Pipe dreams

It  was supposed to have been a great year. A monumental year. Lithuania was marking a millennium of recorded existence, an event of such significance that it had started planning for it as far back as 1997 under the State Commission on the Commemoration of the Millennium of the Name of Lithuania. According to the 16th-century copy of the original text, Bruno of Querfurt was killed on the Lithuanian-Russian border by pagans, together with 18 of his fellows, for spreading the wrong words. It was February 14, 1009: the proselytizing Bruno was beheaded, his companions were hanged, and Lithuania was nominally born.

The millennial celebrations were marked with a wide range of projects (educational, architectural etc.) but for many the icing on the cake was the fact that Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture for 2009 (an honour shared with Linz). It was supposed to be a showcase event for the capital, a chance for the city to show the world its historic pedigree and cutting-edge contemporaneity. But the wrong kind of capital spoiled the celebrations; the entire country found itself scrambling to avoid financial meltdown in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Reluctant to turn to the IMF for a loan (perhaps having seen the brutal stipulations it had imposed on  neighbouring Latvia), Lithuania did what it could to curb the spiralling national debt (which doubled between 2008 and 2010). It drastically reduced the salaries of government employees (from 8 to 36%), it raised taxes, issued bonds, slashed public spending. The budget for Vilnius – European Capital of Culture (VECC) was halved. The mood was bleak, people were on edge. Ever edgy myself, I moved my paltry savings from one Scandinavian bank to another Scandinavian bank in case the first went under (it didn’t). As for the dramatically downsized event itself, it took an abrupt and unexpected turn into acrimonious public debate about the worth of contemporary art. At the centre of it all was a sculpture officially entitled Embankment Arch but scornfully referred to by most people as “the pipe”.

The sculpture stands between the Green Bridge and Mindaugas Bridge (in other words, slap bang in the centre of the city). It is a large rusty metal pipe consisting of nine parts that are conjoined to form an angular arch. It rises up from the riverside path, forming half a disjointed arc before sharply stretching over the steep left bank of the River Neris (and the grass-filled concrete turf block that covers it) and unfolding into the rest of the arch. An unobservant passer-by might not even realize that, technically at least, it is a work of art as they stroll beneath the imposing portal. After all, Lietuvos Energija is directly behind it, the state-controlled company which “controls companies involved in power and heat generation and distribution, natural gas trade and distribution, and supporting services.” It is also a stone’s throw away from the impressive Museum of Energy and Technology. Might not the pipe be a strangely but strategically exposed part of the city’s energy infrastructure?

Never before has a work of art generated such controversy in Lithuania (with the possible exception of the 1993 novel The Witch and the Rain by Jurga Ivanauskaitė). The sculpture (by the felicitously named Vladas Urbanavičius) was widely mocked and execrated in the media. It was roundly criticised for being too ugly, abstract, meaningless and – above all – expensive. It was, for most people, a shockingly costly monstrosity that blighted the lovely riverside. As Tomas Čiučelis put it, “…the Arch emerges as some sort of a rupture — hernia, or hemorrhoid — a sign of repression and tension, protruding like an intestine through the abdominal wall of a riverbed.”

I have several stock questions that I put to people to get a quick measure of them. One such probe is: “Do you like the Embankment Arch?” Of the dozens of people I have asked, I require the abacus of just one scrawny hand to number those who like it. This near-ubiquitous disdain for a public work of art is remarkable and revealing. The poor “pipe” has taken on a burden it was never meant to bear. It conveys a volume of outrage its creator could never have factored into his initial stress-strain analysis.

So there it awkwardly stands. Not art, apparently. Then what? An unwelcome reminder perhaps. Of what? Of years of energy dependence on the arch enemy of Russia. Of the sewage swilling about beneath the city that is supposed to stay out of sight and out of mind. Of the mysterious, interconnected forces that are powerfully impinging on the besieged notion of Lithuania as a country-unto-itself. Of the welding together of concept and art as a means of making sense of an incomprehensibly complex world. The pipe looms out of the city like a giant question mark, a formal portal inviting endless self-reflection.

Personally, I greatly admire Embankment Arch. I often pass it on my daily walk with J and am always glad to see it (still) standing there. It is bold, provocative and, to these eyes at least, pleasingly aesthetic. Compared to most other public sculpture, which lingers somewhere between Soviet hyperbole and Germanic kitsch, I welcome this powerful and idiosyncratic question mark. I love the way (if you stand in the right spot) it frames Gedimino Castle, which, incidentally, is flanked by a sculpture dedicated to Grand Duke Gediminas that I feel compelled to avert my eyes from whenever I pass it (though we once bumped into each other, arms outstretched, fumbling around in a blizzard, and smiled knowingly at the absurdity of ourselves). If you look through the arch from the other side, you see the Green Bridge, whose four Soviet-forged sculptures of Soviet workers were disappeared from their plinths only to be replaced by pretty flowers. This, for many, is the answer to historic complexity: expunge all trace of it. It is no coincidence that the flower budget for Vilnius municipality is substantial despite a constant shortfall in revenues.

Perhaps in time people will warm to the pipe. There is a long history of people initially fearing and disliking a new intruder to their cityscape only to end up embracing it as a landmark (think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Tower Bridge in London). George Mačiūnas, credited with being the driving force behind the avant-garde Fluxus movement, got a stamp dedicated to him by the Lithuanian Post (stamps, coins and street names: the ultimate official recognition). Perhaps one day the pipe will be loved and flowers laid there in times of national tragedy. Perhaps one day Urbanavičius will get his own stamp. But, for the time being, the pipe will just have to withstand the heat. (Just the other day Vilnius municipality councillors threatened to remove (expunge) the pipe, which is now eight years into its riverside occupation.) As J gleefully remarked (she found the phrase online): “Haters gonna hate, pipe’s gonna pipe!”

Just next to the Green Bridge, close to the Embankment Arch, there is a looped conversation taking place in large words formed out of red flowers on the riverbanks. The left banks says: I LOVE YOU. The right bank replies: I LOVE YOU TOO ❤. It is an undoubtedly lovely (and characteristically quirky) example of Vilnius showing its best side. It could also be seen as a fitting tribute to Saint Bruno who was disappeared on Saint Valentine’s Day. He would be glad to know that Lithuania eventually became a Catholic country: no more of those weird-shaped pagan monuments – only pretty, elegant, strictly geometric structures and figurative forms!

It seems to be the abstract, asymmetrical and monolithic form of the pipe that offends so many people; its bulky otherness that stubbornly refuses to communicate the purpose of its existence. But if you listen carefully, there is a loud gurgling noise coming from within, a rumbling borborygmus emanating from its rusty entrails. That is the sound of flux, the invisible force that carries us all along whether we like it or not. It is the sound of our dirty secrets, the chemical-saturated faeces and cleaning agents that we flush back into the water cycle. It is the sound of the energy that allows us to live like self-obsessed gluttons at enormous, potentially disastrous cost to the environment. It is the effluence of an unwanted history being expunged. Because of the vacuity at the heart of an arch, you can read whatever you want into it. It is a perpetual lacuna in the historic timeline it memorializes. As it stands horribly isolated and unwanted, little more than a crooked old pipe, I only hope that it hears the looped dialogue between the nearby flowers on the riverbanks and mistakenly thinks that someone is saying I LOVE YOU to it.