impossible colonies

15 september to 27 october

Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte

In the 1920s, Kazys Pakstas (1893–1960) a Lithuanian geographer, diplomat and academic, proposed an idea to move the entire nation of Lithuania from its geographical home by the Baltic Sea in eastern Europe, to a safe place, a peaceful colony overseas. This was a reaction to the tense geopolitical situation with neighbouring Russia and other events in Europe. Pakstas spoke of the importance of saving the nation through saving its intellectual thought first. This Utopian project, titled Dausuva (named after Dausos, the spirit world in Lithuanian mythology) considered locations like Quebec, Belize, Sao Paulo state in Brazil, Angola and Venezuela. Pakstas visited each of the locations and held meetings with local authorities about potentially buying or leasing land to resettle. 

Some 400 years earlier, Jacques Cartier had sailed from France across the Atlantic hoping to find a western shortcut to the riches of Asia and its spices and silks. Twenty days later, his ships reached the shores of what was later to become Canada, at the time inhabited by First Nations. Spices and silks were nowhere to be found, but there was plenty of gold, diamonds and fur. Jacques Cartier and his team endured a harsh Canadian winter and, in spring, they loaded their ships with their newly found riches and set sail back to France to report on the mission to King Francis I. Upon their return, the precious cargo turned out to be quartz and iron pyrite rather than diamonds and gold, leading to a French phrase "faux comme les diamants du Canada” (“fake like Canadian diamonds”).

This exhibition presents a constellation of works, reflecting on these histories. 

The first chapter of Impossible Colonies presents a fictional archive of Pakstas’ proposed migrations. Three photo-etchings depict landscape as a new, mysterious, untouched and, therefore, romanticised and distanced entity. Something to be admired but conquered, or at least tamed. Colonial expansionist thought saw nature as detached from humanity, as an environment in which we exist rather than as something of which we are an integral part. 

Untitled  Photo etchings (2017)

Untitled Photo etchings (2017)

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Two photographic silk flags with golden tassels show the Baltic Sea and Loch Dochard in Argyll. Using these flags as symbols for territorial claims, yet consciously stripping them of nationalistic imagery and meaning, the inhabitants of Impossible Colonies celebrate fluidity, transition and closeness as building blocks of a new society. 

Untitled  Digital print on silk, wooden dowling, golden tassels (2017-2019)

Untitled Digital print on silk, wooden dowling, golden tassels (2017-2019)

Untitled  Beeswax (2017)

Untitled Beeswax (2017)

Beeswax artefacts symbolise items brought from their former home, as souvenirs or memory vessels, and links to the life once lived. Cast from natural southern Lithuanian beeswax, these objects are multiplied, as if trying to hold on to the memories they may carry, whilst simultaneously stripping them of meaning by repeating the shape and form. The faint smell of meadow and hay holds an imprint of time and the collective labour of colonies of honey bees that produced the wax.  

Two silent looped videos - Untitled (archive) and Untitled (moon) - extend the conversation in time. Beeswax artefacts are digitised to be accessed by future generations, in the process revealing one true original souvenir from which others were multiplied. An unknown light object blinks in the darkening evening sky above the forest, delivering a coded message to those arriving to the Impossible Colonies, whether it’s a new land across the water or a planet promising a fresh start, this time certainly free and equal for all.

Untitled  Magic lantern slides (2017)

Untitled Magic lantern slides (2017)

Magic lantern slides continue the direction to the outer space. The fascination humans have long had with the sky and its formations - through myth, religion, astrology and science - is now entering the stage of seeing it as a potential living destination. The settlers of Impossible Colonies will have a chance to define and shape their new home, and perhaps this new planet and its solar system are far enough away to avoid repeating mistakes of the previous societal models. 

Collective Geologies Map  (detail) Inkjet print, 24 ct gold leaf (2019)

Collective Geologies Map (detail) Inkjet print, 24 ct gold leaf (2019)

Collective Geologies Map is from the second chapter of Impossible Colonies and was made by a constellation of people who drew the map of the world from memory. Merged into one, these maps become a graphic of multiple geographies, memories and teachings. Gilded with 24 ct gold leaf, this fictional map refers to aggressive historical and contemporary expansions, often fuelled by geological motives. It is layers of soil, rock, hardened lava, trapped minerals and crystals, moved and shaped by shifting glaciers, volcanic events and erosion. It is so inviting to slice through it like a layered cake made of space and time (even better if speckled with gold veins and diamond nests). Colonialisms exploit geological, biological and natural resources as well as people.  It is, however, unclear how deep the colonial knife slices: does the cut end at the tectonic plates or does it dig deeper to the very core of the planet? 

Amateur Botanist video combines 3D models generated using photogrammetry with underwater video footage to imagine and reenact some ways that plants may have travelled and spread around the planet. It hints at imperial expansions and is based on a narrated dialogue between two, non-human species. This work explores notions of native and invasive, and tests the waters outside the anthropocentric world view. Migrations of plants, as well as those of animals and humans, have shaped our planet and have been affected by complex intertwined sociopolitical factors: wars, expansions, climate change, economy and eating habits. These factors, alongside time, also determine whether a species, an individual or a group are ‘labelled’ as local, invasive, indigenous, exotic, foreign or native. Amateur Botanist observes the simplest of botanical migrations - fruits, vegetables and roots floating across bodies of water to reach new lands and then spread. The dialogue between two, non-human species also includes digitally rendered forms, thereby extending the conversation from human to non-human to the digital realm.

Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte, 2019

Acknowledgements: 

Impossible Colonies work was commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival in 2017, whilst the research was supported by Lithuanian Culture Council. 

The ongoing second chapter of Impossible Colonies was started during the residency at VU Photo, Quebec City Canada, and supported by Creative Scotland, VU Photo and Lithuanian Culture Council. 

Amateur Botanist was commissioned by Short Circuit projects and Centrala, Birmingham. Made with support from Lithuanian Culture Council.

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