On the chemistry of image

(Saulės užtemimą, negadinant akių, galima stebėti ir taip! 1999 m., Molėtų r., Aidiečiai.

An ingenious way to watch a solar eclipse without causing much damage to the eyes! Aidiečiai,

Molėtai district, 1999.)

The photos by Paulius Lileikis from his Sąjūdis archive have that immediate effect of intrigue, caused by the unexpected convergences of art, documentary, and reportage photography. The images created by him during the period of the Lithuanian Revival pulsate with tensions and charges of carnival-like energy, intense experiences and touching comicality, with vigorous angles, as well as sensitive consideration. All this resembles the symbiosis of a man and his movie camera as offered by Dziga Vertov, where lenses acquire certain anthropomorphic qualities and manage to reach the places unattainable by man due to the clumsiness of the human body or a lack of determination. Paulius Lileikis clears this obstacle course of reality with unbelievable adroitness. He finds himself in the strangest of places, views from unexpected angles, and incarnates himself into a visible movement or the mood of a situation.

On the other hand, the revolutionary times of the Sąjūdis were contributing to both adventurism and challenges as it was necessary to create such a new way of depicting the reality that would have been inconceivable in the quagmire of mature socialism. With the national revival gaining momentum, the torpor of the Soviet permafrost, adverse to reportage photography, suddenly tumbled into nothingness being replaced by endless activity, which caught many a photographer unawares. This new vortex of events could have been braved only by the most courageous or perceptive photographers. Some thrived on the energy of action, others assessed everything from a distance inclined towards building an archive of images for the future. From amongst the latter, one could mention the photography album ‘Lithuania 1988–1993’ by Romualdas Požerskis, with its clearly perceptible aesthetic detachment of an observer and a predetermined intention to archive events. Paulius Lileikis belongs to the former; in his case, the roles of an observer and a participant melt together in the dynamism of his yearning-for-novelties camera with its defiant acuteness and the capability to recognise immediately new signs of the emerging reality.

Such qualities of character were indispensable, as society of those times of Sąjūdis was going through new tectonic fractures and chemical reactions. Institutional frictions and division of symbols were producing hitherto unknown forms of energy. Amorphously soft, flexible, crystal configurations of a new reality were emerging. Old rocks were melting and evaporating while revolutionary rally slogans were congealing in the slabs of new monuments. The air was permeated with the smell of blood, winds of freedom, and the atmosphere of misty prematurity. All of this was pierced with dazzling rays of the desired future. It sometimes seems that, with his photographs and in his youthful way, Paulius Lileikis wassimply rushing the fulfilment of this dream of a utopian future.

Meanwhile, in the dawn of this post-revolutionary hangover, the inherited Soviet poverty and ignorance gradually became apparent. Everything had to be invented anew. All this effort was inevitably haunted by slavish nostalgia for the Soviet legacy, irrational enthusiasm, and hazy utopias of the future. Such mutually contrasting layers of different worlds were effectively captured in the photos by Paulius Lileikis. Women in Gariūnai market selling packs of Tampax tampons, the mourning-like Lithuanian suits of our first politicians, their white socks and bushy whiskers, the Romanian sweaters of the security men, Kernagis’s sheepskin jacket, the Three Crosses sticking up from the ground, the Centaurish uniforms of the interim period, and the spiked hair of punks throw us back to that tumultuous contrasting time.

As every one of us now travels down memory lane in our individual ways distorted by imagination and our own memories, we acknowledge the significance of Paulius Lileikis’ endeavour to capture those collective moments of tempestuous experiences, which again has become the evidence of that communal spirit lost somewhere in history.

I have suddenly realised that that I am associating the times of Paulius Lileikis’ photographs with the currency of that period. In 1991, general vouchers were introduced. The first temporary Lithuanian currency was particularly symbolic. Pictures of prehistoric lizards, martens, storks, goshawks, peewits, and otters painted on the notes accurately characterised the context of this easy- to-tear and forever grimy ‘money’. That was a time of true temporariness. It was not only those botanic and zoological voucher characters that were misplaced, the entire society was equally restless and lost in the crossroads of transformations. There hovered a sense of weightlessness, confused with freedom, in the invading haze of future uncertainty. Hence, it is not without purpose that a version of Lithuanian post-modernity – as a symbol of this relative period and expression of the total confusion of humanitarians – was born at that time. It was most observable among the hybrid intelligentsia and bohemians. The Bohemia is in general prone to eternal confusion, even without having to go through major historic jolts like that. Thus, as it befitted students of the Institute of Arts, we used to spend most of our time queuing at the counters of an off-licence in Užupis in the company of intellectually soft and blotchy faces. Having secured our bottle of wine, we would go on to the then neglected courtyard of what are now the premises of the President’s Office and, gazing towards the clouds, happily indulge in our escapist fantasies.

That was a time of open possibilities that thrived in our dreams. There were no rules nor guidelines, no hierarchy or examples. All imaginary realities could be joined and mixed together. Any initiatives could be launched, though their realisation was only possible on the rejects from the post-Soviet cosmos.

The first Mercedes cars were blown up on the streets, the first hot air balloons flew up into the air, and so did the mangled bodies of gangsters. Boisterous performances of the ‘Green Leaf’ group were also held there, rallies of repatriated exiles went marching along, and there rioted alien invaders encouraged by the coup in Moscow. Stadiums were combustive with crazy ardour of Bix’s rock, slivers of post-modern theories were fluttering in the heads of young creators, while the conservative cultural nomenclature was already encroaching into the future.

On the one side, there were the démarches of the criminal ‘Vilnius Brigade’; on the other, there stood the enlightenment effort of the Open Society Foundation in Lithuania. Everything was happening at the same time, thus creating a unique hybrid environment which gave birth to the most outlandish initiatives. Immediately, there started emerging new, anthropologic wild-capitalism types, they permeated the academic medium and gave rise to new specific dress styles and body language of artists, businessmen or criminals.

Paulius Lileikis managed to present a most accurate summary of this dramatic time by means of just one photo. The iconographic tragic depth of a classical picture and the criminal ‘heroism’ of the reality of that period emanates from the photo of Rimantas Grainys, a boss of the criminal underworld, blown up sitting in his Mercedes-Benz in the centre of Vilnius in 1995. I would like to remind our younger readers that it was not unusual then for homemade bombs to keep exploding in front of mafia ‘patriots’ as well as in those of business and newly-sprung idiots.

In 1993, the country was shaken by five major explosions aimed at businessmen and gangsters. In 1994, cars of three members belonging to the criminal gangs ‘Vilniaus Brigada’ and ‘Tulpiniai’ were blown up. In 1994, a blast tore down a bridge over the Bražuolė river. In 1995, an explosion destroyed a house in Garliava that belonged to Juozas Poderis, who was considered by ultra-patriots to have served as a Soviet militiaman. In 1997, a bomb planted in his car killed an officer of the State Security Department, Juras Abromavičius, near his home in Kaunas. In 1998, a bomb was detonated in Šiauliai Tax Inspectorate. All these events go to show the vortex of dark macabre powers into which the society of that time was sucked. Consequently, photographers were never short of situations comparable to the iconography of a Greek tragedy.

The inquisitiveness of Paulius Lileikis and his youthful impudence managed to create an emotional and individualised document of historic events. Nevertheless, it is necessary to acknowledge that any history narrated in word, image or text is already a falsified history, in other words – a quasi-history. It is a confusion of past images and current experiences, a collage of facts of the past and incurable illusions.

At times, this historical narrative is like a sparkling expression of subjectivism, while in other instances, it is an academically objective statement. Such kind of impressions takes shape when looking at the photographs of Raimondas Urbakavičius, another Sąjūdis chronicler. His is a different, more neutral photography. Thus, the same period of time emerges with still another existential edge. We are attracted there by his effort towards the objectivity of a panoramic view, which is alien to Paulius Lileikis’ photos. Nevertheless, both one and the other, as well as many other, more different, past and future ways of depicting history are still awaiting us. And, I am convinced, they will appear. Those will be totally dissimilar, obscene, found, lost, revealing, mundanely sensitive, and contrasting photography archives. Archives of enemies and victims. They will appear when the direction of our aspirations and values has changed, when we feel like needing a different interpretation of history. When we experience an urge for still another visualisation of the National Revival.

And in the meantime, today I am grateful to Paulius Lileikis for the opportunity to stand again, like then, during our student years, facing the roaring tanks in front of the Press Palace, smelling the stink of violence, metal, and listening to the protest voices of those women who, faster than men, came together to stand in the way of those heavyweight death machines.  

Virginijus Kinčinaitis

Art critic