Sun and Sea (Marina) An opera-performance by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

Between Banality and Terror:

Artistic Discourse, Collective Anxiety and Climate Crisis

 The Lithuanian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale

By Helen Teede

Sun and Sea (Marina)

An opera-performance by:
Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė

You walk up a flight of stairs, and for a moment you become god, or a bird, or the sun, looking down upon a group of people sitting on a glowing rectangle of sand dotted with colorful towels, plastic bottles, beach regalia. The people are singing an opera. You soon realize that their song takes the shape of internal monologues, moving from that of one person to another. A drone looking into the mind of each person as it passes them by. As a viewer, you participate by listening to their thoughts. Thoughts that ramble as they do when you are sitting on a beach doing nothing, or doing something for no particular reason but to pass the time. The surface of their content expresses little more than everyday banality, personal worries, musings, complaints. But scratching the surface just a little, you begin to hear and feel a profound anxiety emerging from a place that is forbidden to show itself on a normal work-day. It is an insurgent anxiety that makes itself apparent in moments of doing nothing, moments when your guard is let down, when you’re on vacation, sitting on a beach. You’re supposed to be relaxing, enjoying the sun and the sea, trying to pretend you’re alone and not among a mass of other bodies who are trying to do the same.

A woman describes her diving holiday in Australia, photographers and piña coladas “included in the price” the “bleached, pallid whiteness” of the coral horns, the restaurant, the hotel, all “simply a paradise” while her husband laments the inability to let himself slow down, despite exhaustion, for fear that his colleagues will look down on him. He sings, “After vacation, your hair shines, your eyes glitter, everything is fine.” A mixture of hope and irony. Another man finds comical and grotesque the fact that they are sitting on a beach “snacking on super sweet dates imported from Iran” and that a banana “ripens somewhere in South America, and then ends up on the other side of the planet, so far away from home,” only existing to “satisfy our hunger in one bite, to give us a feeling of bliss. Serotonin from Ecuador […] for any time of day or time of year.” A woman complains about people coming to the beach with their dogs leaving their trash, shit and fleas in the sand, while another sings about her ex-husband who drowned in the sea, describing him as a “mammal with limited lung power” who “still tries so hard to dive down deep: He wants to conquer and control what is not his own.” Two sisters recall crying “so much” when they learned that “corals will be gone,” “the fish would go extinct,” “bees are massively falling from the sky” singing, “When my body dies, I will remain, in an empty planet without birds, animals and corals.” They offer a solution: a 3D printer: “with the press of a single button, I will remake this world again […] “we will print out the bees, so that at least some sweetness is left.” (Grainytė, 2019)

Since the beginning of the 19th century, industrial capitalism, arguably the main contributor to our environmental crisis (Bilgrami et al., 2019), has recognized that to have an efficient and obedient workforce it is necessary to offer a period of repose away from the workplace (Herman, 2015). The etymological root of the word “vacation” stems from the Latin vacatio, translated as “dispensation, exception from military service, freedom from duty, immunity earned by service.” The vacation, then, is a reward. The narrative of the sun and sea holiday, that fourteen days a year away from work is easily and immediately recognizable, at least within Western culture, in which a capitalist structuring of time empties it out of any qualitative aspects and reduces it to something quantitative, measurable and efficient, making a reward out of free time. It makes chronological the way we feel time, how we think about it and how we live it. The form the performance takes troubles this perception. The singers repeat the one-hour long opera for eight hours a day. They will repeat the performance twice a week until the end of the Biennale in November. It is at once an endurance piece and a questioning of the ways we think about time, shifting the form from chronological to cyclical, from quantitative (repetition is not efficient) to qualitative, actively bending and stretching time in strange and unexpected ways. As such, the performance asks us to think about, or feel, the passage of time from history to the future differently. If we think of it as flexible, immeasurable and cyclical, if we try to experience it in a qualitative rather than a quantitative way, we have more of a chance of being in sync with the ebb and flow of nature, of entering into a discourse of mutual respect with it rather than the dialectic of control that circumscribes a patriarchal relationship with nature which emerged in the Enlightenment period in Europe, was disseminated by force or manipulation among diverse cultures around the world, and remains today as a deeply entrenched attitude of subordination towards the very thing that keeps us living.

Susan Sontag (1996) describes our lives as being “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” Sun and Sea simultaneously expresses both fears, the threat of which is embodied in the materiality of the performance. As a viewer, you stand on the darkened balcony, a place that recedes from the real world and pulls you into this constructed one, and gradually the opera takes you on a journey through lyrics plucked from the everyday. Your own thoughts begin to take the same shape as those of the song, an ocean ebbing and flowing, trying to keep breathing, and you slowly, almost without realizing it, become aware of these fears in yourself. The boundary between performance and life blurs. You are at once standing above watching, and sitting among those singers, those strangers with whom you share these two collective fears, a nagging despair that is present on the underbelly of every quotidian experience.

 

The predicament of our climate crisis is so impossibly vast, how do you interrogate it without feeling utterly helpless and without hope? How do you create something for people to engage with that addresses such a desperate and incommensurable problem without making them shut down and clam up under the pressure of such helplessness?

As far as I’m aware, Sun and Sea doesn’t make people shut down, it opens them up. There is a two-hour queue outside every performance, and I’ve witnessed people moved to tears as they leave. What the performance achieves, I think, is relationality. It tells a story that we all already know. We all already feel. The artists take something that people can recognize in their own lives, but they trouble that recognition somehow so that it stops you for a moment, so that it generates a thought, a feeling, a movement, a desire to act, to have a conversation, to relate. It touches, very lightly, using the aesthetics of the everyday, on philosophical questions about our social and political lives: the pervasive presence of a capitalist system, patriarchal and Occidental power, globalization, cognitive dissonance, the refusal to accept what is opaque to our understanding.

Putting aside the obvious relationship between art and capitalism, and all the pitfalls and contradictions upon which the art world itself seems to be built, there are moments, albeit fleeting and rare, in which this structure is brought to its knees. Art can’t change the world, or save the planet from climate disaster. But people are curious, and art can help people to notice, to observe, to move, to ask questions, to anxiously dig for answers that are not likely to be found, to resist the order of social classes, repression and patriarchy, to see the unobvious, the uncertain and the trembling as rich resources and a source of strength, to create a community, to fight sadness, to relate to each other and to not feel alone in our fear.

“Sun and Sea (Marina)” is written and directed by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, performed at the Lithuanian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019. May 11 to October 31, 2019

All media courtesy Lithuanian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

 

References

Akeel Bilgrami et al., Roundtable Discussion, Living in the Anthropocene. The Helix Centre: New York

Vaiva Grainytė, translated from Lithuanian by Rimas Užgiris, Libretto: Sun and Sea (Marina), 2019: 

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966)

Christoph Hermann, Capitalism and the Political Economy of Work Time, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015)

Helen Teede is an artist and writer from Zimbabwe.