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by Virginija Cibarauskė

 

Jonas Zakaitis review 02

Jonas Žakaitis is a curator of conceptual and interdisciplinary art exhibitions. His first book, The 90s, is, to some extent, an interdisciplinary phenomenon. Its concept, a fundamental element of contemporary exhibitions, is its structure. The concept of an exhibition—the idea presented in its title and description—provides meaning to separate pieces; outside of the context of an exhibition, these pieces could easily obtain other meanings or none at all. In this regard, Žakaitis’s book is conceptual, too, as its content— short, fragmentary images, scraps of conversations, verbal portraits—is compiled into a meaningful unit through reference to the nineties, a distinct period in Lithuania’s cultural history.

The nineties, also known as the time of “wild capitalism,” is a remarkably fashionable epoch today, eagerly claimed by people between the ages of 18-26 and those that identify with the hipster culture. References to the decade are displayed in their outfits (colourful synthetic sweatsuits, bleached jeans, harlequin leggings) and in the interiors of fashionable cafés and restaurants. In an interview with cultural expert Jurij Dubriakov published in the weekly Literatūra ir menas (Literature and Art), writer Jurga Tumasonytė asserts that “Both 40-year-olds and 30-year-olds and even 20-year-olds began to claim their right to the last decade of twentieth century. For instance, some will write novels about their post-Soviet youth, while others—people young enough to be their children—will open a café that’s bursting with nostalgia for this decade.”  Žakaitis’s text Prousto klausimynas (The Proust Questionnaire) is revealing in this regard, as an interviewee who doesn’t have strict opinions on other things (the eclecticism of tastes and beliefs is one of the essential qualities of hipsters) names the fall of the USSR in 1991 as a global event that made the greatest impact on him.

In the most common sense, this period in Lithuania was a mad, wild, strange epoch, when social and economic changes were happening very intensely and were completely unpredictable. For example, members of hitherto respectable professions (scientists, tutors, employees of governmental institutions, and even employees of factories that were being closed wholesale) were suddenly without work. Meanwhile, the formerly persecuted “profiteers,” who sensed the changes and managed to exploit them, became rich overnight. Banks were being established and brought to ruin and former teachers were trading in Polish sweaters, while young people dreamed of a fast-track career in criminal organizations. In other words, it was a time of major upheavals, and events were no longer dependent on traditional logic or laws of cause and effect. Generally, Žakaitis’s The 90s depict this period through structural analogies rather than in a direct way (although there are some direct ones, such as Žiedas [The Ring], Restoranas Sankt Peterburgas [The Saint Petersburg Restaurant], Dėstytojas [The Lecturer]). The stories are characterised by the mode of an absurd, specific lack of logic and fragmentariness. In the blurb of the book, such a worldview is described as a blending of reality and surrealism, or simply “new realism”.

Žakaitis’s texts often imitate images “from life.” Written either in first-person or third-person, the stories resemble overheard conversations, memories, and fragments of larger tales. The language is mostly conversational. At times, punctuation marks are omitted completely, thus creating an impression of a speech stream. The stories are mainly directed at a supposed addressee who sometimes shows up in the text, adopting the role of an interviewer. When the interviewer does not show up, he or she remains a listener, silent but always present. Here, a parallel can be drawn with documentary or pseudo-documentary shows, where the speaker tells their story-testimony to the camera and the supposed viewers behind it, or to the creator of the show, sitting beside the interviewee and asking questions. This structure, inspired by documentaries, the genre of conversation, and the portraits of the speakers themselves with their seemingly absurd experiences bring to mind Bedalis ir labdarys (Underdog and Benefactor) (2013) by Paulina Pukytė, especially the “aboriginal” stories (Religinis sinkretizmas [Religious Syncretism], Trys moterys [Three Women], Abdi, Pakistanas and others), which attempt to resurrect the characteristics of a distant culture.

Unlike Pukytė, who toys with the idea of found footage, the origins of Žakaitis’s new realism reside, most likely, in social networks, primarily Facebook, as well as personal blog posts: fragmentary stories usually told from the first-person perspective, comments on the latest news and opinions, various reminiscences, images, and “stolen conversations,” which reveal humorous or otherwise important pieces of actually or supposedly overheard conversations. In Conversazione, which functions as a meta-text, one of the speakers introduces himself as a writer working on his first book and mentions a story  about a squirrel living in a printing house, which is also the first story of The 90s. He claims to be writing “extracts.” Besides, they are autobiographical in nature: “Practically all of them are somewhat autobiographical, something that actually happened to me, or stories of people I met” (p. 104). Therefore, in addition to reflecting on a specific period of Lithuanian history, the collection toys with definitions of both genres and autobiography. Dobriakov labels Žakaitis’s book “retro-futurism,” i.e. a critical and analytical contemplation how the nineties is still relevant today and how they shaped the present.

In the book, The 90s is a space-time in which the subject is deprived of will, purpose, and direction, when all sorts of strange things “live through you”: “You live your life, do your work, engage in everyday life and so on, and you don’t know the things that live through you, and you can’t know them. I just try to imagine them sometimes. You know, like animals, for example, they look at us and observe what we do, they conform, but they don’t really understand what people do. They follow a different logic. [...] Along come melodies we’ve never heard before, all sorts of sensations, completely new information, and we here can only accept it. You know, we do accept those signals. They act through us, but we can’t tell what form they’re in, and what, perhaps, they expect from us” (p. 51). The point of writing is to mark these forms, to identify them, even if in a limited way, or at least to register the “signals.”

“Things” in the nineties were strange, above all, for their novelty: occupied by the Soviet Union, Lithuania spent forty years behind the Iron Curtain and it was only upon its fall that Western culture came pouring in through the borders in a powerful surge: not just material goods, but also a variety of ideas, theories, and ways of life. All of this created a certain state of weightlessness and magical relativism. Sodas (The Garden) (p. 23-24) is an allegory of such space-time. It’s a strange formation without any order or structure, where plants and people turn up and disappear again, and the garden keepers are no more familiar with the rules of the garden than its plants. Fear of uncertainty is identified as one of the essential qualities of this garden: “At times, you’re overcome with this fear or something, a bad feeling. You think perhaps you’re the only one running mad, but it’s not like you’re the only one. This feeling is out there. Maybe it has a different name, but you can see it’s there. Plants have that uncertainty, too, you know, and they don’t know, as well. The plants don’t know? I ask. Yes, comes a reply, they don’t know. It only seems like they do. But why the confidence, you say? I ask again. Well because you have to have confidence. If nobody knows how it’s going to be, you have to have confidence, he says.” (p.24). Another important aspect of being in the garden is that it’s impossible to understand anything, and all we can do is observe and imitate in an attempt to conform (“See who does what: that’s it.”).

Specifically, fortune tellers, sects and the like flourished in the nineties (e.g., Mama galėdavo pasiversti bet kokiu daiktu – Mother Could Transform Into Any Kind Of Object). People were looking for answers and explanations, but the only “logical” explanations at the time were fatal coincidences, magic, etc. (e.g., Žiedas), or innate abilities of an unfathomable nature that are expressed through a person who himself might not want to express anything at all (Visas gyvenimas – Whole Life).

Žakaitis’s characters are usually people finding themselves in a situation that is normal to them but atypical to the reader, who is, at all times, an outside observer. For instance, a person stuck in a cryptic time and space, signs of high culture and experiences of poverty bound in his consciousness (Rusijoje – In Russia); young people meeting in a fair and talking, for some reason, about plane and car crashes they have read about (Mugė – The Fair); an elderly man watching teenagers riding their skateboards (Skeitai – Skates). These are the stories of everyday life, but this life is oddly magical: the story about a printing house (Spaustuvė – Printing House) is taken over by a squirrel using a coffee machine, while the security guards of a market (Centrinis – Central) converse not about themselves but about a grandfather brought to the market by children, who has Alzheimer’s.

Žiedas (p. 16-18) is a typical story of the nineties. A person’s life turns upside down in a single day. From a wealthy respectable businessman, he becomes nothing, for no apparent reason: “he owned one of the largest businesses in our city, this furniture factory. He was well-off: a family, four children, a house and all. But one day, everything sort of shattered. […] It looked like he was teleported to a parallel life, where everything’s the same, except that he was now a liar and a crook in everyone’s eyes. In a couple of weeks, he lost everything, his family, his business, his friends. He was homeless, basically, without even realizing what had happened.” (p. 16-17). At the end of the story, an explanation is found, but it is mythic-fantastic in nature rather than grounded in actual facts.

The title of the book immediately draws the reader’s attention to the remembrance of particular historical period and the specific effect of strangeness that results from the gap of a few decades. Nevertheless, the content can also be interpreted through the lens of a broader analysis of memory. Memory forms and even upstages the subject: “over time, I catch myself remembering all sorts of things and people with whom I haven’t had anything to do with for a while now, but I can’t get them out of my head. It’s like they’re involved in a variety of affairs in my head, but I can’t do anything about it anymore. It’s like everything’s happening without me. You know what I mean. I don’t know if I do, but I nod my head. Piles of memories, you say, and I’m growing smaller and smaller among them.” (p. 84). Often, it is not the significant people and events that are remembered, but rather the ones that we can call peripheral. That in itself forms an opposition to a classic story, in which, paraphrasing Anton Chekhov’s principle, a rifle hanging on the wall must go off. In Žakaitis’s texts, the reader is continually presented with rifles and non-rifles, but they don’t go off. Despite the intrigue and the expectation that something is about to happen or simply that someone is about to come and explain everything, nothing of the sort is ever brought about.

As is the case with the objects in the aforementioned contemporary exhibitions, if not for the “concept” uniting them, Žakaitis’s stories would remain, to some extent, artistically uninventive. Halfway through, the book becomes monotonous and predictable, especially if the book is read in a linear way. Paradoxically, the texts are predictable precisely because of their illogical quality, their absurdity, and their imitation of “documentaries” —having been used more than once or twice, their approach is no longer effective. The book’s format is specific and not entirely “spot-on”—it’s a pdf. It’s neither an electronic book, nor a scanned paper one, although it can be downloaded from its own website. A pdf—a digital copy of a paper book, or simply an imitation, to be more exact— doesn’t work well for Žakaitis’s texts. As long as the collection is read as a regular book, various weaknesses become noticeable: uninventive language (similar to conversational language, but not similar enough to become a focus of attention) and nearly identical structures and situations. I imagine putting these images and overheard conversations on an internet site would be more worthwhile: making use of interconnectivity, adding visuals, or perhaps even recording some of the “conversations” in an audible format and so on.

 

 

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