For the 11th edition of the Baltic Triennial of International Art, Kestutis Kuizinas, the director of its founding institution, the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius, chose to depart from the traditional exhibition format. Instead, he invited curators Defne Ayas and Benjamin Cook to develop a programme focused entirely on performances and films. Together with artists Ieva Misevičiūtė and Michael Portnoy, they renamed it the ‘Mindaugas Triennial’, and concentrated the exhibition into a 12-day event channelled through the fictional identity of a single person.
The curators chose Lithuanian actor Darius Gumauskas to be a medium conveying the ideas of the invited artists; he adopted the common Lithuanian name ‘Mindaugas’, and opened himself up to the their instructions. During the day, Mindaugas lent his body and mind to 13 participants of the triennial’s day programme, re-enacting their scripts and scenarios, which formed a set of art works conceived for the occasion, in various areas within CAC and around the city. In the evenings, when Mindaugas was asleep, his ‘dreams’ were projected as live performances by another group of artists. They were staged at Charismateria, a black box theatre space specially constructed in CAC’s main exhibition hall.
The triennial was inaugurated with Portnoy’s performance 100 Big Entrances (a customized version of his 180 Big Entrances from 2010). For this work, Portnoy gave Mindaugas a set of instructions on how to enter the stage, oscillating between basic theatrical tasks (‘Make a big entrance / Make a bigger entrance’) and more abstract and challenging ones (‘Enter with a mixture of ferociousness, para-ferociousness, and para-volitional ferromagnetism’). Mindaugas patiently fulfilled the director’s wishes, giving a wide overview of his professional skills.
Portnoy’s piece was followed by Alexandra Bachzetsis’s charismatic live performance, marking another interpretational thread of the triennial: the process of construction of an individual self. In A Piece Danced Alone (2011–12), Bachzetsis and another performer embarked on a series of monologues and dance routines employing gestures and movements drawn from stereotypes, clichés and pop culture as tools in the creation of their stage identities. A similar idea provided the conceptual framework for ‘The Cinema of the Self’, an eight-hour film programme curated by Cook and which repeated daily. It consisted of works revolving around the concept of selfhood and its representations by eight artists including Ed Atkins, Eric Baudelaire and Rania Stephan.
If notions of identity and construction of the self were at stake in the curatorial concept, then Mindaugas’s behaviour provided an interesting testing ground for the practical side of that theory. Often described by the organizers as an ‘empty vessel’, Mindaugas’s figure was conceived as a neutral channel for the communication of artistic ideas. But, over time, the actor’s performance of the artists’ instructions became less disciplined, as he began to personalize each work. The first moments of his insubordination already manifested themselves on the third day of the event during Incubatio (2012) by Asli Çavșoğlu. Inspired by the rituals of an extinct tribe of Khazars, the piece was an intriguing attempt at a public reading of Mindaugas’s dreams. Unexpectedly, Mindaugas rebelled and departed from Çavșoğlu’s instructions, imposing his own narration onto the artist’s script. Despite all of his common characteristics – average posture, ordinary clothes and the most common name – Mindaugas’s ego took over: he started sharing personal memories and anecdotes, compromising the original concept. Although this subversive act undermined the art work in a rather unfortunate way, it tackled an important question: does the ‘average’ participant (and, by analogy, the average viewer) exist, or is it just a theoretical construct? Isn’t the empty vessel already more than half full?
Lost in an improvised translation and unable to follow the interrupted plot of the oneiric Incubatio, I directed my attention towards the crowd, which had gathered on a chilly Sunday morning in Jeruzalė Sculpture Garden. The Utopian enclave, housing the works and studios of local avant-garde artists, was full of people whose faces I recognized from previous days. Judging from their determination to visit the remote park at 7:30am, it was highly probable that they would reappear to witness the next events.
My trip ended before the live programme of the triennial concluded, so the assumption that it remained surprising and uneven is only a guess. Its formula provided a pretext for a common experience extended throughout the almost two-week period. International visitors were welcomed, yet it seemed that in Vilnius the importance of the local overshadowed the global, at least when it came to the public. The idea of regular gatherings around art found its subtle articulation in Mark Aerial Waller’s soap-opera-like series, shot and screened daily in situ at CAC. Its fictional plot was interwoven in the texture of the triennial’s actual events and its title, Time Together. A Film in 12 Episodes (2012) could be read as a telling motto.
The 11th Baltic Triennial could be seen as a refusal to fill CAC’s building with an exhibition bigger and better than its previous editions. Instead, its organizers chose to generate a brief moment of suspense before the autumn season, which features a show of choreographic work by Annie Vigier and Franck Apertet, and a newly launched cinema space with a regular film programme. It seems that ‘Mindaugas Triennial’, despite its temporary nature, was thoughtfully planned as an event leaving a longer-term legacy in its local context.