of falling and failing...
Vibrating heat and the endlessness of the desert drags me into an intriguing yet hostile atmosphere. I feel the sun, a breeze of hot wind on my skin. Shimmering air lets shapes and buildings appear like a mirage, a Fata Morgana. A mesmerizing voice singing wistfully creates a space of longing for a not-yet-known or the forgotten. Paulius Šliaupa’s recent video‚ Toshka, leads the spectator into the nature of the desert, vast spaces of soil. His video work in general draws an atmospheric connection to nature and the poetics of landscapes—usually frosted, covered by snow, or in darkness. Currently he is in residence at RAVI in Liège, where I met him to speak about Toshka, the darkness, drones, and how his early life in a village has shaped his practice.
Sophie Fitze: Thanks a lot for inviting me. It’s a great place, a beautiful studio, and my first time in Liège. Maybe to start, very basic question, but what’s your artistic background?
Paulius Šliaupa: I started at the Arts Academy in Vilnius, studying painting. I painted the light but almost nobody understood what I was doing. I wanted to do a master's degree but I was stuck for three years in my small village, Barteliai, in Lithuania. (Six people were living there.) Finally I started my master’s degree in Lithuania, and with the ERASMUS program, I went to Rome. Everything changed. I started making many photos and videos while traveling around all the time. I applied to KASK in Ghent for the master of fine arts and was accepted. Later, in 2020, I got into the HISK. I spent one year working on my film The monk. In 2022 I was lucky enough to win the main prize of ArtContest with it. And now I'm here at RAVI until the end of June. I have a dream to develop The monk into a 40- to 50-minute film.
SF: You still go to your village in Lithuania often?
PS: Yes, I love my village. I like the secluded life, I like seeing those six people. I like the freedom there. I like to fly the drone in the night. I like listening to very strange sounds in the forest and around me—the very simple life there. I gain enough mental space to make new works... Having spent my childhood between the laptop screen and fishing on the riverside, I constantly sense that experiences are fading away. Always observing screens, we develop a habit of suspense when staring at moving images. I am trying to use this skill of ours and bring some mysteries of nature into the process by creating my videos.
SF: You're deeply influenced by nature?
PS: Oh, yes. I am always circling around themes such as organic structures, rituals in nature, the flow of natural and artificial light, expeditions into the mystery of the night—absurdly seductive happenings.
SF: It's a red thread in your work. You always feel this not melancholic but atmospheric relation to nature, the landscape. You have spoken about your dream of making a long movie. The monk holds a lot of untold aspects, hidden stories, and tensions. Can you describe what would you like to explore in the longer film?
PS: The landscape will be black. The only light will come from the drone’s flashlight. It will cast light on unseen objects. [Closes eyes.] I want to show how the treetops are slowly moving, moving in the winter darkness and becoming alive...
SF: How would you describe your process of getting to those images? Does the landscape mirror an inner landscape? How do you encounter the spaces and places you want to work with?
PS: I start with no plan but with a strong feeling that something powerful is happening nearby. I scout for locations. In my village, for example, when I was filming The monk, I always go to the nearby lakes. I released the drone there. I try to use it in a way that doesn't make it omnipotent like a drone usually is, but so that it stays very vulnerable, it can crash. Unexpected things can happen to it in a snowstorm or in the darkness of the night. Sometimes the drone dies and you never recover it, and it takes all the discoveries you made that day along with it. But that can also lead to something new. I like discovering situations and motives that I don't expect. Then I can start building sensual narratives from the unplanned images.
SF: Discovering something new… How was your experience with Toshka? You just spoke about flying drones—did you also work in the Sahara with one? How did you make these shots? How did you experience the shooting?
PS: Certain kinds of images in Egypt are controlled by the government. Drones are strictly forbidden, they are taken away on arrival to the country. People on the street often didn’t allow me to take pictures.
When I arrived in Aswan I felt it was the hottest place on my trip and there was a desert nearby. I wanted to film the desert, which begins just outside the city and continues into Sudan. You cannot easily go to the Sahara because the roads are controlled by the military, but I found a way to go there by car. The landscape was almost flat and very, very hot, so the camera would turn off every five minutes. Using a long telephoto lens, I started filming these painterly shapes that were morphing in the heat. I saw very strange green fields in the middle of the desert and I discovered that they are a part of the Toshka Project. Later we passed the city where all the people who work the fields live.
I was trying to imagine what the people living in that city experience. I imagined that they work for thirty days and rest for thirty days. They have water only one hour per day. And only men live there. All the green fields that are sprouting in the middle of the desert are grown by these men. It got me thinking about how centuries, paths, and contexts change, but people keep living in the desert. The Toshka Project, for growing crops in the desert, was started to feed the growing Egyptian population. I tried to unfold an experience, to imagine what someone who spends his years in the desert would feel.
SF: The shimmering air lets shapes and buildings appear like a Fata Morgana. As in many of your videos, the human body is present through its absence. We can still sense the human body, here emphasized within the yearning vocals. What is the song about? From what context is it taken?
PS: When I was in the Siwa Oasis near Libya, I kept thinking about the shimmering mirage-like images and I contacted an Egyptian singer, Sherock Al Alam. It was a new experience to work with a singer. I told her about the result I expected, but she had her own ideas and a different approach. She composed a song about the challenging desert life, longing, the sun and the moon, and the heat. She came up with a very poetic text full of praise and at first I wanted to change it—it seemed too direct, not critical enough. Until I felt that under the burning sun, you cannot allow yourself this leisure time of overthinking things.
SF: You have to make a living. I’m curious to hear from which initial encounter the idea for this project grew. It sounds like it happened coincidentally. Had you been already intrigued by the desert as a kind of metaphor for something? You have made other videos circling around opposite elements: the snow, the sea—here now the desert.
PS: Before I forget—to me, the word toshka sounds very similar to taškas (Lithuanian) or tochka (точка in Russian), which means a dot. I found it very beautiful, just this idea that in the middle of the desert, which is still so powerful and so big, the city and the project are only one small dot. It makes me think how things appear to be big or small and how sometimes the sensation of scale is lost. This is very important for me.
How did I come to the idea of filming Toshka? I didn’t plan it, but my Lithuanian background—I was born in the 1990s, just when the Soviet Union collapsed—still generates this longing for freedom which I feel when approaching unknown landscapes. I don’t know why. A desert far away from Lithuania still seems incredibly poetic, mythical, timeless, and primeval, and maybe this naive fascination allows me to see what others wouldn’t notice.
In 2000 the Lithuanian filmmaker Šarūnas Bartas made a film called Freedom and there is this long three-minute shot just of desert and mountains in the distance and humming. Every time I see the desert, I remember that film.
SF: I want to talk again about the phenomenon of the Fata Morgana, the mirage, here connected to desert life, the attempt to foster human living through artificial water canals. Facing the ambiguity of human solitude, alienation…
PS: In most of my videos I don't show people. But they are always nearby. Inanimate objects sometimes gain the power to speak out and reveal the imagined sensual stories which lay in their texture, shape, size, and scale. For me the most interesting thing is how we see and experience nature. Not directly showing humans how we experience nature but translating it, giving a voice to nature. And unfolding it through the imagination, how we see it nowadays through the help of new senses, new powers—like drones, new sound recording devices such as hydrophones, trying to imitate the sounds of nature. The body, voice, breathing, touching. So I look for different strategies to approach nature and try to unfold my relationship with it. I observe the gradual human distancing from nature, alienation, yet a craving for intimacy and understanding at the same time. Changes are happening on scales that are beyond human reach and maybe they cannot be explained by scientific theories and words.
SF: How is this related to your personal biography? Processes of memory and forgetting?
PS: I grew up in my village mostly. My parents and grandfather are geologists. From when I was little they taught me how to feel things and always be in nature, but they never had the non-scientific vocabulary to speak about and express it. I feel obliged to express what they've taught me.
There’s a memory I have of when I was a child: it was summertime and I was in the fields alone. I went back to my grandparents’ house because my parents were supposed to return to the village soon. In the fields there's no time, it’s just you and the fields—it slowly gets dark but that's it. Suddenly for the first time in my life there was time. I started waiting. I waited three, four hours for them to come by train and then to walk to our village. Hours gained minutes and seconds and time became heavy. I remember this moment of conscious realization of the division between culture and nature. It didn't make sense back then. Now slowly it makes more and more sense. [Laughs.]
SF: Textures always appear in your videos and in your paintings. How are they related?
PS: I love exploring patterns, both in nature and in the city. Here in Liège, I like exploring urban patterns, textures, remains, the structures of the factories and hidden spots where you normally wouldn’t go—inside chimneys or other apertures going from above into the building. The texture of the patterns in my paintings is fixed until the sun starts shining on them and then shadows make them move and change with the light.
SF: We’ve just seen your video Patterns of perfection, produced within the residency here—what kind of perfection?
PS: It is still a working title. My initial project for the RAVI residency was finding patterns between interviews with the residents and the city. Many buildings from the industrial era are falling apart and you see their skeletons—this nakedness make them seem very beautiful. The ribs of the buildings and factories all seem to be perfect frameworks that were supposed to support them, but the remains are dissolving. And I feel I have to catch this atmosphere.
SF: Like many of your other videos, it was shot with a drone. I think everyone has probably dreamt about the ability to fly.
PS: When I fly the drone I gain a new superpower which is very fragile. The first time a drone crashed I felt stuck on Earth again, losing the ability to see hidden worlds. I love flying in a very soft way that creates a sensation of a soul hovering above.
SF: I’m sometimes get scared that we, humankind, have become so powerful that we believe we can rule over nature. So the crashed drones is a beautiful image—
PS: —of falling and failing. Yesterday I was watching Blade Runner, it's my favorite film. It’s full of magic moments when not much happens but the world is bringing the main character somewhere. He's not going there on his own decision, the world is taking him somewhere. When I fly the drone I feel I have this ability to go together with the world to see the spaces that you feel in the air—they exist but they are not reachable. Secret sounds, secret images.
SF: Reconnecting to the darkness which is so present in your work, facing the unknown in environments and in ourselves. I really like the metaphor.
PS: When I was a child the darkness was always very scary. You would imagine so many things and they usually wouldn’t be friendly. But now when I fly in the night I don't think so much about imagined threats. I don't see anything, I only see the map and GPS, that's it. And then suddenly you turn on the light and discover what was under you. The drone also doesn't see anything until you turn on the light, only it’s position. When there’s complete darkness, you have to work from memory. You remember spaces where you would walk with your body and then enter the same environment from the sky with the drone.
SF: For now, do you want to continue working on something new? For your upcoming residencies, such as M.A.P. in Vietnam in 2024, do you already have specific feelings where it will go or you will let yourself be surprised?
PS: I know a few locations in Vietnam that I want to go back to because I feel I would find something there. And I do have a very clear idea for one work that I would love to make in Iceland, but maybe I shouldn't say, because then—
SF: I can keep it to—
PS: —okay, you keep it to yourself.
Paulius Šliaupa (°1990, Vilnius) holds a BA in painting and an MFA in contemporary sculpture from Vilnius Academy of Arts, an MFA in media arts from KASK, and completed the HISK postgraduate residency program in Ghent. He was awarded the grand prize of ArtContest22, Brussels, for young artists in Belgium. He is a member of SOFAM in Belgium and received its research grant in 2022. He is currently doing the RAVI residency in Liège. Selected personal exhibitions include Night watch (2022) at HuidenClub, Rotterdam, Moonpieces (2022) at Maanstraat, Antwerp, Neon Poems (2021) at Casinot XXH, Malmo, and Dès Vu (2019) at Meno Niša, Vilnius.