Since 2009, Vilnius has hosted the only contemporary art fair in Lithuania. Between 8 and 11 June 2017, the eighth edition of ArtVilnius featured over 50 galleries from 20 countries, approximately 200 artists, a large special projects section and an expanded talks, performance and associate programme. Exceeding its previous records, the fair was visited by over 22,500 people and 200 artwork sales were reported. Despite this clear commercial increase, the fair also demonstrated a move towards more performative works, video and moving image, and installation, indicating a simultaneous proliferation in art market interest and engagement with contemporary art and both Eastern European and international artists.
Of the three halls which make up the art fair, one is dedicated to the Projects section which includes a large-scale exhibition from the Lewben Art Foundation, a selection of videos from Videonale – Festival for Video and Time-Based Arts from Bonn, and an exhibition of past artist residents from Art and Education centre Rupert. Featuring work by Anna-Bella Papp, Miša Skalskis, Jenine Marsh, Andrea Zucchini, James Lewis and Anastasia Sosunova, Rupert’s exhibition revolves around the notion of materiality and individuality in architectural spaces, ‘as well as the mode of exhibition and spectatorship itself’. The exhibited works are mostly displayed on the floor, avoiding the purpose-built walls of the ‘booth’ synonymous with art fairs. Incorporating materials such as glass, plants, metal, flattened coins, clay, plaster and bronze, the works are tactile and share a fleeting, unstable quality, which is in contrast to the ‘object’ive nature of the majority of works displayed by participating galleries – whole, structured and saleable. Meticulously curated, Rupert’s offering is indicative of the institution itself, as a facilitator of collaborations between artists, researchers and curators, presenting a cohesive ‘exhibition’ in opposition to its functional context.
Videonale 16 originally took place at Kunstmusem Bonn earlier this year, with an exhibition of 43 moving image based works. A selection of 13 videos were presented at ArtVilnius, representative of this edition’s theme: PERFORM! Some works, such as Stefan Ramírez Pérez’s ‘As Much as Anyone’ (2016), in which he profiles three struggling actresses in Los Angeles, are a direct reference to the notion of performing as an artistic gesture, as sincere artifice. However, more interestingly, the majority of the works engage with the idea of performing as something that has come to dominate contemporary life – in the constant urge to optimise ourselves as economic and social subjects, to ‘present’ ourselves in an increasingly individualised society. Collectively, the festival investigates the paradoxical nature of performance and performing – in the demand to maintain an online presence, which is inherently external to reality, and the traditional interpretation of performance as a mode of liberation.
Lucy Pawlak’s film ‘We Eat the Earth / The Earth Eats Us’ (2016) presents six isolated ‘characters’, who dance, writhe or sit, semi-naked, set against a backdrop of stony, cavernous rubble in sweltering heat. The lives of these individuals are loosely, superficially interrelated: a ‘writer’ worships a ‘stripper’ while escaping his marriage through constant online sexual encounters, the ‘wife’ reflects on his infidelity from a position of seeming disinterest. The stories, each told through voiceover and introduced with character title pages that render them archetypal, weave together erotic fantasies and surreal narratives. Although solely driven by sexual urges, the monologues are devoid of intimacy, delivered with a dreamlike detachment, as though recanting and examining the remnants of hallucinations. Pawlak’s film presents a combination of fervent gratification, urgent consumption and detachment. It parallels communication technologies which are readily available, but which fail to establish real interpersonal contact. The result is a heady, lucid excess of ego and anxiety, with no space for it to capitulate.
In the neighbouring space, ArtVilnius’s exclusive partner, the Lewben Art Foundation present their exhibition ‘All These Beautiful Ladies’, featuring nine international female artists including Turner Prize winner Helen Marten and Katja Novitskova who is currently representing Estonia at the 57th Venice Biennale. Inspired by the recent birth of two girls into the foundation family, the exhibition was devised as a tribute to femininity, exploring its transformation into art – specifically, about ‘femininity rather than feminism.’ This refusal of the socio-political significance of the female voice and the female form comes in direct opposition to the recent wave of women’s protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration: ‘while it is true that many artists are reflecting this moment of social and political shake-up, the exhibition maintains a distance from such an interpretation.’ Instead, it aims to narrate the ‘doing art’ and ‘being the subject of art’ of selected female artists. Although attempting to celebrate important female artists, in reducing their significance to ‘being’ or ‘doing’ the exhibition strangely aligns itself with a history of woman as subject/object.
Set within this curatorial conceit, a GIF of a series of drawings by Tschabalala Self, ‘My Black Ass’ (2016) loops round and round. Self’s drawings, which feature exaggerated, bulbous red, yellow, blue, black, green or grey buttocks, sometimes drawn aside to reveal an arsehole, sometimes pushed to the forefront of the frame, are concerned with the iconographic significance of the black female body in contemporary culture, focusing on black body parts that have been particularly fantasised and fetishised. As Self’s drawings scroll rapidly, the female’s movements accrue a dance-like quality, a sense of control, evolution; as she moves she both ridicules and celebrates the fiction placed upon her. While Self’s work can be interpreted as an examination of blackness and femininity, to place it within a framework which consciously evades the potential protest and subversion within the artistic appropriation of the female body, by female artists, undermines her examination of collective fantasies and attitudes which surround the black female body. Her work cannot be condensed into ‘doing art’ as a female, without failing to acknowledge the specificity with which she works, in looking at the voyeuristic tendencies towards the gendered, ‘racialised’ body.
As ArtVilnius opened, on 8 June, the Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) also celebrated its 25th anniversary by inaugurating a brand new Sculpture Yard. In conjunction with the end of ArtVilnius, CAC hosted a preview of Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki’s exhibition ‘Labour in a Single Shot’ – a ‘21st century encyclopaedia’ which represents labour processes in fifteen countries over five continents. It is inevitable that there is a dislocation between art fairs and the contemporary art scene that surrounds it. However, the associations between ArtVilnius and the art institutions of the city, such as CAC, are increasing each year. It is these connections, however ‘associate’ with CAC, and venues such as Rupert, which allow the fair to transcend its statistics as the largest art fair in Eastern Europe, and present engaging contemporary artwork, performances and installations being produced in Lithuania and the Baltic States, as well as internationally.