How to Make a Gift of Stolen Time?
Ula Tornau, Art Critic
A conversation with the artist Žilvinas Landzbergas
Žilvinas Landzbergas (born in Kaunas, 1979) is a well-known Lithuanian artist, who has been active on the international contemporary art scene for the past five years. This autumn Žilvinas Landzbergas has been invited to contribute two works to the 10th Baltic Triennial of International Art Urban Stories, to be held by the Centre for Contemporary Art in Vilnius.

In recent years the artist has been working intensively on an exclusive project in the public space. A new district, Leidsche Rijn, is being created in the city of Utrecht in Holland, which along with Hammerby in Stockholm and Scharnhauser Park in Germany has already become famous for its non-traditional planning strategies. Žilvinas Landzbergas is one of seven artists who were invited to design sculptures for the park of the new district. This particular experience was the subject of my discussion with the artist.

3D visualisation of the proposed Žilvinas Landzbergas' project for Leidsche Rijn Park. 2009
  Ūla Tornau: You mentioned that you don't feel the need to discuss your position as an artist right now, that you're more interested in the processes and experiences you've gone through during your intensive participation in various projects, so I suggested that we could discuss the creation of your sculpture in a public space - the Leidsche Rijn district in Utrecht. For some time now, urban planners have been closely observing the planning strategy for this district, which looks non-traditional even in the context of Holland. Close collaboration between public and private initiatives, active involvement by the future residents of the district in the planning process, stepwise organisation of the construction work, the connecting of the district's identity with the history of the place, contributions by architects' and artists' organisations even before commencement of the construction work - these are only some of the features which distinguish the development of Leidsche Rijn.

Recently in Lithuania there has been heated debate - now followed by a degree of disappointment - concerning the possibil-ity of even having contemporary-style discussions about the introduction of works of art in the public space, and about the creation of public space itself. Several attempts to find a role for Lukiškių Square in Vilnius have led to an impasse, and the results of the most recent tenders (for example the competition for a monument and square commemorating the Vileišiai Brothers) demonstrate an enduring nostalgia for vestiges of the interwar period that were never realised. What is the context for the development of a work of art in the public space in Holland, and under what conditions is it created?

Žilvinas Landzbergas: It was very interesting to observe the planning process of Leidsche Rijn right from the start. This is an enor-mous project for Utrecht, as a result of which the city will grow by one tenth: from a population of 200 to 220 thousand. Although planned as a residential district, the public infrastructure was established first of all: roads, tramlines, a car park, shops, a fire station, sports centres, as well as an information centre that coordinates the exchange of information between the various participants in the project, as well as others who have an interest in it. In accordance with Dutch regulations, one third of the residential space was earmarked for social housing. Although the development of the district is being financed from many different sources, coordination of the project has essentially remained in the hands of the Utrecht municipality.

Most of the decisions are taken by the architects who won the urban design competition, the West 8 group. In contrast to Lithuania, where this is rarely the case, here the original concept is being strictly adhered to during the implementation phase. Right from the start, the proposed park area was marked out by planting trees. The architects decided to leave in place an adjacent street from the 1930s, where small private homes have been preserved, with plots of land in a row. The area that the residents themselves were allowed to design repeats this structure, with Neoromantic dimensions. In other words, the architects are trying to create the infrastructure for the whole district at once, keeping to the tradition of cooperation that has evolved in Holland. The architects also have a great influence on the sculptures. Quite frequently, both residents and artists find their modernistic bird's-eye view approach unacceptable, and it is not always possible to harmonise this approach with the history of the place, or with those strategies for development that other project participants are drawing up. Having won the competition, it is the architects who become the main axis of the project's multifaceted development. 

Ū.T.: Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about the sculptures in Leidsche Rijn Park. Who is in charge of coordinating the work, which artists were invited, and what, in your view, will these sculptures bring to the creation of the new place?

Ž.L.: In Amsterdam there is an organisation named SCOR, which runs most of the public space art projects in Amsterdam. The Utrecht municipality invited three of its art researchers and employed them at the BEYOND office, which is also managing the landscaping of the Leidsche Rijn park. In reality, these few people have undertaken a task that requires incredible effort and professionalism, although in actual fact I'm somewhat critical of Dutch sculpture in public spaces. I consider that Holland doesn't have a deep-rooted tradition of sculpture; a graphics, design approach tends to be dominant. The majority of their sculptors are also designers, and vice versa. Most schools in Holland do not specifically train sculptors, who by their very nature would work on the problem of creating form. Tradition probably has an important role here: let's call to mind the Dutch school of painting, or their achievements in the field of design.  

In Amsterdam you won't find much true sculpture in public spaces. We could mention the very popular sculptor Jeroen Henneman, who created the famous sculpture The Scream in memory of director Theo van Gogh. The majority of his sculptures are two-dimensional figures cut from sheet metal. They resemble discrete graphic applications on the landscape and are more effective visually than spatially. In my view, the best example for such an object is the homage in memory of director Theo van Gogh, which people started up and have been repeating each year since, marking the day of the director's death. They put their money together, and in the car park next to the site where the director was killed they take over a parking space for a few days, putting a fence around it and filling it with flowers. That is the most beautiful monument, an example of contemporary folklore.

In Holland, as in many other European countries, you will still come across sculptures that in everyday parlance are known ironically as "one percent sculptures". This is the one percent of the construction costs that, under Dutch law, must be given up for public use. It is clear, however, that these sculptures have become fewer in number, compared with the 1960s and 70s, perhaps because many artists are now concentrating on the process (study), and a lasting object, i.e. a traditional sculpture, usually does not come into being as a result of this process. More commonly the result is a performance, a printed work or a temporary object.

Ū.T.: Perhaps this is related to the general cultural context. After all, the 1960s and 70s in Europe were characterised by prosperity and social democratic governments, with major investment in public infrastructure and the development of public projects. In Holland this sector is now evidently being liberalised, and is ever more tangibly being passed over to private capital, or else a public-private partnership strategy is developed, something that is becoming increasingly more popular. The question arises: what are the actual expectations for works of art in the public space at the time they're commissioned? After all, the planning of the new district in Utrecht has been carefully thought out, and is supported by many different interest groups. The artists' organisations were invited to join in the creation of Leidsche Rijn Park very early on. How did they join the project, what issues did they set out to resolve, and who were the artists invited?

Ž.L.: First of all, BEYOND staked out the geography of the project: it invited young architects to design shelters in the park, as temporary non-traditional spaces that could be utilised for various public initiatives. These, in the area which was not yet inhabited, became meeting points: one serves as an artists' residence, in another the ideas of the inhabitants as regards the creation of the new district are presented, and so on.

Then they invited some fifteen artists to produce ideas for sculptures in the park and from the ideas put forward selected about seven works. All of the artists have lived or have been educated in Holland. The engineers, architects and technical staff taking part in the project are all Dutch as well, people with experience in the implementation of large-scale projects.

The video artist Mathilde ter Heijne, who has been living in Berlin for some time now, is taking part in creating the park. Just as for me, working on a monumental sculpture was not a typical task in the praxis of her life as an artist. She proposed excavating a hole in the central path, placing in it bronze castings of various everyday items - a sports shoe, a teddy bear, etc. - and then putting a glass cover over it, adding lighting as well.

Žilvinas Landzbergas. Fountain detail during construction process. Metal, concrete. 2009. Photo: Žilvinas Landzbergas
Ū.T.: This work is maybe related to the history of Leidsche Rijn, the Roman period, archaeological excavation and Viking Age finds, which provided the basis for attempts to create an identity for the new district.

Ž.L.: The Spanish artist Fernando Sanchez Castillo, a graduate of the State Academy in Amsterdam, has used objects cast in bronze, such
as a rolled-over car, a flag and other symbols of protest, to create a barricade like a wall that blocks the central avenue of the park. It's a very good work. I also enjoyed the works of his that I saw in northern Spain.

Dutch artist Rob Voerman is building a modernistic tower illuminated in various colours, a kind of painting in the form of sculpture. A work by William Speakman, who lives and works in Switzerland, is interesting: it's a life-size fairytale house, a building decorated in pseudo-exotic traditions and filled with logs.

I have respect for public space. It's an individually perceived common space that you can adapt for yourself. I remember how in my childhood we had a much-loved spring mattress in the lilac bushes. The first one to arrive would immediately occupy it, creating a world of their own. Your own space, but at the same time a public space. This is something you rarely experience in present-day parks. I don't have the feeling that the bench placed there belongs to me, that I can create my own time there. I'm enthralled with romantic parks, characterised by seclusion and changing moods. In a park like that you feel as if in a theatre, with the sets gradually changing. This is an altogether different space, a freer space for meeting. For example, the park in Lentvaris, which has artificially created places - you suddenly reach a tunnel-like chasm or cave, at various levels etc. It caters for people with a variety of interests: it's great fun for children, and a great place for kissing. But repetitive, uniform benches along the main path don't create that kind of experience. The paths in the new Leidsche Rijn Park have been arranged in such a way that you don't realise that you're being led somewhere, but at the same time no new experience is offered. The curve of the path is beautiful, but you won't notice it when you're walking, it can only be seen from above. It's interesting that the architects have deliberately opted for this kind of "uncomfortable" planning and are waiting for the emergence of new people-trodden paths, which will then be asphalted. These paths are colloquially known as "elephant trails", but this kind of "as if by chance" planning has become widespread for some time now, both in Japan and in Europe. There is also quite a lot of water in the park, however this is mainly for visual effect, and there aren't many opportunities to get to it. Perhaps because I hadn't worked with water previously, here I decided in favour of an idea where water has an important role.

Ū.T.: What kind of idea for the park did West 8 propose? What is its significance in the context of the district?

Ž.L.: The park is a former village that stretches down to the River Rhine, now somewhat brutally separated from it by a highway. The original idea was to create an immense closed Eden, which would be enclosed within an approximately 50 km long and 14 metre high open-work concrete wall. The wish was to "set in motion" the static Dutch landscape and to create an image of dunes. In this kind of grandiose project, where anything's possible, it's quite difficult to envisage the context of your own sculpture, since this is also changing all the time. It's also quite clear that, in spite of the new planning strategies, the modernistic role of the architect remains in force, and the overall vision of the area to be landscaped is dependent upon this. Initially, BEYOND suggested that all the sculptures should be concentrated at a single location, but later the architects decided to broaden the geography somewhat. This may be a logical decision, since the works themselves appear quite varied thematically.

Ū.T.: Perhaps you could tell us about the idea behind your work: how does it relate to your understanding of public space?

Ž.L. I produced some six proposals for the park, varying from abstract to figural, since both the planners and I were seeking not an end product, but rather a strategy for creating a new place. The figural composition I offered astonished everyone, maybe because figural works are associated with advertising, which has come to have a monopoly over image, or because there is an allergy to the neohistorical tradition.

I proposed an arrangement of three figures on a pedestal, covered in grass and reminiscent of a raised membrane. They were to depict a man, a woman and a child. The figures would be almost life-size and slightly abstract, as if poured out of beach sand or smoothed over by time. Partly it is a typical figural work, but I was interested in introducing movement to the composition, which in itself incorporates an abstract narrative. The man is in what I describe as a lion pose: he is stretched out on his stomach, supporting himself on his elbows, and has turned to face the woman. Meanwhile the woman is kneeling cosily beside him, but is facing the child, whose head is turned away as if he were looking into the distance, somewhere beyond this imaginary family circle. The figures are spaced at an equal distance from each another, but the tops of their heads are at the same height, so that from above they form an open triangular composition. Also important, to my mind, was the pedestal, the historical significance of which relates more to protection from vandals. In this case the raised base fulfils its function, separating the work from social time and space, but maintaining a link with the space and the person.

Finally I began contemplating water as an object, and began a study which gave rise to the end proposal. This was an altogether unfamiliar area for me. I sought an approach by which I could make a gift of stolen time to a person, to create some kind of vertical element, an orientation towards the heavens. The park itself is horizontally oriented. My idea was to have a kind of saucer, an eye in the sky - a low object, but oriented vertically. A kind of funnel reflecting the sky. Looking from the path, it would appear to become a mirror. Like an interpretation of that same idea of the family which had been developed in the figural composition. There would be a feminine form - an oval, and a masculine form - squares recessed into the ground at various levels, with water flowing across them, descending stepwise to a lower level and eventually into a pond.  Yet another proposal was a surrealistic combination of flames and water, creating a fairytale-like impression and at the same time expressing the political and economic realities of Holland. They have natural gas resources, but also a very sensitive water level, which is complicated to control by human effort, particularly in the present-day conditions of global warming. For me, in aesthetic terms, the pagan image of fire was very important, represented as a loop of flame on the water. I also proposed having elements of a giant bead necklace strewn about in the park, like lost fragments of various cultures or different narratives, all of them having in common the hole of the bead. A kind of reinterpretation of the myth of the Tower of Babel. In Leidsche Rijn, many different ethnic groups from various cultural strata and historical periods share the same space...

I'm really captivated by an object if it fulfils several functions: if it gives meaning to a place, personifies it, serves as a definite landmark and also as a logo for the place. Then it plays a significant role in memories. The object works on you in an interesting way: you walk past it, and it unleashes abstract associations that change each time, depending on your mood. Experience is never finite. It inhabits its own time.

/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/

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