The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Interview with Stewart Home
Page 2 of 3
In Lithuania, and the other Baltic states, we don't really have such a large contemporary art market – some would even say we don't have one at all. So we could maybe call this position “virgin”, not abused by the “art market system of wild capitalism”?
There are only a few global centers for the art market and London is one of them. I was born in London and my understanding of the world stems from London. I do appreciate the situation is very different in Lithuania.
It depends how you define art – if you want to sell it, then it doesn't matter. Artists, especially in London, tend to have huge egos. People get really upset because I might blog stuff and say the opening was full of B-list artists. And they think I'm insulting them because I'm saying they're not A-list. But actually I think B-list artists are better than A-list artists, because in my view artists who sell massive amounts of work are really boring, and I find no contemporary A-list artist interesting.
So I think not having a market is good because then you can develop in other ways and not worry. I went to Alytus, to the Art Strike biannual and it was far from trying to create a sellable work. And I don't really think it matters whether it's art or not. I don't care. I just like to be amused I guess.
What was your interest to come to Lithuania?
I was invited to the Art Strike biannual by Redas [Diržys – the initiator and organizer of the biannual], whom I met in Belfast in 2005. I'm curious about going to different places. I was in Estonia in 1997. I had a writing residency at the Tampere University [Finland] and I used my weekends to go to different places. I'd go to Helsinki, Stockholm, and I went to Tallinn. The Baltics of course were very different in 1997 than they are now. I was very curious about what I came across in Tallinn at that time. I was astounded by the amount of pornography in Estonia. When a society is liberalized from totalitarianism, you always have an explosion of pornography. The same thing happened in Spain – it doesn't have to be a Bolshevik regime... And the city centre in Tallinn was beautiful.
So I was curious to go to Lithuania, too. I thought Alytus was a really interesting town. I've been there a couple of times, last summer and the summer before. The first time I went the town was very empty. The population seemed to be the young or old, there were few people between the age of 20 and 40 and there were more women than men.
To me Alytus was particularly fascinating because you could see the way it was zoned. It was built up as a manufacturing town by the soviets and it was crazily organized. You could understand what was meant to be the centre, but it didn't really look like a centre. There were a few shops and a couple of restaurants. And then you walk further and there's a lake in the town centre that everyone goes to swim in. I thought that was interesting and nice. Walking down the other direction you come to 60’s soviet housing blocks. They looked very much like a lot of housing blocks I'm used to from London. The difference was that they were in a worse condition than blocks you'd see here in London. They didn't look well built. I think modernist tower blocks are beautiful. But, obviously, if you build the wrong type of tower block or don't maintain it, it doesn't work.
It was also interesting to find restaurant menus in Lithuanian, Russian and English. But the English translations looked as if they were written for people who didn’t speak Lithuanian or Russian, not for native English speakers. And people would get really surprised when you were speaking English. I spent two weeks there, and also went to different places like Vilnius. But to me Vilnius seemed very geared towards tourists, no one was surprised you were English or from London or an English speaker, while it seemed more entertaining walking around Alytus, where people would be surprised to see you there.
The first time I was in Alytus I went to the Afghan Veterans Museum which I found in a tourist guide. It was really fascinating because you got to talk to these guys who were conscripted by the soviets, didn't want to be in the army, saw their friends die, and didn’t want to be in Afghanistan. They hadn't experience talking to someone about it because they were in the Soviet Army. They were really nice guys and they had amazing stories to tell. Obviously, if you went to Vilnius you would probably see more interesting art, but maybe the objects are not the most interesting thing; the people are. I am more fascinated by talking with Afghan victims in the Afghan Veterans Museum. They were pulling out this vodka that they’d made in some kind of anti-missile cases, incredibly strong vodka.
I went back there again this summer for the biannial. The guys were there and it was really important for them to have all these international people recognizing that they've been in this terrible situation of being forced to fight for the soviets, being forced to occupy Afghanistan. No one wanted to talk about it with them because it was a war everyone wished hadn’t happened, everyone wished that the Soviet Union hadn't involved Lithuania in it.
The veterans we met at the museum were amazingly generous. This time they had their wives with them, and they gave presents. Artists from all around Europe came together with us the second time we visited. The wives made traditional Lithuanian cakes.
And again – the whole culture of mushroom foraging in Lithuania was fascinating for me. Because the only mushrooms anyone would go looking for in the UK are magic mushrooms. And in Lithuania it is incredible – you get the greatest mushrooms, like chanterelles.
According to you, what was the Art Strike biennale about?
I think Redas wanted to protest against the Vilnius biannual. He's from Alytus and he said the problem was that all the attention goes to artists in Vilnius. He wanted to do something different from bureaucratized art culture in Vilnius, which according to him was trying to kill the kind of expression that he wanted to see more. That was one message. And the other, which was important to me, was related to the idea that such towns as Alytus were much more interesting places than touristified Vilnius. Alytus is not geared up for tourists, so it is much easier to find great places there. Vilnius is now being made to look like the rest of Europe. London didn't look like the rest of Europe in 1970s, London looked like shit; it was a mess. But I'd rather have an interesting mess than a tourist town. A lot of Central London is so clean now, compared to what it used to be like. It used to be smashed up, dirty, full of rubbish, but it had more character. When the Soviet bloc crumbled, going through Eastern Europe you would feel “great, that's what London used to be”. I don't have a big thing against this cleaning up and I think that the expansion of horizons is a good thing. But within this expansion you want to keep particularity. I don't want to come to Lithuania to find out it looks like London. It's boring.