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Triennale Milano
Aphotic Zone, 2022, courtesy of the artist, Erik Cordes and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and Fondazione In Between, photo by Andrea Rossetti

The Planet as Seen by Emilija Škarnulytė

January 14 2023
The work of the Lithuanian artist, one of the stars of the 22nd International Exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, investigates cosmic, geological and historical time, and the impact of technologies on Earth.
Emilija Škarnulytė, foto di Monika Penkute
Emilija Škarnulytė (b. 1987, Vilnius, Lithuania) is a visual artist and filmmaker. After studying sculpture at the Brera Academy in Milan and the Tromsø Academy in Norway, she began her research into a series of complex themes that, while strictly associated with present-day issues, help to construct a timeless vision that is dense and poetic rather than didactic.
Future Fossil, video still, loop 3D
Her works were hosted at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, the 2016 SIART Biennale in Bolivia, the São Paulo Art Biennale, and the 2018 Riga International Biennale of Contemporary Art, and been showcased at audiovisual festivals such as the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
She returned to Milan in 2019 to take part in the 22nd Triennale Milano International Exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, at which artists, designers, architects and scientists explored the idea of “redesigning” our lives for a planet in crisis. What curator Paola Antonelli described as “a natural history museum of the future” is an apt definition of Emilija Škarnulytė’s art. Going beyond the dystopian imagery of the Anthropocene, she constructs worlds, visions and forms of highly appealing and evocative hybrid life.
Manifold, istallation view, Triennale Milano, 2019, foto Andrej Vasilenko
Interweaving documentary with fiction, her videos and multimedia installations showcase invisible relationships between the physical world and our power to imagine science fiction-based scenarios and solutions. How will we survive challenges like climate change? How do we navigate a global scenario in which conflicts are surging back to undermine the very idea of society? Subtly and without catastrophic sensationalism, Škarnulytė’s works already seem to take us to a later (albeit potentially real) stage of what our environment might look like. Works such as Extended Phenotypes (2017) exhibited at Broken Nature prefigure a kind of archaeology of the future. They also seem to anticipate scenarios for humanity to adapt as it mutates, modified and transformed by technological progress.
In her film Aphotic Zone (2022), recently exhibited at the Penumbra group show curated in Venice by Alessandro Rabottini and Leonardo Bigazzi for the Fondazione In Between Art Film, the artist takes us into the darkness of the Pacific Ocean, showing the explorations of abyssal robots engaged in seemingly mysterious sci-fi activities but actually involved in extractivist greed. Without sugarcoating, these sublime images depict the extremities of a present-day that already seems to be turning into a problematic future.
Aphotic Zone, 2022, courtesy of the artist, Erik Cordes and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and Fondazione In Between, photo by Andrea Rossetti
Just four years ago, Emilija Škarnulytė won the Future Generation Art Prize in Kiev for her video t 1⁄2 (2019). This work has become the hub of a large-scale environmental installation that characterizes her latest major solo exhibition, Chambers of Radiance, hosted at the Radvila Palace Museum of Art in Vilnius, where it is on show for two years.
The artist’s video installations enter into deep, evocative dialogue with spaces redesigned by architect Linas Lapinskas. At the entrance, several laser beams seem to scan the space, guiding us downstairs to the large video installation. At the cost of instilling surveillance-related paranoia, the artist renders the visitor “identified” by an artificial or alien intelligence before being permitted to view the work.
Chambers of Radiance, Installation View at Radvila Palace Museum of Art
Feelings of estrangement and environmental exploration are amplified not just by light but sound (created by Jokūbas Čižikas, who has worked with Škarnulytė for a long time).
The hypnotic t ½ is projected very large in the vast upstairs spaces of what at first appears to be a former movie theatre but was actually a Soviet propaganda theater. The video spans a wide range of themes, touching upon historical strands and futuristic visions ranging from the Cold War to climate change and dark matter, explored by portraying environments such as the former Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, undersea nuclear tunnels at a base above the Arctic Circle, and the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan.
Chambers of Radiance, Installation View at Radvila Palace Museum of Art
Excerpts and fragments from her previous works such as Sirenomelia (2018), in which the recurring figure of the Siren should not be understood so much for its mythological significance as from a Chthulucene perspective as theorized by philosopher Donna Haraway, are edited into Emilija Škarnulytė’s film.
Škarnulytė’s video installations are an invitation to meditate, to immerse ourselves in an experience that challenges us not to self-de-humanize, but to try and see a certain reality through a gaze that is not (only) human.
The artist is attracted by the historical and technological cascade increasingly manifest in the present, both in entertainment products (think of a series like Chernobyl) and in troubling news about wars and constant updates on technological progress and its application across all fields.
Chambers of Radiance, Installation View at Radvila Palace Museum of Art
The strength of Emilija Škarnulytė’s art is its ability to question the deeper reality of matter: what will be left after we are gone? Will nuclear waste, crumbling post-industrial complexes and sophisticated state-of-the-art technologies bear witness to our passing? Visitors won’t find answers in Chambers of Radiance, but they will find tools that help formulate answers.