Emilija Škarnulytė, t ½, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes. Installation view. Photo: GintarėGrigėnaitė.

Emilija Škarnulytė, t ½, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes. Installation view. Photo: Gintarė

Emilija Škarnulytė

Just three years ago, Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė was awarded the Future Generation Art Prize in Kyiv for her video installation t ½, 2019. The piece is central to her solo exhibition “Chambers of Radiance,” presented in an immersive architectural setting—designed by Linas Lapinskas—in a tall hall encircled by a balcony. The show will be on view for at least two years. As one enters the museum, several laser beams scanning up and down the staircase lead the eye toward the video installation, as if scanning every visitor’s body for data. A low, vibrating soundtrack, produced by Škarnulyte˙’s long-term collaborator Jokūbas Čižikas, draws the visitor into the room where the hypnotic t ½ is screened.

The eighteen-minute-long video encompasses a broad spectrum of historical and contemporary topics, from the Cold War to climate change to dark matter, explored through depictions of such sites as the Soviet-era Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Lithuania, tunnels for nuclear submarines at a base above the Arctic Circle, and the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan. Those familiar with Škarnulytė’s practice may notice fragments from earlier works, such as Mirror Matter and Sirenomelia, both 2018. A mermaid—a recurring character in her later videos—also appears in Sirenomelia. Like most of the artist’s films, t ½ requires viewers to take a meditative approach, to allow the smooth flow of striking images to overflow the rushing mind and submerge it into a thought space of cosmic proportions. To this end, we are provided with chaise longues covered in black fabric, from which to let our gaze slip between the screen and the mirrored ceiling, where the projection is duplicated.

At the same time, the seemingly disparate narratives in the film weave a web of references. Škarnulytė invites you to experience the world through nonhuman eyes—from the perspective of a mermaid, for instance, swimming around the underwater remnants of Cold War machinery or diving into the depths where scientists try to detect the mysterious neutrino. The work’s concern is above all the matter that will remain after we’re gone: nuclear waste, crumbling postindustrial complexes, expensive cutting-edge technologies to measure the invisible subatomic particles. The timescale of the journey the film takes you on is dizzying.

The lengthy shots, 3D renderings, and lidar scans of selected locations, accompanied by Čižikas’s pulsating dark ambient soundtrack, elude any didactic message about our exploitation of nature or the geopolitical power games that shaped those unique places. The history of those sites tells the story: The decommissioning of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was a mandatory condition for Lithuania to enter the EU, while the submarine base through which the mermaid guides us is a decrepit NATO facility in Norway. Yet the mermaid swims through a realm beyond human drama. A pair of large-scale light boxes, Duga and SK, both 2019, are placed outside the video installation hall and feature digital renderings of images from the Duga over-the-horizon radar system—another abandoned Soviet technology—and the Japanese neutrino observatory. Here, too, human technical achievements are taken over by ice-cold nature: As if in images from a distant future, these sites are locked in ice and snow. Watching the mermaid leave the dark submarine base for sunnier waters, we might reflect that whatever future awaits us is probably going to be marked by war.