I Miss Being Not Invited
Līga Marcinkeviča, Artist; Jana Kukaine, Art Critic
A conversation with Vita Zaman
Vita Zaman (born 1976 in Kaunas) is an artist of Lithuanian origin and the co-founder (together with Magnus Edensvard) of the gallery IBID Projects in London. Currently she is working as an independent artist. Zaman took part in one of the Survival Kit project discussions in Riga.

Vita Zaman: I have a dual identity. I used my real name Vytautė Kuzmickaitė to sign the poems I wrote as a teenager. At the age of 18, I moved across to visual art. I studied at the Ciurlionis Art School in Vilnius, then at Goldsmiths University in London, where I obtained a Master’s degree in photography and learned creative curating. At that time, my boyfriend and I established IBID Projects in order to realise a series of contemporary art projects in London, Vilnius and Stockholm. Later on he wanted IBID Projects to continue working as a gallery. Initially I agreed, but after three years I realised that it no longer interested me.

Studija: Why?
V.Z.: I didn’t have the time or opportunity to work on my own ideas. I wanted to use the gallery as a platform for creative work, for example by involving the gallery staff creatively as actors in my films. There was an idea not to hold any exhibitions at all for a while and to film a reality show in the gallery. I envisioned the place as a creative environment, but of course this was not compatible with the gallery’s commercial function. My boyfriend liked things to follow a set path, while I was overcome with an urge for rebellious and unusual ideas. I wasn’t interested in a normal gallery job. So I sold my share in IBID and my now ex-boyfriend became the sole owner of the gallery. Then I started travelling.

I have worked for ten years on my poetry book. It should have been released when I was 18, but it turned out that a longer period of time was needed to understand what the book should really be. In the end, the book’s status changed and it became a work of art for which I didn’t want to see a print run of thousands. It had to be published in 20 copies, it had to be handcrafted, and distribution had to be completely at my discretion: I would give it to those people who, in my opinion, deserved it. I want this book to be invisible, so that it’s hard to find. Currently we are assailed from all sides by publications and exhibitions, and there is a glut of artistic discourse. I am upset if I am not invited somewhere or left out of something. But at the same time I miss having an empty space where I could simply think and let everything pass me by.

Vita Zaman. Stills from the film 'Shanghai'. 2009
Studija: When was your first personal exhibition held?
V.Z.: In 2001, at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius. While I was working on it, I tried to avoid falling into the typical trap for young Lithuanian artists.

Studija: Which is what?
V.Z.: The trap for young Lithuanian artists is to become a national representative of your country, rather than resolving concrete issues or focussing on your chosen theme. I wanted to first position myself in an international context, and only then in the local. I think I managed this, even though, strictly speaking, my exhibition was very local. It was titled Kaunas Private View.

Studija: You have a wide experience of working with various media. Poetry, cinema, photography...
V.Z.: Yes, I have studied photography, but now I hate it. I really only enrolled to study because there was an interesting theoretical course on offer. At that time, the photography theory of Jacques Lacan hadn’t yet become so popular. The photos from my student period are dreadful and I didn’t show them to anyone for a long time. Now I’ve started working with them again, making collages. I really dislike it when photography competes with painting, when it becomes so monumental. At that time in London a whole school of photography was building up around Jeff Wall, but it didn’t attract me.

Studija: ... and your work experience also includes serving as a director of a gallery and a curator. Is it easier to be an artist or a curator?
V.Z.: A curator. If your exhibition consists of five artists, then you have at least five viewers. If you create something as an artist – and often you do it just because it’s what you have to do as an artist – at any moment you may hear a remark to the effect that what you are doing is useless. There will always be someone who says that society doesn’t need art. The truth is that society needs art, but doesn’t want it.

Studija: Do you think artists are subjected to this kind of criticism more than other creative professions?
V.Z.: Yes, because contemporary art must be understood in a precisely defined context and this requires study, being informed. For example, people from independent cinema are not as lonely as artists because they have large film crews.

Studija: Do you have a favourite artist?
V.Z.: My favourite artist? At the moment my favourite artist is Liam Gillick, because nobody can stand him. In the context of the national “Olympics”, the issue of his identity is very charming. His book has been on my bedside table for a few weeks now, and it fills everyone with disgust. I really liked the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was a highly analytical presentation, which is undoubtedly based in a totally different tradition of visual art. At the Biennale I also visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – the museum where I saw the Robert Rauchenberg exhibition of collages. Yes, I liked that. It made me think about an artist’s abilities. At that time, I had just finished filming ‘Shanghai’ and I felt exhausted and oversaturated, so I craved simple things.

Studija: How do you rate this year’s Venice Biennale as a whole?
V.Z.: I’ve stopped assessing it and I don’t attempt to discern any new artistic trends there. I always remind myself that the tradition behind the Venice Biennale is a celebration in honour of the Italian king and queen’s wedding. The Biennale is a summertime intellectual funfair. I don’t try to see it all, instead I seek out what really interests me. I appreciate the small pleasures of the Biennale much more than the big overview of the artistic landscape. I liked the fact that this year’s Biennale didn’t just feature major artists, but also names I hadn’t heard of.

Studija: Do you have any authorities you look up to?
V.Z.: Yes, many of them, but I try to avoid the situation where someone has too much influence on me. In my youth I was passionate about Joseph Beuys, until I realised that I liked him too much and that it’s too easy to fall in love with this romantic conceptualism. I started searching for small infatuations, rather than a single figure whose life and work I knew everything about and who would smother me in the end. I’m inspired by David Lynch and I still love Louise Bourgeois. I like Andy Warhol’s drawings which were signed by his mother – she had lovely handwriting.

Studija: Is the concept of beauty important today?
VZ: It’s an old fashioned concept, but so what? There are still very many beautiful things. Contemporary art pays more attention to the
world of ideas, but that moment when beauty lifts you out of the mundane is still very important. I recently watched Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ – it’s a very powerful and, in its own way, beautiful film.

Studija: What do you think about the lack of consensus about contemporary art, its definition and criteria?
V.Z.: The lack of consensus is great! There’s a battle of ideas. It’s what makes contemporary art different from, say, medieval art. On the one hand, we must get involved in this battle over meanings. On the other hand, perhaps the questions should be postponed for a while, because we cannot always formulate them correctly and the ques-tioning becomes skewed.

Studija: The description “conceptual art” is very popular in Latvia and Lithuania. It means that behind a work of art there must be some very deep meaning.
V.Z.: There has never been real modernism in Latvia or Lithuania. At present we are trying to compensate for our provincial art history. To be honest, many artists in Lithuania are terribly boring because they have nothing new to say, even if you label them as conceptual. At times it’s more reminiscent of social activism. If a work of art bedazzles me, I don’t care what it is – personal, strategic, conceptual or formal. It seems to me that in Lithuania people don’t read Western authors much – Robert Smithson, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Koshut – and so there is a lot of imitation.

Vita Zaman. View from the exhibition 'Urban Stories', X Baltic Triennial of International Art. 2009
Studija: You have a new work in this year’s Vilnius Triennale.
V.Z.: Yes, I’ve made a film called ‘Shanghai’ about the new business district of Vilnius on the Neris River embankment, which borders a [rundown] district of wooden houses with high unemployment and other social problems. The collision of these two worlds provided great script material: new and old, rich and poor, capitalists and outsiders. It turned out that it is cheaper to make a film in New York. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that? But it does look like the action takes place in Vilnius. Yes, this is proof that anything can look like anything else. I find the Lithuanian documentary film tradition tiring. I want fiction! I want to create my own truth. The film has two versions: one for the premiere, and the second in “soap opera” format, which will be screened at the Contemporary Art Centre.

Studija: Where are your works better received – in Lithuania, London or America?
V.Z.: For the moment my works aren’t accepted anywhere, because I’ve decided to wait and procrastinate. In this sense I am less a traditional artist, and more of a conceptual or strategic artist. I am neither a young nor a well-off artist. I’m more of a researcher. I have a private practice embracing many spheres of culture, and there is no one single thing that I devote all of my energies to. I choose uncertainty, and at the moment it is worth it. Furthermore, I don’t communicate with institutions, so I don’t know the “official” opinion about my works.

Studija: What do you think of feminism – are your works viewed in this context?
V.Z.: No, it hasn’t happened up to now, but feminism interests me, for example in the literary theories of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. True, I would never participate in an exhibition of feminist art. But it is impossible to completely avoid the designations “womanly” and “manly”, and I don’t try to do it. Together with my colleague, I travelled to India to shoot film, and two independent women in India undoubtedly spark socio-gender issues. I am convinced that women and men do watch and get carried away differently, that they use different strategies. For example, I like to draw girls dressed in various clothes – I did it as a child and still do it today. I use my own clothes in films. If I were a man, I would appear in my own films and work much more on performance, but a woman carries this super-long history of the body and art, it’s a tremendous load and I don’t want to get involved in all that. Yes, as a woman I avoid certain things, primarily classification. In reality, the film ‘Shanghai’ seems profoundly masculine to me. It contains a lot of sex and voyeurism. The actresses felt free and agreed to undress etc. I think to a large extent this feeling of ease was possible because I am a woman.

Studija: What does success mean to you?
V.Z.: To me, success is feeling a sense of childish delight when I work. One world ceases to exist, and a new one opens up in its place. It’s also important to me that people whom I respect appreciate my work. It is a given that my works will not be understood by society at large. In this sense I have no illusions. For example, when I was writing poetry I knew that it would be read by five people. Film is different. But I don’t try to explain anything. I do my work, no matter what. Some artists like Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hess worked in total isolation for years. And the greatest failure for an artist is to lose interest in your own work.

Studija: Where are you living now?
V.Z.: New York and Berlin.

Studija: Are those currently the creative centres of the world?
V.Z.: Right now, where you live isn’t very important any more. Your place of residence has been replaced by communication, conversations, information exchange. When I’m in Berlin, I hardly meet anyone. It’s not as if I avoid having a social life, it’s just that I hardly ever leave my studio. I live in the Moabit district, a poor but beautiful neighbourhood. Berlin is a good, inexpensive place to live and it is good from the creative perspective too, but the people there are a bit slow and there’s no critical squabbling. It’s like everyone lives on their own small island.

Studija: It seems that Berlin encourages you to be lazy. You drink cheap beer, and all is well.
V.Z.: Whereas in New York I am hyperactive. It’s an interesting place with interesting people. Energy pulses through the city. I also meet people from Berlin there. In Vilnius I feel very lonely, because there’s not much of a tradition to meet, discuss and criticise. Conversations in Vilnius move very slowly. Mumbai, Shanghai, the United Arab Emirates – those places have potential.

Studija: And the final – traditional – question: what are your plans?
V.Z.: I’m currently working on a remake of the Leni Riefenstahl film Das Blaue Licht. This film touches on issues that are important to me: the exotic, artistic ethics, love. The story revolves around a misunderstanding arising from a wrong translation. The action is set in the mountains, and I am planning to go there. What I cannot film, I will draw instead. In New York I met a musician, a professional performer of traditional Indian love songs. I’ve invited him to help develop the film’s soundtrack. Those are my plans for the winter! In addition to trying to survive, of course.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/

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