Working primarily with photography, but also employing archives, sculpture, film, audio and choreography, the work of the Lithuanian artist Indrė Šerpytytė (born 1983) explores issues of history and trauma. Much of her work has addressed the recent past of Lithuania, in particular the years of the Second World War, the Cold War, the decades of Soviet control and the so-called 'war after the war'. Yet despite dealing with very specific historical circumstances Šerpytytė achieves a remarkable openness in the work. Her themes are universal: the ways in which the past affects the present, the ways in which the political infuences the personal, the importance of memory. Šerpytytė states: 'In my work I treat photography as an emotional expression rather than a documentation process. Through my images I attempt to reconstruct my inherited memory in the attempt to make the past more tangible. By rebuilding the inherited history I try to reclaim it.'
The series A State of Silence (2006) creates an ambiguous archive of relics, combining personal possessions with seeming remnants of bureaucracy. Denying a coherent narrative, the work questions official accounts of the untimely death of the artist's father, a government official, in an apparent car accident.
The series 1944–1991 (2009–) depicts buildings in Lithuania—many now in domestic use—that were used by the Soviet secret services, including the KGB. Accessing declassified government records Šerpytytė developed an archive of the buildings and then visited the sites and photographed them. She then commissioned a traditional Lithuanian woodcarver to make models of the buildings. Finally, Šerpytytė photographed the models in black and white. Her cool and austere presentation of the resulting images—removed from the original sites of trauma by several steps of mediation—opens up a rich space for contemplation. As Simon Baker has written: 'Šerpytytė's glacial photographs stand in stark contrast to the brutal and unthinking character of both the traumatic events and the unacceptable memorial failure to which they refer and, finally, represent. But rather than sealing off these sites from their unwanted associations with an absentminded history of political oppression, coercion and violence, each sequential link in the chain of the process opens up a little more breathing space and lets in a little more light; just enough room for the flitting wing-beat of the irrational and the chance of recognition that comes with it.'
Šerpytytė's new works, the 'Pedestal' series, also address the gulf between past and present by contrasting archival images of statues of Lenin and Stalin, sited in grand public spaces, with their current existence in a kitsch 'ostalgia' theme park. In addition, Šerpytytė has recently begun to address other international sites of trauma and their media representation, focusing in particular on 9/11, the conflict in Syria and ISIS propaganda films.
Learning, like looking, takes time. It took until well into the 20th century for photography to be fully accepted as art, longer for color work to make the cut. (People thought color belonged in advertising.) And it's only fairly recently, in the digital present, that hard lines separating photography from painting, sculpture and performance have...