Unfurling Headspace: New and Old

18.09.2013 – Requiem for a Post-Soviet Dream review By Josh Gibbs for Champion Up North webzine

“‘Outer’ or ‘objective’ reality is related to what comes to us through our senses i.e. what we can see, touch etc. ‘Inner’ reality is supposedly related to our mind – imaginative, dreamy, visionary.”
– Augustinas Našlėnas

At last summer’s Woolgather Art Prize, I was very struck by some of the photographic work I saw. The works that I found particularly engaging were from the series of photomontages titled Requiem for a Post-Soviet Dream, by Sheffield-based Lithuanian artist, Augustinas Našlėnas. They managed to embellish a combined effect of profound eeriness and strange warmth – very peculiar indeed. Indescribable really, except that I will actually try to describe these intricately crafted works, which inadvertently defy the notion that digitally manipulating photographs is a cop out.
Našlėnas creates complex dreamscapes out of 70 to 100 fragments taken from his archive of photographs from Lithuania, which he digitally attaches together to form a seamless image. This is the nature of the dreams we have when we sleep – small, irregular pieces of our subconscious mutating with one another to form a confusing mass of forms and feelings that don’t always seem to belong together. Indeed it was these internal dreamscapes we all experience which triggered certain artists in Europe in the early 20th Century to form the Surrealist movement, which would subsequently inform artists of today like Našlėnas.

“…to use photographic image in a way a painter composes a painting.”

The way in which the artist has manipulated the digital medium in Requiem for a Post-Soviet Dream allows him to deliver a certain painterly quality in the overall aesthetic. Light and dark shades are moulded together in a blur, particularly with the hazy and out-of-focus expressions the people in the pictures have, as if blended together with a smooth stroke of a brush. They are pieces of a “poetic narrative”. The bright sheen and the blur, along with the ludicrousness and unlikelihood of so many things taking place within one frame, at least for several of the photomontages, briefly removes the images from suspicion of a photographic premise. It is for an instant a well-crafted, completely fabricated composition of dreamt up shapes from the mind of the artist, without the degree of objectivity that even a still-life painting or drawing has.
Following this initial gaze on this series, what becomes increasingly evident is this indefinable striking quality the figures and their surroundings have. With the levels of aesthetic definition they have, where both clarity and blurriness coexists with the stark contrast between light and dark, one can somehow tell that the shapes are photographed. They have a sense of placement, not in deft strokes, but in pre-made, misshapen parts, initially unfitting yet still carefully fastened onto one another.

“As I mentioned, it seems to me that in photomontage the synthesis of the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is most present. Painting doesn’t have that potential. It’s very hard to bring ‘objectivity’ into painting, because with painting everything is hand-made by the artist. Whereas photography, because of its mechanical fashion, is considered somewhat closer to ‘objectivity’. Photographic image is probably the most ‘objective’ creative vehicle available to artists and with the help of digital technologies they are able to manipulate it freely.”

The artist, through these photomontages – a technique that he has carried on with beyond this series – plays with the “synthesis between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’” spaces in relation to himself. He is able to place together the more direct, and therefore more objective, representations of ‘outer reality’ inherent in photographs. Together they will ultimately represent the artist’s own subjective realm; the objectivity is diminished and they are part of a composition like a painting. Despite being part of a subjective composition, each piece that forms the overall image is one of matter, chartered in a block of detail rather than comprised of mark making on a surface. Photography is a process that strives towards an acute zone of accuracy and objectivity. With these playful photomontages, however, these seemingly objective figures keep dipping their feet in the waters of an inner masquerade that can only be subjective.
It is this straying between subjectivity and objectivity that mirrors the reality of dreaming evident in Requiem for a Post-Soviet Dream. The subconscious is composed of fading memories of the past, observations of a transient present and jaded visions of a fairly unforeseeable future; what connects them are things that we appreciate as ‘real’. Našlėnas is fascinated with the “ghost of the old steel industry dwelling in streets” just as he is with his own country’s Soviet past, but all in relation to what is happening now and what will happen in the future. Indeed it is a future is formed by fragments of the past, which is in turn formed by a disintegrating present. He recognises Requiem for a Post-Soviet Dream as becoming a “life story of a young boy growing up in a Post-Soviet world”.

Josh Gibbs 2013