Vytautas V. Stanionis. Lithuania. Images of Farewell
2003–2004 m. kelionių po Lietuvą fotografijos
Menininkų sambūris „Erdvės“
The publication was supported by
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania
Fund for Support of Culture
Alytus City Municipality
Governor Administration of Alytus Conty
designer Vytautas V. Stanionis
text, translation Agnė Narušytė
Between Emptiness and Emptiness
Square images replace one another monotonously, but there are not many differences in them: a corner of a building, a pole, a village street, a shop, a tree, a man passes-by. Each represents inhospitable, untended and long forgotten outskirts of Lithuanian province. There is nothing we have not seen before in them, nothing special – nothing worth photographing. Yet Vytautas V.Stanionis photographs. And thus he makes us wonder: what is the true object of the series Lithuania. Images of Farewell? What does he bid farewell to? Perhaps, to lop-sided roadside poles, recently re-painted with black and white stripes? Perhaps, to the idea to erect a statue of an ‘ordinary woman’ in an important, but abandoned town square? Perhaps, to a Soviet rubbish bin, reminiscent of a vase? Or, perhaps, to a toy-rocket with an orange top? And why does he bid farewell at all?
These objects – buildings, advertisements and other things – stand out in the grey landscape of small towns thanks to their bright colour. Colour burns the feeling of mourning into the indifference of everyday. It also separates Stanionis’s images from the aesthetics of boredom that emerged during the Soviet period in Lithuania (Vytautas Balčytis, Alfonsas Budvytis, Remigijus Pačėsa, Algirdas Šeškus and others); the later was heavily grey; morose sadness was oozing through the darkness of overdeveloped photographs and the mist of melancholy. Stanionis’s world is colourful, even bright, and therefore ‘realistic’: he hides moods and seems to show objects in an objective manner. Yet colours are deceptive: happy colours cover decrepit buildings that have not been used for a long time; as if it were a deplorable attempt not to forget, to preserve, to keep. Colour is a sign of an effort to survive, an infinitely naļve effort. The colour of mundane things of province is an unknown other, smiling on a typically cloudy day.
By photographing Stanionis bids farewell because all these strangely colourful things are disappearing now; they are being changed slowly by the grey self-discipline of the globalised world. The straightforward, truthful sign ‘shop’ above the doors of shops will no longer be there; its place will be taken over by uniform logos of retail chains. Everything will be renovated and neat, sometimes even sterile. Colours will be carefully chosen by commercial managers and designers: functional, representative and smoothly painted on new, and not on decrepit surfaces. The photographer parts with the life of the past; the traces of past creativity remain in these roughly painted things and their grey background. He bids farewell to the truth and reality of the past, which are perceivable only through imperfection. He photographs buildings in such a way as if his eye was only side-slipping them because we should be looking not so much at architecture, but at the life-style that has produced it and no longer exists; it only has survived in the smell of a passing-by villager’s clothes, rarely washed and permeated with the smell of tobacco. The colourful shining of things is fragile; their paint is already pealing off; it is very difficult to capture the remains of the life that has passed; it is very difficult to withhold it in order to examine it carefully. Thus, colour performs another function: it hides the life of the past and tries to adapt it to the present, but its efforts are pathetic…
However, if Stanionis looks rather not at, but through things, I have been only walking in circles until this moment. Things are not the true object of his photographs; they are only there to capture the eye. The true object is the space or, more precisely – emptiness present in the form of pavement or the street in the foreground, increasing the distance between us and what the photographer has seen. Physical distance means also emotional withdrawal, a self-inflicted detachment when parting. Yet this is still the simple reading of the visual discourse of photographs. Emptiness offers more readings; it affects us. By giving so much room to it, the photographer shows how emptiness has penetrated the life he observes; it is emptiness that pushes it to the past, freezes the space of the square, consuming everything around. The worn out, uneven concrete of pavements or the bumpy asphalt of rural streets are like a nondescript lid under which painful memories have been buried as well as the previous life of Lithuania, marked by terror and occupation. Surely, it was no better than the present one, but it is dear in its own way, like all things that no longer exist. Established in the centre of photographs, emptiness pushes all other elements to the edges, destroys the order of the square and destabilises the passivity of provincial existence.
This dynamics of emptiness creates the discourse of parting. This is not the emptiness where something emerges in an unarticulated void that cannot be expressed in words or represented. Emptiness that has flooded Lithuanian province is a barrier; our thoughts bump into its concrete painfully. It is wordless, signless and unprotected; its heavy silence infects the whole image. It seems the photographer’s conclusion is quite sombre: when the life of the past withdraws, there is nothing left. Concrete is heavy and lifeless. In some photographs it seems to be encompassing the entire image, and a passer-by leaves never to look back.
Yet even this dark interpretation does not express the power of emptiness that separates, compresses and destroys objects. However, texts simplify images. In fact, the links among figures noticed by Stanionis and arranged into a photograph are irrational and intuitive. He promises to himself: “To photograph what cannot be explained in words. Where a verbal explanation suggests itself – not to photograph.” And he keeps this promise. Of course, we could say that, for instance, by juxtaposing a statue of a girl with a chimney of a factory in the distance he hints at subjects discussed in gender studies (the phallus of industry penetrating natural femininity), yet there are only few such signs. The links among the objects cannot be explained; we can only try and listen to the wordless dialogue of a green bench, blue bin, entangled railways, tree trunks painted in white and the boredom of everydayness at a bus stop in Kazlų Rūda. When people appear in such spaces sometimes, they only confirm that the towns are still inhabited, that the past has not completely passed. Without these figures sitting or passing-by (what else could they do in the street?) these would be not images of life, but rather of a museum.
Thus, what Vytautas V. Stanionis is looking at? It seems to be obvious; it seems there is nothing to add to the image: it aims to capture what is going to disappear – the usual mission of photography. Yet through repetition emptiness establishes gaps in which we can sense the presence of something more important. Something like being. These photographs are not only historical documents, but also existential experiences. They capture existence like air.
Advertisements, large and small; temporary constructions, big and tiny, and all kinds of sheds – a temporary and fragile condition; the itinerant tomorrow of Lithuania. The excitement of change led me to the journey in spring 2003. My desire to photograph Lithuania was very strong. When I started I already knew that these would be Images of Farewell and I was burning with desire to photograph; some moods of those days have survived in my diary.
Saturday, April 26
The rusty arched warehouse in Trakų Vokė is beautiful because of its colours and destiny that has scraped through the tin, the bricks, the glass, has changed its appearance and made it age before its time. I avoid the front point of view, unnecessary details. I want a very open approach to this huge thing. I want to penetrate its life. I have to move the composition at the manor, although slightly, towards a fault. Even if imperceptively, but to present the relationships between things differently. The leaning can be indirect; life itself can be oblique. All huts in Aukštadvaris are very beautiful; I only have to find that insignificant, moderate disturbance in the composition. And you can‘t do without intuition here because otherwise everything will be too correct, straightforward and dull.
Monday, April 27
In Krokialaukis, the evening sun paints in rich colours the composition of the crossroads with poles, wires, fences and grass... A landscape with signs of presence and decay. There are plenty of those; all the view is saturated with them, but I want to compose subtly, so that some foreground or harsh colour would not cry out.
Sunday, May 11
The gloomy sky and the irksome green of spring disturb my photographing in Jieznas and Prienai on Sunday. Yet I still believe that I should continue photographing. I feel that we will miss these views terribly after some ten years when the standards of European wellbeing will be a usual thing here – in the Lithuania of potato planters and pilgrims.
Tuesday, June 31
My eyes are searching for views constantly. For some fraction of a second my brain records the situation at the bus station. The composition of people passing on the pavement flashes through the window of my microbus. The view cannot take hold in my memory. Only a flash. Only a presentiment that it contains everything I search for. Perhaps it is hidden; perhaps it appears timidly, perhaps not everyday, but it is there.
Friday, July 4
The large-format camera is more rational. I have to save the film; therefore I check the view in Vabalninkas market very carefully. Women selling second-hand clothes are worried as usual, but Lora, who makes communication easer, is nearby, and the women calm down quickly, and I can work freely. There are plenty of houses in Vabalninkas that have sunken into the ground, oblique and rickety, with tiny windows. A true museum. I have to select carefully, and one cannot make a single step without intuition here. The midday sun hinders photographing. Later the rain brings a different energy to the slow pace of the town. I‘ll have to return to Vabalninkas in autumn, at least for the house with a blue cross. And it‘s not necessary to return to Pasvalys. When the day is drawing to the close Lora and I are walking around the town; I am photographing this and that, but not that and not in the right way... Two large colour films are enough for a creative day. The black-and-white film is at hand, but on it only Loreta, awaken from sleep in the car, looks beautiful and existential when it‘s raining.
Sunday, July 6
In Soviet times a Board of Honour was built from bricks in Pandėlys. Like an altar in the square. Diligent and trustworthy people were supposed to increase diligence and trustworthiness through their own example. Therefore, they had a place allocated to them on the altar. To save the money this structure has become a notice-board now – with a new title: Information. This metamorphosis is so miraculous that I have almost no doubt over central composition. Straight to the point. The dying Panemunėlis in three shots is already a wasteland, but there is enough of it also in Kvietkai and in many other disappearing settlements which I still have to see. I don‘t know yet what to do. How to photograph. Where to find points of reference.
Monday, July 7
Yesterday, after the Crowning of King Mindaugas Day, drunken men were crawling home along the darkening streets of Pandėlys; the sun coloured the information altar and an old hay raking machine dropped in the grass. There was not enough light to photograph surrealist play-things for children, and the morning starts in Juodupė. The main streets here are still called ‘Peace’ and ‘Victory’; the slogan ‘Long live peace and friendship of nations’, a long boulevard: two bins painted in green have been adapted for planting flowers. The Centre for Aesthetical Education is adjacent to the House of Culture, and the statue of a cement worker next to this House of Culture is really surrealist. She stands there, all shabby, and smiles stupidly. She stands in a pool, which of course used to be really a pool, perhaps even with a fountain because some rusty pipes are sticking out. How to understand all this? Most importantly, I even do not dare to photograph her; I feel uncomfortable even being next to her. Additionally, it’s completely unclear if photographing would offend local people sensitive to aesthetics. And the city office is here. Confusing. And you can’t hurry here. I have to think what’s happening here. I have to return to Obeliai, to feel that I am not a secretive photographer; to collect all leanings of Obeliai and back to Juodupė again, to the statue. Three shots from three sides. And get the hell out of here.
Tuesday, July 8
There is a height deficiency almost everywhere. I would like to look at everything from slightly higher above. This is not looking down at something; I simply want to see everything that is happening better. What people, cats, dogs and other live creatures of this Earth do and how they walk. I am curious over what there is in the courtyards; what things there are, in what order... Composition becomes freer only on the fifth day of photographing. Everything moves away from the centre, slips down, but holds together. I still intend to avoid stepping over the border across which destruction starts. I don’t know why, but sometimes the centre is the most beautiful and the most suggestive. Daylight is soft. The sun is behind a light cloud and it seems that such a day, such light, is particularly favourable to colour, photographing the town and creativity. Perhaps these are only subjective things, but like a garment that fits a body, this day fits the eyes and liberates the photographic vision. It seems that five days for photographing is the optimal length. Then I’ll have to check everything and concentrate for a new discharge.
Saturday, July 12
The ladder proves handy at the railway crossing at Šeštokai. It’s good for a photographer to have a ladder; but to walk with a ladder through the town? In Kalvarija I immediately feel a closed courtyard and greenish spots. While walking, it is necessary to simply wait until the eyes discover the view themselves. When your senses are working, there is no need to go into trouble thinking whether this is suitable or whether you like it... Everything gets done on its own accord. After Romas’s photographs my creative movements look slack, stuffed, calculated and uninteresting. My photography is orderly and moderate. It is difficult to be in such an open bleeding of Romas. One has to live differently.
Wednesday, July 16
Views are flowing. It’s completely unclear how they will work with each other, but this is later. Now let them flow. What comes into the shot let it come.
Thursday, July 17
All senses are dying out in summer heat. Only morning and evening photographing sessions remain. Travel tiredness fades my impressions. I manage to record only effective things. Everything else is slipping by. Yet now it is important to collect more views with the oblique, but still not distorted, life of Lithuania.
Saturday, July 26
Everything is slightly different in South-East Lithuania. Crosses are decorated differently; streets are being swept differently, but this is also Lithuania. There are many unusual things here, kitsch. I let everything in. Colours are screaming; forms are raving, but I let all these anti-aesthetics come in. Let them live. Other days will be dedicated to subtleties; other photographing sessions; other moods. It’s impossible to understand whether this entire photographic medley will acquire a more understandable shape, but I do as it gets photographed, as I see, as I feel. My photographic experience is accumulating; shots are accumulating and kilometres are running. A huge creative discharge is taking place.
Sunday, July 27
The thirteenth day of photographing in July. Judickas’s farmstead–Pivašiūnai–Butrimonys.
Colours, compositions, people I met on the way again... It’s easier now with composition. Perhaps I got simply used to the large-format camera and I can explore the view without hurry until everything becomes still in a slightly disturbed, but still harmonious, compositional space. It’s important not to have the main participants. There should be place for all things, colours, shadows and animals so that nothing would cover anything; so that nothing would compete. Everything would live independently, but together.
Friday, August 1
Children are already used to travelling. They pour into my Passat with all their things; they play, chat, sleep and argue. The back seat is their bedroom and playroom. At my photographic stops they pour out of the car with their toys and pack back again. They are travellers. Morning and evening photographing sessions are more successful. It’s too hot, too much sun during the day. All movements become heavy; reactions slow down. Thus, in the morning in Žiežmariai I feel the shot perfectly. When my senses tell me that the view is charged I need to understand where the composition moving in the viewfinder has to stop. It is not necessary to hurry; the large-format camera dictates its conditions. Swift reaction is necessary when a cyclist enters the view. In which place has he to remain; is he necessary at all? I have to decide so quickly that chance is more decisive here. In the evening, in Miežiškiai, staggering with tiredness I seem to be photographing a bridge or a river, a tree or a church or, perhaps, the last rays of the sun and I feel the truth of the day. All successes and failures gather into one necessary truth of the day.
Saturday, August 2
Troškūnai in the morning, morning shadows, morning drinkers of beer at the shop: all this is understandable and yields to photographing. There are plenty of views of country tourism gaining momentum. The natural conflict of things has been eliminated in a trimmed up farmstead. Cart wheels turned into decorations look like mummies. The possibility of a natural exit from life has been taken away from them. Thus, we drive past, observe, admire, but there is nothing to photograph. A red airplane on the grass in a nursery in distant Suviekas at the Latvian border looks truer.
Sunday, August 3
In road photography it’s difficult to predict when and where success is waiting. There is nothing to do in Ignalina, and in Naujasis Daugėliškis I am dizzy seeing how unexpectedly people going home from church find their places in the composition. It seems we rattle in vain on the road to the distant Adutiškis, but there, in the blazing sun, I feel the metaphysics of the square again, and the vertigo of the moment. It’s a shame that there are so few successes during the day, but what can you change here? Perhaps only the number of photographic days.
Saturday , August 9
It seems that we have seen all in Dzūkija, driven everywhere, and we can no longer see anything here in a new way. Yet colour and the flights of this year reveal newly the towns we know, it seems, by heart. Three young men in Veisiejai hug together lit by the evening sun for the last shot. The strong knowledge that I am an artist solves everything in communication.
Saturday, August 16
The sun, the wind and austere views of seaside. I feel that at the shop in Rusnė the composition gets filled with the energy of lights and colours. I wish that this remained in my photograph; I wish I succeeded. In the evening I photograph Vilkyškiai, full of mystery and existential vibration.
Next year, April 18
To photograph what cannot be explained in words. Where a verbal explanation suggests itself – not to photograph. All meanings, references, directions, comparisons, juxtapositions are not necessary. Only tension and strangeness of presentiments while getting into things.