By Katažyna Jankovska
In Lithuanian, the word žemė /ˈʒʲæːmʲeː/ has several meanings. Žemė refers to Earth, matter and soil, but it can also signify land, ground or territory. The photography project "Gimtoji" [lith. native] by Šarūnas Kvietkus (b. 1996) investigates the desire and notable tendency of immigrants to recreate their homeland in a new place of settlement. In his work, Šarūnas turns his gaze toward the major Lithuanian expat communities in the United Kingdom, which are based in the areas of Beckton, Peterborough and Boston. Through this multilayered series, the artist contemplates their instinctive and inexhaustible efforts to simulate a replacement for their native country, while revealing the polysemic nature of the word žemė.
ŽEMĖ — SOIL.
Šarūnas takes analogue images of soil in Lithuania and in East London to reflect on migrant-human’s relationship with land. Through the use of a masking technique and gelatin silver process, Kvietkus selectively exposes two photographs of soil from different regions on the same photographic paper. Due to the complex texture of soil, his attempt to accurately align the two images tonally and visually results in various forms of image degradation during the process. This inevitably leads to one or another form of discrepancy; the images refuse to completely blend into one, and yet, despite remaining distinct, the places of the images remain unidentifiable. Although these images are sensitively evocative — one can almost smell its earthen notes, feel the granularity in its texture underfoot — soil is one of the uniform elements of the world. Something so foundational, it looks the same everywhere, until it is given a context. It says nothing about the land it comprises — to whom does it truly belong?
"Peterbroug" from "Gimtoji" by Šarūnas Kvietkus, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
"Boston" from "Gimtoji" by Šarūnas Kvietkus, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
ŽEMĖ — EARTH.
In trying to solve this issue, Šarūnas refers to a generation of post-war Lithuanian existentialists called Žemininkai (Earth poets), who were forced into exile or emigration in the process of escaping the Soviet occupation. Žemininkai, named after the anthology "Žemė" which appeared in the USA in 1951, were the founders of the Earth Literary Movement who, in their writings, expressed nostalgia for the native land and nature. Drawing strength from Lithuania's agricultural heritage and folklore, they advocated for poetry with distinct "roots" in the earth. The philosopher Juozas Girnius also explored the many meanings of land in the "Žemė" anthology: "Nature is always a world alien to us. After all, earth is always a reality into itself. We can both be terrified by and admirative of nature, but these experiences of sublimity are still subjects of our gaze. Yet we cultivate the land with our own hands and impregnate it with our sweat. We can admire nature, however we grow inseparably together with the earth [...] Žemė is always steeped in history, without which, it is only nature."
"Beckton" from "Gimtoji" by Šarūnas Kvietkus, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
ŽEMĖ — TERRITORY.
One of Lithuania's most prominent geographers and diplomats, Kazys Pakštas, once stated: "Nobody would ever receive the Motherland as a gift: we have to make it ourselves, create it". In the late 1930's, Pakštas was compelled by the idea of creating a so-called "Atsarginė Lietuva" (Reserve Lithuania, or elsewhere called Emergency) — to move the entire nation of Lithuania from its geographical home by the Baltic Sea, to a geopolitically safe area overseas, away from its politically unstable neighbor Russia. This speculative event and mass exodus was called "Dausuva" (after Dausos — the paradisic place of the afterlife in ancient Lithuanian mythology, the home of one’s ancestors), one in which he projected a Lithuanian colony onto distant continents in an attempt to find the most suitable place to establish a Lithuanian colony. Yet this project never came close to realization.
GIMTOJI ŽEMĖ — HOMELAND.
Žemininkai understood žemė as a means of preserving one’s ancestral heritage: something through which one could reconnect with earlier generations, who also worked the land. Žemė is always steeped in history, without which, it is only nature. "We can wander around the world and find beautiful nature everywhere. But the land is only that where one was born. When nature is cosmopolitan in this sense, then the land is basically always native [...] The land reveals its secret not to the eyes of tourists, but only to the hearts of those who keep it with their own hands."
Šarūnas’ response to this very question of which land is essential lies in the name of his work. The title "Gimtoji" allows one to understand that his depictions of soil are not meant to solely infer land, but the same land which, in other connotations, is also native. Here, žemė signifies homeland. Through the artist’s failure to fully merge two images of soil and the visual inconsistency resulting, Kvietkus visualizes the inner conflict of displacement which is always a byproduct of the infeasibility of creating a substitute for the homeland. Likewise, "Atsarginė Lietuva" is not utopic on account of its impossibility, but rather because of its incompatibility with the symbolic, emotional connection human forges with a specific, native land (žemė). This impossibility is literalized through its representation in soil (žemė): a homeland shall not exist elsewhere, because even if the whole nation was moved, even if life was restored fastidiously to the smallest detail, one thing will still remain alien to the settled nation. And that is precisely the land and the soil (žemė) underfoot that is impossible to migrate or simply recreate.