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Vytautas Kumža: How much space can a photograph take?

author: elaine tam

"Photography is just the beginning," attests Vytautas Kumža, a Lithuanian artist presently living and working in Amsterdam. Kumža started out working on the busy sets of fashion shoots; he distinctly recalls the mesmerism of mastered lighting. It might be said that this is where he developed a fascination for the allure of illusion. And the large scale productions of this time, for which collective effort is a prerequisite, may also explain how the artist has cultivated a certain enthusiasm for the multi- or cross- disciplinary presentations.

Photography is just the beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tricks and Trade Secrets (2017)

In 2016, the artist’s exhibition "Trust it, Use it, Prove it" featured sculptures which brought to life objects from homeware catalogues: a mailbox, pool, cologne bottle, fountain, to name a few. Image cuttings from the magazines were used as geometric nets to recompose the objects in three-dimensions, that were then set against scenographic canvas backdrops. The work traverses critical notions of perfection, representation, idealisation, domesticity. But moreover, Kumža recounts the thought experiment:

I wondered how much space can a photograph take?

Just one year later, the artist’s graduate show — a compendium of "Tricks and Trade Secrets" as per its title — would take a poignant look at the constructed image, the magic of manual manipulation and photographic flatness.

Trust it, Use it, Prove it (2016)

A keen experimenter and ready collaborator, Kumža’s investigations are nuanced but palpably consistent. The aforementioned shows refer to spurious stagings and performativities and, albeit subtle, spatial dramatizations in and beyond the images continue to elaborate themselves in more recent work. When asked what he is presently reading, the reply

"Brecht On Theatre"

is telling. The theatre may be the stage par excellence, but its dynamic and pervasive logic takes other permutations such as photoshoot sets, exhibition installs, commodity displays. And to surmise just how pervasive, we might recall the famous quip "all the world’s a stage", what is now regarded as an early theory of performativity.

Trust it, Use it, Prove it (2016)

Brecht’s influence on theatre is profound. During Brecht’s relatively short lifetime, he identified, refined and became the theoretician of epic theatre which, among other modernist concerns, aimed to address issues of contemporary existence. With particular relevance to Kumža’s more recent work, epic theatre engages a particular mode of acting Brecht termed gestus — insinuating gesture and gist. Gesture, gist, and therefore gestus, are a touch impressionistic, insofar as their apprehension is sensual rather than didactic, prescriptive or fixated.

We will not fade into... (2019)

Kumža describes his 2019 exhibition "We will not fade into…" as something akin to a figure-ground problem. In it, he considers how

public space is "a battlefield between image and gesture."

A series of photographs mimicking the perfect generecism of advertisements struggle against a "visual noise" of tags and stickers — a sporadic sprawl of a-signifying traces that obscure and obfuscate them. Hand railings are installed just beneath these works, and it is their presence that transports the body to the familiar non-places that would house these images and gestures: underpasses, lobbies, airports, stations. The performative function of the railings is to architecturally relate body and image; the viewer gravitates towards the railing, to touch it, lean against it, in unusual proximity to the artworks. We are no longer only visually confronted with the image, it occupies one same shared space in which a situation comes to be co-produced.

We will not fade into... (2019)

We will not fade into... (2019)

We will not fade into... (2019)

As our photography forbearers are often obsequiously presented in severe and stark galleries, their images seem altogether removed and coolly restrained. In contrast, the images of Kumža are complexly entangled in their presentational meta-structures, to the extent that the viewing conditions too comprise the artwork itself. This is equally evident in "Half Empty Half Full" (2020), where images trapped between glass with a squiggle of silicon sealant are hung on perforated hardboard. On each occasion, temporal, gestural and contextual specificity makes for an image encounter that is absolutely singular. By his attention to manners of appearances and material conditions, Kumža restores affect to the endlessly reproducible image of contemporary times. Is this a means by which the image might be redeemed from its loss of aura, a state of loss expounded in Walter Benjamin’s seminal "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935)?

Half Empty Half Full (2020)

Half Empty Half Full (2020)

Half Empty Half Full (2020)

Half Empty Half Full (2020)

"There is a wide commercial range of image materials," like printed tarpaulin facades for under-construction buildings or porous see-through vinyl adhered over bus windows. There is an image for every occasion — you might "use it as a bookmark" or, with reference to misleading packaging,

some images trick you into thinking there’s more.

Between these observations, he reflects on childhood memories visiting the canteens where his parents worked, and the "displays and structures" hosting advertisements for candy bars: fridges, trays, windows and frames. Images were not always a part and parcel of everyday life in the way they are now. It was just in the mid-nineties — and concurrent to the Westernization of Lithuania — that Kumža witnessed the increasing and unprecedented proliferation of advertisements, images and window displays, ornamented with defunct objects and custom-made props.

Don’t Fall in Love with a Prop (2018)

Don’t Fall in Love with a Prop (2018)

To think of the prop is to think of a stand-in, something which behaves as a scaffold, support or aid; a blueprint for a figment of the imagination. The artist’s 2018 exhibition title — drawn from a DIY how-to guide — skittishly warns: "Don’t Fall in Love with a Prop", and behaves as an instructional on how amateurs can create studio-quality setups. There is the suspension of disbelief, there is the act of seduction and deception, the implication of a flirtatious game. So indeed, there is playfulness at work here. Functionality and redundancy, as well as multiple layers of contradictions and tensions, beget a compelling humorousness — feelings that his eight-year-old niece seems affectively aware of in her enjoyment of Kumža’s work. He must duly clarify with me

this is "funny but serious".

After all, playfulness is easily mistaken for insouciance or nonchalance, but underlying this is the artist’s firm resolve to intervene in banal image-object relations, to "break their logic".

Instead of a critical prod at the conservatism of museum or gallery standards, Kumža is more concerned with extending its lexical field, being no stranger himself to re-inventing the content and form of his work. Through feedback loops, material echoes and dual processes he creates images of objects, but importantly, attends to its inversion — a making object of the image. Towards the end of our discussion, he describes works-in-progress: frames with stained glass. Another idea he is entertaining involves inky fingerprints, mysterious traces leftover suggestive of handling by an art technician. I relish the thought of this small gesture behaving like the return of the real. Insolent and earnest, chance imperfection will intrude once more, disrupting the glossy veneer of the image — crispations at the edge of representation.

 

Don’t Fall in Love with a Prop (2018)

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