HAIL THE POPESS, THOUGH PERHAPS ONE SHOULDN’T

2023 06 12 arterritory.com

Author Rosana Lukauskaitė

A review of the performance Brilliant Green Wine by Neringa Poškutė-Jukumienė

What does the history of a place truly signify in an age where our spaces are increasingly virtual, and individuals find themselves dislocated and displaced? Can specific locations bear an indelible mark of past events, or does the passage of time act as the ultimate equalizer, fading these stains into oblivion? And how do we reconcile the image of a politician attacked with brilliant green dye with the austere figures of gray cardinals, upon whose palms a female pope inscribes the stigmata with ‘zelyonka’? These are the multifaceted questions that artist Neringa Poškutė-Jukumienė tackles in her newest performance art piece Brilliant Green Wine. The initial performances of this piece took place on May 24th and 26th, with an encore scheduled for June 17th, all at the Klaipeda Drama Theatre in Lithuania. This thought-provoking work, operating within the discourse of contemporary jewellery, prompts audiences to undertake a nuanced exploration of memory, place, and identity in a swiftly changing world. Yet, it simultaneously hints at an intriguing paradox: for some, these changes may not be happening quickly enough.

In her most recent performance, Neringa breathes life into a unique female pope character, an entity that she masterfully inhabits. In a poignant twist, this character intersects with the haunting memory of an infamous dictator, their narratives coexisting in the same theatrical space – a balcony where the dictator once addressed his audience. The balcony isn’t just an aesthetic backdrop to this performance; it’s a historically significant canvas that Neringa uses to great effect. Its location, outside the theatre of Klaipėda, is symbolic, mirroring the statue of Little Annie of Tharau that stands nearby. This statue, a replica of the 1912 original by Berlin artist Alfred Kune, was inspired by a renowned Prussian wedding and love song. The original was tragically destroyed during WWII, leaving the replica as a testament to its memory. Neringa’s strategic placement on the theatre balcony does more than merely mirror the pose of the nearby statue of Little Annie of Tharau – it engages in a silent dialogue with it. Anecdotal history suggests that the statue, due to its positioning, was the only figure that dared to turn her back on the Führer on the day of his arrival to the city, adding an intriguing layer of defiance and resilience to her silent stone form. By subtly mimicking the statue’s pose, Neringa not only pays homage to this historical emblem but also infuses her performance with a sense of symbolic resistance. The narrative power of her performance lies in its ability to unearth the interplay of past and present, dominance and subjugation, in a visually and emotionally engaging way.

The quiet defiance of Little Annie of Tharau resonates with the steadfast authority of Neringa’s female pope character, the two sharing a space that was once a stage for oppressive masculine power. This interaction is not merely a theatrical device but a compelling commentary on the evolution of feminine strength and the shifting dynamics of power over time. The scenography of white smoke rising from the balcony evokes powerful imagery beyond the papal conclave or the burning Reichstag. It brings forth associations with a multitude of historical, political, and cultural phenomena where smoke has signified change, transition, or distress. From the smoke signals of ancient civilizations to the distress flares of modern maritime emergencies, smoke has universally been a communicator of pivotal messages. Thus, the performance seems to suggest that we are at a moment of dramatic shift, awaiting the emergence of new narratives from the haze of our collective past. And in this anticipatory space, Neringa’s performative work offers a potent catalyst for reflection and dialogue, nudging us to contemplate the smoke, and the mirrors, of our present condition.

The artist, discussing the structure of her piece, outlined its division into two contrasting acts. The first act unfolds in the openness and public view of the theatre balcony, while the second act retreats to the theatre’s interior, accessible only to ticket-holders. This deliberate dichotomy serves as a narrative device, prompting audiences to contemplate whether they’re observing the light side of darkness or the dark side of light. Or, paradoxically, might exposure to both parts obscure the distinction even further? Interestingly, the popess character initially presents her back to the crowd, only turning to face them after a smoke-filled interlude – a dash of stagecraft magic. As the artist reflected on this choice, she mused, ‘The crowd gazes upon the idol. You must enact something to draw the crowd’s attention towards you’. Her concluding thought underscored the necessity of exuding a certain luminescence to guide the audience, remarking, ‘If you don’t radiate some form of light, people will remain in darkness’.

The theatre’s ground floor showcases an art installation featuring a replica of the papal throne, accompanied by a hundred leaves of Strelitzia, also known as the bird of paradise flower, mounted on metal stands. In this tableau, the popess is not alone but is surrounded by her metaphorical gray cardinals. Diligently, the gray cardinals arrange these flower stands – serving a dual purpose as objects of jewellery, thanks to the Lithuanian word ‘žiedas’ embodying both a jewellery ring and a flower ring – thus sculpting an evolving path for the popess towards her throne. After her passage, they then methodically replace the stands, creating a protective place around her. This ritualistic act of constructing and deconstructing the bird of paradise flower pathway towards the throne carries rich symbolism and echoes the Biblical phrase ‘many are called, but few are chosen’, imbuing the performance with profound themes of power, protection, and exclusivity. This dynamic unfolds in a compelling manner, prompting the audience to reflect on entrenched power structures within the church and society. It subtly illuminates the often opaque divide between the elected and the overlooked, the guardians and the guarded, the leaders and the led. As the papal entourage ascends to the second floor, they approach a wheel-shaped table adorned with memes. In this space, the popess undertakes the symbolic distribution of the “sacramental wine”. Employing her finger dipped in brilliant green dye, she paints crosses onto the palms of her followers. The dye, served from a vintage Soviet dessert glass, offers a stark contrast and a nod to the historical and cultural intersections. This act, both provocative and intimate, merges the sacred and profane, the traditional and the avant-garde, challenging the boundaries of religion, politics, and art. It’s a testament to Neringa Poškutė-Jukumienė’s vision of a performative narrative that merges humour and critique, reverence and irreverence, the past and the future.

Before making her exit, the popess lays her hand on one rhombus-shaped piece displayed on the table. This piece features an encased crucified figurine, a potent symbol that could just as easily have been any random meme. Memes transcend narrow national or public interests. They overstep the boundaries of historicity and self-centredness, giving the illusion that their creators, the authors, cease to exist. Rather than bestowing an individual identity, memes reflect the collective ideas, images, and trends of the time in which they’re produced. While different subcultures and communities may propagate unique memes, they all seem to be crafted by the same anonymous entity – without gender, race, age, or definite social standing. Intriguingly, memes share a similarity with religious texts, seemingly descending from a universal source, applicable to all. Yet, inherent in them lies a potent danger. The casual, informal, and relatable nature of memes makes them an efficient tool for propaganda purposes. No one takes offence or suspects any malice, likely due to their lighthearted presentation and relatable content. One can effectively administer a dose of medicine under the guise of candy.

Ultimately, both dictators and popes serve as showmen, presenting their unique brand of spectacle to their captive audiences. In this light, one could draw an analogy to the realm of jewellery. Just as a stunning piece of jewellery captivates attention and commands admiration, these powerful figures hold the gaze of the public, their every action observed and interpreted. Like the jeweller’s craft, their personas are meticulously curated, designed to inspire awe, reverence, or fear. In this sense, power, like jewellery, is a spectacle that demands our undivided attention. The impersonation of a pope might be expected to provoke outrage, akin to the disdain for fake pearls or diamond forgeries. However, in our post-postmodern society, we’ve developed an acute sense for irony and the ability to connect disparate elements to discern underlying meanings. Thus, we understand that a piece of plastic jewellery or a ‘fake’ art NFT of a meme could fetch a higher price than cherished family heirlooms of gold. It is a reminder that value is often subjective and sometimes the intangible, the ephemeral, the symbolic, and the subversive can carry greater weight than traditional symbols of wealth or power. Through her performance, Neringa Poškutė-Jukumienė compellingly challenges us to question our preconceptions and to re-evaluate our understanding of authenticity and worth in this ever-evolving cultural landscape.

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