Gabriele Gudaityte’s magnetic field furiously attracted me with her amusing and intricate piece of art aptly named “The Chelsea Hotel Tooth Brush Club”, a collection of artefacts and information, some genuine, most fictional from the iconic Chelsea Hotel, New York. It was Friday 20th May and I had just managed to bag my first glass of free wine at Dundee University’s Degree Show. As if it was written in the stars, Gabriele’s illustrative work was the first I had stopped to look at and I was ready to leave straight afterwards, my mind and soul content with what I had already seen. I pushed through the crowds of the busy opening evening to chat with the student, who seemed to be overwhelmed with the reaction to her thought-provoking pieces.
We all have an affiliation with The Chelsea Hotel, may it be an association to a song or an artist that has walked the corridors of the Victorian Gothic building, the lines of a poem or the writer of our favourite book that’s written in or about the grande structure, maybe its the extravagance of philosophical exchange of the charismatic visitors who have stumbled over its famous threshold, or the abstract art that hangs graciously on it’s walls.
I share Gabriele’s introduction to the historic Hotel, both establishing a bond with its eccentricity and surrealism through Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” a recollection of Patti’s life with controversial and ground breaking photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
It was a combination of listening repeatedly to “Chelsea Girls” by Nico and a podcast from The New York Library, featuring Patti Smith, talking about her childhood relationship with her toothbrush that inspired the Lithuanian student to come up with the anomalous concept for her degree show piece. The archive, displayed as a box is a combination of lies and truths mixed up to allow the perceiver to come to their own conclusion as to what is hilarious fact or magically invented fiction. The clever creation incorporates iconic figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Sid Vicious, William Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre, but even more mysteriously there displays a printed black and white card displaying Chewbacca, who was arrested in the Ukraine during the making of Gabriele’s project.
A self confessed box of nonsense that is sure to catch your attention is just one third of Gudaityte’s work on display at the prestigious art school and although it initially grabbed my attention through a common interest, it was Gabriele’s printed artists book depicting and illustrating Albert Camus’s absurd essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ in a beautiful, screen printed and solar plate etched fold out, hardback book, as well as, a collection of stories and anecdotes passed on from different generations of her family back home in Lithuania, describing their motherland under the strict oppression of a socialist society, that really caught my attention and pulled at my heartstrings.
“The Absurd Reality of the USSR (a collection of second hand memories)” is presented in a fun, eye- catching comic book style, with cute illustration and light-hearted mockery towards Lenin and Stalin’s finger pointing, it is a refreshing approach to a serious, dark and grave part of history.
The story of Gabriele’s uncle, whilst on a walking trip with university to Siberia, where he illegally dug up the grave of his political prisoner Grandfather and brought his remains home to Lithuania in a specially adapted backpack, unbeknown to his fellow classmates, is a chilling yet absurdly romantic story of reuniting a family, torn apart by a political war and Soviet Occupation within the Baltic State.
The idea of communism has an air of romanticism, in theory the encouragement of equality and the eradication of a class divide plus any form of capitalist gain or bourgeoisie and proletariat society amounts to a view of favourable taste and a legitimate form of ruling. Communists fore fathers Marx and Engels original Manifesto included values of free education, a free healthcare system and equal salary for all, who wouldn’t want to prosper under a strong political, social and economical ideology that promotes impartiality, justness and fairness?
Sounds valid and warrantable but in reality Marx’s philosophy in trying to rectify society’s inevitable decline in development never reached fruition, instead in 1917 the Lenin led- Bolsheviks overturned their minority vote using violence and military force to gain leadership of the Russian people, contrary, Lenin supported an anti- war platform and successfully pulled Russia out of World War I, promising the people “Bread, Land and Peace” and implemented Marx’s Communist ideology.
Lenin established several state-serving government policies that continued throughout the reign of the Soviet Union but an uprising of anti-Bolshevik activists made him uneasy and paranoid and after attempt of his assassination he authorised the start of the Red Terror- an execution order of previous government officials and Monarchy, led by Joseph Stalin, Red Terror turned into civil war as Stalin proposed the systematic terror and killings, including mass executions not just for former government officials but civilians who disagreed with the Bolshevik’s reforms.
After Lenin’s death Stalin managed to over-throw all opposition within his political party to become the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union. During his time in leadership Stalin quickly revamped and replaced Lenin’s Economy Policy, industrialising the country and making it a controlled state. His affiliation and treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany shocked the world.
At end of World War II Stalin wasn’t ready to give up his control, he and his Red Army invaded and occupied Lithuania. Stalinist repression intensified, thousands of Lithuanians rebelled, culminating and creating a guerrilla warfare against the Soviet regime, fighting for their fundamental goal of independence for Lithuania. With no help from the West, the Partisan War continued and chance of success against the far stronger opponent seemed unreachable. Lithuania eventually became part of the Soviet Union.
Lithuania declared independence on March 11, 1990.
“My Mum was born in Magadan, more than 11,000 km away from home, where my Grandmother was taken to a concentration camp, in 1946 for hiding a Lithuanian Flag.
My Grandfather was imprisioned for helping Partisans in the Resistance in 1946.
My Grandmothers parents were successful farmers, they were exiled to Irkutsk, more than 5,000 km away from their daughter.
They came back home in 1963”.
“My Dad was born in Krasnoyarsk Krai, where his father was taken to a concentration camp for helping in the resistance in 1945. His family was also exiled for his actions.
My Dad’s Mother, my Grandmother was exiled for her brother’s connections with the Partisan’s along with her parents in 1948.
They came back home in 1966”.
“Naturally I have heard loads of stories about my home country, Lithuania, under the Soviet Occupation.
They make me sad.
Even more so, they make me unbelievably angry.
But I am choosing to laugh at it – not at the pain and the suffering of the oppressed. But at the incredible stupidity, irrationality and absurdity of the system…
Because it really, definitely, surely did not work”.
“My Mum submitted a fake marriage application once, just to get luxury items such as a couple of tins of peas and a jar of mayo”.
“This collection could be a never-ending one. I am sure that every Lithuanian family would be able to gather many more stories and anecdotes about the absurdity of the USSR.
These are the stories that I have heard, I was lucky enough to be born right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However the effects of the Communist era are still present in Lithuania. Many lives were lost and a lot of people are struggling to move on.
I believe that it is very important to remember what happened, even though it is painful, and to share this with others. Those that were lost and those that got hurt and those that didn’t have anyone to bring them back home are worth remembering”.
Gabriele Gudaityte you have blown me away. You have opened my eyes and taught me the history and struggle of Lithuania’s people. It’s welcoming to see the mind-blowing strength you have gained from your ancestors, whilst delivering a thought-provoking, inspirational and provocative piece of art. Congratulations!
Long Live the VEF and Gudaityte is my QUEEN of Absurdity, YEAH!
Gabriele’s work can be viewed in the illustration department at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee until 29th May 2016.