Interview with art critic Esther Harrison from Berlin.
A gallery from a small country, namely Lithuania, which, by the way, is the geographical centre of Europe.
By Giedrė Legotaitė, 2018, November-December.
New York, 2017 - a profusion of artworks at the Volta Art Fair staged on the huge Hudson River fair piers.
The booth of Meno Parkas catches the piercing glance of the writer and art critic Esther Harrison from Berlin.
A gallery from a small country, namely Lithuania, which, by the way, is the geographical centre of Europe.
For this country, Lithuania that is, 2018 is the year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of its restored independence. Yet Lithuania is not a very familiar or commonly known country it seems, and some could even be easily convinced it lies in Africa.
Being a successful working and engaging part of the global art world means mostly being recognized, identified beyond your yard. It means having to be present at well-visited exhibitions, projects, art fairs, teaming up with other professionals - and not only from the arts, but from other areas as well. To post, to be reposted, to be tagged or even just to appear in the background of a selfie. Being written about, however, is by far most appreciated acknowledgement.
But how does a writer choose what to look at it, what to visit out of such a vast amount of offerings and venues, in an art world that would appear to serve up seemingly endless opportunities and encounters?
Therefore, it is of great value when an art critic notices and observes your further steps and actions. Esther Harrison is a quite unique case for me. Living in Berlin, and flying to other art capitals, she is surrounded by a constant stream of art events, and yet she became decidedly interested in Lithuanian artists and art events.
I had a chance to meet Esther during her stay in Lithuania while visiting the international contemporary art festival “Kaunas in Art. “So Close, So Far”.
After becoming interested in Lithuania at the Volta Art Fair, she previously wrote an article dedicated to the younger Generation of Lithuanian artists, before diving into Lithuania itself – hence the centre of Europe.
- Esther, you wrote about the “Meno parkas” participation at the art fair VOLTA NY (2017) staged in Manhattan and then about Andrius Zakarauskas show at the Magic Beans Gallery held in Berlin previously this year. Why are Lithuanian artists on your scope?
It really all got started with the work of Jonas Gasiunas, “Willow Lake” which I saw at the Meno Parkas booth at the Volta Fair. I can remember the effect it had on me very clearly. It was the use and combination of charcoal, and of candle smoke and oil, and then I was also instantly drawn to the airy and dream like floating woman in contrast to the nearly prosaically, but also menacing depicted lake scene. All the elements, the sky, the water seem to merge into each other and had this milky quality to it. The painting gives me pleasure and in the same time the shivers. To me personally, there seems to be a hidden agenda in this work, but also mere beauty and ease. It is most certainly (at least for me) an unusual work that stays with you.
When Magic Beans Gallery started into the year of 2018 with a solo exhibition by Andrius Zakarauskas, I had the opportunity to see a preview of the show and to interview him. His paintings blew me away. Again. Of course, his works differ from the ones of Jonas Gasiunas, first notable the vivid and the amount of colors he works, with and the very strong story telling narratives in them.
But there was one element that I had found and felt also in Gasiunas works. The hidden Agenda, the feeling there was something lurking underneath. In Germany we have a saying, “Die Ruhe vor dem Sturm, The calm before the storm”
So after that experience and after talking to Andrius in person, I got really interested in Lithuanian artists and the country´s art scene.
- Do you always keep the artists in mind whose work aroused your interest?
Yes, I do. But as you pointed out yourself, there is such a vast amount of art and artists one encounters, that sometimes I need to really just close down, and digest. I have certainly experienced that less is more.
Or, do you have some kind of “incubation period” as to how long you are following the work of artist or gallery, institution etc., and then decide to keep it in your focus or take it out?
Yes, also this happens. But usually I know right away if I am interested in an artist or not. But an incubation period can never hurt. (;
I work and write mostly based on my intuition. So, letting go of something if there is no time or not a perfect fit is often just right. In my experience it will pop up again if and when there is the right setting or opportunity. At least this is how I work or how it happens with me on a regular basis concerning the artists I am interested in and want to write about or work with.
In general, I think most importantly, one has to be in the flow and trust the flow. Then it all comes together nicely in the end. It is a very satisfying feeling. Like putting a puzzle together.
- How do you select what to write about, whose artworks to post on your Instagram? The question may sound stupid – but the field of interest can be so wide and wild! I guess you have to turn down a lot, even if it’s good, interesting?
I only post content and artists I will write about or who I personally find interesting in terms of their works and / or the messages they convey.
In general, I don´t share events which have an entrance fee or that ask to get shared just to reach a wider range or due to my network. There are many other mediums with a gallery calendar option. I don´t write or share just to have the next post or article. Especially with my new blog Coeur et art, authentic curated content adds to the value, not only for the featured artists but also for the readers and followers. It is also a must in my personal view and style as an art critic and writer. After all, the people follow the blogs and magazines whose style appeals most to them. And that’s the beauty of writing and publishing online and with social media channels. There are so many opportunities and flavours and there is room for everyone! So again I feel, less is more, and always, really always to follow your guts. Especially if it means writing about artists or events that are not on the map of the mainstream art scene.
- When you travel, how do you collect impressions and form your opinions about the face of the country’s art and culture? Especially, when the visiting cities are not included in the “Tourists’ Top 10” list?
First of all, I take a lot of photos, I always do. These are not particularly from the usual sites, but of elements, or views, or details that attract or speak to me in a certain way. I love looking at windows, gates, gardens, random views in general, store windows and so on. In these normal and everyday objects and places, you see the distinct style or visual difference of a city, country or region. I also scribble down the thoughts and feelings I have walking through the streets or riding a bus. And of course, if I have the time, I visit a museum, or check out big art shows that are in town.
I have to say in the last few years, but also in general, in my experience the real magic happens outside the general comfort zone and this is especially true for countries, cities which are NOT in the top 10. I realised that I definitely favour visiting the periphery, especially when it comes to art events or interviewing artists. Somehow the art is more intense, and I like highlighting places and artists that are not on everyone’s list. That’s what makes them interesting to me!
- What do you know about other events from Baltic states? Let’s say, I heard a good deal from a number of people, and also watched images from Riga’s International Biennial of Contemporary Art (ended in October 2018). Wish I had gone there. Looks like a really good quality event, combining good artists, expositions, interesting venues. I bet you would also like it.
To be honest, I have to do more research about Riga´s Biennial before being able to talk about it. But there is another Biennial I learned about when I was visiting Lithuania, The Kaunas Biennial! We got the chance to visit the Textil Department of the University in Kaunas, right when the South African Artist Christine Dixie, who was invited to show her video work and installation “To be King” at the Kaunas in Art Festival, gave a lecture there about her work, and we were able to talk briefly to the director Monika Žaltauskaitė–Grašienė which was really interesting. Again, there was a new connection too, as they are cooperating with an artist residency and art centre in Berlin called ZKU – based on their 4 year long Creative European platform entitled “Magic Carpets” which involves 13 cultural organisations from EU and candidate countries (started in 2017)
So June 2019, my next visit will certainly be in Kaunas and Lithuania, while there is also an interesting lead and story to follow up here in Berlin with ZKU beforehand.
I would also like to spend a few days in Vilnius and more time in the newly opened MO Museum. We got to pay a visit briefly on our journey back to Berlin recently where I also saw works of Andrius Zakarauskas and Jonas Gasiunas again, but many other Lihtuanian artists I don´t know anything about yet. So there is really a lot to experience and to explore. And Riga is of course also on the list.
- Coming to the end – at the outset, I mentioned the fact that Lithuania is the geographical centre of Europe. Did Lithuania leave this impression also with regard to other facts?
I haven´t really thought of the fact that it is the centre of Europe. I really wasn´t aware of this before. But there is one sentence that kept popping up again and again in my head while I was there and I think it was really the perfect headline for the Kaunas in art festival this year: “So close. So far.”
I think that describes my feeling about Lithuania and its artists in an accurate but also melancholic way - which is a beautiful feeling.
- Last question: what keeps you going in writing about art? Why do you do it?
I know it may sound a bit cheesy, but never mind. Good art literally makes my heart jump. In addition to the mental and emotional impact it can cause a real physical reaction.
Only music can achieve this kind of effect inside me, but art has a different value on an intellectual level for me and I am deeply passionate about it. If I would feel like there is no real passion for art inside me anymore, I would do something different.
But this is not very likely, that’s for sure!
Contemporary art festival "Kaunas in Art. So Close, So Far" (2018). Fragment of exhibition with installation "In Between" by Laura Zaveckaitė (LT / USA). Photography by Airida Rekštytė
Contemporary art festival "Kaunas in Art. So Close, So Far" (2018). Fragment of exhibition with installation "The Flow that Struck The Wall" by Simonas Nekrošius (LT). Photography by Airida Rekštytė
Contemporary art festival "Kaunas in Art. So Close, So Far" (2018). Fragment of exhibition with installation "Word Count 04: The Martyrdom of Professor Sanchez" by Kasia Fudakowski (UK), producer Marietta Aurras (DE). Photography by Airida Rekštytė
Contemporary art festival "Kaunas in Art. So Close, So Far" (2018). Fragment of exhibition with installation "To Be King" by Christine Dixie (ZA). Photography by Airida Rekštytė
Contemporary art festival "Kaunas in Art. So Close, So Far" (2018). Fragment of exhibition. Photography by Airida Rekštytė