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Paulina Pukytė is an artist, writer, and cultural commentator. She holds a degree from the Vilnius Academy of Art, and a Master’s from the Royal College of Art in London. She writes critical and satirical articles on cultural issues and has received awards for her texts. She has published a collection of essays Netikras zuikis (Fake Rabbit), and three experimental fiction books: Jų papročiai (Their Habits), Bedalis ir labdarys (A Loser And A Do-gooder), and Lubinas ir seradėlė (Lupin and Serradella). Two of them were shortlisted for awards in Lithuania. A theatre production of Bedalis ir labdarys premiered at the State Small Theatre of Vilnius in 2015. Extracts from this tragicomic book of dialogs and monologs are included in the anthology of Best European Fiction 2016, published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Pukytė is interested in misunderstanding and miscommunication, in flaws of perception and memory. In her work she employs chance and coincidence, as well as appropriation, often upcycling found artefacts, such as objects, images and texts. At the same time poetic and ironic, humorous and critical, her work twists perspectives and meanings, deconstructing socio-ideological myths and socio-cultural clichés. She is drawn to the marginal, even banal, rehabilitating what is seemingly unimportant and “inferior” but terribly human.

She lives and works in London and Vilnius. www.pukyte.com

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Paulina Pukytė. You Have Played Or Will Play Another Note Of The Anthem. (2020) Photo by Ineta Armanavičiūtė

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

Artist, writer, and curator Paulina Pukytė is one of the most original Lithuanian artists, navigating the fringes of literature and art. Her works are provocative, ironic, intertextual, and aimed at deconstructing myths and clichés. Pukytė presents a unique vantage point for observing society and guides us to reconsider our notions of literature, the functions we attribute to it, and our capacity to play and seek out new meanings in the process.

She talks about her work in an interview for Vilnius Review.

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Recently you had an exhibition at Atletika Gallery called “This Is, in a Certain Sense, a Nightmare,” where you reflected upon a range of subjects, including propaganda, social stereotypes, (post-)Soviet identity, and the freedom (or lack thereof) of choice. One of the most striking pieces to me was the extra “penalty area” painted on the floor in the middle of the former gym, even though it may seem less expressive than some of your other works (like an iron gate playing a note of the Lithuanian Soviet anthem every time you open it, or crystal glasses that start shaking when you cross the line). I read in it the semantics of an alternative way of thinking as well as of an ambivalent existence between the center and the periphery. I thought that this art piece could be used to approach your own multifaceted artistic identity as an artist, curator, cultural critic, and of course, writer. Would you agree that with your artistic position and your esthetic decisions you are establishing an alternative stance (especially in literature) rather than tackling with others in their regular “penalty area”? If so, is this a conscious decision, or perhaps you feel not fully accepted, pushed out?

I’m glad you read into all those meanings in my show. My work is about all that. And you noticed the alternative penalty area! Not every visitor noticed it, at least not straight away. Yes, that smaller green box is in the wrong place. It is additional and “independent,” it is outside the competition of the opposites, and it could be perceived as meaningless or pointless, as unnecessary, but then what is necessary? On the other hand, is that enough to constitute an alternative? But what is an alternative? These are important and interesting questions to me.

I agree with your suggestion about my alternative stance, especially in the literary sphere, and yes, it is a conscious decision. I started writing quite late. I came to literature from a contemporary visual art world that had already moved into a post-medium condition. I started from essays and then wrote short prose, but I soon realized that I didn’t want to be a prose writer. My writing is poetic in its essence. It is concise, rhythmical, metaphorical, and experimental, and not narrative based. I write using various constraints as well as appropriation and recycling methods. However, my latest book is not classified as a poetry book. I understand that it is difficult to pinpoint its genre but I’m not writing to fit into a certain classification. Also, when you work in several different disciplines, rather than just one (I also work with theater), “belonging” becomes complicated, even impossible.

Paulina Pukyte interview 03Paulina Pukytė. It Is In A Certain Sense A Nightmare. Exhibition view. (2021) Photo by Ineta Armanavičiūtė

 

Some of the texts used in the exhibition (in the video installations) were also published in your most recent book Lubinas ir seradėlė (Lupin and Serradella) (Apostrofa, 2021). Did you decide before writing them whether they were meant for the book or the exhibition? Does the function of the text differ according to the field (contemporary art vs. literature) of its presentation?

It’s not very easy for me to answer this question. The texts that you hear, or rather see, performed in the exhibition were first written for the book, but before the book was published, I recorded them on video. I realized they needed to be read in a certain manner, and so they became a visual artwork. I can’t imagine them read in a different way. But of course, the reader of the book can read them as they please. Perhaps I should have gone straight for an audiobook read by me? On the other hand, it is important for me to see how my texts connect to each other on a page, how they pause, continue, break, repeat, how they rely on each other to form a continuous narrative. In my work, both visual and literary, the text is the medium, the process, and the result all in one.

 

You like to construct your texts from a range of sources and to create a single narrative from different epochs, phenomena, and personalities. In the words of Alvydas Šlepikas, you bring to literature “principles and experiences of conceptual art.” In your view, would it make sense to speak of the genre or the direction of “conceptual literature”? Perhaps a significant part of your work can be referred to as pastiche, collage, and intertextual (meta)literature based on social critique? Or perhaps you try to distance yourself from specific classifications and definitions?

Yes, I try to avoid classification, as the terms in the Lithuanian literary tradition do not really correspond with my work. My writing does have elements of pastiche, social critique, intertextuality, and so on, but it’s not just that. In the end, my books are literary artworks. “Conceptual literature” describes my practice quite well, and I think this term should be brought into contemporary literature discourse.

 

Which of these languages – visual-spatial or textual – is more important to you? How do you differentiate between them?

They are both important to me at the moment. I remember after I published my second book I said in an interview, when asked a similar question, that those are two separate languages and two separate practices for me. Now I can say the opposite – those two practices have gradually merged into one. So I don’t differentiate between them. I use them both to communicate my ideas and to explore and question things that interest me.

 

In one of your plays, the character Scylla states that art is deception. Her argument with Odysseus is a parody of the two approaches to understanding art: the romantic exalted one (art as emotional expression of life) and the postmodern one (art as a game or provocation). It is not hard to guess which one of these you find more acceptable, but still I ask you this: wouldn’t you agree that the hypothetical “general reader” would rather choose the first approach, and that the second one has but a small readership of connoisseurs? In your creative practice, do you think about your audience?

I do think about the audience – to an extent. And I do expect the best from my audience, that is, I expect that it understands me perfectly, which, of course, is not always the case. I am aware that I might be reaching a limited audience, but at the same time I believe that my books can be read on several different levels of meaning, so different readers can get a different experience from them. I’m not trying to limit my audience on purpose, but I’m not trying to expand it artificially either, by writing what would please everyone. I am aware that I do not write bestsellers, but it’s not my goal. It would be very boring for me if I had to try to write one. To me art, including writing, is a game, a provocation, I like doing it and I see the purpose of it.

 

The character of the Influencer from the same play (and your exhibition) gripes about her three days spent “locked up in  the information overload.” How do you choose/sort your information?

This poem is a good example of the cross-disciplinarity of my work because it exists in my book as a text, in my show as a video performance, and in theater, cinema even, played by an actress. This particular text was first written for theater. The overproduction of information to me is an interesting subject, and I have been exploring it for a while in my work. The internet right now is constant and endless chatter (in writing). Everyone has an opinion about everything,  everyone feels the need to express that opinion publicly, and all opinions are considered to be more or less equally valid and important. The most trivial banalities don’t disappear into oblivion anymore. They all remain in existence on the internet, in writing, often artificially and undeservedly exalted. Besides, there is so much false or deliberately fake information on the net. We litter our virtual world as much as the physical one. It gets more and more difficult to find anything genuine in this torrent, especially when those pesky search engines think they know better what you really want. My way of dealing with this torrent of information is to deconstruct it by appropriating it and using it in my work.

 

When you browse various forums on the internet and read the comments posted there, do you not consider yourself somewhat of a social scholar, perhaps an anthropologist? Do you take any notes on the present condition of our society and the changing stereotypes that influence people’s thinking? Or perhaps your interest in this material is purely artistic?

Yes, I do, in a sense. I do write critical commentary on socio-cultural issues, for cultural publications and radio broadcasts. But my art practice as artistic research into the condition of our society allows me to speak about it in a different, poetic way. The “found” material that I use for my work is not only my medium but also my subject.

 

In your opinion, what is more important to the art viewer, the impact of the artwork or the reputation/value attributed to it by the artistic community through the artist’s name, status, position in the art world, etc.? In other words: how much is the art viewer influenced by the artistic discourse, and are they not able or willing to “consume” art independently?

It depends on the viewer. The more they are connected with the art world, the more important the artist’s name, status, and the art discourse is for them. The less they are connected, the less important. I believe the ability of a viewer to perceive contemporary art depends on two main factors – on the one hand, it depends on the viewer, that is, the tools the viewer possesses for perceiving art and their interest and willingness to engage with it and its context. On the other hand, it also depends on the artwork itself, on its strategy, its ability to speak to the viewer, its balance of form and content. I have to say the situation with the “tools” for art perception isn’t great – our education system should provide students with those but doesn’t. So we have a situation where art is becoming an object of scorn and even hatred by the general public. Art in general is a very easy target.

Paulina Pukyte interview 04Paulina Pukytė. Trembling Crystal. (2021) Photo by Ineta Armanavičiūtė

 

When we spoke in 2014 and I asked whether you could write in English, you said that the foreignness of language and the limitations that stem from it can be used in art on purpose and that you might try it in your work as well.[1] And you did – some of your texts are written in English, including poetry. Does the English language offer you equal or different (if so, how different?) possibilities as compared to Lithuanian?

The possibilities of your mother tongue and your second or learned language are undoubtedly very different. But when I write using various deliberate constraint methods, for example, words found in a specific way or place, the possibilities are similar. Writing in a foreign language in a traditional way is not a good thing in my opinion. But writing in a foreign language can be a deliberate technique, with interesting results.

 

I came upon a piece on monuments and censorship published on your personal website where you discussed the situation of the Petras Cvirka monument. You offered your own proposals and those put forth by other artists on what could be done to recontextualize the monument. Since the monument will be, inevitably, it seems, removed, I would like to re-address your own question about censorship: “What is censorship (removal of the monument from public space, removal of the visual ideas from public sphere, both or neither?) and doesn’t censorship bring us back into the times when Cvirka’s monument was erected?”[2] Perhaps you are aware of some foreign examples of ideologically unacceptable monuments being treated in a more creative way?

In that text I also touch upon the situation when the projects for recontextualizing Cvirka’s monument were removed from the press by the demand of Cvirka’s family. Even just the sketches, the ideas without any chance of implementation – cartoons in fact – became the subject of censorship.

Artistic reworking of ideologically no-longer-acceptable monuments is not so usual elsewhere in the world either (simple removal occurs much more often), because it’s not an easy task, unavoidably ideological and politicized, controversial, potentially disrespectful, and possibly upsetting. It also requires intellectual effort.

Nevertheless, there are many (more or less) successful examples of such recharging, neutralization, exposing, or recontextualization. For example, in London an artist painted one monument to a British colonial general red. Not just splashed it with paint, but painted it in an aesthetic, and technological way. It’s a simple but quite powerful gesture, with which no labels or explanations are needed. In Warsaw another artist put a swing on a huge raised hand of a monument to a Soviet soldier “liberator”. In Vienna, a group of artists and activists “unmasked” the monument to a national poet, who wrote Nazi propaganda, by digging up a layer of soil and exposing the massive concrete foundation of a rather small statue, thus saying that Nazi beliefs often still lay hidden under the politically correct and innocent surface of Austrian society. Again – a simple but very powerful and suggestive artistic intervention, without the need for much explanation. In Lithuania, alas, such sophisticated acts don’t happen.

 

As I prepared for this interview, I read your excellent book Netikras zuikis (Fake Rabbit), published back in 2008. It made me think whether by deriding our society, or a certain part of it, for their ignorance or complacency we are not also elevating ourselves? Do you think that social critique, when used in art, can become elitist and snobbish? Is there some ethical boundary here, and if so, do you observe it as an artist?

Undoubtedly there are ethical boundaries. First of all, in my satirical and critical writing I never ridicule a particular social group as a whole. I don’t address my readers as “you”. I identify with my readers, instead of positioning myself in contrast to them, as some well-known Lithuanian elitist social critics do. When I criticize various socio-cultural phenomena, stereotypes, ignorance and conformism, I do not see them as traits of certain social groups, but rather of separate individuals (even if there might be quite a few of them). I never mock a person’s physical features or qualities that can’t be changed.

Secondly, satire is always pointed towards those in the position of power: the strong, never the weak. That’s the difference between satire and, say, bullying. The problem is not someone’s ignorance per se, but ignorance that wants to be important and demands power and control. Then it is asking for criticism and ridicule.

Paulina Pukyte interview 05Paulina Pukytė. I Was Told I Look Like A Pig. (2021) Photo by Ineta Armanavičiūtė

 

You might hear this question often, but how did studying at the Royal College of Art in London and your time spent living in the city impact you? Would you agree that a wider outlook is necessary for the growth of an artist, especially bearing in mind the condition of the post-Soviet states and the dangers of “conserving” a past identity and automatically inheriting the shortcomings associated with it?

My studies abroad and living in London in general changed my perception of many things. It made me much more aware of other perspectives, enabled me to switch points of view and to “unstick” my identity. It is great that Lithuanian students can now study all over the world. When I went to study in London, it was just the beginning, before Lithuania joined the European Union, and it wasn’t easy. You described very well our “post-” condition and the risks that come with it.  A broader outlook is vital, essential for an artist or a writer.

 

When we spoke at your exhibition, you mentioned that as a society, we are too used to blaming the Soviet period for everything, and that we fail to reflect that some of these things might in fact be of a different historical period or might have reached us in other ways.

Yes, very often when we want to criticize something, or we just don’t like something, we label it “Soviet”, even if there is nothing Soviet in its essence. By that we assign that thing, phenomenon, behaviour, or idea to the bygone era, the bad past, as if saying that today has nothing to do with it, that we, today’s people, are not responsible for it. But things are not so clear cut, and such labels are often misleading. In my show, the crystal glasses – that staple of a typical Lithuanian home interior – that tremble on a shelf when approached, would be called “Soviet” now, but in Soviet times the same crystalware was called “interwar”, that is, “independent”. And today it is “independent” again. Or is it?

 

 

1. https://www.bernardinai.lt/2014-09-19-paulina-pukyte-nesusikalbejimas-man-yra-idomus/

2. http://www.pukyte.com/styled-23/styled-39/

 

 

 

 

 

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