The Rothko Centre: How would you describe Eimutis Markūnas-the-artist if you were to give an impartial account?

Eimutis Markūnas: Oh… this is a tough one… what an interesting question. No one’s ever asked me that… You’ve thrown me off (laughs hard). I’m not the shy type, but this is hard. Well… I’d say he’s an experienced man, both in life and creatively. He’ll never be rough with his students or with people in general. He’ll share and explain things and give himself away as best he can. He’s a giver, for sure.

RC: Four of your works have been selected for the exhibition and the art centre collection – that’s your Silva Linarte Symposium output. How come you were so prolific?

EM: Whenever I work in a new, unusual setting rather than my studio, there are certain external factors at play – the surroundings, the people and the space as a whole. One’s colleagues are also a lottery. Always a surprise, cause you never know whom you’ll end up working with side by side. Naturally, your daily regime changes too. Apparently, everything turned out just so (smiles). But the way I express myself creatively didn’t change. Nothing jarring happened; nothing interfered with my process. I worked in my usual style and didn’t experiment, so that everyone could see the work was mine (smiles). I didn’t try to bend over backwards or try something totally new, so no need to guess who the author is.

RC: Some artists spend their life perfecting one format; others see creativity as an ongoing inquiry. You clearly belong to the second group.

EM: Back in college (now Academy), I felt sorry for all the students who fell under their tutors spell so completely that they never found their own style, something uniquely theirs. My method is quite the reverse. I’ve always felt the need to find my own way. Having said that, I was lucky with my tutor. He really had something to give. The professor I refer to was a huge authority, a great expert and an uncompromising rock when it came to academic performance. He could actually throw you out of the school without batting an eye! But he was much loved and respected.

I keep changing, my forms keep changing, artforms too. Let’s say I have an idea, something I can’t do in painting, but there’s also installation, and it works. I just choose the right language to express myself. The appropriate toolbox.

Throughout my career, I grew as an artist, and my life’s experience grew along with my visual background. At the start of my creative journey, my resources were scarce. I couldn’t really go places to see things first-hand. So I subscribed to some Polish, Hungarian and German art magazines to keep track of the latest trends. You can’t grow if you don’t look beyond your own doorstep.

RC: So, painting or stained glass?

EM: I started doing stained glass and painting right after college, pretty much simultaneously. Painters called me a stained glass artist who also exhibits paintings. But the stained glass artists said I was a painter dabbling in stained glass. Actually, neither group welcomed me with open arms (laughs). But I wanted to make my own way despite what everyone said and pursue my own goals.

Painting was number one in my rating, and stained glass came second. But the early 1990s changed everything. In 1992, I had my first solo show in Kaunas. I started off on a smaller scale. Then I went a bit larger, then tried 3D art. This naturally led me to the idea of installation. And I did well! Which brought heaps of praise and acclaim (laughs).

RC: So you got your 15 minutes of fame and heard the rustle of laurels?

EM: I did, and it’s very dangerous (laughs). But it’s one thing to be vetted by art historians and experts and quite another when it’s your competitors talking or someone who’s just jealous of what you’ve achieved.

RC: So you got through alright?

EM: I think I did (laughs).

RC: Would you say you’re a maverick lone wolf?

EM: Yes, I’ve stood my own ground ever since nursery school! Even when I was made to stand in the ‘naughty corner’ with a peg on my nose for misbehaving, I refused to give in. I held my pride to my chest through all the pain and hurt, staunchly imagining the peg was an extension of my nose, and… refused to move an inch from my conviction. I’m not one to swim with the tide or go with the crowd. I guess you could call me headstrong. But, don’t get me wrong, I do cooperate. I’m not a complete hermit, no, not at all (laughs).

RC: You also do photography.

EM: That’s a bit like playing scales, my way of practising with figurative imagery. So no one can say, “Ah, that guy… All he knows is abstraction…”.

RC: When I saw your early photographs from a mortuary, I thought – he loves to shock. Do you?

EM: Ah, those pictures are from my Academy days when we had an anatomy class. Our professor said we could go visit a dissecting room if we wanted. So a bunch of us went to dissect a body.

RC: Why…?

EM: I guess I didn’t want to work like Dürer, learning human anatomy only from book reading. I’m more like Leonardo da Vinci – all for taking a practical route and finding things out from experience. Seeing the make-up of the human body in real life, not just in pictures. Walking the path of knowledge in its entirety, getting a deep and fundamental understanding of how nature works. That’s worth the effort.

RC: Which is your favourite topic?

EM: My art is not confined to one type of work or philosophy. I could quote the influence of Camus and Sartre’s existentialism. Or Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish author and thinker. Whether it’s painting, photography or installation, every one of my works has its idea and meaning.

RC: Are you a brave man?

EM: I used to be a boxer (laughs). Runner-up for the Lithuanian national team. Then there was this time in Zarasai when I did a ten-metre high dive into a lake, going head-first. And yet, I ended up in an art college. Now that’s brave!

RC: And how did you get into performance art?

EM: I was a grown man when I saw the Kipper Kids duo (Martin Rochus Sebastian von Haselberg and Brian Routh – ed. note) and their performance with a lead airplane in Germany. And I remembered we’d already done that in Zarasai, Lithuania! We’d had a rusty metal plane that we dragged from place to place. And I gave a ‘motion picture show’ – I mean, I rustled up a DIY film theatre, drew the pictures and held a demonstration, changing the rolls myself…

RC: Do you have a performance idea that you haven’t got around to making?

EM: I do, but I’m still on the lookout, like a hunter. I’m fine-tuning the concept and waiting for the right circumstances, etc.

RC: Do you need to have a completely original idea that’s one hundred per cent yours, or can you borrow a theme and make it your own through a creative twist?

EM: Yes, I don’t mind developing other people’s ideas (smiles). It all started with a Polish artist who sent me an invitation: ‘Come, let’s do a performance!’ Before that, I’d experienced them as a spectator and thought they just weren’t my thing. But I decided to give it a go, and things seemed to be working. Of course, your trump card in an art performance is your direct contact with the people here and now. Naturally, there’s stress. I’ve had my doubts and my worries. But everything turned out well, and I got positive feedback.

RC: Do you teach?

EM: Thirty-seven years in an art school, twenty at the Academy.

RC: How does one become a ‘teacher’s pet’ with Professor Markūnas?

EM: The main thing’s not to be lazy! And then it’s all up to God and nature.

RC: And what are your personal expectations in your work with students – the things you expect from yourself?

EM: Keep a clear conscience, don’t lie, don’t get in the way so the student can grow and develop their talents. Don’t put people into boxes, which they did all over the place back in the day.

RC: Do you procrastinate?

EM: Now and then. One needs an occasional break. If not, creative work becomes mechanical.

RC: These creative breaks… how do you fill yours?

EM: I go to the cinema or theatre, read books or hang out with friends – anything to expand my horizons.

RC: And travelling? Do you like it?

EM: My comings and goings are mostly tied to my exhibition life. I don’t really know how to travel for leisure, I mean, like a regular tourist. So I’ve an individual programme for every trip (laughs).

RC: Have you had what they call ‘golden periods’ in your creativity? When the results have met your expectations right away, without question?

EM: Yes, I have. Having said that, it’s hard to pick anything in particular. I work in multiple media, so if one doesn’t work, you get the result in another. So I’ve never been depressed due to a lack of work or inspiration. If I can’t paint, I take my camera and do photography. Take a sitter and do a life drawing. Maybe do a commission. Like, I’ve just finished a stained glass gate for a student church in the Old Town of Kaunas. A huge iron gate weighing several tons, not a drop of led, pure iron. An interesting work, a big one.

RC: Which is your favourite medium?

EM: When I tried to choose my focus, stained glass artists began their sweet-talk – painting’s all very good, but stained glass will give you a functional profession. So painting was my parallel life, always somewhere in the background. And in college, at the Mural Art Department, I did mosaic and stained glass.

RC: Do you ever have silent periods? Why do you get them?

EM: I guess it’s physiology. I can chalk them up to age. And to looking for new forms of expression. I find something, and then I practise it for some time. Take graphite. I’ve been doing it for ten years, and I feel I’m almost done. So I’ll find something else, which will be my new focus. Let’s be honest, I can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. That would kill me (laughs hard).

RC: Do you ever mean to retire? I mean creatively.

EM: I’ve only two years left until my actual retirement, and then I’ll slow down for sure. In a sense, a studio is also a coffin. Like it or not, there comes a time when you start going round in circles. So you need to take a breather and clear your head. I stay open to fresh impressions through my work with the young. And it’s a two-way exchange – they give me back as much as I give them. I can feel it, this dialogue. Occasionally I might get direct inspiration from my students’ work – now that’s something more solid than just energy exchange. So yeah, it’s no one-way street.

RC: You’re quite a prolific artist.

EM: That’s all from up there (points upwards). But that’s the way I am. Easily inspired, an up-and-go man. Obviously, I also need a muse. What with my sanguine temperament. Or was it choleric? I have days when you’d better stay away. My whole family knows when to give me a wide berth (laughs).

RC: You gave a riveting presentation at the start of the symposium. It was unforgettable. A public lesson in acting and delivery.

EM: That all comes from my teaching background. You can’t teach in a dull or infantile manner. No one’s gonna listen or even try to make out what you’re saying. So I go out ‘with aplomb’ (laughs). The manner has grown on me. I feel this is how you spark an interest in a young audience.

RC: How would you define the purpose of contemporary art in our day and age? Why have it at all?

EM: Today, art can be your compass in a sea of values. And I don’t mean just religious ones. I guess the main thing’s to stay human. And not to get lost. By and large, I think ours is a time of the lost. That’s how I feel inside, and I try to get back on track, I really do. But I’m only human, just like the rest of us. Confusion and everything to do with it really affects us. We become more and more detached from nature, which has strong implications. This is why it’s so important to reflect on our humanity, on who we are as people. I believe art should make people better and stimulate reflection on who we are and why, and what’s our global mission on Planet Earth. So here’s your bedrock for art. If you ask me, I’m not a fan of entertainment art and all the ‘pretty stuff’. Just not my cup of tea. My motto goes: ‘I don’t do pretty. Quite the reverse.’

I used to do stained glass with lots of colour and light. I was so into it… and now I think differently. Real beauty should be natural, not artificial.

RC: So why do people go for all things fictional and contrived, glossed over and sterile?

EM: People are different. They are! But I prefer natural things, no synthetics. When a nature park gets ‘violated’ and ripped away from mother nature and how she intended it… I just can’t. Or take the streets. We used to have streets, proper ones, but now we have heaps of flowerbeds, ‘islands’ or what they call them… what for?! So much clutter. It’s mad… And our consumer society, our greed must have reached its limits if now we’re trying to be more careful and selective in our choices and purchases. The things we’ve done to the land, they’re staring us in the face. I mean, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.

RC: This is your strong, unshakeable belief?

EM: My creed is – no meddling. Humans will always poke their noses into things. Whatever it is, they need it. But, for heaven’s sake, leave at least some parts of nature intact. We need places where no human will ever set foot. Nature the way it was made. Stuff we don’t understand. Things we can’t pick apart and examine under a microscope. As it is, everyone wants to know everything. I think it’s a mistake.

I can understand fashion designers – business is business. But the space tourists! The tons of oxygen we burn to send one billionaire into space! How is this allowed?

Everything is so synthetic. In Lithuania, we still feel connected to nature. You see, we’ve been pagans for so long. The last to be turned Christian by the crusaders. We still hold the ancient code from when fire and wood were sacred. We still feel at one with nature, still have the connection. Although it is slipping away…

My other concern is the fear of going with the crowd, losing my individuality. The things that make us so unlike and so fascinating. May there never be a time when we lose what makes us unique…