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Amber Room – Exploring Nostalgia

Amber Room series explores the condition of nostalgia in the context of migratory experiences and shifts in political regimes. It is made over two years in between Lithuania and Scotland, however I have attempted the theme a few times before. I have worked on unfinished pieces The Magic City and Looking for Signs of Summer in the Rainy Country since 2008, but both were left behind as I struggled to conclude them.

The very first impulse to explore nostalgia was personal – as far as I can remember I have been a nostalgic person. I would long for experiences I have never had and times I wasn’t born yet to know: my parents’ bohemian youth or my grandmother’s Polish Wilno. However, at the age of 20, I moved from Lithuania to Scotland and that’s when I started thinking about nostalgia, identity, longing and migration in more detail.

I share this experience with many. Migration in Europe is happening mainly in one direction: East to West. My move was fuelled by the search of an education that would suit me, others moved for jobs, out of necessity, out of curiosity, to send money home. First few years in Scotland were a massive learning curve. Not about Scotland or Glasgow though, but about myself, about the connotations Lithuania or Eastern Europe had abroad, about cultural and national identity, notions of home and relationships.

My previous attempts to make work about nostalgia and migration stalled: I wasn’t sure where it was going. I made some beautiful pictures, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was trying to communicate. Amber Room was different. I started making it in 2014. In the few preceding years all 4 members of my family lived in 4 different countries, not entirely through choice. Economical and political factors were determining and shaping our lives. It was also the year when my grandmother passed away: she was my link to historical Vilnius, to Polish culture and language. Amber Room is dedicated to her.

I started reading about nostalgia, migration, about politics and history of the former Soviet Union. I wanted to understand the East/West dichotomy, how these opposite poles perceive each other, how it shapes our identities and cultures. I was making pictures intuitively whilst thinking about migration, about familiarity, loss and hope. I set out to visit places of significance to me: the remains of soviet era in Vilnius from my childhood. I wanted to see the interiors, the buildings, find the objects from that time. However very soon I realised that I didn’t mean to talk about a particular place. Just like nostalgia itself my work wasn’t about the place, it was about the time. Amber Room was more about the distance in between, the void, rather than what’s on the other side.

That’s when making of the Amber Room gained real clarity and freedom. I didn’t have to go anywhere to make the pictures. The nostalgia, the longing, the emptiness was wherever I went. So I made sure I had my camera with me.

I made pictures in a visual diary style with a point and shoot flash camera, I worked with medium format for landscapes and cityscapes, and used large format for some portraits and interiors. I was looking for specific light, mood, colour combinations that evoked nostalgic condition. I searched for the archetypal imagery of longing: objects obscured by other objects, blurred outlines, darkness, intense eyes in portraits, the very special colours during dusk, interiors concealed by shadows, movement and blur. Not all the pictures of Amber Room are intentionally beautiful. I made sure some are a bit more difficult to look at. I wanted them to stand out, to have a certain rawness and uneasy feel to them. At the end Amber Room talks of the time in the past that is now perceived as wrong, as something we should have moved on from. And it is this inner conflict, the tension we carry that interest me.

Migration is the word of current headlines. Whether it’s media or public opinions, or artworks that engage with the theme. Some are shallow and only touch the surface of the issue, some provide an in depth analysis. I choose to speak about it as if it was a close up shot: sometimes too close to focus on objects of faces. I have my personal experience of being a migrant to draw from. And then I build layers over it: glimpses of memory of home, denied visits to see family, seeing a city for the first time and trying to call it home, shifts in perception, different light, longing, change. I want Amber Room to speak of the moments of familiarity after you’ve been submerged in new and alien environment for a long time. The way that hearing your native language on the street physically stings, or the view of the home city from the landing plane fills you with massive emotional pressure. Amber Room is also about studying detail intensely: the new city, new neighbourhood, new room. Suddenly this is where you belong. How do you cope with it? Observe. Study every mark on the wallpaper, observe the light change from morning to midday, watch people, try and understand what matters to them, what they are laughing about, where they go in the evening when you come back to your room with 3 marks on the wallpaper just above the desk.

There is this duality that comes with being a migrant. You are in a new different place, yet your brain, your heart still exist in a different time zone. You leave your home and think it only exists in your head – your memories, your knowledge of the city, the few people you keep in touch with. However, after a while you realize life at home hasn’t stalled just because you left. It moves on in directions you have no say over. Friends and family move on of course, but even the city itself changes so much you barely recognize it. And this can bring another wave of longing and sadness, as you really can’t bring the old home back, even if you can visit the geographical home.

Working with these thoughts in mind I ended up with more than a thousand pictures, and I was also writing text and making videos at the same time.

Editing was the most important stage. With that many photographs, I had to be decisive. I discarded loads, then played around with different sequences with the rest. This took weeks. At the same time I was finalising my research notes: various writings on nostalgia, on history and politics of Lithuania, of Soviet Union and material culture, on migration and identity. This helped me form a series into the 100 pictures that it is now.

When sifting through the piles of test prints I started noticing a warm yellow colour recurring. It was either egg yolk yellow objects, warm evening light or just a mustard coloured tint over the picture. This made me think of amber, Baltic Sea and Lithuanian or Baltic identity. I knew immediately this was the perfect title: amber room from the 18th century Prussia, mystery and mythology related to it, as well as changing geopolitical borders, reconstruction of memory and the poetic sound the phrase has.

Amber Room has been shown in a few different exhibitions around Europe since it’s completion. However, as with most works that I consider finished, it was shown in different set ups nearly in all galleries. The latest exhibition at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow also features an audio piece Independency and photographic installation using archival photographs, text and lightboxes. These new elements provide additional layers of context, and places Amber Room somewhere in between fact and fiction. My photographs are displayed on the same gallery wall as pictures from political protests in USSR, and a sound piece is based on an interview the New York Times conducted with my father 30 years ago.

From the age of 10 I went to this specialised secondary art school in Vilnius, Lithuania. I had two hours of various art subjects everyday, which made it a 6 day week for me. This possibly explains me being a workaholic. There was painting, printmaking, sculpture, life drawing, design and art history lessons. By the age of 16 I chose to specialise in sculpture and worked with traditional materials like clay as well as animation, kinetic installations and video. I went on to study photography and media art at the Fine Art Academy of Vilnius, and transferred to the Glasgow School of Art two years later.

Since then it’s been a bumpy but exciting ride: I worked with some documentary photography projects, did some client work, worked on a few short films, made a constructed still life series and went back to Glasgow School of Art to do a fine art masters.

I wonder if there is a thing like a normal work day. When I am in the research stage I will be reading and taking notes, working on my sketchbook either in my studio corner at home or in a cafe. I regularly swim, so I can be found in a swimming pool doing laps thinking about archive, history or memory around lunch time or in the afternoon. I use a local photography lab and members space for film processing and scanning. I make a point of regularly discussing work with colleagues, so some days I will be meeting up for a constructive feedback session over a coffee. When preparing for exhibitions I deal with practical aspects: printers, framers, shipping, instructions for technicians, statements and travel details. The actual making of pictures happens anywhere in between: on my way to work that morning, on a specially planned trip, or a prearranged scenario with location, lights and models planned way ahead. I have a few late nights every week editing photographs, working with video, writing and researching. My upcoming work is going to have sculptural elements, moving image as well as writing, so my office corner might have to become a casting studio for a bit.

All of this is a constant balancing act with other work: commissions, admin, website maintenance, work on the project at Glasgow University, talks and teaching. I often travel for my practice, so holidays and work merge into one and I end up reading art theory on a beach or sketching exhibition layouts in a cafe of a foreign city.

The creation process is an endless decision making exercise for me. I count myself lucky as I have an abundance of ideas: I often work on a few things at the same time, whilst researching new works. I soak up information quickly and anything can spark a trail of thought. I think being curious, open, yet questioning is key for my way of working. That’s when I start making connections in between seemingly disparate things that interest me: history, politics, neuroscience, swimming, poetry and utopian thought.

The difficult part is narrowing things down and making final decisions: is this the final edit, is the text finished, is the presentation looking good, do I need to have all these elements. It possibly comes from fear of commitment, of letting the work go into the world where the readings of it will be out of my control. I struggled with this a little lately, however some recent conversations with my artist friends and mentors revealed that this indeed is a good problem to have. Too many ideas? Too many pictures? Too many things on the go at once? These don’t count as real difficulties. After a very busy 2016, I have decided to slow down and allow the work to grow, as well as be more selective with the modes of output.

My practice is a complicated web of influences. From personal experiences like living through political turmoil of Soviet Union breaking up to moving across the whole continent to make home in a new country, family relationships, self discovery to things I read and see. I have read a few books lately that massively contributed to my understanding of the world: Svetlana Boym’s ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets’ and David Eagleman’s ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain’. However, a major exhibition in a renowned gallery can have as much influence on me as a short news article or a conversation with a student when I’m teaching. There is no hierarchy, and often smaller, supposedly less significant encounters can lead to me developing a new approach or even body of work.

When I look at works of others I notice the approach over the subject matter first. In the last decade I have mainly been looking at photographic works, but lately I am more interested in wider contemporary art contexts. What interests me in both worlds is freshness and honesty. The two can be hard to combine. I think one can tell very quickly if someone is making work because they care, because they have the urge to, when it comes from inside rather than latest trends, influences of fellow artists or mentors. When I see this urgency in work, combined with careful consideration of form and approach I want to look at it for longer. This is something I try and communicate when teaching or sharing feedback with colleagues. I often think if artists answered the question ‘Why am I doing this in the first place?’ honestly, there would be less artists, but more good work.

Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte

Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte is a Lithuanian artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. She works with photography, moving image, archive and sound, exhibiting internationally.

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