in Profiles | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

Home Truths

Deimantas Narkevicius

in Profiles | 01 JAN 03

How do you portray a historical crisis? That is the key question posed by the artist's work. The crisis he explores is one that has arisen from the changes his home country, Lithuania, is currently undergoing. Like other members of the former Soviet bloc, Lithuania is in a state of transition. For Narkevic?ius this situation embodies a crucial paradox: although the present developments are historically significant, history itself is out of joint. They do not form part of a consistent chain of events; the terms of reference are missing. No single incident can be identified as the cause of the crisis, and nor is there any sign that it is building to a cathartic culmination. People will tell you that the current upheavals were triggered by the fall of the Berlin wall and that the country's destiny now lies within Europe. But what, if anything, does that mean? The search for a historical perspective from which to assess his country's present and future is thus at the heart of Narkevic?ius' project, which continuously scrutinizes images and forms of narrative for their potential to create a shared history out of personal memories. The fragmented accounts he proposes, however, do not offer any easy solutions; instead, they serve to heighten an awareness of the problems of documentation. Europe 54° 54´ - 25° 19´ (1997) is Narkevicius' first film, although in his previous sculptural work he had already used modified ready-made objects to address issues of memory and commemoration. 1 The film deals with the fantasy of 'Europe as destiny'. It starts with shots of Vilnius taken from the window of a moving car bound for the city's outskirts. In the voice-over Narkevicius announces in a solemn voice that after years of travelling around the continent he has finally found out that the geographical centre of Europe actually lies just outside the Lithuanian capital. As the cameraman rigorously ploughs his way through a small forest the tension rises, but this centre turns out in the closing shot to be a nondescript patch of grass - complete with a plaque marking the spot. Narkevicius' dry humour exposes the concept of Europe as a mirage. Above all, though, the film is a reflection on a specific tradition of reportage. During the early days of Lithuanian television in the 1960s it was common to send out a film crew with a 16mm camera to shoot some stock footage. At the end of the day this would be given a commentary and broadcast virtually unedited. The result very often was a disjunctive, at times even anarchic, combination of word and image. Produced with old Soviet equipment, Europe 54° 54´ - 25° 19´ is like a gentle mockery of these old-fashioned newsreels, a piece of reportage covering a local issue but without containing a single newsworthy event. Yet this lack of any spectacular finale reinforces the film's unsettling revelation that the actual centre of Europe is empty. The sense of unease is heightened by the disjunctions in Narkevicius' montage of image and commentary: what you hear (biographical reflections about travelling) does not always match what you see (images of the narrator's home town). It is in the interstice between the visible and the audible that the meaning of the film takes shape. This montage technique is used more radically in Legend Coming True (1999). 2 The preamble to the film begins with a black screen, but a girl's voice can be heard narrating the legend of how Vilnius was founded. Her image is shown briefly, then the screen goes dark again and we hear an elderly woman talking in Russian with a Yiddish accent. Her name is Fania. She has lived in Vilnius since 1927 and is one of the very few survivors of the eradication of the Jewish ghetto and the murder of its 20,000 inhabitants. Fania's monologue takes more than an hour to unfold in a soft, unstinting flow of words. Detailed memories of everyday life are interwoven with an account of her struggle in the resistance movement and her flight to a partisan camp in the country. At a visual level the film presents images of just four locations: the street where Fania grew up, her school, the former ghetto and the marshes where the partisans hid. All the shots are taken with a fixed camera, set to record one frame every minute over a 24-hour period. As each shot begins before dawn and ends after sunset, the screen lights up at daybreak to reveal the location and then goes dark again (14 minutes later) at dusk. Blurry shadows of passers-by are the only traces of human presence. Fania's face is never shown. The film ends with the image of another woman, Chasia Spannerflieg, singing a Jewish resistance song. Not to show the face of the narrator could be seen as a critique of the conventions of contemporary documentary film, where close-ups of 'talking heads' are regularly used to provide a form of authenticity. This scrutiny of the speaker's features is a proof of the truth of what they are saying, which often leads to a form of victimization. (It is, for instance, a common cliché to portray the 'face of the East' as one marked by hardship and alcoholism.) Narkevicius rigorously avoids any such simplistic projections. Instead of trying to give positive evidence he approaches history by evoking a sense of loss, the feeling that it is impossible to show the essence of what needs to be shown. In this sense the images of Legend Coming True are no more than deserted stage sets around which the voice of the narrator resonates. Somewhere between what we hear and what we see, history is brought to life through the viewer's imagination. Even so, it emerges only as a series of absences: the demise of the Soviet bloc spurred the desire to reconstruct the lost identity of Lithuania, only to be confronted in turn with the disappearance of the Jewish population from Lithuanian history in the Holocaust. And this is where the political thrust of the film lies. The official language used to reassess the country's past has turned the Holocaust (and the Lithuanian participation in it) into a taboo. This is where Narkevicius intervenes to reopen the debate. Another investigation of the official language used to discuss the nation's history is at the heart of Narkevicius' most recent work, Kaimietis (Countryman, 2002). In October last year the 16mm film (presented as a 19 minute loop) was premièred at the Kunstverein in Munich. 3 It opens with a wide-angle establishing shot of Vilnius, followed immediately by a close-up of a bronze bust in a conventional Social Realist style. While the camera's gaze rests on the heroic features of the sculpted face, in a voice-over the sculptor recounts how, not long ago, he was commissioned by the state to design this monument to Lithuanian partisan Jonas Zemaitis Vytautas, who fought the Russian occupiers until his execution in 1949. In the sequence that follows, the sculptor's face is rendered as a classical drawing. His protruding lips are animated as he speaks about current living conditions in Lithuania. Disillusioned, he claims that the bare necessities of economic survival leave no room for discussion of the past or a vision of the future. Then a series of still frames show a young woman, while in another voice-over we hear her describing how, although she has now emigrated, Lithuanian remains the only language in which she can articulate her memories and most private feelings. In the final sequence the camera slowly pans over the rooftops of Vilnius, over deserted backyards and empty buildings - as the music from a dramatic passage of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin (1850) builds to a booming climax. The sculptor's words throw the political dilemma into relief. The government is seeking to transform society to meet the demands of capitalism and, at the same time, to construct a new national identity from the fragments of a past before socialism. As the breathless pace of economic change leaves no time for the discussion of history, however, the state falls back on the rhetoric of heroism inherited from Soviet times. The result is paradoxical: the memorial to the anti-Soviet resistance hero is in the Soviet idiom par excellence. The pathos of heroism is used to veil the loss of history through simulacra of historicity. But Kaimietis goes beyond this critique of official representative politics. It calls for alternatives. The young expatriate woman emerges as the spokesperson of a new generation, yet her experience of simultaneous estrangement from and attachment to her home country is portrayed as personal. The question Narkevicius seems to ask is: can her experience become representative and, if so, what words and images could be found to represent it? With this question hanging in the air, the chasm of an absent history is opened up again by the incongruity of the thundering pathos of Wagnerian music and the silent historicity inscribed into the architecture of Vilnius. Just like the empty signifier of the partisan bust, the empty city site points to the fact that the task of forging a link between past and present remains to be undertaken. Narkevicius thus portrays the post-Soviet condition as a crisis of history from which a manifold of new histories may emerge.

1. The film was also presented at 'Manifesta 2', Luxembourg, 1998, together with the film His-story (1998). 2. Shown in the Lithuanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 together with the film Energy Lithuania (2000) and the installation Feast - Calamity (2001). 3. The exhibition at the Kunstverein Munich was curated by Narkevicius and featured works by Mindaugas Simkus and Peter Watkins.