Central Park: In Vilnius, Art Has Its Place

A Lithuanian Sculptor Attemps to Turn Europe's Geographic Heart Into Its Cultural Hub



The Wall Street Journal Europe, Vol. XIX N. 18, Friday – Saturday, February , 2001


The center of Europe (that’s Vilnius, apparently) has a great sculpture park

Page 27
Copyright 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


By Benjamin Smith

Special to the Wall Street Journal Europe

VILNIUS, Lithuania

Stepping over a toppled statue of Lenin, Gintaras Karosas observes, "This is the largest sculpture in the world made entirely of televisions. I know. I've checked." It is a typically eccentric claim for the founder of "Europas Parkas: The Open Air Museum in the Center of Europe."

The center of Europe? To most Europeans, the forest north of Vilnius sounds more like the middle of nowhere. But geographers are a stubborn breed. In 1989 the French National Geographic Institute released a study that passed over the cultural claims of Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, paid due respect to the vast spaces of European Russia, and then pinpointed the center of Europe here on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital.

Mr. Karosas ran across the study in 1991, as a 22-year-old student at the Vilnius Art Academy. The notion piqued his interest, driving him to create what has become an 55-hectare permanent exhibit of the work of well-known international sculptors.

Unpromising Beginning

A decade ago, the notion of a serious art museum amid these modest summer houses and rickety villages seemed ridiculous even to Mr. Karosas's teachers. When the young man from the countryside, with his thick glasses and a distaste for academic formalism, proposed hosting an international conference in the recently proclaimed continental center in 1992, he won no support from his professors. Mr. Karosas himself slashed and burned the pines and birches on the site and shaped a rounded concrete base, its top rising to a point - a symbol of the locale's centrality. In response to the project, the graybeards at the academy flunked him.

But the conference was a success, and with financial support from emigre families, the U.S. government and the Soros Foundation, Mr. Karosas began to attract internationally renowned artists to Europas Parkas. His first coup came in 1995, when the American sculptor Dennis Oppenheim agreed to design "Chair/Pool" for the park. The sculpture represents a massive armchair made of steel fencing and concrete, with a two-ton pool of water in the seat.

Mr. Karosas then added a work that has become the park's main attraction: a granite pyramid oriented to the four directions of the compass. In a ring around the pyramid, signs indicate the directions and distances to the 45 other European capitals. The southwest quadrant is packed of the pyramid, including London (1,730 kilometers), Rome (1,724 kilometers) and Athens (1,883 kilometers). A little closer to home, Minsk is a mere 182 kilometers away and Vilnius 19 kilometers.

While many other Easterm European museums and parks focus on local art - from statues of Lenin to regional versions of Western European schools of painting like Impressionism - Mr. Karosas has steered well clear of a provincial approach. "We are on the edge of the world here, but why should we go to Europe when we can bring Europe to us?" Mr. Karosas asks, seated in the small cafe that is part of the modest brick apartment complex where he lives with his wife.

Mr. Karosas has worked hard to find local and international sponsors and to bring in work from around the world. Along with two of Mr. Oppenheim's pieces, the park boasts everything from a dangerous-looking metallic horse by the Irish sculptor Laurent Mellet called "Requiem for a Dead Pony" to a cozy "Human Nest" by American Cristina Biaggi. The collection includes a distinctly Latin American grotesque by the Mexican artist Javier Cruz, "Woman Looking at the Moon," and a minimalist "Snail" by the Japanese sculptor Makoto Ito. There is also a massive iron hut by the Czech Ales Vesely.

It has all been a bit perplexing to the neighbors, country folk who have seen Mr. Karosas expand his operation from a few pieces in a small patch of forest to 70 sculptures from 22 countries, spread at comfortable intervals along a paved eight-kilometer track.

Local Sentiment

The neighbors "think it is something very important, but they don't know what," says Mr. Karosas, standing amid the park's largest work, a 150-ton cluster of egg-like boulders tucked into a shallow in the land, Magdalena Abakanowicz's "Space of Unknown Growth." To the neighbors, he admits, "it is all very mysterious."

The same could be said for Mr. Karosas's own latest piece, the 700-meter maze of 3,000 bulky, broken Soviet television sets with the prone statue of Lenin at its center. The dead TV sets, he says, once channeled Communist ideology, and the narrow paths that they form symbolize its limitations.  When asked why the whole thing is shaped like a tree, Mr. Karosas simply shrugs.

In the end, it is perhaps the refusal to take itself too seriously that keeps the park afloat. One of his own sculptures consists of even rows of inviting black-stone seats, facing soberly into the forest - an invitation to the serious gallery goer. A visitor trying to sit in one, however, will slide quickly into the dirt. He calls it "For Your Convenience."

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