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The Crack Magazine

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The World Is A Village

Gail-Nina Anderson visits the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland to check out a stunning photography exhibition from Rimaldas Vikšraitis: ‘Daily Rituals of Work and Play – The Collective Life of a Village 1975-2012’.

‘Daily Rituals of Work and Play’ is the first major survey exhibition in the UK of Lithuanian artist-photographer Rimaldas Vikšraitis (b. 1954, Sintautai, Lithuania). The exhibition spans nearly 40 years of Vikšraitis' artistic practice, from early unseen archival material and 8mm films (spanning 1979–1986) through to around 70 photographic works, a large number of which are being shown for the first time in the United Kingdom.

And that’s the official introduction, offering monochrome photographs of rural life in what looks to be a pretty poverty-stricken area of Lithuania, dating from both before and after that country’s independence from Soviet control. If this doesn’t pique your aesthetic curiosity – indeed, if it comes across as more than a wee bit depressing - then it’s because the words do nothing like justice to the images, where unexpected juxtapositions and strange groupings  characterise a life still being lived outside those imposed categorisations we use to neaten up the world of commercialised western consumption. Instead, the photography of Viksraitis takes us across a border not so much geographic or political as conceptual, to a world where nothing is negotiated via conventions of fashion, modernity or even propriety. Bodies sprawl, scuttle and surprise; uncute animals live lives of utility and alarming proximity to humans; ramshackle is the prevailing mode and everything gets re-used; communication is immediate, raw and apparently conducted through a thick fog of cigarette smoke. This is life with the rough edges left unsmoothed, but it also conveys a surreal sense that the very limits of everyday existence can generate an element of the fantastic, adding more than a touch of the bizarre to an unreconstructed version of rustic life.

There is, for example, more than a touch of Brueghel’s earthy good humour in “Tasty Bite” where a tin tub acts as a baby’s outdoor playpen – what could be more practical? A tumble of plastic toys locates the image in time, but the hungry chickens encroaching on the child’s bread are timeless. Meanwhile, though the spontaneity of kids playing about on decayed, abandoned cars or women tugging a makeshift cart through the fields suggests that the photographer’s camera is an artless one, “capturing” his world rather than arranging it in a mood of conscious recreation. Other images remind us that his is a subversive, self-aware eye. “Grimaces of the Wedding” condenses the happy wedding/family group shot into a child, a dog and a bride/groom – the convention is acknowledged in order to be challenged. Bodies sprout spiders and pot plants, define their gender with symbolic toys or utensils, wear the wrong clothes (or none at all) and ride the wrong animals. In “Queen of Pots”, an image reminiscent of British photographer Jo Spence’s wry feminist output, a morose naked woman is bedecked with an armour of kitchenware, her crotch an aggressive/defensive grater. It’s as though we are being presented with an idiom of obscure but pithy proverbs familiar to photographer and subjects, but it’s up to us to translate them into a language we, as mere observers, can understand. And we can’t, quite – that’s how they blur the visual boundary of reality and fantasy.

Some are downright scary, hinting at long-established rituals never explained but played out by the traditions local to a community which must invariably cast the viewer as outsider. Children salute a vestigial scarecrow in a field of puddles, a neatly-groomed girl complacently faces a situation that promises gang rape, a matchmaker is hanged while a small group of people look on amiably, their arms crossed against the cold. I’m guessing that the most popular image will be “Dolls Instead of Tanks” from the politically potent year of 1989, where the hectic playfulness of young girls challenges the tank behind them, but my personal favourite is “Improvisation of One’s Own Funeral”, a fantasy that reminded me of those torchlit low-life scenes at which Dutch 17th century artists excelled. Photographer laid-out with camera in hand, lens alert, photographs on wall, cheap, incongruous lace curtains and two naked, heavy-breasted women, one with a Mona Lisa smile, who focus their attention on the lighted candles in their hands. Simultaneously strange and familiar, it almost (but not quite) lets me into the secret.

Rimaldas Vikšraitis: Daily Rituals of Work and Play – The Collective Life of a Village 1975-2012, until 15 January 2023, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. sunderlandculture.org.uk/our-venues/northern-gallery-for-contemporary-art

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