On this Side of the Unknown
by Jurgita Sprindžiūnienė
8th International Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius 2018
Theme: “Memento Mori“
Time: 19 July – 23 September 2018
Location: The Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania
Since July 19th, the “8th International Artist’s Book Triennial Vilnius 2018” exposition is open in Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library exhibition hall, in Vilnius. The triennial is an international project, started in 1997 and thanks to the consistent efforts of its curator Kęstutis Vasiliūnas it has developed to a significant event, annually expected in various cities of the world. Only a part of the selected books was brought to the exhibition in Vilnius. The whole collection will be demonstrated in the triennial expositions in various countries in the period of the next two years. Part of the selected works has already been demonstrated in Leipzig Book Fair and in Festival “Urbino e le Città del Libro” (“Urbino and Towns of the Books”) in Urbino, Italy. In 2019, expositions of the triennial will be arranged in “SG” gallery in Venice, “Museo Leone” in Vercelli, Italy, “Evanston Art Center” in Evanston and “Fredonia State University” in USA.
The name of the triennial Memento Mori and its exposition in the particular space of Lithuanian National Library created a special possibility to complement modern exhibits with some antique editions and thus to increase educational value of the event. Therefore artist’s books can be viewed together with books of the libraries repository of the 16th-19th century on the topic of death: ars morendi (art of dying) tractates, funeral sermons, mournful missals. A large enough number of the visitors came to the opening of the exhibition, thus witnessing, that the artist’s book has become recognized by the people as an interesting area of interdisciplinary creation. It also has value for those interested with historical editions. As a whole of the old and the new, it represents succession of thoughts of our predecessors and its spread today. Ancient tractates are not simply lying near the modern exhibits but they are also living within them as many of the authors have infused the ancient texts and symbols into their books, realizing new metaphors of the words and images.
Possibly the topic of the exhibition has appointed the will to draw wisdom from cultural layers of the whole world. Could somebody name a more essential, more mysterious and more concerning question to everyone than memento mori, death and life in the face of death? Form of the artist’s book is very favorable to discuss the mentioned topics because of its freedom, openness to experiment, to make it very personal, encoded, intimate, as well as its facility to universalize personal thoughts, to invoke universally recognizable signs, images, texts, objects and even entire world of sensual colors, forms and factures. Symbolic apprehension of the book itself encompasses cultural meanings of both life and death: ongoing life being depicted as history in the process of being written, and passed life as a closed book.
Aesthetical forms aside, the inner structure of the exposition is built through a number of subtopics that come together and comprise its overall theme.
Memento – a personal sense of an ending leading to an unavoidable feeling of sadness. It is probably the most common experience and painfully stinging perception of death, reflected by many of the exhibits of the triennial.
Photos of the smiling people in the memoir album “The descent beckons” by artist Stephen Murphy, USA, 2017, are marked with signs indicating that they are no longer with us. Approaching death of members of one’s immediate family and inside emptiness after they pass away is sincerely and simply documented by Motoko Tachikawa, while biological aspects of mortal flesh are openly and drastically analyzed by Stephen Mumberson (“Memento Mori”, England, 2017, the Honourable Mention). Japanese artist M. Tachikawa (“Morning noon and evening – His last days”, Japan, 2017, the Honourable Mention), “registers” capsules, consumed by a parting patient till the layer of the capsules disappears in the empty lists of calendar.
Memento is given a slightly different meaning in the works categorized as memorial or/and necrology – in memoriam, in which case we would observe somebody’s former life, reflecting and extending it in our memory. Therefore, works by Magdalena Cordero Echeverria (Chile), Vittorio Fava (Italy), Kęstutis Vasiliūnas (Lithuania), David Faithfull (Scotland), Áslaug Jónsdóttir and Anna Snædís Sigmarsdóttir (Iceland), Marija Schina (Greece) could be named as “books memorials”, because they are either reflections related with some historical events, or artistically imitated, reshaped objects, serving as memorable things (reliquaries, memorials, archives).
Poem “Sonata per Gaza” by Italian poet Guido Cupani (2014) for those who died in Gaza has become a literary base and a main frame for the “book – memorial” by Kęstutis Vasiliūnas. It starts with two parallel references to the Old Testament and Koran, presenting “wrath and fierce anger” of the Lord (Is 13,9), signifying eternal war inside our hearts in the history. Words of the poet on the textured tea paper seem to be written in the desert sand: “I don’t know, and we don’t know, and you know nothing about that war…” (“Tea Book No. 8 – “Sonata per Gaza”, 2017).
The book “Long Chilean Gaia” by Magdalena Cordero Echeverria, Chile, 2016, the winner of the Main Prize, was also inspired by literary work. That is why it is a „memorial“ to Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), also to her poem „Poema de Chile“, written in her downhill period and depicting her journey to her native land. Soul of the poet hesitates between long-abandoned land of childhood and readiness to step over her earthly desires to meet the Creator.
The work “Libro della memoria” by Vittorio Fava (2017, the Honourable Mention) presents repository of memories, vertiginous at first look because of its chaotic collection of life fragments but surprising by masterful combination of all of the variety to the shape of precious folio.
Conversely, the book by Maria Schina (Greece) presents pale shining of the life fragments through the layer of vax, constraint in the tender twilight of the memories (“Mneme”, 2017). Another way of making the memorial we find in the book “Death of memory”, 2017 by Anna Snædís Sigmarsdóttir, exploring existence of things in our environment and emotional memory, playing with the contradiction between notions to remember and to die.
Part of the exhibits serves to induce reflection of the mystery of the life and the death. Here we watch an impenetrable surface of mirror (Catherine Bolle “L’Agneau – Coeur”, Switzerland, 2017). We believe or at least we expect it that visible obsolescence is no more as transformation – dissolution, melting away (Lis Rejnert Jensen “Transcendence”, Denmark, 2017), old turning to new material form (Mirabel Fitzgerald “Kunming: Lost and found” Australia, 2017) or to some absolutely new weightless formation, nearly a sign (Toshihiro Hattori “Book insect”, Japan, 2017).
Another group of exhibits could be attributed to the category of religious objects in their essence (in Latin religare: to tie, to bind, to ligature…). Death would lose its dramatic character if we perceive our personal life as a part of the mysterious spiritual or cosmic whole (Barbara Beisinghoff “Wasserstern”, Germany, 2017; Hanne Matthiesen “Memento Mori”, Denmark, 2017). Recognizing signs of universality in common objects, using sources of various cultures as well as religious and astrological symbols, both authors speak about ties between human and universe, cycles and transformations of life.
Memento mori inevitably leads us to the moral question of what should be our life project in the context of temporality. The exhibition presents personal insights and references to traditional Christian as well as ritual texts and visual forms of other religions.
Stoic and self-ironic position of Roberta Vaigeltaitė is exposed in her glass covered book – “little coffin” (“I die how do I want to live”, Lithuania, 2017). Canadian artist Margot Fagan replicates to the “smile” of skull by embracing what is unavoidable (“I’m laughing too”, 2017). Also an absolutely serious attitude to the death can be expressed, for instance, Japanese artist Yuko Ebina repeats the phrase memento mori many times as a prayer in hieroglyphic ornaments (“Memento Mori”, 2017). Then the choice of her fellow-countrywoman Hisako Inui was to daily observe and to fix sensitively in her diary the motion of her living soul (“Stay in reality”, 2017).
Not by coincidence the most discernible and traditional ritual objects resembling works were located in the same area of the exhibition with the ancient editions from the repository of the library. Three noteworthy exhibits of that kind are an unwrapped scroll – band by Rasa Janulevičiūtė, installation of the gratitude signs by Raminta Šumskytė-Sum and “biblic size” album by Netherlander artist Joseph Johannes Visser, conjunctive with modern and also baroque stylistics of the 17th century books.
Especially solemn and luxury, at the same time conveying the aesthetics of liturgy, appears beaded ribbon with the Old Testament book of Wisdom words by Rasa Janulevičiūtė (Memento Mori: excerpt from The Book of Sirach, 2017). Relation with the traditional para-liturgical objects of Raminta Šumskytė-Sum seems to be sensitive and ironic in the same time, registering our fragmented and semi-religious consciousness, equally encompassing both of global and small private wishes (Ex Voto’365, 2017). Meanwhile the album by J.J. Visser presents a book of life. It’s fulfilled with not comprehended yet meanings, using “voice of gone generations” (The three Mavi, 2018). Altogether with texts of the artist himself poetry, encrusted with precious or cheap knick-knacks remaining after involuntary travelling across many countries by the author and his family, the pages of the book introduce quotations of ancient Scotch poem “Three Mavi” about life and death, about ties between the souls of a bird and a human. Although illegible, the inner bond of the book can be clearly felt, convicting us with its perfect form aesthetics.
Presenting the topic of the triennial, Kęstutis Vasiliūnas invites to dwell not so much on death, but on life, as well. It is likely that only after remembering death you truly start to think about it. The variety of implications of the topic, as revealed by the authors of the exhibition, reflects the multiplicity of experiences, insights and attitudes provided by multicolored life itself.
Translated by Andrius Sprindžiūnas
The Main Sponsor of the Project: Lithuanian Council for Culture
© Text: Jurgita Sprindžiūnienė
© Photo: Kęstutis Vasiliūnas
© Circle “Bokartas”, Kęstutis Vasiliūnas