YOUR SOUL, LIKE YOUR SKIN. Kęstutis Svirnelis’ Exhibition “Šerstis” (Furs)
Kęstutis Svirnelis (born in 1976) is residing and creating in Germany. Having completed studies in sculpture at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, he received his MA degree at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. As an artist creating kinetic objects and installations, he analyses the themes of capitalism, consumerism, liberalism, democracy, the man and his role in the system.
Kęstutis Svirnelis’ solo exhibition “Šerstis” is concentrated on global and universal issues addressed in a plain and understandable language, which is Dzukian dialect this time (spoken in southern Lithuania). Born in the village of Zervynai (Varėna region), the artist keeps stressing his Dzukian origin, but also admits the influence of the Swabian (Germany) culture in which surrounding the artist has been living for the past fifteen years. Being differently small, both cultures are distinct and recognisable, with their dialects, traditions and identity. Even the title of the exhibition - Šerstis - is a vernacularism which is actually Šerscis in Dzukian (pronounced as sherstsis, meaning fur).
Material plays an important role in the entire creative process of Kęstutis Svirnelis. In this exhibition, it is fur: whether stiff or soft, artificial or natural, purchased or found under a bridge. In addition to fur, there are plastic figures and motors; moving, kinetic objects that are disturbing and bringing ambiguous thoughts. Some of his works are erotic, others are frustrating, while some others call for being touched and stroked. Yet, the themes are very intimate, telling about the relationship to one’s self, the country, the State and values. The question “What are your values?” is in fact a very intimate one to answer for yourself. And this is what the artist is striving for: creating an uncomfortable and ambiguous situation; provoking thoughts and emotions through a movement, material or shape; activating thoughts about our system of values, including degeneration, desexualisation, democracy, etc. The system of values which, according to the artist, depends on the social class, economic environment, religious, social and other things common to all mankind.
This exhibition of Svirnelis is specially designed for the spaces of Meno Niša gallery. Composed of both new and earlier created pieces, the exhibition is seen by the author as an integral installation, consisting of a multitude of objects relevant in today’s context. According to Kęstutis Svirnelis, the sliding slopes of the Gediminas Castle are not just a skin or exterior surface. The hill is an important symbol of Lithuania and its capital. Symbolism is even deeper in this particular situation. The sliding external surface is linked to something inside. The ongoing actions or reactions transform the Gediminas’ Hill into a reflection of the system, values and other universal connections. This is the message of the exhibition: the inside of the moving objects is invisible, but, through certain movements, the viewer gets the impression of something lurking inside. And that something is not necessarily very nice or funny.
The author refers to his works as reflection and claims creating absurd art for the absurd world. In the “Myth of Sisyphus”, French philosopher Albert Camus elaborates a lot on the “absurd man”, “absurd world” and “absurd philosophy” which, while being very individual, creates the reflection of society. Yet, the absurdity, according to Camus, cannot be sensed and perceived in the usual environment. Unlike Camus, Kęstutis Svirnelis argues that he materialises the absurd which is, as a matter-of-fact, visualised in a reserved, protected manner. At first glance, his works are amusing, quite playful and very plain unless we go into the heart of them. The artist’s stance is that an artwork should be open to interpretations and personal stories or emotions. Sometimes, just titles given for artworks serve as a reference or clue. If one has no feeling of absurdity, it’s better to stay at one’s own world, and see and evaluate things from the point of view of one’s own hierarchy of values.
The creative work of Kęstutis Svirnelis reminds of the principles of Arte Povera (meaning “poor art”), the avant-garde movement taking place in Italy from the late 1960s to the 1970s whose artists explored the relationship with material, its origin, aesthetic and anti-aesthetic properties in defiance of its price. Arte Povera artists believed that art must be political not in its content but in the transforming message it delivers. Leading Arte Povera artists like Greek artist Jannis Kounellis with his live horses in “Untitled (12 Horses)” (1969) or Italian artist Michelangelo Pistolleto with his famous “Venus of the Rags” (1967) mainly sculpted, created objects and made performances. The artists opposed the commercialisation of art and the values of pop art. The cornerstone of creation was the social and cultural value of an artwork.
A variety of the media used by Kęstutis Svirnelis includes dollar bills, throwaway clothes, drainpipes, rubber gloves, cellophanes, wheelchairs, and dummies, as well as furs and fur-coats displayed in this exhibition, is also a sort of political manifest, which is very personal at the same time. Employing the movement, very cheap material (rubber boots, gloves) or very expensive one (natural fur), the artist creates unexpected visual and conceptual associations.
Since the very start of his creation, the sculptor has been using various throwaway objects, things and materials. His works are not only abundant in movements, but also exhibit strong performativity.
One of his most famous works is “Capital”, exhibiting a laughing, rotating and jumping rat, made of dollar bills with a motion sensor which reacts to human presence. “Capital” was displayed at Art Fair ArtVilnius in 2009. Among large-scale installations of Kęstutis Svirnelis presented at ArtVilnius are “The Last Supper”, “Consume” (4-meter pile of clothes, inflating and deflating as a pneumatic column representing a part of the system), “Snowman” (made from gas masks and protective suits). Spectacular installation “Messengers” (made from rubber gloves and drainpipes) was presented at ArtVilnius in 2015. In 2016, the artist supplemented the range of his media with plastic dummies and cellophane. For example, “Something in the Air” speaks of dreams and aspirations, as well as of their reality and fragility. The latest Svirnelis’ work, kinetic object “The Process” presented at ArtVilnius this year, showing a German throwaway wheelchair with a cellophane parachute hanging in the air, close to the ground, speaks of Europe or the European Union which, although trying to parachute to safety, is nonetheless disabled.
It is namely the family, the school, the environment and the language, as well as the given values, which shape the identity of an artist, a man and a State. According to Kęstutis Svirnelis, it is namely the value system that shapes the face of a society, because the values are given not only by the family, but by the State as well. We, who live in the western system of Christian values, choose different forms for our system of values, whether mental, social or religious. And this system of values is reflected in society, extending further to the whole world.
Sonata Baliuckaitė art critic, curator of the exhibition