I wrote this text in Lithuanian and English for the book of the exhibition Generation of the Place: Image, Memory and Fiction in the Baltics, curated by my good friend Vytautas Michelkevičius, which was first presented in Tallin, Estonia, and has recently been put on display in Kaunas, Lithuania. You can buy the book via Artbooks.lt. Some of the works mentioned in the text are at the bottom of the post. Here is a preview of the book.
Perhaps each fin de siècle generation is doomed to be strange and particularly problematic. Think, for instance, of the “Lost Generation” of American and European intellectuals who had been born in the late 19th century, came of age during the years of WWI, and became disillusioned with Western civilisation as the war ended (Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erich Maria Remark, and others). I’m not sure if one can call my own generation – those born between the late 1970s and the middle of the 1980s, who were growing up in the last decade of the Soviet era, matured in the first decade of the Baltics’ newly restored independence, were finally ready for adult life in the beginning of the new millennium, and have accumulated quite a bit of experience ten years later – “lost”, yet we have our own things that we have grown disillusioned with over the years. But we have also discovered many things that belong solely to us, because we understand them like nobody else. Thus, we constantly drift between discontent and enjoyment, as well as between other things – home and emigration, sedentary and nomadic lifestyle, localism and globalism, metropolitan and provincial settings, idealism and nihilism, participation and seclusion, philosophy and parties, celebration and routine, significance and vanity, asceticism and hedonism, respect for cult figures and mistrust of the latter, Soviet childhood and Western present (or future?). The experience of our lives, all those turning points that have shaped our more or less collective identity, has taught us that one should never ever stick to one position, mentality or ideology for all times, because everything passes and changes, but one must take the most from what is presently at hand, and examine one’s location and surrounding reality in the most meticulous possible way. “Nothing is self-evident and everlasting” – here is the true motto of our generation. It is this ambiguous relationship with reality – or, rather, place in reality – that I want to write about in order to make the portrait of my generation at least somewhat clearer.
As photography has been our faithful companion since our infancy (our parents, as was common at the time, passionately captured our first days and our ensuing childhood with the help of amateur analogue cameras, and printed quickly fading photographs in dark bathrooms by hand), it is often our medium of choice when it comes to self-expression, and we see in it the mirror reflection of our generation. Indeed, it seems that it was precisely these late-Soviet period childhood photos, taken at home or in photography ateliers, that had laid the foundation for our generation’s vague sense of unity. We all look alike in these shots – the same situations and compositions, the same toys and costumes at the New Year’s Eve celebration in the kindergarten, the same colours, poses and facial expressions. This fundamental deficit of the variety of experiences, which defines Soviet reality, appears to convince us that we are all from the same place, that space of faded colours which we barely remember without the help of photographs. Yet times have changed, the old ideology has collapsed, the initial optimism of the early Independence (together with our teen naivety) has evaporated, and the new “post-ideological” world’s answers to our questions are unsatisfactory, therefore we have to reflect on our situation ourselves – by creating photography that is completely different from the one our parents, who lived in the “socialist paradise”, created, or the one that those younger than us, who have been growing up in a totally different environment, create today. This is exactly what the artists brought together by the project Generation of the Place do.
For some of them, photography is, first of all, a way to make sure that they still remember – remember the things that are no more, things that are preserved only in their memory and, partly, in the material artefacts of the bygone epoch (photographs, buildings, interiors, things stored in boxrooms and closets). We do remember a lot of things that those born in the very end of the 1980s or after the restoration of the Baltic states’ independence don’t. For them it is a reality they never experienced, words without any personal relevance, repeated over and over by politicians and columnists. For us it is one of the experiences that constitute who we are, which sometimes haunts us, and which we can never erase, thereby succumbing to cultural amnesia (yet this inability to forget is in no way a form of nostalgia). Isn’t that strange: a difference in age of several years is enough to prevent one from finding a common language with another person while talking about certain things. Yet such is the reality of memory. We are what we remember. And even though we share the same physical (and, in many cases, cultural) space with the generation that succeeded us, there are spheres where we remain mute and will probably never be able to adequately convey to them what we know about the world. Can photography be of any help in trying to express this territory of our memory and tell the younger ones about it (after all, they seem to be conditioned to consuming visual information even more than we are)? The Latvian Arnis Balčus demonstrates, in his series Amnesia, that photography, too, is powerless here – it can convincingly simulate external visual forms, yet this imagery will probably look like a Soviet theme park or a cabinet of curiosities to those who do not have the experience that can be recognised in the images in the first place. The images are fun to look at, just like all those nonsensical, odd or humorous pictures that today’s Internet is crammed with, but they do not evoke anything in those who do not belong to the tribe that can be called “born in the USSR”.
Because our memory itself is a “strange place”, we constantly feel attracted to and intrigued by all kinds of strange places and situations, conspiracy theories and urban legends, Twin Peaks, outsider art, reclusive communes and secret societies, obscure musicians and filmmakers, shady parts of the city, districts that seem to be frozen in time, and so on. One could say we always “have visions” – like, for instance, Robertas Narkus and Milda Zabarauskaitė “have a vision” of someone trying to communicate with them through reflections and flares in windows. This trait is peculiar to our generation – to see more than is visible at first sight, to see a possible weird story everywhere. We love places that seem to those older or younger than us unattractive, unnecessary, obsolete, incompatible with the contemporary economic logic, which postulates that everything must turn into a profitable industry and be functionally adjusted to the needs of the global economy. It can be a neighbourhood of old wooden shanties that has miraculously managed to survive beside a business conglomerate, which reaches the Olympus of success with its high rise buildings, an abandoned sand pit with derelict rusty machines that resemble prehistoric creatures, or simply a place in the middle of nowhere, strange precisely because it has no properties whatsoever, like that unremarkable farmstead in Kaspars Podnieks’ Unusual Place. We are sceptical when we hear that some abandoned, or outmoded but still functioning object – for instance, a Soviet Brutalist cinema building in central Vilnius, or the former Kreenholm textile factory in Marge Monko’s photographs – is of no value solely because it is associated with a certain epoch or political regime. Even the dull suburban apartment blocks, another relic of the Soviet era, fascinate us – as a utopia that never came true and a place stuck between different realities. It is possible that Rimas Sakalauskas’ video work Synchronisation expresses our subconscious belief that something extraordinary can still happen there.
Yet artists who belong to this generation never forget that photography itself is capable of “defamiliarizing” a place. Does something appear strange and unfamiliar to use because it really is like that or only because it comes to us in the form of an image (a phantom) and resembles other images whose code we already know and have learned to respond to in a particular way? This is a question that never ceases to haunt us. Another fundamental contradiction: we believe in photography and absolutely distrust it. We cannot imagine our lives without it, but we hate it for the fact that it prevents us from experiencing anything directly, bypassing the screen of the image and fantasy – both our own selves and the external world. For instance, we experience the tragic accidents that occur somewhere near us every day as mute, enigmatic, abstract and entirely unillustrative images accompanying equally laconic and uninformative texts in the crime and accidents sections of newspapers and news websites – Ugnius Gelguda’s Crimescapes demonstrate precisely that. These uncanny landscapes depict non-places, which could be located anywhere and where anything might happen. Death has been stripped of its tragic aspect – it has become just another strange mystical event that follows dream logic.
I have already mentioned that we fail to convey our strange worldview to the younger generation. What about our parents’ generation? After all, they went through most of the same turning points that we did. Their response to them, however, was and remains completely different from ours. They, too, remember the Soviet past, but their memories have a strong scent of nostalgia and disillusionment with the present – this internal gap always emerges in conversations with people of this cohort. If anyone deserves the title of a “lost generation”, it is them – the people who were in their thirties and forties when the Socialist system collapsed. Many of them are convinced that they have no place in the new system, and thus have to take advantage of whatever means available to survive in it. We also do not think that someone owes us something merely because of the fact that we exist, but our survival strategies are not so nihilistic, cynical and openly opportunistic, when one acknowledges that something important has been irreversibly lost in the process of making compromises with oneself, but “that’s the way life is” (this kind of logic also seems to be widespread among enterprising middle-aged creative professionals who failed to make a proper career in the art world in their better days, and thus always hang around in its periphery today). We do certain unexciting things to afford doing the things we really enjoy and cherish (for instance, we photograph weddings or write PR texts in order to be able to work on conceptual photography works and novels); meanwhile, in their world many do not even imagine that such luxury as doing something one really loves is possible. From their perspective, wasting time thinking about all those curiosities that perpetually intrigue us is unthinkable luxury too, because it has no practical use.
Speaking about the place, for us it is an object of endless exploration, which needs to be constantly rediscovered, always in a different location. For our parents’ generation it performs a stabilising and defensive function. A place can be “native” or “foreign”; likewise, an individual in a certain place can be a “native” or a “stranger”. The latter always exceed the former in number. The “stranger” is always looming on the horizon of one’s “native” landscape. It is necessary to consolidate around the “native” place in order to prevent the “stranger” from appropriating it either physically or symbolically. But our generation, in addition to remembering the selective Soviet internationalism, has also had the change to directly experience the advantages of contemporary globalism or, rather, glocalism, travelling to places that our parents saw only in geography atlases or on the TV screen, and finding something congenial in each of these places and their inhabitants. For this reason, we respond to the older generation’s fear of the insidious mythical enemy in our yard, the media, the state apparatus, or on the horizon much like Tadas Šarūnas in his series Stormtrooper.
And when we attempt to open up to our parents and their generations, to reveal our stories and visions to them, we feel embarrassed – like in Sigrid Viir’s photographs in which she is portrayed nude with nude parents. This nudity does not bring about openness and mutual understanding; on the opposite, it compels us to maintain psychological distance in order to avoid the unpleasant encounter, which would only reinforce the insurmountable difference instead of helping us understand each other. Isn’t this metaphorical situation familiar to almost every one of us? It is much easier to “get naked” before our peers than in front of our parents. In many of us the late-Soviet and post-Soviet upbringing has imprinted a notion that an open conversation with parents on physiological and metaphysical matters is indeed an uncomfortable situation. On the contrary, speaking about everyday stuff that is “the same for everybody” performs the function of “clothes” and makes anxiety go away. As long as we continue a casual conversation, we are not nude in front of each other, and it appears that we share a common language.
Nevertheless, everything said above does not mean that we who belong to the same generation stand united always and everywhere, and that we find a common language among ourselves in all situations. On the contrary – there are numerous differences between us; we are divided by many disagreements between various groups and subcultures. Our generation, the first one to face real freedom of choice, undertook to try everything, and thus the range of identities and forms of expression we choose is enormous. The places where we grew up and live today are of great significance too. We are deeply site-specific. It is impossible to define us with a slogan like “My address is not a house or a street, my address is the Soviet Union” (which is a line from a pop song that almost everyone knew by heart in the USSR). The turning point that, in many ways, defined who we are now, took place in a slightly different way in each city and town. There can also be no unified, common map of important places and events – only a multitude of different, fragmentary personal maps, which sometimes – and this is another risk that is characteristic of our generation – can be incomprehensible to anyone other than their authors. Such is Krista Mölder’s photographic map – fairly abstract and uninformative for an uninitiated “traveller”.
Unity is something we are preoccupied with – we experiment with community action platforms, create long-term and short-term real and virtual communities, and admire various idealistic communes. Yet there always remains something that prevents us from fully identifying with each other. We long for being together in theory and fear genuine affinity in reality. Every one of us generates his or her own strange place, a personal virtuality consisting of remembered bits of the past, individual fantasies and present experiences, and these places often fail to converge in space. Our generation is the one that doubts the validity of the very concept of generations most often. Because of this we will probably never become a truly political generation. We can only engage in individual ad hoc micro-political manoeuvres, which are a form of a here-and-now reaction to reality rather than a long-term strategy – and this is what the artists who belong to the “generation of the place” do in their works.