Monument and Censorship (To Remove or Not To Remove)

Paulina Pukyte_Pillar of Salt

Paulina Pukytė A Pillar of Salt. 2019. Intervention project

What To Do With Cvirka? The Third Way

by Paulina Pukytė

The monument to a writer and soviet functionary Petras Cvirka – one of the last soviet monuments in Vilnius – is on the verge of being removed from its square by the city municipality. The recent calls to get rid of it sparked heated public discussions and split the community in two: some want it removed as a monument to a collaborator with the soviet regime, others want it left in place as a monument to a popular writer. Most would agree that Cvirka does not deserve such a prominent monument: we would not erect a monument to him today, but does it mean the best we can do today is simply to remove it, like nothing ever happened? Or, on the other hand, simply to leave it as it is, like nothing ever happened?

Paulina Pukyte_White Shroud_Cvirka
Paulina Pukytė White Shroud. 2019. Intervention project

The discussion about whether he was more of a collaborator than a writer or vice versa can’t solve the problem because he was both, and these two roles he (as so many other humanitarians of the past century) played are inextricably entangled. The regime used him precisely because he was popular and respected, and he was willing to be used. The monument to him stands not only and not so much because he was a talented writer (albeit not the best of them) as well as an active facilitator of the regime (albeit not the worst of them), but perhaps because he died young (apparently in suspicious circumstances) and was married into a powerful family of the time, so there was someone to lobby for it.

Until recently this monument was dead: after Cvirka’s name was removed (in the 90’s) from the street, the square, and the bus stop, the younger generation or visitors to Vilnius hardly knew or even wanted to know who the monument was for. And only the recent calls to remove it brought back the memory of this controversial figure.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to turn this dead-end superficial argument into a perpetual debate, into an open question about the role, conscience and freedom of writers, artists and public intellectuals, into a reminder of how politicians and powers-that-be manipulate and take advantage of them? How could this be achieved? This task should be delegated to artists and art theoreticians, not hijacked by politicians and functionaries. We should start solving the problem of this public art with conceptual artistic ideas. After 30 years of regained independence we could be brave enough to explore our complex and traumatic past through its monuments as tools of visual propaganda, instead of looking for a simple, quick and populist solution of sweeping it all under a carpet. We could use this opportunity (perhaps the last one we have) to try to “digest” our soviet heritage through public art and by means of visual art language, by turning this artefact into an anti-monument, a marker of our recent history under Soviet Russian occupation and a reminder of the terrible atmosphere of fear, mistrust, betrayal, lawlessness and persecution, so that it never comes back.

With this in mind I asked some Lithuanian artists to come up with ideas of how to re-contextualise the Cvirka monument. Among the more obvious ones, such as taking the figure off the pedestal and placing it next to it, erasing or changing the name on the pedestal, or surrounding it with other sculptures, there were also conceptual, ironic or technically more complex ideas.
Marta Vosyliūtė suggested to cover the monument with enlarged landscape paintings by Cvirka’s wife Marija, a talented but much less celebrated professional painter. Poet Dainius Dirgėla proposed to cut the monument vertically in half – to look, symbolically, what’s inside him. Liudas Parulskis’s project turned the monument into a laser persecutor of passers-by, while Dainius Liškevičius suggested a kinetic transformation with three positions to chose from by anyone who would put a coin into the slot: the monument, kept underground, would be mechanically raised either to stand on the ground level, or on the pedestal again.

I myself made two projects of dealing with the monument: White Shroud and Pillar Of Salt.
White Shroud offers to cover the Cvirka monument with white fabric. This intervention would not only make the monument invisible while still keeping it in its original place, but would also symbolically return it to its “embryonic” state, just before the unveiling, as if freezing that moment in the past: to unveil or not to unveil (instead of “to remove or not to remove”)? It would become a reminder of the dangerous situation when choice between one’s conscience and privilege became the question of extinction or survival. Thus a monument of a soviet Lithuanian writer could become at the same time a monument to another Lithuanian writer, repressed by the Soviets (Antanas Škėma, who was forced into exile by the soviets, where he wrote his acclaimed novel White Shroud).

The Pillar of Salt offers to place Cvirka monument under a semi-transparent cover (glass, silicon or similar material). The biblical story about Lot and his wife escaping Sodom, in which Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back at her city that was being destroyed by the wrath of God (“her gesture was so humane, and I love her for that” – Kurt Vonnegut), is a story about looking back, in other words, about memory. Something obviously hidden arouses more interest than something that has been in clear view for a long time. These interventions would be a means of continuing the discussion about historic monuments to controversial figures, as well as about the current politics of commemoration, about freedom (freedom of speech in particular), censorship, and memory.

Last year I used these projects to illustrate my article about the Cvirka monument in a cultural weekly. But soon after the article appeared a Cvirka family member demanded, through their lawyers, for the images to be removed from the publication’s website, stating that “it is against the law to disseminate in the mass media information which is offensive, defamatory, degrading and/or contemptuous” and “producers and/or disseminators of public information must protect and respect the human right to privacy in the event of death.” The (underfunded, therefore unable to engage in litigation) publication obliged and removed the images from its website.

This development raised even more questions:
- Does the existence of a monument as a realistic image of a person itself respect his/hers right to privacy after death (as demanded by the lawyers)?
- Are caricatures of public personalities against the law?
- Can such artistic ideas be regarded as contempt and defamation, offensive and degrading?
Do these projects really cross the boundaries and isn’t it the purpose of contemporary art to cross the boundaries?
- Is it possible to intervene with a monument of a hostile ideology without being disrespectful to the person portrayed, and to it as a work of art, as well as to the idea of a monument in general, and should we even have such qualms today in relation to monuments of an imperial-totalitarian origin?
- Do relatives of persons, who were instrumental (and were honoured/exalted as such) in the occupying regime, have the moral ground to demand censorship in relation to the image of these persons today when and if it becomes a target of caricature or conceptual art projects?
- Can and should an existing monument become an anti-monument, and do we need an anti-monument to a writer?
- What is censorship (removal of the monument from public space, removal of the visual ideas from public sphere, both or neither?) and doesn’t censorship bring us back into the times when Cvirka’s monument was erected?