– Kotryna, tell us about your background. Why did you choose photography as your main medium for expression?
– I grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and went to the national M.K. Ciurlionis Art School. Looking back, I think about what a strange school it was. I studied six days a week doing all the usual subjects, like maths, history, and languages, with additional daily art classes exploring drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture. The latter one was my choice of medium for a couple of years until I discovered evening photography classes that I fell in love with. Now I see this transition from sculpture to photography as a natural one, as at the time I was interested in the physical form and the role of light in our understanding of space.
Photography offers immediacy, and for someone who likes to work a lot and produce loads, it is a perfect medium. I like how deceptive it is; so widely used outside the artistic framework, it is a part of our lives whether we like it or not. I don’t know if there is another medium that we have as complicated a relationship with as this one. We still expect the truth and we long for beauty at the same time. This dissonance amuses me – it’s partly the reason why I like to tell quite straight stories in my documentary work and then go quite vague, fictional and personal in my other work.
I have gravitated outside of a purely photographic practice lately. Even if I use photographs taken by myself or archival ones, I am primarily interested in ideas. Photography is a tool that I use best of all and have the most experience with; hence, it still dominates my practice. I am very keen to work more with moving images, installations and publications, though.
– Please tell us about your project “Amber Room”. What is it about?
– A vague idea for “Amber Room” was brewing in my head for years. Being an emigrant of an introspective type, I have analyzed the experience of living abroad for nearly 10 years. My interest lies in identity, both cultural and national, different understandings of politics, the passing of time, memory and nostalgia. The latter became a keyword and I spent a lot of time researching what nostalgia is from various perspectives.
The series started as a search for places, people, and objects that provoked longing in me. After numerous trips to Vilnius, I was looking at the pictures and searching for the common denominator. I arrived at the conclusion that what primarily spoke of nostalgia in these pictures was specific light and color. I then moved away from the idea that the series needs to be about Vilnius, or Lithuania, or myself.
I continued to take photographs in Scotland as well, introducing a small point-and-shoot camera along with the medium format, which allowed the development of a different, more immediate aesthetic. Mixing different types of pictures, I ended up with a terrifying pile of pictures that I could use. I was using cameras as my thoughts – some were quick snapshots, some long, lingering memories, some very clear and others foggy – nearly abstract. Through editing, reading and talking about it with colleagues, a final body of work emerged.
The final edit provides an open-ended narrative and a glimpse into what memory and nostalgia are. I have deliberately included some ‘anchor’ pictures that indicate the geographical location and time. There are Soviet medals that my grandfather received for his achievements at the drill factory where he worked. There is a social realist mural obscured by institutional plants in the old hospital in Vilnius. Also, the syrupy puffed-corn squares that everyone from the ex-USSR would recognize, whilst others see it as a nearly abstract picture. This was my way of balancing between accessible and challenging picture reading, a personal approach versus a universal historical narrative.
– So, the leitmotif of “Amber Room” and your previous project “Away Home” is nostalgia, triggered by your own personal experience… You moved to Scotland quite a long time ago; how strong is your nostalgia? What does it mean to you?
– The move to Scotland has triggered certain mental processes that would have otherwise happened later or slower. I have always been interested in the notion of identity: national, cultural and personal. I saw myself changing, questioned the transformation, wondered if it was the influence of a new environment or something that would have happened to me anyway at this particular age. Now counting my 10th year in Scotland, I can’t quite believe that I’ve been here this long, and how much I’ve changed.
Nostalgia as a condition provided me with the sense of continuity. By thinking about myself in my “previous life” in Lithuania (and possibly longing for some elements of it), I make sure that it was me and now I am still me, just in different circumstances. However, nostalgic feelings that interest me are not the ones of sickly sweet childhood memories of running in the field. It’s the reflective nostalgia or critical thinking combined with the longing, as stated by the writer and academic S. Boym. By telling apart the real home from the imaginary one I can enjoy nostalgic wonders safely. I have learned by now that my daily thoughts of Vilnius are deceiving and that life there is possibly more alien to me than life here in Scotland.
I used to have this feeling that life in Vilnius stops as I board a plane to Glasgow and resumes a few months later as I touch the ground again. This feeling of my private city still exists – I still live on the same street, hang out with the same friends in the same cafes and bars, fall in love in spring and hibernate in winter. The real Vilnius has changed a lot and I should not expect it to wait for me unchanged for all these years.
Nostalgia is a coping mechanism we use in times of change or uncertainty. This partly explains big bouts of collective nostalgia during war times or economic crises or returns of retro trends. Longing for the past, if reflected on, can be a great tool for figuring out one’s identity. It’s a non-religious person’s pilgrimage to some extent. Some people search for answers in spiritual practices, motivational seminars or frequent lifestyle changes, whilst Nostalgics Anonymous, as I call them, figure some things out by looking back.
– How has this move to Glasgow changed you as a person?
– I can only speculate on what kind of person I would have been if I hadn’t moved. One thing I suspect, though, is that I would not be an artist. It was Glasgow city, education and friends here that kept me on this path. I am a person with quite a mixed identity to start with. I grew up bilingual with a Polish-speaking grandmother and Lithuanian parents, Protestant in a Catholic country (I’m not religious now), so Scotland just added to this complexity.
I do identify myself as partially Scottish. My sense of humor, bouts of chattiness and love for politics are the results of 10 years here. I do feel more free and relaxed, I had a lot of encouragement and support here when I had just moved. I really value the freedom of choice I have here, pursuing things that could be seen as financially silly, or not ambitious enough in a traditional business-minded sense. If leaving everything you know can teach you anything, it’s all about finding stuff that really matters to you. In my case it was my artistic career and people who are dear to me.
– Do you ever consider moving back to Lithuania?
– After years of being sure that it would happen at some point, I am not so certain now. My goal and plan are to live between Glasgow and Vilnius. I am slowly working towards it. Last year I spent two months out of twelve in Lithuania and brought friends from Scotland to Lithuania and vice versa.
– You are currently working on a project combining your photographs with pictures made by your father. Why? Is it another way to be connected to Lithuania, your roots, and your past, or something different?
– My parents have been moving homes recently, and they found a box of old black-and-white negatives taken by my father in the eighties. Whilst some of the pictures were enlarged and printed a long time ago, the majority were previously unseen by anyone. After some days of scanning, I ended up with more than 700 pictures. I am now working on the photographic response to these photographs, which together with his pictures and our conversations will form the base of this work.
Things that interest me here are politics, memory, utopia and history. My father took these photographs in the last 10 years of the USSR. He was involved in a pro-independence movement and the photographs reflect that. Along with the pictures of my mom, family, friends and me as a baby, there are many of mass gatherings related to political events of the time. I am interested in this East/West divide, the image that people on one side of the Iron Curtain had on the other side, the expectations.
I live at the opposite end of Europe now, in a different political regime, and when I look at these old photographs I wonder if this is the world that people imagined and wanted then. I have become politically critical during my time in Glasgow, and quite often have heated discussions with friends and family when back home. This interests me a lot: how our experiences and history shape our value systems.
– You’ve studied photography and media in Vilnius and Glasgow. What is the fundamental difference between the two learning processes? What can you tell us about the photographic education in Lithuania? Where do young Lithuanian photographers study?
– I did only two years of my BA in Vilnius and finished it in Scotland. After a break of seven years, I came back to do my masters also at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA). The initial transition from Vilnius to Glasgow was mind-blowing. The educational system is fundamentally different, and the Scottish one suited me better.
In Vilnius my studies consisted of daily lectures, only some of which you could choose; I ended up doing the English language and sports (both compulsory) as part of the arts degree. GSA employs methods of student-centered, student-led teaching. I believe this is the reason why there are so many great artists coming out of this school, and why I loved it so much. I only started deeply caring about my work when in Glasgow. My practice has become my identity.
If you want to study photography at a university level in Lithuania, Vilnius Fine Art Academy is the only place, I guess… I do not have that much memory of the learning process there, I just remember being stressed out a lot of the time. Possibly it is not fair to compare the two establishments, as the funding situation is so different.
Lithuanian photographers of my generation whom I’m aware of seem to have studied in a variety of places, quite often abroad – London, Dublin, Edinburgh…
Do you think that we can speak about Lithuanian/Baltic photography as something distinctive?
I am observing it from far away and don’t always have access to the most current news in the field. I’ve noticed Latvian photography as the most prominent, with the ISSP, FotoKvartals magazine and a few photographers at its center. I admire the energy these guys have!
There are certain themes re-emerging again and again: identity, history, search for roots. I’m guessing they are inevitable, given the history of the region. However, I’m not sure if I can generalize – there is a diverse range of work coming from the Baltic region, and I hope it gets represented internationally more!
Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte is a Lithuanian artist and photographer currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. She holds a Master of Fine Art Practice in Photography and Moving Image from the Glasgow School of Art. Kotryna continues to work on personal projects and commissions. Her work ranges widely from social documentary to staged photography projects with a focus on cultural identity, belonging and perception of time.