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It’s not like you could put Robertas Narkus creative work into one discipline or strategy – yes, there is photography, but there is also science, entrepreneurship, irony, technologies, possibilities that come after a failure or two, and also the importance of meeting new people. Nor could you easily describe Gut Feeling – his multi-layered project, which was chosen to represent Lithuania in the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. But let the artist speak himself. About coincidences, revealing what was hidden under the carpet and the art world today. 

Robertas, your artistic practice is well known as the management of circumstances in the economy of contingencies. Please do elaborate on what the secret world hides behind this?

I often question myself about what’s a creative practice; what does it mean to be an artist? To be human? So, eight years ago, I developed this mantra of management of circumstances as a way to escape the cliché of who an artist is and what he is supposed to do. I was interested in rethinking what lies behind the artistic layer of aesthetics and beauty. Since then, I mostly see the artist as a fighter for freedom in choosing a lifestyle, views, and the way of making decisions. 

Management of circumstances started for me as the art of decision-making. I developed the experiment of destiny ’12/5 Chances’ in which my daily and creative decisions relied on my own system of chances. These coincidences were often based on meeting new people, who sometimes inspired art pieces as side effects of this process.

Management of circumstances started for me as the art of decision-making. I developed the experiment of destiny ’12/5 Chances’ in which my daily and creative decisions relied on my own system of chances.

Artist Robertas Narkus. Photo by Milda Zabarauskaite

And which were the most important contingencies that shaped your creative life?

It’s not like I trust these circumstances, and everything happens by accident. However, I think that there is a lot of potential in every moment. Every person you meet can open new portals for you. Our position of how things should happen is not the ultimate decisive element in life. 

We are very result-oriented. However, we often move towards these goals without even understanding the motive. That’s what I’m talking about – the possibility to escape inertia.

Could we say your project, Gut Feeling, is a product of running from inertia? Though it’s hard to imagine a project would be chosen to represent the country in these Olympic games of art by accident?

For quite some time now, the world is rethinking the meaning of biennales and art. What’s a museum, and what is it supposed to do? What’s the task of the Biennale? How long can we continue operating like this? The opportunity to rethink art and the creative process is very interesting. I think the upcoming Biennale will have to react to the changing situation. These are extraordinary times. 

Gut Feeling is a new project created specifically for that exact place and time. Though it’s not fitted to accommodate clean white gallery space, Gut Feeling will spread in the streets of Venice filled with many different and quite autonomous elements. My project encodes surprises, intuition, and risk. 

And being an artist is a marathon itself. It’s fair to say that for me, the Biennale starts now.

Participating in the Biennale is a long-term process, of course. And being an artist is a marathon itself. It’s fair to say that for me, the Biennale starts now. I was granted this mandate as a sign of trust which the art field has in me.

As I understand, Venetians, local businesses, and communities will become a part of your project?

Yes, the local community and artists will become the participants of Gut Feeling. I’m interested in tensions between different social classes. Anarchists and that 1 percent meet in Venice. I’ll try to find an uncomfortable point in this get-together, a point where these different worlds can unite. 

I love to create conflicts and solve them later. We tend to hide things under the carpet too often instead of facing confrontation. I think it’s better to own uncomfortable situations and stand your ground rather than choose a safe escape.

Artist Robertas Narkus. Photo by Audrius Solominas

Is the confrontation, the conflict you’re talking about, the base of that gut feeling?

Gut feeling is inside every one of us; it’s something we all have. So, I’m searching for that common DNA. 

The curator of the pavilion, Neringa Bumbliene, mentioned that the piece you are preparing for the Biennale is a social sculpture. Contemporary art loves removing boundaries and mixing different techniques and artistic disciplines. Is it getting harder to fit into one precise system these days?

Although we think of some artistic interactions and forms of expression as very difficult or obscure, everything is way simpler. After artworks left galleries, we all agreed that not only can an object be a piece of art, it can also be human relations, for instance. Social sculpture already has its history.

I work with communities and collectives a lot. I’m interested in artists’ efforts to solve problems. However, sometimes there are more effective ways to do that, to choose a political career, for example. Still, art is capable of noticing and highlight trends that society leans towards. Art detects new moral and ethical dilemmas. And artists can create situations, which help to present and clarify these societal tendencies. 

Robertas Narkus, “Dependance”. 2019

Is there any chance artists can be apolitical? 

I think it’s hardly possible. If you choose to be apolitical, art becomes a way of expression which only has meaning for the creator. But it’s a very selfish way. Needless to say, art is an egoistic expression in general. 

Art doesn’t happen for its own sake. It gains meaning after noticed by others. And that relation is never neutral.

It seems like art being political is some kind of an axiom. But it doesn’t mean that artist has no choice to distance himself from solving ecological or social problems. Creating pretty things can be a political decision too. By choosing this artist creates a space for people to escape the surrounding world. However, this choice will affect both that artist and others. So, either in conformism or in resistance, it will be a political act. 

Art doesn’t happen for its own sake. It gains meaning after noticed by others. And that relation is never neutral.

You’ve mentioned ecology a few times. What are the hot topics the art world and you yourself reflect on in your creative work lately?

Despite the many ways we have to communicate these days and its extensity, the most relevant question now is the ability to overcome the growing polarisation. The world becomes radical, and perceptions of how we should live are completely different. 

These problems come from the tensions caused by the new climate regime. It’s not only the rising temperature; it’s also the political and social environments, the heating atmosphere that collides. Surrounded by the rising thermometer column and tornados, the sense of absurdity is becoming more real.  

Despite the many ways we have to communicate these days and its extensity, the most relevant question now is the ability to overcome the growing polarisation.

On the one hand, we are a technically strongly advanced civilization, but we absolutely forgot and became ignorant towards soul-technologies. Even our understanding of the spiritual world is reduced to well-being, which so important for becoming more productive. I also see the tendency of returning to mysticism or astrology. It’s not a bad thing itself, but it’s a strange signal of turning into old practices we now inconsistently try to use. 

From Robertas Narkus‘s solo exhibition “Trager”. CAC, Vilnius. 2017

Do you see any ways of solving this tense riddle?

I don’t think that everything is doomed. We still have many possibilities, and everything is still in our hands. But one recipe is not possible. The world is supposed to split into many small structures. I see autonomous zones starting from me as a human, and different communities, creating their own rules, sharing very different opinions, yet being able to coexist. 

Again, conflict is important. We don’t have to agree on everything. We can allow ourselves to enjoy tensions because different mindsets encourage us to move forward.

And what about coexisting of the Lithuanian art community and society – are these two open to different opinions?

Here is always some drama and conflict, where such concepts as a snob evolve. Part of it is inherited from Soviet times. Intellectuals were always dangerous to the church and dictatorships. Strong-opinionated people with a fresh view towards tradition were always dangerous, and it should remain this way. 

However, what happens when a group of active strong-opinionated people gathers in their own diaspora, their own ghetto? Then we live in our own bubble, where we agree and understand each other. We visit the outskirts of society, analyze their problems with some kind of adventurous touristic attitude. Artists often create works about social problems they don’t really relate to or care about, but they think they are solving them this way. Especially if it’s a project that got funding, yes, this problem of separation exists. 

Artists often create works about social problems they don’t really relate to or care about, but they think they are solving them this way. Especially if it’s a project that got funding, yes, this problem of separation exists.

The event at an artist daycare center Autarkia, Vilnius
From Robertas Narkus‘s solo exhibition “The Board”. Vartai Gallery, Vilnius. 2020

Could it be a serious alert that art, after finding its way to the wide public in the 20th century, has started to turn back to the small group of elite, only those who understand and have taste lately?

Lithuania and its culture is a pretty advanced element of the world and global culture. Culture was always a phenomenon of international politics. Art often inspired, encouraged, and influenced political ideas, not only accompanied it with its decorative side. 

One of the rebukes for art, in Lithuania too, is that it became a field strongly serving the financial elite. The artworks are financial assets now. It’s obvious and problematic like never before, and it’s questioned globally. Certain fractures and shifts are going on within the elite and artists. The world is discussing whether art can further operate only as entertainment available for a tight circle, completely detached from reality.

Is the Lithuanian art field ready to speak about this situation and other hot topics of our days we discussed earlier?

In some political systems, like Russia or Belarus, where culture is highly stagnant, these repressed tendencies reflect in every field. Meanwhile, in the countries with active art scene societies are more advanced, new technologies, ideas, and values develop. It’s very important to understand that neither economy nor science could exist separately from art. Culture is not some addition on top of other systems. Our inner needs and willingness to act rise from it.

So, tendencies in Lithuania are good. More artists speak about important questions. There was a time when they aspired to be apolitical, to have no strict opinion. It was perhaps because we, as a society, were tired of all the perturbations back in the day. But it’s time to speak up again. Iceland, where artists are very active, is often a good example for me.

It’s very important to understand that neither economy nor science could exist separately from art.

Artists are expected to be empathic. They are often more sensitive and willing to hear. Also, they frequently overcome the boundaries of all social classes and find themselves closer to people from different backgrounds. I always think about artists as versatile intellectuals who can be interested in art, ecology, politics, or human rights and actively discuss questions important to them and society.

From Robertas Narkus‘s solo exhibition “The Board”. Vartai Gallery, Vilnius. 2020
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