The gentle breeze of an apocalypse
Interview with Vaiva Grainytė.
In a time when the art scene has become a mouthpiece for politics, it is especially refreshing to experience a work in which the creators grant their viewers the opportunity to contemplate without didactics. Sun & Sea, a performance now running at BAM, allows us to do just that on the manifold subject of climate change.
In part, it must be the uncontrived nature of the performance itself created by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, and the poetically prosaic nature of the libretto written by Grainytė, which, instead of bashing us over the head with righteousness, reflects the very real paradigm of being mortal on an endangered planet.
Having seen Sun & Sea at the Venice Biennale in 2019 (for which the Lithuanian-born project won the Golden Lion), its memory has stayed with me like a dream. I recall walking into the performance and almost instantly dissolving—hypnotized by the old Soviet bodies of men playing chess, a woman reading a magazine, real children playing with a real dog on a make-believe beach. The scene itself is so familiar to me from my own summers on the Baltic Sea, and yet, I am with an audience gawking from above in total suspension of disbelief, harmoniously transcended into this brilliantly crafted alter-reality through the power of song.
I was almost afraid of seeing Sun & Sea in New York, as if expecting the spell, cast afar from its roots, would be broken there. But, this is where the genius of this transformative creation lies—by partially casting New Yorkers we get a different beach, Coney island perhaps? Yet, this time, I was attuned to something I had not recognized in Venice—the sporadic conversation which one has with themself on any given day about climate change. Not the one that is dictated to us by politicians and activists, but, instead, it is the vision of the existential fear of our own obliteration as punishment for buying yet another plastic container of blueberries, and the exhausting ritual of closing our eyes to it.
I asked Vaiva Grainytė, the writer of the libretto of Sun & Sea, what is the message for us?
Alisa: Is Sun & Sea a form of activism?
Vaiva: If we were activists we would not be doing opera pieces, we would be doing something else. When we realized the work was going to be related to ecology and the climate crisis we were cautious to not be political, loud and didactic. It was a challenge to find the proper language. When I began writing the libretto I was scared, I was not sure what direction to take. But, when you see these bodies on the beach, it became obvious that the language must be something simple, almost mundane.
Alisa: Yes, I thought is was brilliant that there is this familiar irritability to me in some of the words like, “What’s wrong with people? They come here with their dogs, who leave shit on the beach, and fleas on the sand!”
I was on Brighton beach today, and it’s exactly the kind of thing you hear the old people saying. Was your original vision always of people on a beach? Was it always meant to be about climate change?
Vaiva: We always had a vision about seeing bodies from above, but it took several years to understand what we wanted to say with that image. The initial idea was to make a good art piece.
Alisa: So, in an ideal situation is it to bring awareness to climate change? I like that the performance does not tell you what to do or what not to do. I think the subject of climate change is hard to internalize for people, and many do not genuinely know what to do with it.
Vaiva: I am not naive to think that this raises awareness. The idea was always to make a good art piece, and we know how important this topic is. Maybe the realization of catastrophe arrives here in a subtle breeze of the apocalypse. The doomsday rhetoric does not work. People shut down and keep sipping their Piña Coladas.
Alisa: Does it surprise you that people love the work? What do you think it is that people recognize in the piece?
Vaiva: The form of the piece is unique. It is a living organism. I think there is a lot of work out there on climate change, but you get lost in the predictable rhetoric.
Alisa: Yes, I agree. It allows you to be within the crisis in a therapeutic way. When I was in Jungian psychotherapy, my therapist once told me to stay in the crisis which I had created, instead of trying to escape, and to let the demons tear me apart. I have that feeling with this piece—that is has a psycho-magical quality to it. It allows us to be in the collective unconscious together. There is some kind of archetypal energy at work.
Vaiva: Oh, I also practise Jungian psychotherapy.
Alisa: REALLY! Well, that explains it. So, what about your dreams?
Vaiva: Well, there’s one aria in the performance called Dream. Actually, it is my dream.
I’m a guest at the house of the author of a book. It’s a pleasant and comfy atmosphere. I feel like laughing.
But, all of a sudden, the host starts massaging his temples. Closing his eyes, he says, “I don’t feel too well, it’s back again, it’s time!”
“Time for what?” I ask him, feeling concerned.
I start to hit him with my fists, and wake up soaking in sweat—I’ve never had a stranger dream!