Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius had a weekend of excitement with the opening of the country’s first ever ‘Western style’ private modern and contemporary art museum. The opening of the MO Museum was all over billboards, newspapers and magazines, and it was celebrated by mounting a big exhibition, concerts, workshops, open lectures, performances and even a libretto composed specially for the museum. It was a 4 day-and-night-long grand opening with tickets for the events selling out almost immediately after release.
MO is founded by Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus, a scientist couple, who own the collection of 5,000 modern and contemporary works comprising of Lithuanian art from the 1960s to today. The museum’s building is designed by the architects of Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in NYC, Studio Liebeskind. Being quite different from the rest of the city’s architecture – a mixture of Soviet, German and old Lithuanian styles – the museum stands out as a minimalist, white concrete and glass building with sharp corners. It seems sturdy and fragile at the same time with its big cave-like entrance.
The inaugural exhibition, ‘All Art is About Us’, is made up predominantly of painting, video installation and photography from the museum’s collection of Lithuanian art. Inga Pracute, a Lithuanian photographer who relocated to her home country after living abroad for over 10 years, tells me that some of the works are very controversial for their times due to their critical subjects. She says that a critical subject for a Lithuanian artist might be simply a beautiful rural town, an abstract landscape, self-portrait, scenes from urban daily life or a rape scene including a soldier and peasant.
There is a big stress on the importance of this museum by the Lithuanian state and municipality. The Minister of Culture, Liana Ruokytė-Jonsson, says “MO is definitely the largest and the most prestigious private investment in culture not only in Lithuania, but in the whole of our region. The founders of the museum made an incredible thing. The museum itself is not only a new physical object, it’s also a cultural one, a spiritual change in our consciousness.”
Consciousness is a key word and drive for the inaugural exhibition at MO. ‘All Art Is About Us’ touches upon different generations’ themes of consciousness – as a space of both constant attack and refuge. Covering an era from the 1960s to the present day, the exhibition shows works created with the impact of and through Soviet occupation, World War II, Brezhnev era, perestroika period, independence and becoming a part of the EU. The audience is invited to find traces of their own experience in the artworks and/or meet others’ revelations about identity, resilience, hysteria, control, and definitely to learn about Lithuanian social and art history.
The art shows a lot of resistance, as if confirming the words of John Berger, who once said “art resists beyond anything”. In the section ‘The passage of daily life’, we witness some quite beautiful and random scenes of interiors and people. They remind us of the importance of the freedom to depict seemingly insignificant daily life while the country and the region was going through some vital historical and existential changes. Arvydas Šaltenis’ ‘Two Men’ (1974) is a visual celebration of two men, standing, perhaps talking on and off in front of a white wall, behind a green door with windows through which we see them. The eyes of one of the men are obstructed by the door, the other man’s face is red, and appears thoughtful as he looks ahead. It’s a moment in life, the importance of which exists without doubt.
Shifts that society had been through, reflected the shifts of artists’ depictions of reality. In the section ‘The Loss of Control’, we see artists’ abstraction of personal emotional turbulences and absurd depictions of reality. Raimundas Sližys’ ‘Woman Singing to Herself’ (1979-1980) shows a huge woman with a scary mouth holding an accordion and singing to herself, despite having something of an audience behind her. There are some indications of a higher-class carelessness accompanied by lush jewellery, costumes and intoxicated pink faces. The depiction of the women seems to be cynical, sceptical yet observant and still sympathetic.
Jurga Barilaitė’s video installation of her image struggling to stay alive in a cup of milk, ‘Storm in a Glass’ (2003), keeps you breathless, making it very difficult not to empathise with her and want to rescue her. The work apparently is an expression of the pointless struggle and fight to survive daily routines. It makes you think that maybe in the EU member, independent Lithuanian life is not a bed of roses either. Overall, the exhibition shows a great selection, making it easy to navigate and understand a society through art even for those not very familiar with the regional history. It leaves you curious and wanting more.
Well thought through and ambitious, MO as a cultural institution has a lot to offer Lithuania and its visitors. It is designed as a social space to spend free time, and has everything that a contemporary museum offers – a café and a design shop, late Fridays, strong education programmes both for adults and children and even its own terminology. The press release says: “One of the goals of MO museum is to build an active community – MOdernists – the ones who support the idea of MO and help create a museum together.”