Envision an entirely different turn in architecture after deconstructivism. What if, instead of neo-modernism and algorithmically generated formalism, architecture had pushed forward with conceptualism and a Brutalist take on the postindustrial world? An Architect Without Architects?, a recent retrospective on the work of Valdas Ozarinskas (1961–2014) at the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius, Lithuania, gives a glimpse of such a possibility.
Ozarinskas was born in the northeastern Lithuanian town of Ignalina, where in 1974 the Soviets began to construct the largest nuclear reactor in the world, a facility that would later provoke concern within the European Union due to its lack of a containment building, a design it shared with the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl. After military service, Ozarinskas studied architecture and graduated from the State Art Institute (now the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts). His first works were informed by deconstructivism, although he aligned himself less with the colliding planes of Malevich and more with Tatlin’s faktura. The retrospective opens with one of Ozarinskas’s first projects, the 1989 Tarakonas (cockroach), designed with Audrius Bučas, with whom he would frequently collaborate. An abstract composition made of debris found at construction sites, Tarakonas is depicted in photographs floating in the air and of indeterminate scale, perhaps a building, a light, a space probe, or a threatening insectoid robot. Though it is a take on Productivism, Tarakonas was made not at the beginning of the Soviet era, but at the end, when utopian ideal had been displaced by dystopian reality.
During the 1990s, after Lithuania regained independence, Ozarinskas became the deputy director of the CAC under visionary director Kestutis Kuizinas. There, Ozarinskas had the opportunity to explore his architectural imagination more freely. Built in the late 1960s by Vytautas Čekanauskas, the exhibit hall was inspired not by Soviet architectural dogma but by Aalto and European modernism. If the CAC was a significant building, by the time Ozarinskas became deputy director it was in desperate need of an update. Working with a minimal budget, Ozarinskas traced surgical interventions into the space by installing industrial steel doors in the galleries and repurposing found objects such as a glider wing which, suspended by cables, still serves as the reception disk. The result, akin to the earliest moments of Brutalism at Hunstanton, dragged rough poetry out of the simultaneous deprivation and optimism of the first years of reconstruction.
Ozarinskas is best known for collaborating with his wife, Aida Čeponytė, his longtime collaborator Bučas, and architect Gintaras Kuginis as the Private Ideology group on the Lithuanian pavilion at the Hannover World Expo in 2000. Here, Lithuania made its first appearance in a World Expo since attaining independence, and Private Ideology set out to insert Lithuania into the globalizing world with a structure based on the theme of flight. The result deliberately recalls the shape of a jet engine, while also evoking a science fiction flying craft. An international success, the pavilion brought disdain at home from the conservative Lithuanian Architects’ Union, which wanted instead to promote the sort of weak “folk” pastiche commonly found at Vilnius’s most touristic restaurants.
Having little opportunity to practice as an architect after 2000, Ozarinskas immersed himself in the art world. Like the central figure in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, Ozarinskas compulsively sought out objects in the “Zone” of post-Soviet Lithuania. A display case full of Ozarinskas’s jewelry reveals not precious metals and gems, but repurposed industrial parts and even some items that look like they might be from disassembled weapons. In the CAC cinema, which Ozarinskas and Bučias also designed, the exhibit featured black pillows of heavy rubber, lined with grommets and outfitted with an integral handle. Originally created for a 2001 concert by minimalist electronic group Monolake, these would reappear in his exhibits from time to time as seating; we’d sit on them as night bled into morning while Ozarinskas described how they could be an end to architecture, a reduction of all human needs to a piece of furniture for nomads.
In the 2002 Lux Europae light festival in Copenhagen, Ozarinskas and Čeponytė installed another controversial project, this time a reflection on the role of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania’s economy. The Ignalina plant, at this point, generated 90 percent of Lithuania’s electric power, which was its dominant export, but was slated to be decommissioned as a condition of the country’s ascension to the European Union. For the 2002 exhibit, Ozarinskas and Čeponytė suspended a series of cathode ray tubes from the ceiling of a Copenhagen train station, their cabling and suspension hidden in high tech orange fabric bringing to mind anti-radiation suits worn by nuclear power plant workers. On the monitors flickered footage Ozarinskas had found from the reactor on Lithuanian television and that he depicted as a live feed from Ignalina. The result again brought round condemnation from conservatives in Lithuania who claimed the exhibit harmed the national image and demanded it be shut down.
The final two projects in the retrospective—and of Ozarinskas’s life—index the anxiety provoked by the global financial crisis, which hit Lithuania hard. For a 2010 CAC exhibit entitled Formalism, Ozarinskas and Bučas filled the main gallery of the CAC with a gargantuan, 25-meter-wide version of the Monolake pillow. The optimism of 2001 had ended, however, and Ozarinskas described it as a “story of our failures,” a black mass that smothered everything. Ironically, the Black Pillow achieved international success, being exhibited at the Liverpool Biennial in 2012. Having left the CAC, Ozarinskas found himself at the Antanas Mončys House museum in the seaside town of Palanga. His last show, Filters, was composed of a set of 300 x 137 cm photographs taken through welding filters. Rather than being continuous black fields, each photograph had a distinct texture, promising—but nevertheless denying—a hint of something visible beyond and reminding viewers of the darkness inherent in Malevich’s reduction to what he called “the zero of form.” Ozarinskas died five days after the exhibit opened, at the age of 53, leaving behind a rich legacy of work still virtually unknown in the West.