Sex and Death in Lithuania
Representing Lithuania at this year's Venice Biennale was the husband and wife team of Svajone and Pauline Stanikas. Their exhibit, World War, was composed of an extensive goth-baroque palette of multiple mediums. Very different bodies of the Stanikas' work were selected from to create this installation, woven together to make a surprisingly consistent and coherent single theme of craving and alienation.
The pavilion included enormous drawings of fantastic eroticism, sculpture of a family's corpse remains, photographic portraits of disoriented suffererers, and a video projection of dance performed as useless protest against spiritual mortality. The Stanikas' executed all of their work with exquisite academic craftsmanship. But even with so many assorted material vehicles to negotiate, they have reliably avoided prioritizing object-making over content.
We are propelled at every step through the exhibit by the forceful presence of sexual victory, in which sexuality is mournfully placed as a metaphor for self-destruction. Sexuality fails here as a tool of survival, of procreation, in that it is an expression of the same narcissism that also produces terror and mutilation. The first part of this examination is within the drawings, imposing and confident vignettes of pornographic indulgence. It is the total lack of both self-consciousness and exhibitionism that makes these drawings so potent, and also starves them of any potential depravity or perversion. They remain fearless celebrations, even if some echo of threat is what completes their thrill.
In the sculpture series Your Father, Your Sons, and Your Daughter, we are presented with a collection of family members, to varying degrees physically incomplete and sized incorrectly to each other. This physical mismatch manufactures the separateness that they share in death. They fail to encompass each other. They segment from each other, and make strangers out of the bodies they touched and understood in life. These sculptures are not flesh, but instead, merely skin. They supply evidence of occupied space only, kept full after the moment of death as something less formally complete than a ghost. There are no apparent witnesses to their descent and transformation. This is not the freezing of memory, but the perpetual reenactment of it, dreamlike and hypnotic. Their genitals are pronounced and sore in color, displayed as evidence of the humanity that has been forfeited, and as passion instruments nearly silenced. In death, though they are still aglow like embers, the sexual organs are painful offerings of an infectious anonymity that one might catch merely by touching them.
In most of their photographs, the Stanikas present us with people who record trauma, or anticipate trauma, with intense disassociation. They retreat, submit, accept, and are complicit. Collectively they admit the memory of strong will that has been rendered impotent, and malformed into further unanimous invisibility. Pivotal to this statement is the considerably misleading tranquility of Asia, a delicate photograph of a child who resides entirely in a fantasy of unconsciousness. We see a close-up of his satin face against a faint, vacant background. With seamless youth, he solicits us into the shelter of his narcotic simplicity, away from the obscurity that consumes the others. The endless distance between what we wish to see as his spirit, and what we expect to be its ultimate corruption, takes visual form in a photograph of the open sea, August 2002. This landscape is so unblemished and fresh that it easily admits the unreliability of its safe haven. It implores our rapture, but insists at its own illegitimacy even as we turn under its spell.
This simplicity is, perhaps, uncomfortably similar to the scenes of orgies in the drawings. The difference is that the boy and the ocean enjoy a purity for which there is no real definition, an allegorical innocence that is reserved for babies and angels. We are not meant to take seriously the Asian child's monosyllabic autonomy from the war that we are confronted with everywhere else. These two photographs are intentionally foolish, to describe the point that innocence is not the same thing as ignorance. True innocence of spirit, as present in the drawings, involves a certain amount of difficult behavior.
The video Two Women is another kind of daydream, dusty and claustrophobic. It is a dream shared between two dancers, one we are told is "serious," and the other "bad." They dance secretly. The freedom they grant themselves is one of eager distraction, willing childishness, and dorsi-flexed illusionism. They resist psychic death, even though the struggle they offer is one that appears quite fragile and beautiful. Dance is the psychology of the refugee, not the prisoner, but is still a byproduct of systemic fear. The video serves as a final word on the situational stranger, who is made strange by the displacement of any reliance upon the future. The women dance to the elimination of shared group memory and the incorporation of group suicide. They dance because intense craving is produced in the chest under all circumstances, from simple respiration. It is the craving shared by all occupants of, and responsible for, this World War.
The visual descriptions of desire and withdrawal that are stated and restated throughout the exhibit become the alluring language used to confront the viewer with the more specific exploration of the anonymity shared by both a victim and a predator. We see here a clear erasure of distance between unconscious behavior and conspiracy. The title "World War" may first appear to be an indictment of a brutality committed by invaders, a charge that would certainly be appropriate coming from a country such as Lithuania. As a whole, however, the artwork is dismissive of blame that is not immediately answerable by any resident victim-predator population itself. We do not, then, see an historical description at all, but one of unidentified war, and the horizon-less landscape belonging to it, in which the individual is completely exorcised from intentionality.
Jordan Essoe is an artist and writer based in San Francisco.