Carrying the flag of avant-garde art

  • 2007-11-14
  • By Kimberly Kweder

CULTURAL ICON: Earlier this month Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas, aka the "Godfather of American avant-garde cinema,"opened the new visual arts center which bears his name and his works.

VILNIUS - "It shouldn't be a museum, that is, ... a place devoted only to its collections ...  It should be a place for living and working artists, working in film, video, computer, mixed media fields from all over the world, to present their works ... It should carry the flag of the avant-gardes of all the arts," Jonas Mekas wrote in a message to Kristijonas Kucinskas, Director of the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center, on his vision of what the center should be.

Painted white walls brighten up the facility's main room where more than 40 film stills capture moments of Jonas Mekas' life 's a life spent with friends like John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and George Maciunas.
Lithuanian-born filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the "godfather of American avant-garde cinema," lived a rags-to riches existence, capturing other peoples' stories through a camera lens.
Now, after 85 years, his film accomplishments have earned him an arts center in his native country.
The Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center officially opened its doors on Vilnius'  Gyneju Avenue on Nov. 4 to a crowd of more than 200 people. The center is dedicated both to the famous Lithuanian filmmaker and to George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus art movement in the 1960s, who died in 1978.

Most of the stills, part of the inaugural exhibition, "The Avant-Garde: From Futurism to Fluxus," are close-ups of life's everyday moments 's from walking the streets of New York's SoHo district to sharing a bowl of dumplings at Maciunus' home with Warhol and Ono. 
At the back wall, seven or eight television screens flicker on a large projection presenting Mekas' "Collection of 40 Short Films" and other autobiographical documentaries.
A few glass cases display old documents and writings from Lithuanian poet Kazys Binkis, and one of the original copies of Film Culture magazine, which Mekas and his brother Adolfas established in New York. 
Kucinskas, director of the center, said that due to Soviet control on free expression, it has taken more than 15 years to finally introduce modernism and avant-garde art to the Lithuanian public.

"Lithuania has a gap from Soviet times. There was no Fluxus, no futurism, until the 1970s or later. Still, there is a gap [between] older and younger generations," Kucinskas said.
"We're lucky that we were given this space," Kucinskas said. "This exhibition is a good way to show that we can make another exhibition featuring more artists," he said.

Jonas Mekas and Fluxus

Mekas was born in Semeniskiai in 1922. There, in his youth, he and his younger brother Adolfas made friends with Lithuanian poet and playwright Kazys Binkis, who lived in a neighboring town north of Panevezys County. It was Binkis who guided the brothers toward a career in creative writing.
During the war, Mekas took his writing to a political level. In one of his first jobs he fought against the Soviet regime by secretly retyping hand-written texts that were passed to him. He was also a copy editor for several underground newspapers and other publications.

After the Nazis discovered his papers and typewriter, he and his brother were sent to forced labor in a German camp for eight months.
Once the war ended Mekas and his brother lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for four years until the United Nations Refugee Organization sent him to New York in 1949.
Two weeks after the brothers arrived in Brooklyn, Mekas borrowed money to buy his first Bolex 16-mm camera and started building a career that would soon see him being one of the leading figures of "New American Cinema" of the 1950s. In 1958, he began writing his "Movie Journal" column for the Village Voice, and later was co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

In SoHo, Mekas was part of the Fluxus artists' circle, a movement that aimed to create a blending of different artistic media and disciplines. In "Zefiro Torna: Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas," Mekas profiles snapshots of Maciunas' Fluxus projects in SoHo, his hospital stay while ill with cancer, and his marriage to Billie Hutching during the last three months of his battle with the disease. 


The center is the only place in Vilnius, other than the Contemporary Art Center, that offers the chance to view drawings, films, objects and articles created by the two world-renowned modern artists, as well as those of Japanese-born Fluxus artist Shigeko Kubota and Nam June Paik of Korea.
Young artists who came to the center said it's about time the city recognized modern art.
"I think Vilnius is the place to study art. Vilnius is the most progressive city of art," said artist Dovile Sidlauskaite, who learned about Mekas and the Fluxus movement in her art history classes at school.

Filmmaker Narvydas Naujalis of the Lithuanian Music and Theater Academy said he's unsure whether Lithuania is ready for up-and-coming filmmakers and has set his sights on developing his creative talents abroad.
"Our school's poor, but I'm hoping that I can come back to Lithuania and work," Naujalis said.
He may be in luck. Those hoping to follow in Mekas' footsteps will soon be able to take advantage of a new, multifunctional arts center equipped for film studies. Construction of the center, which will be in Vilnius, should start after a feasibility study is done next spring.

"This will put Lithuania on the international cultural map and attract a lot of people to the city. We're a small country. We could use this," Kucinskas said.