Paulina Pukytė has demolished more than one romantic myth associated with the creative process. She has photographed London pavements covered in chewing gum and presented the photographs as a competition in chewing gum frequency. In the transitional post-Soviet years she collected bits of used soap from public toilets around Europe and exhibited the hand-formed soap sculptures in the Contemporary Art Centre, infusing the terms 'hand work' and 'collective art’ with another meaning. In 1999, in the site-specific project 'Identification' on Vilnius trolleybuses, Pukytė covered the trolleybus handles with pink lace, which rustled when touched. 'Trolley Bus Named Desire No. 3' still functioned as public transport, but inside it had become an intimate space. The high and the low, the visible and the invisible, the public and the private are not at opposite poles anymore. Pukytė continues to twist those polarities. The dark rooms of her latest projects are haunted by the ghosts from the past – in her installations Pukytė superimposes and animates 'found' images. As they merge, the perceived identities melt, but then separate again, almost unnoticed. If you linger on it, the seemingly straightforward snapshot slowly begins to be transformed: the girl in the bath is 'drowned' by a crowd of fanatics, a priest's robe reveals white tights underneath – the crosspollination of forms and meanings occurs. The uncertainty is overtaken every time by the 'documentality' of a photograph, reaffirming the truth, but immediately the 'truth' falters, dissolves and turns into its own opposite. Not a lie, but another truth.

Laima Kreivytė, curator, art critic


by Laima Kreivytė

Paulina Pukyte is not the first artist who spits on art. But she is probably the first to do this with the lips of others. In 2001 in the basement gallery of the Contemporary Art Centre she exhibited photographs of the pavements in London all “marked” with spat-out chewing gum. At the same time the upper floor gallery of the CAC showed glitter-sprinkled contemporary British art. This conceptual underground gesture by Pukyte wasn’t just a reaction to official art export. It was a visual anthropological research about everyday purification in public space. Anonymous authors of spit marks stayed outside the frame in both literal and metaphorical sense. But it was not PP’s aim to represent a human as a ruminating animal. Munching the chewing gum was paralleled to production of art (in a Kantian way, as a meaningless act). Fresh breath and aesthetic or intellectual satisfaction does not liquidate the feeling of hunger.

The Lithuanian artist living in London can be called a partisan in contemporary art for one more reason: her conscious choice of not too vociferous, almost invisible art strategies. Her art appears in the places where you expect it least – in a bathroom cabinet, on the handles of a trolley-bus, in British War museum. Instead of attempting to overwhelm, PP’s works hide from spectator’s eyes or pretend to be ordinary things. To rehabilitate something that is small and inferior but terribly human – is that an aim too petty? However, ‘inferior’ has been expressly separated from ‘humiliated’ in Pukyte’s art dictionary. After the collapse of Soviet empire, obligatory lessons of reality embellishment learned in Soviet times were replaced by a universal wish to ‘rip the guts’ of those ideals. Later the aesthetics of ugliness and abject art found an even more suitable environment – bright communist images of tomorrow were replaced by saccharine promises of advertising, and artists were left to be sick in front of a TV. To diminish something that had been artificially exalted became every critically minded artist’s obligation. But (self)humiliation is alien to Pukyte. Because humiliation in principle means that we are still ruled by hierarchical value-based thinking, simply turned upside down. Only looking down from above things can seem inferior. Whereas moving along the horizontal none are exalted, none humiliated, there are no ratings, no graphs, there is no top or bottom, no good and no evil.

The partisan-artist lifts whatever has been at our feet (or at hand) to eye-level and makes us look at things that we have (un)consciously deleted from our field of vision. As a rule, we delete the unpleasant, the uncomfortable, the incomprehensible, the alien. Like a psychoanalyst PP picks up discarded, ‘repressed’ images of reality and displays them in a different context. Likewise Pukyte had collected half-used bars of soap from petrol stations, cafes, theatres and law courts and exhibited them, as proof of her pilfering, at the CAC next to her photographs of pavements covered in spat-out chewing-gum. A famous writer then turned those bars of soap into a metaphor of the whole (perhaps degraded?) contemporary art, and a critic in her review of the show enthusiastically declared that ‘a real artist must be able to ‘get off in time with the soap in hand’ from all public places’.

Pukyte’s art exists in an intermediate space – between cultures, between disciplines, between text and image, between public and private. In 1999, in a site-specific art project
Identification in Vilnius’ trolleybuses, Paulina installed A Trolley-bus Named Desire No. 3 – she covered grey and cold trolleybus handles with pink lace material which rustled when touched. Thus an ordinary public transport vehicle was transformed into an erotic boudoir, and embarrassed passengers were almost too ashamed to touch the underwear-like handles. As we know from Greim, Bachelard, Baudelaire and Andriuškevičius, erotica is also hiding in-between. PP is a mediator between art and life, an interpreter and transmitter of cultural experience.

In the same year Pukyte took part in two projects of personal space: in Klega’s Flat in London and her own flat in Vilnius (
Flat‘99 curated by Algis Lankelis). In Vilnius the artist took photos of her front door, her flat door, her bathroom door, her bathroom cabinet door, thus guiding viewers to find out what is hiding in her bathroom cabinet – a place where, despite a strong desire, strangers usually do not peek. Those who did peek in became a bit “embarrassed” – upon opening the cabinet door, a bunch of soft toys, tied up and gagged, fell out, and thus Pukyte’s "secret" was revealed. For London PP chose a different strategy. The viewers who did not know the flat-gallery host were simply not able to find her pieces – so “naturally” they blended with the environment. However, those who knew Klega as a confirmed bachelor famous for his "ordnung" must have been surprised to find female shoes and a bag in the hall, cosmetics in the bathroom, a bit of a red dress showing through the wardrobe door and lovely lace panties drying in the balcony. Klega’s “secret” was revealed. The sterile aesthetics of a flat that showed no personalism was converted from a gallery back to a private space. The body, or at least its exuviae, was returned to an empty flat,.

The fact that exuviae, a negative, a fragment is no less important than a grand artistic gesture has been proved by PP’s collection
Accessories which won the first prize at the international fashion and art festival ArMada in Vilnius in 1999. Those soft pink little things were meaningless both functionally and aesthetically - underarm ‘sweat absorbers’, breasts and hips impersonations... Was it really worth trying so hard to ridicule the pretensions of high fashion? But it was not about fashion. It was not the designer’s dress that Pukyte’s scalpel of criticism cut into pieces, but the very mechanism by which a female body is constructed, modelled, ‘beautified’, genderised, and objectified.

Pukyte is not a naïve artist and does not pretend to be one. However, she is interested in the naïvety of others – especially the kind which, when transmitted to the masses, becomes ideology -- be it Soviet, capitalist or patriarchal. A partisan point-of-view demands rebellion against any brain-washing techniques and retention of a critical attitude towards all art controlling institutions. In 2000 PP participated in an art project
To be Useful in a disused furniture factory, where she mocked ‘self-help’ tapes and ‘happiness recipes’ of how to become rich. Everyone visiting the show in a derelict factory could hear a lecture about prosperity. Pukyte also showed the Joiners’ Bench – a desk covered with soft fabrics and wearing four bras. The joiner’s-bench-bitch convincingly revealed the blunt sexist attitude towards woman as a sex machine hidden under external pornographic glitter.

In 2003-2005 Paulina Pukyte studied MA Photography and Video art at the Royal College of Art in London. PP’s photographs are an imprint not only of the everyday but also of imagination, when it is impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Her photographs are usually not staged (if we do not consider the choice of frame as staging), but the meaning of her images is often changed by simultaneous story-telling. Pukyte’s stories combine personal experience and Soviet cinematography, London's multiculturalism and melancholia of Vilnius. The tensions and comic elements that arise from dividing her time between two cities and many cultures are perfectly described in Pukyte’s book
Their Habits (Tyto Alba, 2005). Either in London, or Vilnius, or in any other city Pukyte always remains in artistic opposition to the dominant discourse. She is attracted by things and phenomena that are marginalised, ‘non-artistic’, not grand, banal. However, Paulina notices incredible relationships in this banality -- between a Kalashnikov gun and a top with red poppies, between a picture frame and a "golden" radiator. Romantic landscapes above a radiator or above a made bed photographed by Pukyte reflect the collision of cultural imagination and physical space, so characteristic of PP’s works. It is in the gaps opened up by such collisions that almost invisible seeds of social criticism find their soil.

Lithuanian contemporary art often avoids having a position. As if it was still possible to send messages from the imaginary art utopia. Pukyte is one of the few artists stating expressly in her works what she represents and in whose voice she speaks. Her works are not for ‘showing off’, she is not trying to be liked, to cater or otherwise conform to the trends of the art world. However, even in the art world subterranean strokes can be felt
, and sometimes burst out as boiling lava. I wouldn’t be surprised if PP contributes to this with her ‘invisible’ but powerfully resonant work.

A GIRL WITH PEARS (Paulina Pukyte’s show in Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre)

by Renata Dubinskaitė

The girl with the pears in the title of the exhibition is Paulina Egle Pukyte herself, as it becomes clear from one of her short films. In that story there is also a pear tree bearing inedible fruit, but this can hardly be said about the artist herself. The fruit of Pukyte’s work is highly recommended.

The aforementioned title evokes loose associations with art history: during at least four or five last epochs, portraits of girls with fruit, girls with flowers, girls with pearls and girls with some other attributes have often been painted, drawn or sculpted. Several girls appear in Pukyte’s short films: not-a-beauty-queen student of Latvian School of Agriculture and a street-seller of hot sausage-rolls tightly wrapped up in her winter garb. In other videos the main (mostly off-screen) girl is one and the same: the artist herself telling about things that happen(ed) to her and around her. These are ‘real stories', she says, albeit in inverted comas, perhaps because these days nobody would bet their life on ‘veracity’, ‘truth’ and ‘reality'. Especially when it is no secret what memory does to personal reality which is already in the past, and Pukyte is mostly dealing with reconstructions of her memories. Her stories, centred around the ‘I’, are not least similar to the diary-like, documentary flow of 'now' in the work of, say, Jonas Mekas or Evaldas Jansas. Pukyte glues her personal experiences into integral narratives and surrounds them with an aura of fairy-tale or myth.

Let's look further into the titles before we turn to the stories. Seen together the titles of the films get unexpectedly bound into an almost poetic sequence. They generate waves of various references: Little Red Riding Hood and Uncle Hans; Girl with Pears and Man with Apples; Ice Cream and Flowers, Kalashnikov and Despair. Every title in itself tells a tale even before Pukyte’s story begins; these titles are culturally rich figures with long trails. Take, for instance,
Kalashnikov… Here is The Great Patriotic War, the typical Russian pompous pride in themselves; unreal stories about the army; American Cold War films about KGB agents with obligatory snow-covered Kremlin in the background; and something else that I cannot put my finger on, but it is enough to know the intonations, the contexts, the significance with which this word, that has become with time a common noun, is pronounced. But for Pukyte direct physical experience during military preparation lessons at school (I only managed to learn how to put on and take off a gas-mask – I did not graduate to Kalashnikov) doubtlessly exceeds all these virtual associations. To every recipient Kalashnikov will mean completely different things, it will open a different emotional field. Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ signifier, cleared of all personal and collective associations, that could transmit only one and not another meaning to all addressees without exception. But Pukyte, after all, decisively chooses the most suggestive signifiers…

It appears that when she tells stories, Pukyte does nothing else but arranges her facts in order; seemingly in a simple linear way, without seeking complex contemporary narrative concepts, telling almost nothing more than is necessary to communicate a direct referential message. Here lies the deception however, in the positive sense of the word. Cultural references (for instance, a quotation from an animated film: “or maybe it is because of the ice cream that you want me to be your mum?”) and symbols (a flower, an apple, a mirror, a door) expand the super-simple and quantitatively minimal structure of her works, thus making it open and polysemantic. It is perhaps these underdeveloped phrases (sentences of three-four words) that leave more space for every viewer to adapt the story to themselves, to finish the creative process. An argument between a man and a woman about an apple after the night of love takes us to the story of Lost Paradise and evokes the easily recognisable feeling of an insurmountable distance between two people (the camera records a bleak, unchanging emptiness of the room with a messy sofa and a television set reflected in a mirror). Pukyte’s story only gives an impulse, a hint, a direction or even several directions in which the viewer can continue their story.

The subtitles of her videos look like texts on paper; they work independently as literary miniatures. No other video artist in Lithuania uses texts in such sophisticated way (it is no secret that Pukyte is also a writer), yet completely differently from the textual projects of conceptualists. At first it may seem that the image acts here only as a background and that it would have been sufficient just to arrange the text in the space-time of the screen (like in the work of Natalie Melikian where soundtrack and notes of shooting instructions serve as films), especially as Pukyte skilfully exploits the rhythmic possibilities of presenting text on screen, carefully selecting not only the duration of pauses, the speed in which phrases replace each other, but also their position within the rectangular shape of the screen. The relationship between text and image, however, is not that simple. At the beginning of
Little Red Riding Hood the story is gradually written on a plain background, and only when the viewer has already created his/hers visual fantasy, it is overridden by an fractional portrait of a girl. In addition to this unusual proportion of image and text, meaning is overturned and expanded: Little Red Riding Hood becomes Little Red Skirt; everyone's favourite cute little girl of the fairy-tale becomes a teenager embarrassed of her toothless mouth, visiting not her ill grandmother but an employer in a foreign country. In the metaphorical story about the ice cream lady from a Soviet animated film, only wintertime relates the image to the text, but here in the filmed photographs the girl is offering hot sausage rolls, evoking very different social and cultural issues… The action most often takes place off-screen. In the story about uncle Hans women chat busily somewhere in the next room. The camera, it seems, personifies the uncle in his deathbed: as he lies unable to move, he is slanted in regard to the usual world at a straight angle. So the door is also horizontal, not vertical, and the only movement he can expect is when it opens (down) when somebody enters. Thus, as the camera represents somebody else and the author’s text tells the story from another room, a dialogue is created. A nail breaks there, death arrives here.

Pukyte does not stick to just one visual strategy. There is a whole range: from a swift reaction to an event, a low quality documentation in
Shooting, camera following body movements, static image in a barely changing environment, to animated photography or appropriations of other films (the strategy of appropriating objects or images and placing them in a new context has been used often in her installations). Deimantas Narkevičius experiments with the possibilities of moving image in a similar way (by placing extracts from archive footage and animation next to own film or video), while other Lithuanian video artists most often remain faithful to one visual strategy. Pukyte, however, has developed a unique video genre that stands out among her peers. Usually when artists speak about themselves in the first person, they do this in the tradition of body art or diary film. In such cases personal things remain personal (if we disassociate ourselves for now from the important feminist thesis that personal is also political). Pukyte places herself within a wider context, entangling herself into the network of interpersonal relationships and relating to a cultural environment. Thus she demonstrates a more critical distance (and irony) in regard to herself (perhaps this distance is partially determined by her emigration – Pukyte has moved to London – which invites an external gaze onto one's self). Lithuanian artists engaged with anthropological and cultural research usually aim at other people, communities and societies; they often choose documentation as their strategy and prefer the genre of interview (for example, Gintaras Makarevičius). Nobody except Pukyte, turns this research into short stories, dresses it in a robe of traditional narrative. Strictly speaking, she is the only representative of the narrative video genre in Lithuania.

[… In her work] Pukyte subverts the stereotypes of both sexes. The meaning of the collection of flower postcards on show here is fully enlightened by the fact that she has been told to collect them by her grandmother, as this was becoming for a girl, not to mention that most of the exhibited greetings are related to the 8th of March (Women’s Day) and are written to women by women, to girls by girls. The symbolism of flowers is then strangely reversed in a fragment of a Russian film, where a flower becomes a sign of failure (the long tradition of regarding women as guilty of sin or a woman as a newly arisen threat to the structure of male world?). The latter supposition is impressively confirmed by red poppies on the artist’s shirt, when female hands neutralise the absolute symbol of power and masculinity – a firearm (kalashnikov).

This series of short films ends with a question of despair: “where did it all go wrong?” Yet I think that here it all turned out very well.

Šiaurės Atėnai, 4 November 2006