Storytellers and Narratives of Survival: The 13th Kaunas Biennial

Shary Boyle, The Trampled Devil, 2021. Video, 12 minutes, 20 seconds

Shary Boyle, The Trampled Devil, 2021. Video, 12 minutes, 20 seconds. © Shary Boyle, Photo: Kaunas Biennial

Curating a biennial can be both exciting and challenging at the best of times. Under normal circumstances, curators try to immerse themselves in the local art scene where the biennial is taking place. The aim is to conceive an exhibition that reflects upon current times and art practices and is engaging for diverse audiences.  Undertaking such an ambitious project during a global pandemic presents its own special set of challenges and pressures, along with interesting opportunities. It prompted significant shifts in my way of thinking and working, which were more collaborative and embraced the local in meaningful ways.  

When invited to curate the 2021 version of the Kaunas Biennial, one of the most important international contemporary art festivals in the Baltic states, I soon realized that I needed to adjust my expectations – traveling to Lithuania, meeting artists in their studios, meeting the organizers in person, visiting the venues – to engaging with everyone online. There was, however, a new sense of connection that emerged during my conversations with artists from all over the world, as we were connected somehow by all living – at varying degrees – through the same thing.

Kapwani Kiwanga, Seed bank, 2020. Wool weave, glazed ceramics

Kapwani Kiwanga, Seed bank, 2020. Wool weave, glazed ceramics. © Kapwani Kiwanga / SOCAN (2022) Photo: Kaunas Biennial

Arriving in Kaunas for the first time in the fall of 2019, I was struck by this historical place that – from an outsider’s perspec­tive – seemed to be undergoing a significant transformation, with many buildings lying abandoned or being significantly restored, while others are being newly built. I immediately fell in love with this city, where modernist and brutalist architectural styles range from a time before, during and after the Soviet era, and which finds itself at a significant crossroads between the past and the future. I won­dered what I, as a foreign curator, could bring to this context that could enrich the experience of visitors to the Kaunas Biennial.

What resonated deeply with me was the palpable sense of survival and adaptation of the Lithuanian people, who throughout the 20th century suffered tre­mendous hardship and trauma at the hands of others. I felt the need to conceive a humanist exhibition that explored tales of survival from different times, places and points of view. This impulse informed my reflections on the selection of artists, whose works would enter into a dialogue with Kaunas and engage specifically with it: Who are the main characters seeking ways of preserving, docu­menting and recording alternative narratives of such life-changing events; who are the holders of the personal and “unofficial” accounts; who are the storytellers?

 Jonas Mekas, In an Instant it All Came Back to Me, 2015.

Jonas Mekas, In an Instant it All Came Back to Me, 2015. © Estate of Jonas Mekas  Photo: Kaunas Biennial

At the Kaunas Picture Gallery, I found my inspiration in a display of material from the Fluxus archive, assembled by Jurgis (George) Mačiūnas, one of the movement’s founders. Until then, I had been unaware of the crucial role of the Lithuanian artists Mačiūnas and Jonas Mekas in bringing together like-minded international artists. There, I saw a letter written by Mekas, the renowned filmmaker who spent the better part of his life in exile in New York. His letter urged a community of American art­ists to donate works to the Fluxus archive in Lithuania. At this moment I realized that Mekas would be the first storyteller.

Mekas is a key figure in the history of film and is recognized as the founding father of American avant-garde cinema. His story is one of survival, bewilder­ing adaptation and radical generosity. He was born in the village of Semeniškiai, Lithu­ania, in 1922, a century ago. During the Second World War, he and his brother Adolfas were taken by the Nazis to a forced-labour camp in Elmshorn in Germany, and in 1949 the UN's Refugee Organization brought them to New York City. Two months after his arrival, Me­kas bought his first Bolex camera and began to record brief moments of his life, inevitably developing his diaristic form of filmmaking. For more than seventy years, he managed to find and record beauty in the everyday, honouring the smallest of details, bringing it to light and sharing it with the world.

ISUMA, Still from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019.

Isuma, Still from One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019. © Isuma Distribution International Photo: Courtesy of Kaunas Biennial

Reflecting upon Mekas’ legacy as an artist, poet and filmmaker, I considered the connections to the work of the Inuit filmmaking collective Isuma, with whom I had collaborated on their project for the Cana­da Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Isuma’s approach to filmmak­ing is equally groundbreaking and poignant – humanist forms of expression, stemming from their own stories and tales of survival. Over the past thirty years, the collective has developed their signature style of “re-lived” cul­tural drama by adapting the authenticity of video observation to the art of Inuit storytell­ing. Their videos are truly revolutionary and challenging; their voices are thoughtful, political and emotional.

In a similar way to Mekas, Isuma asks viewers to slow down, to appreciate a different rhythm, a different approach to listening to one another and of being in the world. At the Kaunas Biennial, an extensive film program includes a selection of their films, such as Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania​ and Isuma’s One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (featured in Venice). The films are being shown in a historical cinema, now the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre (and are also viewable on the Biennial's website). It is only fitting to give pride of place to these radical humanist voices in a cinema that was used to show propaganda films during the Soviet era.

Althea Thauberger, Reverse the Antenna, 2021. Two-channel video installation, with sound, 15 min.

Althea Thauberger, Reverse the Antenna, 2021. Two-channel video installation, with sound, 15 min. © Althea Thauberger Photo: Kaunas Bienniale

This imagined Mekas-Isuma encounter inspired a curatorial concept for the exhibition that would respond to the cur­rent global moment by exploring stories of human resilience and adaptation. Titled Once Upon Another Time… gyveno jie jau kitaip [and they lived differently], the Biennial investigates myths and fictions, as well as lived personal and communal stories of sur­vival and transformation. The exhibition offers a sharing of stories stemming from different worldviews and cultures – past, present and future – that convey multiple meanings and perspectives.

Emilija Škarnulytė, Absolute dating, 2021. installation

Emilija Škarnulytė, Absolute dating, 2021. © Emilija Škarnulytė Photo: Martynas Plepys / Courtesy Kaunas Biennial

Given that the Biennial was being organized in the midst of the pandemic, across closed borders and despite imposed isolation, the coming together of these artists, the many staff contributors, the collaborators and thinkers has been extraordinary. The 24 artists and groups span Europe, as well as North and South America: David Altmejd, Christian Boltanski, Shary Boyle, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Douglas Gordon, Petrit Halilaj, Kristina Inčiūraitė, Isuma, Kapwani Kiwanga, Lina Lapelytė, Laura Lima with Rasma Noreikytė  and Giedrė Kriaučionytė, Jonas Mekas, Pakui Hardware, Augustas Serapinas, Jeremy Shaw, Monika Sosnowska, SetP Stanikas, Indrė Šerpytytė, Emilija Škarnulytė, Althea Thauberger, Goodhearter Wisher, and Simona Žemaitytė.

The Biennial also presents a special project, curated by artist and professor Artūras Raila, that features the works of his students at the European Humanities University, which was originally based in Minsk, Belarus, and now is operating in exile in Vilnius, giving space for the silenced voices of Darya Karalkova, Aliona Makhnach, Volha Mirankova, Alesia Pesenka, Aleksei Shklianko, Viktoryia Yaskevich and Yaheni Zahorski.

Darya Karalkova, The Roots, 2020–21. Multiscreen video and sound installation.

 Darya Karalkova, The Roots, 2020–21. Multiscreen video and sound installation. © Darya Karalkova Photo: Kaunas Biennial

Instead of exhibiting works of art in a traditional art gallery, displaying them in museums dedicated to folklore, natural history and sports, as well as in other loca­tions throughout the city,  encouraged the artists and this curator to think differently about how their works could animate, interfere with and further complicate the complex stories em­bedded within some of these Soviet-era institu­tions, adding yet another layer of storytell­ing.

Laura Lima, Ablatanalba, 2021. Drawing with raw cotton threads dyed with natural techniques

Laura Lima, Ablatanalba, 2021. Drawing with raw cotton threads dyed with natural techniques. © Laura Lima Photo: Kaunas Biennial

Through their compelling and resonant narratives, the artists’ works can help us empathize and connect with each other. The resilience of human beings can be a source of inspiration as we continue to face adversity, injustice, oppression and cli­mate change. Two other questions I asked myself at the onset of this journey were “How can we adapt and move forward?” and, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, “How can we live differently?” Through their works, these art­ists are offering fascinating and critical answers to these questions, while also posing new lines of thought.

The works in the Kaunas Biennial can help us reframe our values and beliefs, our relationships to the natural world and to the unknown, as well as our memories and forged identities. As Mekas and Isuma remind us: we need to slow down and listen to each other, to be better together.


The 13th Kaunas Biennial, titled Once Upon Another Time... gyveno jie jau kitaip, was on view from 12 November 2021 to 20 February 2022. The special project with the European Humanities University was realized in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts at the Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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