Conversation with Elena Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė
Interviewed by Rasutė Andriušytė-Žukienė for Virtuali edukacinė biblioteka
on June 30, 2012 at ArtVilnius 2012, Vilnius, Lithuania
I am very pleased to introduce Elena Balsiukaitė-Bradzdžiūnienė and the exhibition by Gallery Meno niša. Elena Balsiukaitė graduated from Vilnius Art Academy more than 20 years ago. She is the person from the era of Augustinas Savickas, Vincentas Gečas and Vladas Karatajus there. Actually, quite some time has passed, and it could be said that Elena‘s art is diametrically opposite to the painting of that era. It is interesting that she constructs her art on the basis of immense openness.
The openness is first of all being truthful to oneself. The openness is seeing those sides of life that are not always primed and polished but, on the contrary, rather harsh. In my opinion, the artist holds the openness to be the engine of her art, and the openness permits her to go into solving themes that a society finds uncomfortable. The huge capital in the world of art she has amassed via her works about the teenagers. It is the person who knows how to communicate in an unusual open and interesting manner. She has managed to get the teenagers talking. They agreed to be filmed, they filmed each other, she recorded their stories with all their sorrows, interests and visions, which that generation hold, and to what we often do not get to.
Another thing is that Elena’s studio is in Šančiai. It is the neighbourhood in Kaunas that is characterised by the extraordinary contingent and the strange, rough environment. It does not make the artists unhappy, quite the contrary is true; that rough background is the context for her art, the land of inspiration for it. This is why there are strange characters from Šančiai present in her works; there are strange writings on the walls that people most often want to erase but Elena sees the tragic and the paradox of our life in them. She has her favourite characters, which often are a mannequin, a doll with a set of headphones; or she speaks of ballerinas as the life dreams that have not been embodied or a tragic period of life that has come to its ending.
It can be said that Elena analyses both herself and the world with the help of such varied mundane and prosaic images. I could back up this thought by the artist’s words in the catalogue. .. a solid article by an art historian I read: “I am an artist, ….” Each word starts with the letter M. The word artist in Lithuanian also starts with the letter M.
I would like to ask Elena the first question. How would you characterize yourself in art? As a performer of social roles, are there any reflections of those roles in your art? Is art the zone where you can step away from all those Ms that are listed in more than 20 lines the catalogue?
It is a complicated question. I think it is the most difficult thing to speak about yourself and your essence… I will say that it is important to take a step back and to be inside, to maintain this balance between being at a distance with what matters to you, what makes you ache, and to be inside of it at the same time. Recently, I have started to obviate any complete answers. I am always on the way to somewhere. In a word, both are important – the relation and the distance, otherwise I would not be able to give a pictorial form to what matters to me, without having that distance.
Performance artists, body artists experience their art at the moment of the performance, they experience the condensed being. Painting is different. You have got a surface, and you must do something on it, something that is important for you at that moment. It means that you need a distance, but not necessarily an evaluation. All the works here contain many other works underneath. The picture of the top layer is the one that I decided to leave, it might be that other layers will cover it up in the future because the process is important to me. As if you trying to understand it, as if you are trying to understand the situation in art, in that context, in which you are living. All the time you deal with it, communicate with it, and you do it very intensively.
Could you highlight you being in Šančiai? In the beginning of the Independence in the early 1990s the Municipality of Kaunas gave one of the former tsarist barracks to artists. Now there the community Art resides, many artists have got their studios in the building. They do not look cosy, rather the opposite. The artists settled there, in a very manly fashion, and it could be said that they preserved the building as other barracks were only falling apart. One of the interesting things about Elena is that this decaying environment, that neglect is one of the sources of inspiration. The artists does not feel en exile there, she does not feel hurt in those difficult household conditions, rather the opposite. What does Šančiai inspire you to?
I am considering the question…
Here is an infix. A friend of mine came back to Lithuania after spending 10 years in New York. He says that many exterior things have changed but mentally very little has changed. The external changes that I see in other neighborhoods of the town make me very glad. The human cannot catch up with those changes. On the outside the appearance is changing but the inside, the habits of thinking, the ways of reacting to the environment, economical situations, cultural situations are changing very slowly. That is the reason why I like Šančiai. There are such places in Šančiai where it looks like that the Soviet times have not ended. The structure of the neighborhood remains unaltered, very little is done to urbanize it, to clean it up. That contrast only helps me.
During the tsarist years the barracks had been built, during the Soviet occupation there were the soldiers too, brought from the entire Soviet Union. You should see what kind of writings there are on the wall. What calligraphy!.. There were people brought there, – they were not prisoners but in fact they were almost that. How long he should have stood by that masonry wall, into which he was etching, deepening, fixating himself being there like the Count Monte Cristo. Say, from 1976 to 1979 – that is how long the military service lasted. Rasa has asked me where those scratching and fretwork in my pictures come from. It is this kind of the indirect relationship.
When does the wall being to talk? It begins to talk when she naturally acquires that historical patina, when something happens next to that wall; when a soldier smoking a cigarette stump is etching his name with a nail, writes “Georgia” or “Vanya”. I have made photographs of those walls. Several barracks are under the renovation, and those writings will disappear. But it is our history. We have not invited them to come and stay there. But we, the artists, are there by our free will. They were not there because they wanted. The situation is changing. I do not want to skip that time so fast and change myself. Perhaps in a few years other works will appear. So far that environment is inspiring me, and I am resisting it.
Elena, I know that you like to visit flea markets buying different trifles from the past. As the white lady glove that is on your desk. Like the music boxes from the early 20th century. As the mannequin from a children’s store. How do those small things belonging to the most domestic level are used in collages, assemblage, installations? You like to make the secrets (it is a game from our childhood, when we were making a pit in the ground, placing a ring there, covering with a piece of glass and then we were going searching for I; it was fun to discover them). You use it all in your art. How do you select these items?
Purely intuitively. If something attracts me, then it must be some contact with it, some reminiscence. I would like to tell you a story. Each picture has got a story.
This Hamlet came from the studio of Povilaitis. R.I.P. Vytautas Povilaitis, the painter, had a studio in Šančiai, and he was already gravely ill, was not coming to the studio, his son sold it together with all its contents, he did not take anything. When the studio was already sold, I went there, took photographs of it. There was the children’s store in Kaunas – The Children’s World – where toys, children’s clothes were sold. I remember from my childhood how much I wanted plastic dolls with the hair that could be combed. And I see a huge doll in the studio. I asked if anyone needed it. No, they said, “We will throw it out”. I brought it to my studio, about a year it lived there with me. Then it started to show up in the pictures; in one as an episode, in another way elsewhere. Then I started working on the cycle The Hamlet Syndrome. It is contiguous with that strange, non-beautiful, unattractive guise, but it says something to me. We often look into the mirror and we do not want to see ourselves but it is really our reaction to that appearance. I have made friends with it, it show up in different pictures – sometimes it is a man, sometimes it is a woman, sometimes it has no gender at all. It is interesting for me.
In that one he has a set of headphones. The set of headphones is the sign of our times for me, when the person wants to hear his music. Many young people walk with headphones; even my pupils come to the lessons, as if they do not want to hear you. It is a contradiction because each person wants to be heard or to hear but at the same time each person wants to hear own music, preserve his own individual field, stay in his own space. So, the set of headphones got stuck to him, he became an odd creature. He holds a piece of chalk, and he is also trying to draw the right hand for himself.
In a word, all those things mean something to me, and later they start to climb into the pictures insensibly. I will not tell you exactly, Rasa, I cannot tell it. Perhaps there was the shortage of some games in my childhood that I am playing now again. Someone has told me that the music from the music boxes is like from a horror film. Each Christmas I wind them up at the same time, and they make such music….. One friend has told me: “Stop it, Elena. It is one horror film. It is spookier than Fanny och Alexander…” The space becomes indescribable. The boxes are with mechanisms, each has got its own music.
I am playing some kind of games… I do not know… I like to play.
Since we are at an art fair where one can bravely purchase artworks, I would like to ask you about your relation to you viewer. Do you engage in coquetry (because we always speak very interestingly)? Is the viewer’s reaction important to you (you react obeisantly if something touchy for you takes place in the conversation)? Are you afraid of the colleagues; are you nervous about them coming to your exhibitions? How do react to the already created and distant works because your pictures are so very different from different periods?
What is coquetry? You tell me. Is to engage in coquetry is to present yourself being better than you really are? Is it rather a way of presenting yourself so that someone cannot see all your positive sides at the same time? Is it standing in some kind of pretty pose? I do not know what it is be a coquette.
For more than 21 years I am also teaching. As a part of it, I have to take pupils of different ages to exhibitions, and I react in a elementary way – viewers, eyes, their reactions… Now I have been sitting and having a very interesting experience – to look at people looking at my pictures. I memorize those faces, how they are looking. Whether they understand or not is immaterial. It is an immense experience because they are looking. The most important thing is that they are looking, and it means that they are communicating with me without verbalizing it necessarily. But they are communicating with the other. We all have the need to be seen.
If we engage in that entire game, that tradition – that you create, you show it – there is no way out. I have received most varied comments. The saddest thing is that fewest comments come from the colleagues. In our latitudes you fell as a corpse after you have out an exhibition up – either positive evaluations or nothing. It is so… Nobody comes and says, “What kind of nonsense have you made? Why are you doing like this? What’s happened to you?” Or puts in yet in another way. I miss discussions, in which it would be possible to rumple each other a bit. Is there something lingering about among people?.. We have lost the ability to discuss, perhaps we are afraid to get cross with each, afraid of saying something to an artist because he might get offended.
To engage in coquetry in an open manner? I do not think I am doing it. It might be someone from a side sees it differently. But how can I be liked with pictures like these?.. I do not want to be liked. I do not want it to be pretty. It is about a truth, about life, and that is not only beauty. I often say, “How much jolliness is there in sadness and how much sadness is there in jolliness?” I like films or books that make you think, “I could start crying here but I also could laugh here just as well”s.
Over there my son is walking… Sorry…
You have mentioned your teaching job. Elena works at Antanas Martinaitis Art School for children in Kaunas. Very often artists, true artists see that daily work at a school or somewhere else as something unavoidable, as a burden, and it often has no relation to their art. Often artists say that they go to school today so they are teachers, clerks, and that day is lost for art. It seems to me that there is another kind of relation, – not only in art but in life too – art and teaching at school relate differently to teach other. Can you say something about it?
I will say something unpopular: I like teaching. It is no impediment for my art, the contrary is true. I can tell that that each time when we have graduation I always thank them. I say , “Thank you for friendship”, and I say it from the bottom of my heart. I say, “You have given me so much”. It is the great asset to communicate with young, creative people. I see such amazing things during exhibitions at school… Say, you are viewing an exhibition by a professional artist, and you see there lots of skill, many things that have been learned, the pose. In artworks by children you find combinations of real feeling, real inspiration and real imagination. Not everything has been drawn yet, not everything has been painted yet. A fresh spring.
At this art fair the gender ratio is nearly equal, even though nobody counts pictures by men and picture by women. Audronė Petrašiūnaitė was awarded the Best Artists. For us in the 21st century a woman artist is no news. Do you think that this is a resolved issue in Lithuania? Do you feel any advantages or disadvantages because of being a woman? It’s a provocation…
Yes, it is a provocation and a very successful one. Since I have been introduced as an open person, I will tell you honestly. I feel some hindrances because now, and it is something new in comparison with the times 20 years ago. I am in my mature age now, and I see how curators or gallery owners speak to me with the lack of genuine interest because I am mature, I do not match the beauty standards. I see it very clearly. I am being honest, I am telling you as it is. There had been an episode when a gallery owner asked me how old I was. I told him, I was 49 at that time. He said to me, “You are that old?” I wonder if he had asked the same question had there stood a man in front of him. I can say that it exists in this aspect.
I was born as the female human being and found this world as it is. This order, all these evaluations exist in it since the times immemorial. I understand very well that I cannot turn everything upside down but if I get an opportunity to retort I always take it. First of all, I am the human being, then I am a woman, a mother, an artists. I am note rebelling. But if anyone lunges at me, I have to speak back. First of all, we are human beings.
Many years ago, in 1991, you were four who returned to Kaunas after the graduation of the State Art Institute in Vilnius – Balsiukaitė, Barzdukaitė, Andziulytė ir Budriūnaitė. You had the artists’ group called Four. It disbanded ten years later, in 2001 you stopped showing your works at joint exhibitions. Why? Is it because the moths have eaten everything? (The painters relabelled this group The Moths.) Don’t you think that your group can reunite? Is it possible for some exhibitions curators or culture managers to reignite the movement of artists’ groups in Lithuania that is at the still stand at the moment?
There was the time when it was important. It was the post-Soviet time, a young artist had no possibilities to apply for exhibition space and get it for putting up a showing. They used to say, “Wait, you are still young”. I graduated from the Institute when I was 32 years old, which is not so young. So there was our group. As to that we ate ourselves up… It was a natural process. Some time had passed, and we all went our separate ways. We did not eat ourselves up. Simply disbanded because it was not so easy for four individuals exhibit their works together. There was tension each time we were putting up a showing.
Aggregation is the phenomenon of the young age. Young people walk in crowds. In the same way young artists try to form groups…
Yes. Unless it is clustering on the basis of an artistic idea or manifest in the name of resistance, confrontation as I see that taking place in Belarus, South America where social conflicts are very strong. We did not experience it, not a single artists’ group formed itself because of it. Actually, PostArt has had its manifesto, their ideas were clearly expressed. But they were the only group that formed itself on the ideological basis. Other groups appeared out of having the same generational experience.
If we were brave, it can be said that the Lithuanian art world is the wold of nuances, differences without bright confrontations? Now, when the situation is relatively calm, there is no need for artists to form groups, is there?
Yes. It is about the stand artists themselves take. An underground exists always. When it is lured into the establishment and becomes a part of it, the underground ceases being the opposition.
Let’s take Street Art. Now Street Art sells well. Each art collector wants to acquire Street Art when it is supposed out there on the streets, and genuine Street Art is on the streets. Its elements enter popular culture and it becomes fashionable to own samples of Street Art when this art is no longer what it has been. That would be coquetry.
I would like to ask about the important of Street Art for you. You works remind of a wall: structure, surfaces, rubbed in. Is it important what is there on the street?
Very important. The most interesting galleries for me personally are found on the street. When I travel, wherever I go – small towns in Lithuania, even in places where you don’t expect it to happen – such ideas flash, such thoughts… At one point of town there was the inscription in Kaunas “All dead fishes swim to jobs”. I see manifestations in both the poetic and political senses. There is such life… It is interesting that the work is at that specific location, very well integrated in that particular place. I have got several pupils and friend, with whom I was working together, who are true graffiti masters. I know how they select locations, how they integrate their works in those places namely. Yes, I am no doubt influenced by it, I am not renouncing it. But this here is not Street Art, it is paintings.
Would you like to ask something?
You have said that your studio is in Šančiai, in the barracks – there were the military housed also during the times of Independent Lithuania, not ony during the Soviet occupiation. My father served there, used to tell a lot about that place. Another matter, about the layers: do you layer the same picture, the same composition or do you paint a new one?
It happens that it is the same idea but I am looking for a way out, for the best expression for it. After so many years working with paint, I think I have acquired the skill, and I am trying to avoid it. I am avoiding that learned skill, I do not want that the work is predictable. It is a very interesting question. Recently, I have formulated it for myself: each work for me is an adventure, I am not forecasting it, I only have an idea – a graphic idea, a colour idea, but I do not know how it, the painting, will happen to me. This is why I photograph my works in progress, how I start, then what I brick up, paint over, how something appears again. I am searching for the optimal expression at that time, how it should look. It can be very fast, very simple, very clear but it has to happen. I do not know how I will make it, and it is a kind of a challenge. It happens as it happens; suddenly, it forms as it is. I cannot say that I will not redo these works when I bring them back to my studio.
Yes, it happens that I redo a picture. For myself I explain this that it happens when a painting is too predictable, too easy to be forecast. It is not interesting for me. A picture must be like an adventure for me, as an event. Like in childhood: you wake up in the morning and you know that something is going to happen today, someone will come for a visit, something will take place and you shudder… I need that moment in front of a picture. Otherwise it would not attract to itself as the crime scene attracts the criminal. You go there even for a half of an hour just to take a look, “Yes, I did it”. Or “Oh, this is total crap, everything has to be redone, everything has to be started from scratch”.
Does the problem of completing a picture exist for you?
Yes, it is one of the biggest problems. It is always fun to start, pleasant, a bit scary but you start because you have got the white field. And think that a white canvas is perhaps better than a picture.
We, art historians, also think this way, that perhaps a piece of paper, which has to be filled with a text about an artist is better when it is white. One thinks how scary, how difficult is to seize it. It is similar things. There is a plain that should he overmastered. But our conversation should be drawings towards its conclusion…
Can I say something here? When our group Four (or The Moths) was putting the first exhibition together, we did it at Rasa’s apartment. It was 1990.
We still had the Soviet habits, we ought stop bragging about it…
But it was also an adventure. We put together a showing of drawings, from the ceiling to the floor.
Who was the viewer? Rasa’s husband?
He was not on the horizon yet ….
The husband was not around yet. But there were lots of people, I remember it. People were coming.
Yes, people were coming. But it was the matter of the purely Soviet habits and traditions – to put an exhibition for yourself, to live one your own with your art. We can be so happy that the situation has changed, that we can organize events like this art fair.
We have been thinking how we will run this conversion, how we will conclude it. We have decided that it should end in a jolly and fast manner. The last part should be totally short answers.
Do you paint on commission?
Do you watch soaps?
Yes, the crimies.
Do you write old fashioned letters and postcards?
Why do you not paint flowers?
Why have I never seen them?
Everything is concealed.
Why do you sometimes paint matches? (It is the early works by Elena when paintings were dominated by children and huge matches.)
Because I run out of them.
How do you describe yourself when you are asked what you are? For example, at the doctor‘s.
What are you inventing here…
First of all – mom.
Why? Because being a mom to small children was very important to you, repetitive?
Because it‘s the most precious gift.
Elena Balsiukaitė-Brazdžiūnienė and Rasutė Andriušytė-Žukienė. 2013.