Courtyard Gallery (Kiemo galerija)

During the last decades, artists and researchers of culture are increasingly focusing on genius loci, pointing to the existential importance of the place. It is understood that the place is an important part of the cultural heritage, human existence and everyday life, which has become increasingly detached from a person due to the relentless processes of modernization. According to Marc Augé, when the global world is overcome by placelessness, we start to feel the importance of a place. If modernism emphasized time, progress and history, post-modernism focuses on the location, local tradition and memory. The location is a natural focus of cultural theorists and artists, who aim to reveal the meaning of disappearing and forgotten native, lyrical and emotionally charged places in the lives of people and cultural life.

In this context, the Courtyard Gallery focuses on the problem of location and asks: where do we live? What do we call home? Is home a place, where the key clicks in the door lock? Is the notion of home a wider one, including relationship and connections between people? The notion “like home”, in this case, would refer to social trust, when the urban space is cozy and friendly, when people are protecting it themselves: through their approach, cooperation and creativity.

Courtyard Gallery is established next to the Kaunas Synagogue (E. Ožeškienės g.), among houses, which during the Inter-war period were mostly inhabited by Jewish families. From the stories of neighbors who have lived there for a long while, I learned that some time in the past, a very active and cozy life was flowing through this courtyard. The neighbors knew one another well. There were many young families. People used to celebrate New Years and other more important events, meet during the funeral, wedding or while waiting for a garbage truck. Neighbors would engage in genuine and honest communication all the time. There used to be a big table in the yard. They would meet there and drink coffee. In the middle of the yard, there was a round fountain with a sculpture that would “spew public water”. Sisters Dapkevičiūtės grew flowers. Later, after the recovery of independence, many things changed. A part of residents emigrated, cars grew in number while the space shrunk, the fountain was torn down, trees were cut, and everything was asphalted. The yard turned into a large parking lot.

Current communication between neighbors is limited to a short greeting or a nod. Usually some not very conscious neighbors would turn the yard into such a dump, that it would be uncomfortable to be there on your own or bring guests.

Therefore, I have decided to change the old habits of people through art and use the walls playfully, removing the boarders between the internal and external spaces in the yard.

The courtyard cat sitting in the window with yellow shutters has appeared here for a reason. Its yellow eyes followed the neighbors taking out the trash every day. I used it for a simple reason: I wanted to invite the neighbors to comply with the basic standards of decency and not to litter. With the appearance of the cat, the space changed emotionally. The color yellow achieved its purpose: neighbors have become more aware of their surroundings. I think that the law of attraction is in action here: positivity attracts positivity and destruction multiplies destruction.

The positive outcome inspired new ideas. Later I have announced to all of my neighbors that I am creating an open courtyard gallery. For that, I would collect their stories and ask for the photos of dear people and family members that they would like to hang at home. I took the authentic stories of people who used to live or still live in those houses, and transferred them on the inner walls of the yard. When you take things that people find dear and close to their heart, and move them outside, people want to spend time at the courtyard, share their memories with others and get to know each other.

The Courtyard Gallery begins from Charlie Chaplin. It is a site-specific work of art, related to the sign “Courtyard residents only”. It is some sort of play on words, used to intrigue a little. Everyone visits our courtyard but the tourists: those who want to park their car free of charge or homeless people. I am not against the homeless, that is why I have painted a tramp in the character of Charlie Chaplin, to whom the sign is dedicated. Unfortunately, the sign “Courtyard residents only” does not stop the unwanted guests, so Charlie Chaplin is an ironic contradiction to those words, like the irony towards the alienation of people and invitation to visit the Courtyard Gallery.

Other stories of paintings in the gallery are romantically sad and related to the former residents of the courtyard. On the wall leading to the inner courtyard, there is a pagliaccio (clown) with an old-fashioned camera. The pagliaccio in this case is a character who observes, tells and captures dramatic stories.

One of the neighbors who was a passionate supporter of the idea, suggested taking and rendering the photo of her aunt. The aunt in question stood out by her elegant clothes, but she was very strict. The niece remembered not only her desire to look nice, but also her fear, so she decided to immortalize her memory.

Another neighbor gave me a photo of her mother-in-law: judging from the story, she was a tolerant and good-natured woman, who saw the Jewish residents driven away from their home and this very courtyard: this was done not only by Germans, but Lithuanians as well. She felt great sorrow because of it but there was nothing she could do.

One day I saw four women looking at the windows of the house. When approached, they told the story of the lost home: one of them, called Dita, gave personal pictures of herself and her husband Juda Zupavičius and asked me to immortalize them as well. The position in the ghetto police allowed Juda Zupavičius to access crucial information about operations planned by Germans and inform people who hid Jewish children in advance. He was tortured and shot by Germans for refusing to give out the hiding places of children. A family photo of Dita and Juda Zupavičius were transformed into a broken shard of a mirror, with a short inscription by Dita under the drawing, telling their story and marking the unforgotten tragedy.

I think there will be more works painted continuing the Courtyard Gallery project. I have quite an extensive collection of interesting photos shared with me by residents of the courtyard. I would like to draw them on the walls of the courtyard. With additional funding available, it will be possible to make large format pictures and create installations and art objects that would fit harmoniously in the space of the yard.

It is nice that other residents of the yard contribute willingly to this project. The yard is changing: garbage is disappearing, and more flowers grow here instead. Neighbors started growing them to decorate their windows. Evaldas Augustinas Kančelskis, a resident, has contributed to the gallery by decorating gas pipes with crocheted ornaments. More to come later.

This project is carried out in order to address the issue relevant to this time and all of us: alienation of neighbors. Here, history and the present are important. In order for people to understand one another better and feel mutual respect, it requires some effort. You have to spark a fire in them, interest them, remember and include them into joint projects. Now I can state that Courtyard Gallery is developed by all of us.

Courtyard Gallery is another way enabling self-expression of people, another way of being close to something, rather than instead of something. It is a new form of cooperation between neighbors that expands options of choices, when the gallery is not only a white square with sterile space, but also the space, where it is possible not only to live, litter, or urinate on the walls. At the same time, it is an opportunity to let people look up and see around the world of images, thus nurturing the visual taste and culture of those looking, and reminding them that not only we have to take care of ourselves, but also people living close to us. It is obvious that the problem of alienated neighbors is relevant not only to our yard, so such an artistic rendering of the space could be an example of good practice not only for other yards, but the city as well. When we have started the implementation of Courtyard Gallery project, we received attention not only from the locals, but random passers-by and foreign guests. I think that Courtyard Gallery will create new possibilities solving the problems of placelessness and human alienation and become an unparalleled phenomenon of revitalization of public spaces, contributing to the programs designed to improve city image.

Vytenis Jakas, 2014