Eglė Rakauskaitė, The Trap. Expulsion from Paradise, 1995, photo courtesy of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art.

Try to Make It Real. But Compared to What? Contemporary Art from Lithuania.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow tackles a niche and fascinating issue of contemporary Lithuanian art. The exhibition aims to present the most significant tendencies and seminal figures of the art scene in this country.

Worth mentioning is that the exhibition in Kraków coincides perfectly with Vilnius’s 700th anniversary. The celebration offers an excellent opportunity to showcase what interests and occupies the minds of local artists. 

Curators of the exhibition, Jurgita Ludavičienė and Evaldas Stankevičius, decided to present Lithuanian art from various perspectives and highlight its inherent paradoxes, which provide a thematic framework for different subjects, techniques, regions and stories represented by displayed pieces. Cambridge Dictionary defines paradox as “a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.” This definition, which forms the basis of this exhibition, also stands as the primary selection criterion. 

Eglė Rakauskaitė, Hairy, 1994, photo courtesy of the artist.
Eglė Rakauskaitė, Hairy, 1994, photo courtesy of the artist.

Notably, the exhibition has nothing to do with a retrospective or survey. We view a selection of works: installations, objects, sculptures and videos that depict the last thirty years in the history of independent Lithuania. Another crucial aspect which lays the foundation for this exhibition is that most featured artists debuted in the early 1990s, namely in the first couple of years after Lithuania regained its independence. In this situation, they felt the pressure and incentive to use a unique language code based on the paradox that served as the intellectual and emotional key to coming to terms with the new reality.

As a result, the exhibition shows 27 artists who grapple with the situation in Lithuania and everyday reality. They make art in response to the post-soviet reality and the attempt to overcome the demons of their past in the entirely new socio-political reality of the “young” country, which has just become politically independent.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending this exhibition. I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with this subject before the visit. However, I was able to delve deeper into it owing to the assistance of Mirka Bałazy, a coordinator of the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow. Together, we followed the artworks that held a special meaning to Mirka and caught my attention. I based the selection for this article on the thematic thread.


Eglė Rakauskaitė’s “Last Meeting” opens the exhibition. The artist spray painted the stuffed animals that her son often placed on their couch to speak to/with onto a canvas hanging directly on the wall. These “gatherings” were hosted by the boy throughout his childhood. They were documented in the form of a painting, as the tradition of holding meetings and making speeches in front of toys slowly faded away with the boy growing out of it. To a certain extent, this kind of child’s play illustrates the social context of Lithuania in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a profoundly personal story about the social aspect of growing up in a country that struggled with political oppression for so long that it had to rebuild its position from the ground up.

Eglė Rakauskaitė, The Trap. Expulsion from Paradise, 1995, photo courtesy of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art.
Eglė Rakauskaitė, The Trap. Expulsion from Paradise, 1995, photo courtesy of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art.

The situation of an artist

What are Lithuanian artists like? What problems do they face? What do they have to say about themselves and their art? These are the questions that the series “Re-painted” by Eglė Karpavičiūtė attempts to answer. As part of it, the artist “places” her paintings in well-known museums and famous art galleries, creating fictional solo shows that utilise the concept of the image inside the image. The viewer deals with painterly non-reality, manipulation thereof, and wishful thinking. Selected institutions will never display these paintings. And therein lies the paradox. The artist uses painting as a documentary tool. She toys with her art and audience while being aware that the image will never come true and the audience will only understand her work in the context of a small Lithuanian art scene — stripped of any potential for display in the leading international art institutions.

The piece by Laura Garbštienė has a similar resonance. In 2009, she made a “Film About an Unknown Artist.” The script tells the story about her atonement for being an unrecognized artist from Lithuania. Her artistic journey is a punishment for the lack of notoriety and wasted talent. It also epitomises the issues of “young” art from this country. Laura Garbštienė and Eglė Karpavičiūtė comment on the difficult situation of female artists as well as the art market itself, which is still in its infancy and still gaining momentum. Both artists are aware of the fact that they will never experience the sweet taste of international success. Nevertheless, they are interested in making art in Lithuania, contributing to its growth and interest among their fellow citizens.

Juozas Laivys, Nuclear plant in Seda, 2011, photo courtesy of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art.
Juozas Laivys, Nuclear plant in Seda, 2011, photo courtesy of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art.

Genesis and the present

How to tell a story about the future without resorting to cliches and straightforward accounts? The pieces “Living Room” and “Shawl” by Nerijus Erminas offer an answer to this question. Sculptures, both created in 2016, utilise recycled materials. Fiberboard is an intrinsic element of the past, a component of the post-soviet unit furniture most likely used to stand in various living rooms. In the first piece mentioned, the object acquires the shape associated with the surrealist dream. Irrational forms or forms with an interchangeable function emerge from well-known objects. That is also the case in the “Shawl”, made not from a soft fabric but rather the hard wood of an old bench, which probably dates back to the Soviet era. Oneiric objects are enclosed in a modern form.

A similar subversion of form is one of the subjects of Andrius Erminas’s “Lace”. Here, he based a creative strategy on the metamorphosis of matter. Delicate clothing and lace tablecloths are made of an unsuitably unusual material. You reach out, expecting to touch something soft, and yet you stumble across a metal surface, merely simulating the lace. You encounter a paradox, an error, or a negation of your understanding of a particular object.

Andrius Erminas, From the Bodies series, 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.
Andrius Erminas, From the Bodies series, 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.


The enormous sculpture of Tony Soprano by Donatus Jankauskas (2009) tells the story of the social mentality. This gigantic figure symbolises the West. At that time, a TV station in Lithuania played reruns of “The Sopranos”, while Vilnius was named the European Capital of Culture. Paradoxically, the country was facing a severe financial crisis. Though seemingly humorous, the sculpture illustrates how Lithuanian society used to perceive the mythical West alongside its riches and wealth of potential for art, precisely what was missing in the country.

The oldest piece featured in the exhibit is “Suitcase” by Gediminas Urbonas from 1989. Made from granite, the sculpture is impractical and simply impossible to carry. It represents a burden parallel to the heaviness of experiences, history, political transformations, and armed conflicts people and artists had to deal with.

“Trap. Expulsion from Paradise” (1995) is the title of the piece created by Eglė Rakauskaitė, one of the most radical female artists from Lithuania who, in her works, aims to demonstrate a significance and need for social change in Lithuania. She’s particularly interested in the situation of women, equal rights, preventing discrimination and overcoming gender stereotypes, which make you feel uncomfortable like an oversized coat. All these subjects are mostly explored through socially engaged performance art. Here, she puts a significant emphasis on the situation of women in the changing reality. “Trap” provides an account of the artistic action involving a group of young women, all dressed in white and linked with their braids and ribbons. In addition, they wear oversized men’s coats draped over their shoulders. 

The piece “Euthanasia Coaster” by Julijonas Urbonas (2010), displayed in the vicinity, is a steel rollercoaster model used to entertain and induce joy. Combined with a device for shortening human life, it results in an experimental hybrid of a roller coaster and a machine used for euthanasia. This absurd idea had an interdisciplinary potential, inspiring, for instance, the single “Euthanasia Rollercoaster“ by the Norwegian band Major Parkinson.

Overall, the exhibition is an incredibly fascinating journey through contemporary Lithuanian art. It allows you to discover uncharted territories, often quite hermetic and intensely local. The development of contemporary art in Lithuania coincided with a difficult period in the country’s history. Turbulent political, economic and social transformations are the subjects addressed by featured artists. The first group comments on the role of an artist, their uneasy and particular predicament, as well as society’s perception of art and its meaning. Is there an art market, or is it just emerging? The second group of addressed subjects, which are still relevant, refers to history, the way it shapes societies and individuals, and how it manifests itself through art. As a result, the exhibition portrays the state of the art in the country, which is still working through its roots — problems arose from the political past and history. The artists try to speak about their complexes while reaching for the materials infused with nostalgia, the objects that used to be popular in the Soviet era, to create something new. Socially engaged pieces fighting for equal rights and a better start for society, artists included, also resonate strongly throughout the exhibit. This show is essential for multiple reasons. One of them is the fact that it encourages us to familiarise ourselves with the history of Lithuania and the social transformations that occurred in this country.

Written by Julita Deluga

Andrius Erminas, Lace (I), 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.
Andrius Erminas, Lace (I), 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.

Try to make it real. But compared to what?

Contemporary Art from Lithuania

Featured artists: Akvilė Anglickaitė, Andrius Erminas, Nerijus Erminas, Laura Garbštienė, Arūnas Gudaitis, Donatas Jankauskas, Vytenis Jankūnas, Eglė Karpavičiūtė, Žilvinas Kempinas, Juozas Laivys, Lina Lapelytė, Liudmila (Milda Januševičiūtė / Miša Skalskis), Mindaugas Lukošaitis, Gintaras Makarevičius, Aurelija Maknytė, Alina Melnikova, Pakui Hardware (Ugnius Gelguda / Neringa Černiauskaitė), Eglė Rakauskaitė, Eglė Ridikaitė, Anastasia Sosunova, Rūta Spelskytė, Gintautas Trimakas, Gediminas Urbonas, Julijonas Urbonas, Vita Zaman.

27.10.2023 – 10.03.2024

Curators: Evaldas Stankevičius, Jurgita Ludavičienė
Co-ordinator: Mirosława Bałazy

MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow
ul. Lipowa 4, 30-702 Krakow


Andrius Erminas, Lace (II), 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.
Andrius Erminas, Lace (II), 2018, photo courtesy of the artist.

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