Aidas Bareikis
The Guard of Sorry Spirit

“The feeling for the illogicality of the world and its fragmentation has the upper hand in me.”

- Alexander Vvedensky

Aidas Bareikis has been thinking about the Isenheim Altarpiece lately.

It might seem odd that this Lithuanian-born, New York based scavenger-artist—whose junk-encrusted sculpture and installations appear to have more in common with Kurt Schwitters’ nihilist Merzbau than Matthias Grünewald’s deeply devotional altar—would be mulling over the inspiration of a Renaissance masterpiece. But Bareikis’ recent encounter with this sixteenth-century work was, by the artist’s own account, a revelation. “Nuclear!” was Bareikis’ first, gobsmacked impression.

Grünewald’s complex, multi-paneled altarpiece is acknowledged simultaneously as one of the greatest and one of the most grotesque works in Western art history. The work was commissioned for the Hospice Church at the Antonian monastery of Isenheim, Germany (today France), where the monks cared for victims of ergotism, a skin disease then known as “St. Anthony’s fire.” For this audience, Grünewald devised more than simply a conventional triptych for the altar—a hinged painting in which images on the outside of a closed altarpiece, like a closed cabinet, fold back on certain holy days to reveal a series of three images inside. The life-sized panels of his spectacular Isenheim Altarpiece, however, folded back three different ways, displaying a total of twelve different narratives (two of them sculptures by Nikolaus Hagenauer). And of Grünewald’s ten paintings, those illustrating moments from the life of Christ are among the most powerful and haunting in all of art history. In them, the artist both exploited and honored the fear, fragility, and desperation of the altarpiece’s main audience: the patients whose first step of treatment was to be led to the altar to pray. On the central, closed panel, Grünewald’s crucifixion is a horror show: Christ’s body stretched and twitching on the cross, the thorn-pocked, bruised, yellowing skin suspiciously like that of the hospice’s ergotism patients, just as the entombment panel directly beneath it surely resembled both the care and death-rites that they experienced there. And, when opened, scenes from the conception to the resurrection are depicted with the same dizzying intensity and juxtaposition of the real and fantastic, reveling in what Grünewald certainly must have intended as a nauseating sublime.

In this, Bareikis recognizes something contemporary, as well as something to aspire toward: “this unbelievable social toxicity, intense claustrophobia and really bigger-than-life fear, it's scary! Christ […] shoots out of the grave with explosive power…and then the Nativity with the sky which literally looks like a mushroom of nuclear explosion behind the Virgin—it pulls your pants down.” The fact that Grünewald presents this image of death and rebirth with such apocalyptic overtones is not lost on Bareikis, whose own work similarly revels in the proximity of the ordinary and the extraordinary, repulsion and redemption, the mundane and the miraculous. And, in recent installations like Glad to Hear From You (2002) and La Charme de la Vie (2003)—a body of work that his Grand Arts installation builds upon—one finds Bareikis, like Grünewald, creating chaotic, symbolic narratives with figures that shriek, buck, and coil as they spring forth from the quasi-architectural environments that unsuccessfully attempt to contain them. Both artists are drawn toward the grotesque—but Bareikis draws upon the word’s very origin, “grotto-esque,” in his creation of works that absurdly juxtapose human and animal, vegetable and chemical in the tradition of cave-like sites from the vaults at Nero’s Golden Palace to the rock-and-shell-encrusted chapels familiar to us since the Early Christian era.

Bareikis’ grotesque is also shot through with a distinct critical undertone that less resembles Grünewald than the work of another artist drawn to his legendary altarpiece, the German Expressionist Otto Dix. Indeed, Dix references not only the violence and horror but the very formatting of Grünewald’s triptych in his epic painting Der Krieg (The War, 1929-32). Although inspired by Dix’s experience of trench warfare as a machine-gunner in World War I, Der Krieg is as much about the chaotic conditions of postwar Germany in which it was painted, during which time Dix and many of his contemporaries returned from the front only to find the callous survival behavior of the battlefield spill out into the real world—an atmosphere of fear and brutality that Adolf Hitler would go on to simultaneously condemn and exploit. It was an environment that Bareikis would understand growing up in the last years of the Soviet Union—which had incorporated Lithuania more or less since 1940—whose own chaotic history of war and reconstruction both paralleled and outlasted Germany’s. But Bareikis himself bristles at comparisons to Dix, whose “square jaw…hard-core realism” lacks the absurd humor that Bareikis feels is crucial in expressing the experience and defiance of humanity swept up in the tide of politics: “All of a sudden you are in Der Krieg, but feel like Buster Keaton.”

Bareikis believes his sensibility closer approaches that of Dix’s Russian contemporaries of the Oberiu literary movement, who were among the few to speak to the horrors and hysteria rather than the heroism of the country’s October Revolution and subsequent civil war, as well as (more dangerously) the ills of the rigid and paranoid Soviet government that most of the nation’s avant-garde supported blindly. Led by poets Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, Oberiu (an acronym for “The Association for Real Art”) was founded in 1927 and existed as a rag-tag collective of black humorists until both leaders—after years of arrests and exile— met their deaths in prison at the start of World War II. Their fiction, poetry, and plays sent up bureaucrats and proletariat alike, mocking the utopian groupthink that led to a truly dystopian state, which demanded its captive population not only comply with but contribute to the oppression, denials, and cover-ups that sustained its illusory order. In his work on Oberiu’s “lost literature of the absurd,” renowned Russian literary scholar George Gibian could easily be describing Bareikis’ when he summarizes its ability to reflect “the phantasmagoria of a country where…the bottom dropped out of things repeatedly, where events conditioned people to believe that nothing could be trusted, that the stuff of nightmares could be encountered in everyday life.”

But what does it mean for Bareikis’ sprawling, abject trash-collage to feel so relevant in the early twenty-first-century United States? One could certainly argue that in our present moment as a nation at war Bareikis, like Dix, conjures the corpses that politicians and the media are exceedingly careful to keep out of the public’s eye. But his aim seeks much larger, and far more nebulous targets than this. Simultaneously insider and outsider, his work certainly addresses his experience of the cultural dominance of the United States through its use of the mass-produced detritus that our country ravenously consumes and foists upon the rest of the world, but does so with both a sense of disgust and admiration that mark the befuddled perspective of one unprepared (or unwilling?) to truly understand it, save from a certain bemused distance. His are also the works of a resourceful scavenger and a demolition expert—gifts that sustained him after he first came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship and supported himself by working construction, squatting, and shoplifting art supplies while completing an MFA at Hunter College—whose particular “feeling for the illogicality of the world and its fragmentation,” manifests itself in shadow-portraits of the world that Bareikis dismantles, analyzes, and reconstitutes through its refuse.

In his Grand Arts installation, Bareikis uses as his point of departure what from a Balto-Slavic perspective can only be called the exotic mythology of the Midwest. Intrigued that the state of Kansas’ name is derived from the American Indian Kansa tribe, meaning “people of the wind,” the artist sought to create a piece exploring the contradictory fact that “the heartland” is in the minds of many the quintessential “American reality and identity, yet today that reality is as mercurial as the winds that move across the plains.” He conjures this “people of the wind” as a procession of thrashed, ragged aristocrats—what Bareikis calls “man-made ghosts and ghost-made men”—parading haughtily, unaware of their ephemerality. Comparing this theatrical parade to the Buddhist ghost-welcoming ceremonies called o-bon, he views his Grand Arts installation as a calling forth of ancestral spirits. In this, he stages a meeting-ground in which these spirits reveal themselves to their progeny in a reunion acted out by his horrific, ghostly figures and the audiences who arrive to meet them. “Here the mind meets itself and shuts off. It becomes stage of emptiness. Stage for a meeting, where actually, emptiness meets itself [and] invites itself to celebration.” But this emptiness, Bareikis asserts, is not a numbing blank but a productive rebooting of our senses and memories—a kind of blackout that the artist forces upon us by his dense accumulation of objects, histories, and referents. And what might we call this experience? Sensory bombardment? Entropic? Transcendent? Bareikis isn’t sure, but suggests, “We can call it theatre, the only possible condition, where, by play or luck, Grünewald meets Dix.”

Maria Elena Buszek
Assistant Professor of Art History
Kansas City Art Institute

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