THE NAME OF THE FOUNDING KING OF LITHUANIA, “Mindaugas” is a relatively common appellation in the Baltic country, loosely translating to “many ideas.” It is also the name of the character who serves, quite literally, as the human conduit for the Eleventh Baltic Triennial, which kicked off its twelve-day run on Thursday, August 24, at Vilnius’s Contemporary Art Center.
Eschewing the traditional format, curators Defne Ayas and Benjamin Cook chose to focus on performance and film, recruiting artists Michael Portnoy and Ieva Misevičiūte to plot a creative framework that would work to the advantage of both artmaking modes. Mindaugas became the “empty vessel” to receive ideas; each day he was activated by a different set of instructions provided by artists including Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Marianne Vitale, and Steve Cosson of the Civilians. Every evening, Mindaugas would complete a private, self-restoring ritual devised by Catherine Sullivan and Farhad Sharmini, and go to sleep. Performances from the likes of Ragnar Kjartansson, Goodiepal, and Ivo Dimchev would then stand in for a speculative glimpse into Mindaugas’s dream life.
Spearheaded by Cook, the film component, “The Cinema of the Self,” explored the limits of sanity and selfhood with offerings from Eric Baudelaire, Neïl Beloufa, and Moyra Davey. As a special commission-in-progress, Mark Aerial Waller would shoot, edit, and screen daily installments of Time Together, whose twelve episodes folded quotidian events of the triennial (from sunspots to curatorial cameos to commentary on a freak power outage) into a larger (but equally unpredictable) narrative. By the time I left, the cast included a creepy, candy-drugging stranger (Lithuanian soap diva Monika Bičiūnaitė), and an unsuspecting ingenue played by Smiltė Bagdžiūnė, a model who also moonlights as an artisanal lollipop entrepreneur.
On opening night, CAC director Kęstutis Kuizinas and Lithuania’s affable minister of culture each said a few words, before the crowd was funneled into the “Charismateria” for Portnoy’s SRO 100 Big Entrances. The performance’s premise is straightforward enough: The artist reads aloud a list of ways to make an entrance, and the performer does his best to comply. The directives were at once lucid and convoluted, as only Portnoy could pull off. (Example: “Enter with a mixture of ferociousness, para-ferociousness, and para-volitional ferromagnetism.”) Mindaugas—whose IMDB credits include the role of “Jewish Father Being Beaten #1” in a Daniel Craig movie—further proved his acting prowess by demonstrating the subtleties between entering “like oil,” “like virgin olive oil,” and “like extra virgin olive oil.” Meanwhile, his dark tousled hair and snug white T-shirt had his audience weighing the implications of secretly wanting to go home with the triennial—a scenario that seemed suddenly, tantalizingly possible when Portnoy commanded Mindaugas to find someone in the crowd he could fall in love with, sending lights up on a hopeful house.
That night, CAC celebrated with beer and chicken wings in the backyard. Technically, Mindaugas was supposed to be “dreaming” all evening, so I was surprised to spot his dark-hoodied figure alone by the hedges, sipping at a beer. Ayas had warned me that Mindaugas would evade any line of questioning, but I couldn’t help but feel for the “empty vessel.”
I tried to rally my girl posse: “Maybe we should try and talk to the triennial?” “Go ahead,” one connoisseur scoffed. “The thing is, onstage he may be all sorts of hotness, but at lunch today, he just sat at the end of the table like a piece of furniture.” “A total A4,” a dealer quickly confirmed. “I’d still totally put that in my printer,” the first friend shot back, prompting an array of increasingly inappropriate office analogies.
The challenge of offering oneself up as an object would become even more evident over the next few days. Friday morning’s “activation”—Tim Etchells’s Ways Forward—enlisted Mindaugas to tag city walls with provocations like PEOPLE SHOULD STRIVE TO DEVELOP / THEIR CHILDREN’S CAPACITY FOR FEAR. Etchells and I watched as the very first passerby stopped to chastise Mindaugas, who had just finished scrawling PEOPLE SHOULD ASK THEMSELVES / HOW FAR THEY ARE WILLING TO GO. “Was she upset?” the artist asked eagerly. Mindaugas shrugged: “Not really. She was more concerned about who was going to paint over it and what color paint they would use.”
Early the next morning, the few and the proud gathered to greet the dawn in the Jeruzalė Sculpture Garden, around the studio of beloved sculptor Vladas Vildžiūnas. A stronghold for former dissident artists, the park contains many prime examples of work from the likes of Vildžiūnas and Mindaugas Navakas. Both were present that morning for Çavuşoğlu’s contribution to the triennial, Incubatio. Borrowing the conceit of “dream-hunting” from Serbian writer Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of Khazars, Çavuşoğlu intended to consult Mindaugas’s dreams to find out more about the vanished medieval polity, who some believe to be the ancestors of modern-day Lithuanians. Invoking the ritual sleep of the “Istikhara,” Çavuşoğlu built Mindaugas a hammock so he could rest amid the sculptures and even called in a local anthropologist to assist in rooting out potential clues.
It’s one thing to harness a man’s dreams in a curatorial statement, and quite another to do so in real life. As it happened, Mindaugas slept poorly and dreamed of penguins. He tried his best to go along with the premise, relating what he could to the Khazars, but eventually the “empty vessel” act snapped and the actor took over, playing to the crowd with charming anecdotes about a near-death experience in childhood that involved an artificial lake, a one-armed fifteen-year-old, and a lethally unattractive pair of swim trunks. For her part, the anthropologist delivered a rambling testimony on how, without transgression, life is meaningless and something about a Jewish child not being able to eat grapes—all very revelatory, I’m sure, but a little incomprehensible to a decaffeinated crowd. Then again, to quote Pavić: “You cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it.”
If things seemed at risk of unraveling earlier, Ivo Dimchev yanked at every possible loose thread with Som Faves, his mesmerizing, manic, one-man show. Described in the program as “the Klaus Kinski of contemporary performance,” Dimchev delivered something part cabaret, part exorcism. He took to the stage looking like Nosferatu in a Meg Ryan wig (which he briefly swapped for a Dirrty-era Christina Aguilera do) and dressed like the manager of a showboat. Dimchev’s voice bounces from boy-band crooning to schizophrenic caterwauling to tender, trembling high notes to rival Antony’s, and he pushed all these sonic incongruities to potent effect. “There’s something a little baroque about those trills, am I right?” Portnoy mused.
Dimchev prefaced his act with the acknowledgment that performance was “a waste of human resources,” consuming time, electricity, and money. “If this does not make us feel good, at least it will makes us feel less lonely,” he concluded. “Thank you for coming and enjoy the waste.”
The entire experience hovered somewhere between watching a junkie coming off a four-day bender and eavesdropping on your weird cousin playing alone in a room. At one point, Dimchev played Wagner while perching a porcelain cat on his lap. When the music abruptly cut off, the artist faced his audience: “Yes, I tried to incorporate Wagner into this performance. But I don’t think it worked.” Later, on his knees before the cat, he pled with it to tell him what it wanted, hurling excruciating (and surprisingly poignant) declarations of love—“If you tell me what kind of food you want to eat, I will get it for you!! Any kind, I’ll get it for you because that is how much I love you!! Just tell me what it is you want!!”—at its cold, ceramic face.
Dimchev declared that he found it freeing that virtually anything could be called “choreography,” but that this made it easier to get lost. Grappling for some sort of orientation, I recalled a line of controversial psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s in Luke Fowler’s All Divided Selves, part of the “Cinema of the Self” program: “We are acting parts in a play that we’ve never read, have never seen, whose plot we don’t know, and whose end I do not dare to presume to imagine.” Dream on, Mindaugas.