The Life and the Death of the Fox
“A few days later, two magpies, which came flying around noon, found the fox stretched on the ground not far from the foxhole.
– Ka-ka-ka! – one of them laughed, looking at the fox. She’s dead all right!
– I hope the scum isn’t faking it! – the second magpie added.
– No! Her tail is flat like veneer and her legs stick out like spokes. She’s all stiff.
– What about the eyes? – the second magpie asked.
– The eyes don’t look at us – they’re shut.
– Well, if the eyes are shut and the tail doesn’t wag, maybe she’s dead indeed.
That said, the second magpie landed on the ground from the branch and got near the fox, hopping sideways, still uncertain that she is dead. Yet the fox remained lying completely prostrate. Having sneaked closer, the magpie pecked her tail and jumped back. The fox remained still.”
Scientific analysis of the case:
“This may have been hysterical paralysis (…) It is easy to understand how, from Fright or sudden Joy, there may be a shock, more or less temporary, to the motor centres by which some part is rendered unable to respond to the stimulus of the Will, or of ideas, or emotions (…) The Will, however healthy, is as powerless to stimulate the nerves of motion as is galvanism to excite a frog's nerve poisoned by woorara (…) So, in two ways, mental shock causes paralysis; directly, through the voluntary motor fibres, and, indirectly, through the vaso-motor nerves. These changes are severally indicated by outward signs of muscular paralysis, and altered vascularity and nutrition.”
It seems that a short explanation of the introduction is necessary. The beginning of the text was suggested by the Stanikas’ installation The Life and Death of the Fox and the well-known Lithuanian literary work sharing the same title, as well as a particular excerpt from it, which surprisingly seemed to “click” with a treatise on psychophysiology (we shall return to this context later).
Surely, it is not the “case” and its “explanation” – that is, their content – that are important here, but rather their alogical coupling, which can illustrate some important characteristics of the Stanikas’ work – the multi-faceted combinations and oppositions of different media, forms of expression, and styles (epochs), paradoxes that balance between reality and fiction, beauty and ugliness, civic stance and grotesque , collective destiny and subjective memory , various concepts of bodily reality, elite and carnivalesque culture, etc.
Already the early works of Svajone and Paulius Stanikas were characterised by the confrontation between the different layers of meaning, expressed through opposition of form and content or simply juxtaposition of differing objects (Hände Hoch, 1991, Sonnets, 1994, Untitled, 1995), dominant iconography of the body/bodily reality, and distinctive (pseudo)retro-aesthetic approach. Over time, all of these traits became increasingly complex and overlapping, until it was difficult to tell where one opposition ended and another one began. The artists create complex installations that incorporate drawings, photographs, sculptures, video, texts, found objects, and the interplay of light and sound in the space, avoiding the conventions of any single defined style.
Speaking of the works’ formal structure, it can be stated that the Stanikas prefer conceptual representation to the narrative one. This statement can be illustrated by their work The Men Are Watching Leaving Women (2004), where an apparently coherent narrative system (the Lithuanian Song Festival in the Soviet times) is divided into two separate photographs, one of which portrays a group of women in traditional folk costumes holding hands, while the other one shows a group of men. Separated by massive frames, the photographs are nevertheless mounted next to each other, even pushed together, so that the fact of the contraction and problematisation of the meaning threads of a seemingly consistent narrative is emphasised. In this way, we “read” the mentioned narrative not as linear (following the subject-predicate or cause-effect scheme), but rather as associative (vertical), socio-ideologically hierarchical.
Consequently, bearing in mind the mentioned method of representation, one can attempt to look at the other – iconographic – level of the Stanikas’ work, which is dominated by images of the (often the Stanikas’ own) body.
The image of the body in Western culture always suggests certain versions (or perceptions) of history. Therefore, it is not just the body per se that is important, but also the particular historical/cultural “thresholds”, at least several of which can be traced in the Stanikas’ work, depending on one’s point of view.
One of such “thresholds” can be associated with Western cultural mentality of the late 19th century and particularly the specific (psycho)neurological context. This stylistic and semantic “fixation” is not accidental, as most of those writing about the Stanikas’ work consciously or unconsciously notice it. For instance, the following prominent figures of the second half of the 19th century are mentioned: Nietzsche, Rodin, and the neurologists Jean Martin Charcot and Paul Richer.
Charcot (like many of his contemporary neurologists) examined the history of Western Christian iconography in cold blood, applying a paradoxical methodology, and also put together an unprecedented photographic “collection” of hysterical neurosis.
Charcot and his colleagues problematised the tradition of demonic possession and exorcism through the use of emerging modern mythologems, having radically transformed the old Christian imagery and thus planted a foreign semantic system in the place of an already familiar one.
Thus, there was an almost blind belief in the imminent unriddling of the enigma of the human soul and the discovery of the spiritual substance in the grey matter of the brain, as well as the causes of all mental activity. Clothed in an evening dress and placed inside the studio environment, the (female) body seized with convulsions, captured by the most objective device – the photographic camera, was supposed to open to one’s eyes the bottom of reality, purged from religious and aesthetic sediments.
As already mentioned, the Stanikas exploit this imagery of extreme, pathological states of the body and semantic oppositions, yet they seem to build the chain of associations in reverse to Charcot’s patho-positivism and progressivism, and their preferred order partly echoes Carl Gustav Jung’s view, according to which pathological (schizophrenic) layers of the psyche have “all the characteristics which primitive civilization attributed to the grossest magic.”
Nevertheless, this is more than just an attempt to recover, in line with Jung’s concept of archetypes, the metaphysical content that was depredated by the positivism of the 19th century, as the Stanikas’ retro-tactics can also be seen as wandering and multidirectional – for instance, in the context of David Lynch’s trick with the midget’s dance in one of Twin Peaks’ scenes, which is acted in reverse to be reversed again later in editing, producing the effect of a normal and, at the same time, alogical, dreamlike (anti-)narrative system. Thus, in an oversimplification, it can be concluded that Charcot’s iconography of hysteria states that there is no soul, while the Stanikas do not seek to claim the contrary: rather, they repeat Charcot’s statement, but in such a way (“tone”, “timbre”, etc.) that we begin to question this statement’s validity.
This is not to say that the Stanikas are religious or esoteric mystics in the direct sense of this word, or that their art is didactically moralistic. It is not the particular things that the Stanikas portray that are important, but the way they portray them, and especially the way they treat a certain ideological (Communist) recurring theme. While the Westerners usually view the latter through the dry intellectual prism of “social revolutions”, the Stanikas demonise it. And this can be (speculatively) understood as a distinctive semantic layer of Lithuanianness , which still exploits the rhetoric of the soul , especially bearing in mind the “ultra-Catholic Lithuanian context” or the “mytho-iconography of the victim” that is prevalent in Lithuania.
To be even more specific, one could say that, alongside the pathological psycho-physical neurological representation of the bodily reality that characterised the late 19th century, the Stanikas are concerned with one more “threshold”.
The Stanikas not only exploit the pathological, near-death images of the body and the paradoxical, oppositional meanings, but also wrap this visual rhetoric of extreme states (and meanings) of the body into a manneristic, ornate, decadent Baroque outfit. As it is widely known, the (visual, literary, musical) culture of the retrograde (aiming to revive the spirit of the Middle Ages), death-obsessed Baroque epoch was characterised by the (bodily) extremes of asceticism and hedonism, fantasies, religious mysticism, paradoxical thinking, complex rhetorical constructs, casuistry, vulgarities, (inherited) mannerism, and the decadently flamboyant pompa funebris aesthetic…
And when Svajone and Paulius Stanikas say in one interview: “Basically, Vilnius has the biggest influence on our work. With its changing seasons, with all of its bones…” , how can one not remember the saying that Vilnius is a Baroque city? We can use the semantic leitmotif of the Baroque epoch’s extremes and iconographic thinking based on the belief that “one moment you are sitting for a portrait, and the next minute Death already escorts you to the door” , as well as that of “the bones of Vilnius”, as a springboard for a leap to the autobiographic sphere of the Stanikas’ work.
The Stanikas developed as artists and made their debuted in the Vilnius of the late 1980s – early 1990s, a “mythical” and “mystical” spacetime for Lithuania, defined by revaluation of ideological values, extremes, and decaying worldview, which can also be considered one of the essential transformations of the Lithuanian identity, or a “schismogenesis threshold”.
This directly autobiographical layer of social and subjective history (their own bodies, immediate environment, interiors, historical images) is directly involved in the symbolic iconography created by the Stanikas (The Men Are Watching Leaving Women, 2004, A Look. Vilnius (Soviet Union), 1976, 2001, etc.).
In conclusion, it can be said that Svajone and Paulius Stanikas speak the “sterile” international language of contemporary art, yet one can trace two national layers in it – the deeper emotional/semantic layer and the more evident iconographic/symbolic one. In other words, speaking the high-quality, refined language of the Western art market and universal problems, the Stanikas simultaneously work with the (equally contemporary) specific national mythologems , touching upon the historical-cultural “traumatic thresholds”.
Exploiting these disturbed semantic layers of (inter)nationality, the Stanikas often look back, using paradoxical semantic “retro-”, “(art) history-reversing” tactics, yet they should not be understood literally. “Reconstructing” or “thrusting” (unconscious) memory images in a glaring advertising-like style typical of today’s culture, the Stanikas not only activate and problematise the contemporary mythologems, but also speak about the gaps between temporally remote semantic/symbolic systems and the paradoxes of thinking, faith, and self-realisation in today’s world.
Vincas Pietaris. Lapės gyvenimas ir mirtis (The Life and Death of the Fox). Kaunas: Sakalas, 1930, p. 17-18.
Daniel Hack Tuke. Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind upon the Body in Health and Disease. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1872, p. 218.
Since the Stanikas’ oeuvre is essentially an integral whole that is constantly increasing and getting richer in meaning, rather than a sum of separate drawings, photographs, sculptures, films, etc. (even if one imagines this whole as a multitude of projects scattered over space and time), this text also deals with the artists’ work as a whole, instead of focusing solely on their project in Vartai Gallery.
Antanas Andrijauskas. Body and Face Topology by S & P Stanikas. In: S & P Stanikas. End of a Millenium. New York: Solidarity, 2005, p. 13.
Isabelle Hersant. Violence and Melancholy. In: S & P Stanikas. End of a Millenium. New York: Solidarity, 2005, p. 20.
“In this way we are enriched with the substrate of the past phases in art history, reworked into a new vision, in which memory functions latently, much like the suppressed traumas affect the psyche, gradually turning it into a neurotic one.” (Jean de Loisy. World War. In: World War: S & P Stanikas. The 50th Venice Biennale. New York: Solidarity, 2003, p. 8.)
Ibid, p. 8.
Jean-Martin Charcot had founded a separate photography studio and laboratory at the Salpetriere clinic in Paris, where, aided by photographers, he used the confined women as models (Augustine being the most famous of them) to stage and construct (record and classify) the phenomenon of hysterical neurosis.
For instance, the analysis of Barthelemy Zeytbloom’s painting, in which St. Valentine heals a young epileptic (c. 1490) contains the following statement: “without lengthy deliberations, we can state that this is an arc (l’arc de cercle), while the crossed arms symbolise hysteria or epilepsy. Yet the nature of the convulsion, the flabbiness of the open arms has no basis in reality – it does not correspond to any bodily spasms and can be explained only in terms of composition”; the examination of Raphael’s drawing of a “possessed young man” (from The Transfiguration of Christ, 1520) concludes: “this figure does not display any precise symptoms of epilepsy or hysteria. We can add that, in our view, it does not correspond to any of the convulsive pathologies known to us. The physiologist Charles Bell has presented several discussions of the Possessed that are of importance to us as well. He compared two works depicting possession – the mentioned drawing by Raphael and one by Domenichino – and gave preference to the latter one – We can only endorse this conclusion. (J.-M. Charcot (de l`institut) et Paul Richer. Les Démoniaques dans l`art. Paris: Place de l`école-de-medecin, 1887, p. 22-23, 28).
Carl Gustav Jung. Psychogenesis of Schizophrenia. The British Medical Journal, 1(4084), April 15, 1939, p. 788.
The photographs of bodies seized with (often faked) convulsions are classified and arranged, with the help of appropriate titles and explanations, into a narrative, “illustrative” system – a seizure of hysteria, the course of a seizure, the characteristic phases (epileptoid (strange facial expressions), clownism (alogical movements), plastic poses and deliria), the decline of a seizure, etc.
“We should note (…) that the questions which we ask ourselves in the daily, physical life (…) do not provide a solution to the relevant problems of “Good” and “Evil”. They (the Stanikas – K. Š.) merely observe that we live in a time when, avoiding short-term moralisms, we do what we have to do led by contradictory, extreme impulses balancing on the verge of acceptability. And the essential question is probably this: are we able and ready to accept them?” (Christian Caujolle. In: S & P Stanikas. End of a Millenium. New York: Solidarity, 2005, p. 5)
We should consider the relationship with certain global forces (for instance, the phenomenon of Communism) in the different regions and national contexts, as well as the distinctive mytho-poetic images, which serve as the basis for subjective, cultural, and national memory.
“Eastern central Europe” as a single entity is a Western fiction that fails to recognize differences between nations, something that applies to memory as well. Stefan Troebst has distinguished four zones: in the Baltic states, Croatia and Slovakia a clear anti-communist consensus predominates, while in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, the past is dealt with in a way that is (increasingly) controversial. Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania share an ambivalence or indifference towards the communist past, while Russia, Belarus, Moldova and other CIS countries exhibit a high degree of continuity in terms of elites and ideology. In this latter group, Stalin is often seen as the sole commander of the “Great Patriotic War” (…).” Claus Leggewie. Battlefield Europe. In: Kultūros barai, 2009, Nr. 10, p. 10.
One must also consider another aspect – that of the relationship with Communism or the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century in general. For instance, a Lithuanian (an Eastern European), who had experienced life under the communist system firsthand, will always have a different – let us say emotional – relationship with it than the Westerner who did not have a direct experience of this regime.
Tomek Katlinski and Pawel Leszkowicz. Eastern Europe`s Tales of Terror: the Art of the Stanikas. In: World War: S & P Stanikas. The 50th Venice Biennale. New York: Solidarity, 2003, p. 22.
Jean de Loisy. World War. In: World War: S & P Stanikas. The 50th Venice Biennale. New York: Solidarity, 2003, p. 9.
Tomek Katlinski and Pawel Leszkowicz. Eastern Europe`s Tales of Terror: the Art of the Stanikas. In. World War: S & P Stanikas. The 50th Venice Biennale. New York: Solidarity, 2003, p. 16.
S & P Stanikas about the Vilnius Art Mafia. http://370.diena.lt/2010/10/22/sp-stanikai-apie-vilniaus-meno-mafija/ (accessed on January 12, 2011)
Mindaugas Paknys. Mirtis LDK kulturoje XVI-XVII a. Vilnius: Aidai, 2008, p. XLVIII.
“(…) identity is first experienced and develops within the individual, and only then manifests itself externally. Thus, in order to grasp the essence of the contemporary Lithuanian identity, one must go all the way back to the time of its becoming – the period between 1989 and 1992. (…) The concept of liminality (…) spans such extreme, transitional situations and conditions, which are characterised by the destabilisation of structures and the unclear state and future of the tradition. The state of instability and ductility creates social situations in which the lived-through experiences change people cognitively, emotionally, and morally. (…) The notion of schismogenesis (…) describes a process when the previously harmonious components of a particular societal or worldview entity begin to diverge for one or another reason, distorting the essence of that entity. Here schismogenesis marks two processes of disintegration – in worldview formations that previously appeared homogeneous, for instance, the idea of Lithuanianness (…).” (Arvydas Grišinas. Liminalumas ir schizmogenezė: lietuviškumas kaip šventybė? In: Naujasis židinys-Aidai, 2010, Nr. 12, p. 461-462.)
For instance, we can identify the layers of the specifically German post-war mentality in the work of Joseph Beuys – not so much in the subject matter, but rather in the formal solutions and the latent semantics, read the controversial nature of 20th-century Russia’s political and aesthetic history in the genesis of Oleg Kulik’s performative Pavlov’s-dog-like corporeality, and treat Paul McCarthy’s “characters” and Matthew Barney’s grotesque bodily transformations as a cross-section of the “shallow”, commercialised, behaviourist American culture, etc.