KAUNAS – PRESERVING, REDEFINING, REVIVING LITHUANIA’S FORMER CAPITAL
by WILL MAWHOOD
Rethinking a neglected sleeping district
with Evelina Šimkutė
Playground by Evelina Simkute, 2012
Much like all other large cities in the Baltics, Kaunas was very different at the start of the Soviet occupation from at the end. Soviet planning moulded, reshaped and greatly expanded the city, and their parting legacy to the city was the sprawling residential district of Šilainiai. Constructed in the ‘80s on a hill remote from the city centre overlooking the River Neris, its towers provide a home for over 70,000 people. The district, like many Soviet-era projects elsewhere, is often dismissed and demonised by those who focus on its grey, frequently dilapidated appearance and impression of monotony and neglect. But for artist Evelina Šimkutė, who was born and grew up in Šilainiai and has recently returned to live there after more than a decade in London, it’s an inspiration and a muse – and making the most of the creativity of the people who live there is her passion. As well as using the district in her artworks, Šimkutė organises photo walks and workshops for local people, and has recently started a residency programme, enabling artists from elsewhere to spend time working in Šilainiai.
Can you talk me through what led you to set up the project?
I grew up in Šilainiai and as an artist I have always been inspired by the site. I was documenting life in Šilainiai for eight years via photography and, whilst living in London, I also made series of sculptures, installations and videos about it. Each time I went back I saw changes and felt it was important to capture them. Nobody else was doing it.
So I started talking to the local residents. Senior residents were happy to share their eye-witness accounts of what the site was like before Šilainiai district was built, and those life-changing stories encouraged me to “dig deeper” – capture, archive, present, and start a conversation. Before the development of the panel-housing district in the ’80s, Šilainiai was considered to be a countryside on the outskirts of Kaunas, with small villages and two large townhouses (Linkuvos andSargėnų dvaras) with vineyards and beautiful gardens. Noblemen of the time used to spend their summers there.
I knew that if I didn‘t do something, very soon these stories would be lost. So I started running photography workshops in local schools and held public photo-walks in Šilainiai, where I met a lot of incredibly talented and driven young people. I learnt about the lack of encouragement and appreciation for their creativity, lack of platforms to share their work and ideas. Also, people who lived in Šilainiai for many years, expressed the wish for “somewhere to go locally”, and for accessible cultural activities in the area where they lived.
There are about 55,000 residents in Šilainiai, but no cultural centre. The library is the only non-commercial place to meet. As a result, this summer I set up a series of activities both in public space of Šilainiai and in the library: artist talks, screenings, performances, walks, exhibitions, poetry readings… Artists from different parts of the world came to live and work in Šilainiai. And so the project started.
What are things you’re particularly proud in achieving?
I am particularly proud of the conversations that have been developed with the local community. Some extremely important themes have surfaced, starting with notions of home, emigration, value of creativity for self-identity. I hope to delve into them deeper next year. Also, I feel very humbled that the project has inspired creativity among the local community.
A series of brand new works – paintings, poetry and other texts have been created. And most importantly – I am very happy for the new connections made – between myself and local residents, as well as connections between different creative people in Šilainiai, Kaunas and nationwide. It is very special to observe new friendships or creative partnerships forming.
What is the impression that people in Kaunas have of Šilainiai? How are you trying to change that (if you are)?
I guess people in Kaunas might see Šilainiai as a grey sleeping district with lots of shops where nothing much happens.
I am genuinely curious about the district: what was here before it was built? How did it look like? Who lived here? What was going on? Who lives here now? How is it changing? Why? What is happening now? What is not happening? Why? How can we use this site for creativity? What work does it inspire? And so on.
What can Kaunas offer that other cities in Lithuania (or elsewhere) can’t?
Kaunas can be old-fashioned and progressive at the same time, there are a lot of clashes of ideas, styles and layers of history, it is a little bit quirky and raw and that’s what makes it unique. It is honest and real. It is surprising for those, who take time to know it. It takes time to know it. It is grey and green. This constant state of flux, the vibrancy and the urgency makes it inspiring.
I get a sense that Kaunas is reviving after a long period of being in Vilnius’s shadow. Would you agree with this?
I do remember having to constantly travel to Vilnius to see movies or exhibitions and it did seem that the cultural investments were made into the capital “by default”. Young people wanted to move there to study, work and live. But the situation has changed dramatically in the past ten years. There are a lot of progressive, innovative and creative people living in Kaunas who know the town inside out, who are embracing and reviving it. It is very exciting to be in Kaunas right now.
Full article: http://www.urban.ee/issue/en/19#