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Have you ever wondered what people really got up to after the Iron Curtain fell? Well, unfortunately… we seem to have lost the curtain somewhere along the way. Our bad. Bit of a shame, they just don’t make them like that anymore. Fortunately, the Vilnius MO Museum has searched high and low, combed through every attic, basement, archive and private collection, and found a few ‘90s gems of their own. The findings will be up on display at The Origin of Species: 90s DNA exhibition through to March 1st. We chat with three of the exhibition’s curators to find out more about the first decade of the newly independent Lithuania, the value of nostalgia and all of the little things that somehow survived a serious post-Soviet decluttering.
You’ve mentioned that this exhibition was partly inspired by two of its cousins from London, You Say You Want a Revolution? and Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. Did having such a quintessentially British starting point make the curation process easier or more difficult for you? How did it influence the final product?
Miglė Survilaitė: These exhibitions inspired and encouraged us to think outside of the box of your standard, true-blue art exhibition and examine ‘90s Lithuania as a whole. They served as a launchpad for further discussions of what could be relevant to Lithuanian museum-goers and how to give it to them. Thus, our curatorial team assembled the exhibition The Origin of Species: 90s DNA. It’s a comprehensive – anthropological, sociological, and cultural – look at the state of Lithuania between the years 1990 and 2002. The exhibition deals with a wild and euphoric decade of freedom that is, though recent, but fundamentally, history.
It differs from its British cousins in that we asked the people to lend us their belongings and stories from that era. Thus, elements of its music, fashion, the Market and local Gariūnai market economies, freshly formed mafia and pop culture share the exhibition hall with artworks from MO’s own collection as well as some borrowed pieces. So, it’s this mix of things taken from people’s everyday lives, artworks, and elements of interactive architecture and scenography. The British exhibitions didn’t influence the curation process itself. But they did inspire us to take an interdisciplinary approach.
Vaidas Jauniškis: Oddly enough, I have to add a few more British sources of inspiration to the list. Specifically, the Unleashed Britain exhibition held at the London Theatre Museum that was still standing and welcoming visitors back then, more than a decade ago, and the Glasgow People’s Palace exhibition on the history of the city. There, I remember watching two old ladies having a laugh over an exhibit that was essentially a purse with a bottle of vodka peeking out of it – a once-popular accessory amongst the regulars of the city’s main dance hotspot. It was as if they were asking each other, ‘Oh, you too?’ This just goes to show that ordinary things can have an extraordinary impact – if they’re chosen correctly.
Is it true that ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’? How does that principle inform this exhibition?
Tomas Vaisėta: Visitors who come to the exhibition looking for the rhyming lines of history will easily find a few. For example, the Singing Revolution that rang through Lithuania and its neighbours in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had at least one thing in common with the events of 1968: a massive shift in our perception of sex and sexuality. This is when the public sphere became a lot more sexualised and saw the arrival of such novelties as the de-eroticised female body, the eroticised male body, the humble beginnings of gay culture, etc. Then, we have some more general rhymes.
In both periods, cultural autonomy became a hugely important issue that influenced the way many people lived and moved through life. In ‘90s Lithuania, the main seekers of a shiny, new, post-Soviet cultural autonomy were, of course, the artists. They sought it out both through public performances, which were a bit of a novel concept to audiences back in the day, and in the total, secluded privacy of their little artistic islands in the ocean of people, far away from the latest social and political news. I’ve heard many visitors say that while they can remember a lot of what is on show from personal experience, the ‘90s art scene has shown itself in an entirely new light.
However, ‘90s Lithuania and the whole of Central-Eastern Europe shared not only rhyming couplets but also some free verses. After all, the historical context of the era was completely unique – the immediate aftermath of one of the greatest social experiments in human history, the Soviet Union. So in some ways, even the things that might look to us like they should rhyme on paper, which seem like two versions of the same thing happening in two different places, definitely had their own unique quirks.

How do you approach nostalgic, sentimental topics without making the objects used to represent them seem like a pile of old, well-forgotten souvenirs?
Miglė Survilaitė: It’s true that when we look back at the past, especially at a part of it that’s so recent and easy to visualise in our mind’s eye, it’s easy to be swept away by nostalgia and sentiment. The main bulk of sentimentality permeates the exhibition in one of two ways. Firstly, through the various loaned or gifted everyday objects. Secondly, through the shared cultural references that many visitors will easily recognize – snippets of the once-popular TV shows, bits of the biggest Baltic outdoor market, Gariūnai (which didn’t just set the fashion trends of the era but actually changed many people’s lives) and much more. Nostalgia is a sort of gateway drug for our visitor.
Upon recognizing certain objects or phenomena, we tend to associate them with our own personal experiences and relive old memories, but the traditional artwork element of the exhibition helps to expand the conversation beyond personal histories and reveal the darker elements of the decade as well. The ‘risks’ that come with confronting nostalgic topics were also minimized by the meticulous work of the exhibition architects and scenographer Renata Valčik’s installations. This way, the nostalgic tokens of yesteryear become a legitimate extension of thematic artworks, not just a pile of nostalgia-inducing, mismatched souvenirs.
Vaidas Jauniškis: Besides, memory doesn’t always equal nostalgia. Only those who feel it use it. Meanwhile, the offending object just lies there. That’s it. We didn’t go out of our way to package it into a fancy cake box and tie a ribbon around the thing. Alas, that’s just how we, our brains, are wired. Just as war veterans who keep coming back to graveyards to remind themselves of bloody massacres. For them – the survivors –, that experience conjures up the most vivid memories of their youth. Such was life at its most vibrant, at its most extreme.
Tomas Vaisėta: I’d like to also point out that it’s a bit odd to think of nostalgia itself as something purely negative. It’s pretty common in Lithuania because for a long while, nostalgia was first and foremost associated with the Soviet occupation. Yet nostalgia is also one of the ways in which we add coherence, sense, and value to our lives. You could even say that by way of nostalgia, we legitimize our lives, especially the periods that may fill us with a great political or cultural doubt, the ones we strive to forget. For some, the 90s were this exact sort of uncomfortable period, one that was difficult to come to terms with politically or culturally. Thus, the exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to realize that this part of history is also legitimate. It was worthy of putting in a museum, after all.
Tell us a bit about the title of the exhibition.
Vaidas Jauniškis: We decided to view this era as a starting point of a new civilization. Not unlike in Darwin’s theory and his writings, in the ‘90s, many people found they no longer had access to their usual means of survival and were once again looking for their place in the sun. To survive was to fight, and oftentimes, that meant there was actual, physical fighting involved. Neither did the era lack darkness, brutality, disappointment, loss, disillusionment, etc. You name it, the ‘90s had it. DNA symbolizes a sort of genetic code. In the ‘90s, we were looking for these all-important codes that continue to influence our identities to this day.
These codes consisted of various events and phenomena that originated back in the day and haven’t technically gone anywhere since. Still, we have to admit that every single person will probably remember the era differently. And we don’t want or aim to provide an A-Z encyclopedia of the ‘90s either. We assembled the exhibition from specific symbols, which should simply help us refresh our memory and memories. So, if some visitors think that the ‘90s were ‘nothing like that’, they’ll be right. The ‘90s were very complex, just as the people that lived through them.
Tomas Vaisėta: For the longest time, the ‘90s were the ‘post-Soviet’ era. Basically, the prevailing idea was that many things – especially ways in which we’d learned to think and behave – simply rolled over from the Soviet era into the new decade unchanged. This is where we try to present a possible alternative viewpoint. Particularly, one that highlights the things that were new to the ‘90s, not just a direct continuation of the old. The title is also meant to emphasise the idea of a beginning and try to turn our visitors’ attention to the other side of ‘90s society – the ever-changing one.

“Nostalgia is a sort of gateway drug for our visitor.” Miglė Survilaitė
You’ve stated that the ‘90s were, in a sense, the first decade of Lithuania, that this is when Lithuanians emerged as a sort of ‘new species’. Why do you consider the ‘90s as the tipping point, and how would you describe everything that came before it?
Vaidas Jauniškis: The thing is, Lithuanians didn’t suddenly just emerge out of nowhere, we’ve been around for ages. It’s just that there were a few temporary setbacks with the whole continuing to be around as an autonomous country ordeal. The ‘90s were a sort of tipping point both politically and spiritually, the beginning of our newly regained freedom. After freeing ourselves from the mental and physical burden that was the drab, mute existence under the Soviet regime, it was possible to start compensating for our losses with various ventures and gestures.
For one thing, the streets now looked as if someone had given an aspiring artist a fresh set of paints and just told them to go to town – and awakened the desire to somehow get even more colours. To assert your individualism. To have, to consume – these are not simply the first symptoms of consumerism, but also the natural cravings of someone who’s just got back onto their feet and had their first taste of freedom in a long while. It’s part of what it means to feel human. And only those who’ve lived in freedom for many, many years can confidently claim that this is not the core of what it means to be human. It sure felt that way back then.
You’ve mentioned that a big part of the ‘90s was the breaking down of walls, opening of borders, and a newfound freedom to visit our neighbours. Did you see any unexpected similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’ back then? And do you think we’ve become more or less similar over time?
Tomas Vaisėta: Splitting people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ isn’t quite as simple as it seems. The Baltic States had already developed into relatively European-style, modern nations during the Interwar period. They’d always been part of that same European space. In fact, the changes that took place during the Soviet occupation and in the years immediately after it can be explained by using the famous ‘twin paradox’ that’s typically used to illustrate the theory of relativity.
The paradox talks of two twin brothers. One twin stays on Earth, while the other travels into spaces. Upon returning to Earth, he then appears to be younger than the twin who stayed behind. Now, I can’t say with absolute certainty which brother is ‘us’ and which is ‘them’. However, I think it’s fair to assume that upon meeting back up on Earth – or Europe – after the Soviet occupation, the brothers could clearly see that although they had some differences – of values, of opinion on the big questions like what makes a ‘nation’ or ‘market’, and especially of behaviour – deep down, they were still brothers. That is, two close relatives who just happened to move through their lives at different rates.
Most likely it’s the ‘us’ – Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and all of the other relatives returning from our voyage into Soviet space who are the younger twin of this analogy – trying desperately to catch up to their older brother(s). Admittedly, for a while, we tried doing this in all sorts of paradoxical, cliché post-Soviet ways that were entirely counter-productive. Trying to squeeze our way back into the Western family by imitating and knocking off their brands, pirating their films and their music while completely disregarding copyright laws. In other words, trying to steal a bunch of things and hoping for the best.
We tried to gloss over the differences that divided ‘us’ from ‘them’, the Western countries, by doing it the quick and dirty way. In that respect, we’ve definitely become more similar, because we no longer try and throw together a signature look by using a bunch of knockoffs or to ‘engage in Western culture’ by binging pirated songs or films. Instead, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ have actually started to engage in and create more and more things together.

Scientists, poets, and everyone in-between agrees – memories are weird. We often don’t remember what we’ve had for breakfast, but we can describe our favourite childhood toy with expert precision. What can this exhibition tell us about memories and memorability?
Tomas Vaisėta: It’d be a bit too bold to draw any definitive conclusions based on the experience of just one exhibition, but we can point out a few general trends. Memories of the ‘90s are still very fresh in the heads of those who had already lived at that time, but when you look into people’s closets and storage rooms, you realize just how long ago it was. While creating the exhibition, we remembered quite a few things ourselves, heard just as many stories from others, but when the time came to collect all of the things behind the stories, we found out very quickly that that’s the difficult bit. Quite a lot of people have got rid of their stash of ‘90s memorabilia – all of the clothing, the electronics, the magazines and newspapers, etc.
My theory would be that, perhaps, people just start aggressively decluttering their homes after the equivalent of one generation – about twenty or thirty years – has passed. In other words, when the kids grow up and leave the parents’ home, all of the stashed away possessions leave soon after them. Only straight into the bin.
My other colleagues have also noticed that people are most likely to keep the things that remind them of their firsts – first trip abroad, first audio or video cassette player, their first love – who could also be some dreamy, unattainable pop star – and so on. As Miglė pointed out, many things were brought in by the people, so in some ways, you could say this is an exhibition of ‘firsts’. Perhaps, we should’ve called it just that –The First Time? Probably wouldn’t have been a bad call.
We’ve also noticed that a lot of people remember the cruel reality of the ‘90s quite fondly. They could even get the giggles while telling anecdotes of quite brutal and tragic events, a stage of life full of recklessness and risk, in a way that made the era seem almost dreamy. And yet, almost unanimously, when asked if they’d like to go back to the time, they’d all say ‘no’. So romantic memories of a dangerous former life don’t necessarily mean that you’d like to relive it.
How should non-Lithuanian speakers approach this exhibition? Are the words really the thing that’s most likely to get lost in translation or is it something else entirely?
Miglė Survilaitė: Of course, someone who hasn’t lived through the ‘90s in Lithuania won’t recognize the referenced cultural symbols and phenomena as quickly and easily as someone who has. The former will experience less intense nostalgia, won’t have personal experiences with which to associate one or another exhibit. But based on the feedback from foreign visitors and curators so far, we’ve gathered that the exhibition touches upon a few universal cultural phenomena, such as the ubiquitous and long-extinct VHS tapes and video rental shops (Aurelija Maknytė’s Video Rental, 2012).
Oftentimes, the things that reached us in the ‘90s had already become commonplace in Western Europe, but our Baltic neighbours seem to follow the same chronology because our historical and cultural contexts are similar in many ways. It’s also very interesting to observe the reactions of the younger generation that didn’t live through the ‘90s. We’re pleased to see that they have questions to ask and excitement to share. Frankly, even the old-timers are in awe of how quickly we’ve changed looking all the way back from where we are today.
Vaidas Jauniškis: Interestingly enough, sometimes you get a somewhat inverse reaction. For those who’ve lived through the ¡90s, the recognisability can trigger a sort of reflexive boredom, because, and I quote, “we’ve got those same coffee cups in my cupboard, why’d you put them up on exhibition again?” Meanwhile in the children, in young folks that were barely born at the time, these same things spark a certain joy of discovery. They treat the pagers, the floppy discs, the other mementoes of the unrestricted freedom of the digital age as less of a personal memory and more of a milestone in human and cultural history.

“To survive was to fight, and oftentimes, that meant there was actual, physical fighting involved. Neither did the era lack darkness, brutality, disappointment, loss, disillusionment, etc. You name it, the ‘90s had it.” Vaidas Jauniškis
What’s the one thing that you can see or experience at this exhibition and nowhere else?
Miglė Survilaitė: In terms of cultural objects, one entirely unique exhibit is the Lithuanian national team’s sports uniform created by the Japanese designer Issey Miyake for the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. In terms of artworks, a large majority of them has already been on display before elsewhere. But there’s one particular work that we essentially brought back from the dead – Žilvinas Kempinas’ Portraits-Fossils (1997). It’s a collection of plaster facial casts that resemble death masks. Traditionally, these masks immortalized famous people after their passing. Kempinas decided to create plaster portraits of those who had not yet faced either fame or death – from fellow artists to regular people picked up off the street. After searching high and low for the many masks that were part of this work, we resurrected three.
Vaidas Jauniškis: The writers’ shindigs at cafés (shots that didn’t make the cut of one of Artūras Jevdokimovas’ documentaries). A collection of rental VHSs films the endings of which were taped over by artist Aurelija Maknytė with snippets of once-popular ‘90s TV shows. Audra Kaušpėdienė’s decorative chairs created for a no longer existing restaurant, all reunited in their own little corner of the exhibition. An ice pick that once had a taste of snow from the tip of Mount Everest.
What do you hope visitors will take away from this exhibition?
Vaidas Jauniškis: I think it’d be nice if the exhibition made people think about alternative histories, all of the hypothetical ‘what if’s’ that could have been. And let them feel the joy of knowing that some things have retired from our daily lives to the exhibition halls for good. I’ve also seen a couple of laughing faces, which means that, thankfully, we can already look at ourselves from an outsider’s point of view. And have a laugh about it.
Tomas Vaisėta: I’d like for the adults to walk away with a desire to bring their children along next time, especially the teenagers. I suspect that they’re the ones who’d find the exhibition the most interesting.

Julija Kalvelytė
Norbert Tukaj

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