KAUNAS, A NEW VENUE FOR TEXTILE ART IN EUROPE
In 2001 the third international exhibition of textile art, entitled Soft World, took place in Kaunas. The catalogue stated that its aim was “to introduce the latest works of textile art, to give an overview of textiles and to understand the ongoing process in the wider context of the neighbouring countries”. At the time 55 artists applied, most of them from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with some applicants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Serbia.
This year 155 artists from 25 countries submitted 194 works; only 45 of them were Lithuanians. It was also the first time that the event had an international jury. The title chosen by the organisers was Right and Wrong Sides, referring to tapestries that used to have a right and a wrong side and to the underlying question of what is considered right or wrong in textile art today.
The 2001 catalogue had already shown that this exhibition was a showcase for the younger generation of Lithuanian and Baltic artists who seem to be going through a very creative period. “After the country became independent it took us some time to find our own way”, artists told me, but then they embarked on a creative journey and tried out all the new techniques and creative options they had been exposed to within a very short time. In the year 2000, Kaunas saw an upsurge of interest in textile art. A new textile gallery was set up by the Guild of Textilists and Artists, which numbers around 70 members. Numerous exhibitions and outdoor performances engage the public of this cultural-minded town whose town council supports artists and offers courses to children, adults and even tourists.
One reason for the textile art boom certainly is this general support of culture – the Baltic Times wrote that budget cutbacks are experienced everywhere now, except in the military and... the cultural budget! - although it is also due to the large number of well-trained textile artists. According to gallery owner Jolanta Smidtiene, herself a textile artist, the general public purchase creative clothing accessories while tourists acquire traditional linen items.
For the jury it became evident that the enthusiasm for textile art was also reflected in the 68 works chosen for the exhibition. In the first selection, 14 works elicited a positive response from all the jury members. Three of these were made by Lithuanian and three by Latvian artists, followed by two works each from Finland and Japan (countries with a good international reputation in textile art) and one each from Iceland, Romania, Sweden and Taiwan.
The works submitted included only a few traditional tapestries, which is not surprising if one considers the lack of commissions for this medium in Kaunas compared to earlier periods. The jury considered the question of whether applied art pieces would fit in with an exhibition of textile art. They found this to be the case, but not many such works were submitted. The few works submitted in the patchwork medium showed that the huge community of leisure artists have not made their presence felt yet. On the contrary, it seemed to me that all the participants were well-trained professional artists (at least those from the Baltic countries) or international textile artists looking for worldwide exposure. To my surprise the latter group seems to be quite coherent as I recognised many works by artists who had also taken part in other textile art events in 2003 (e.g. “Artists at Work”, “Art of the Stitch”, “Flexible” etc.), and some of them even presented exactly the same works!
As expected, not so many of the pieces presented were produced in new technologies and materials, with the exception of some using photo-transfer techniques. Moreover, works made in the “artist’s own” technique, which are so typical for Polish events, were not presented in such large numbers, much to my satisfaction because I consider it arrogant to call any random mixed technique your own! Polish textile artists who are usually among the prizewinners at international exhibitions have become rare in the international scene these days. This may be due to the fact that the cost of shipping pieces to and from exhibition venues have become a strain on textile artists in general and those from the former Eastern Bloc countries in particular. I also found, again to my satisfaction, that there were almost no works aspiring to “fine art” in an endeavour to make it to the Venice Biennial or the Kassel Documenta. Such works are rarely interesting from a textile point of view, and their artistic ambitions often lead straight into the ridiculous...
What was remarkable about the submissions – and the final selection of works for the exhibition – was the presence of so many younger artists who had produced innovative works of the kind that can only be created by artists who master their techniques and are able to achieve maximum effect with a minimum of means. The older generation of Baltic artists was also represented, some of them displaying entirely new works while others showed the same thorough creations they have made for years. The “Western” artists also displayed this division of thorough and well-known works of textile art in contrast to new and exciting innovations.
One of the organisers, a textile art lecturer, said she felt so sorry for all the artists that were rejected, many of whom she knew were very much in need of positive feed-back. As regards feedback for the artists, my suggestion would be to have an open judging process so as to produce the desired learning effects. I know from my own experience that it is a learning experience both for the artists and the jurors who have to be very precise in what they are saying, which is only right and proper. The idea of an open jury was conceived during the heyday of textile art, but forgotten in less dynamic times. Here in Kaunas, in this period of a positive textile art boom, it would be just right!
final remark: It is such a pity that the various European efforts to establish
a textile art biennial are not co-ordinated. There are efforts in the UK,
France, Hungary, Latvia and now also in Lithuania, and they all are struggling
with low budgets and a shortage of people doing the work. If combined, all
these efforts would make a huge travelling exhibition of textile art instead of
several events of regional importance.