image implies enhanced emotional involvement.
JL:Going back to the idea of context as something in motion, recent events like the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have reignited fears of Russian domination throughout Eastern Europe. It could be argued that these dynamics add a another layer of historical process to your work. Do you agree with this reading?
DN: The conflict in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has finally ended a definition of “Former East” as it was stated by Igor Zabel back in the early 1990s. Common historical experiences and some similarities of cultural development of the region have been incorporated into separate national narratives. Back in 2004 I stated that “Communism is becoming something very exotic for that generation, which certainly does not have connotations of a state of terror against the individual and an ideology of the colonization of entire nations. On the other hand, the recent past in the East is denied by the new politicians. Some of them (who originally started their political careers before the changes of the 1990s) have become a type of right-wing populists. Often their rhetoric is somehow reminiscent of some things from the past. So there is something scary about any repetition of the not-so-distant past, even though it seems hardly possible.” So the interpretation of Once in the XX Century could be read not as how glorious the past had been, but as how ugly the future may be.
JL: Institutional narratives are currently under intense scrutiny and questioning. The Oxford dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016, and recently Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway employed the bewildering expression “alternative facts.” Present forms of populism have been grounded in a skeptical approach toward expert knowledge, favoring personal beliefs. This kind of approach questions institutional narratives to an extreme: fact and fiction are blurred, their distinction made irrelevant. How do you read these dynamics? Are these changes or tendencies relevant to your artistic approach?
DN: The generation born after 1989 has grown up. Artifacts of the Socialist period have little meaning to them, not in the way I experienced that time. Heritage and other forms of representation are encouraging utopian imaginations of the past and its failures.The narrative of the recent past is fading away, or incorporated into singular national stories, stressing the traumatic aspect of it. But the young artists have no trauma with the Communist project. I am not in a position to outline whether revisiting the period as artistic practice is enough of an alternative to the prevailing national narratives, encouraged by increasingly diverging fictional histories and beliefs based on stereotypes. What interested me about 3D when employing it in my most recent work is how it is able to reduce the political load of an event by opening an overlapping 3D space. This space produces so much information, unavoidably compelling the viewer to actively decode it as an environment of a various actions taking place rather than focusing on a selectively documented historic event.
JL: Your work also looks into representational regimes, investigating the potential and limitations of cinema—namely documentary film—and also television. Has the current dominance of the Internet, and to a certain extent its absorption of film and TV, impacted your practice?
DN: Many artists who started out in the 1990s distanced themselves from the cinema space and TV by using analog tools like 16mm film and multichannel video, which couldn’t be so easily uniformed into the entertainment-ready ways of transmitting video or film in a cinema. I regard my artistic practice up to now to belonging to the analog tradition of video making. The fact that 3D can’t be reduced to the flat screen and depends on the space in which it is presented is what maintains the distinction between my work and the formats you’ve mentioned that can be absorbed and generalized by the flat screen, be it computer, tablet, or TV. In the case of 20 July 2015, a person watching the 3D projection clearly perceives that he or she is in a physical space while at the same time being in a stereoscopic space. These modes are not mutually exclusive, unlike being in one environment physically while immersed in multiple cyberspaces while surfing the web. That distinction I trace back to beginnings of my analog practice and find still relevant.
JL: Several of your films employ amateur footage and non-professional methods such as handheld cameras. Do you interpret the hyper-production and circulation of personal video content as a consequence of the expansion of the Internet and mobile devices? Do you think it is going to impact the way history is being represented and will be remembered in the future?
DN: I would compare the circulation of personal digital recordings, be it videos, voice messages, or photographs produced using cell phones, with the massive circulation of handwritten letters during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them provide invaluable openings and intimate views of individuals from those centuries, firsthand witnessing of everyday lifestyles not often recorded by grand narratives. Nevertheless, only a little part of that correspondence is of interest to us today. Hyper-production and circulation of personal video content of course should influence the style and patterns of how one produces, but the Internet as well as any other media source has no memory (and is not conscious thus far), so the impact of these processes should not be present until it does not appear in conventional infrastructure of the art scene.
at Maureen Paley, London
until 5 March 2017