Words Jane Singer
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
Sitting opposite Indre Serpytye in her Fitzrovia studio, I confessed that I had not come across her work. She smiled and knowingly agreed that you cannot know of every contemporary artist. We shared an appreciation for the ounce of frustration of being asked if you know a particular current artist and having to shake your head. Her studio is large and on freestanding shelves sit dozens of beautifully carved wooden houses. They are exquisite and so delicate. Against the wall I can see, singular black and white photos of the houses. There is a story to be told here and with my hands clasped round my mug of chamomile tea, I wait for Indre to tell me.
Moving to England at the age 14, Indrė took up photography by chance when her parents suggested she studied more creative subjects for her A-Levels. ‘It gave me a voice. I felt I could express myself,’ she explained. This interest led to the University of Brighton where she undertook a BA in Editorial Photography, followed by an MA and an MPhil in Photography at the Royal College of Art, London. Indrė’s current project focusses on buildings in Lithuania that were places of interrogation and torture during the period of Soviet occupation. Records show that there were over 300 interrogation houses in Lithuania; many of them are now either residences or places of work. Indrė tells me that she ‘came upon the archive set up by the Lithuanian government run by one woman for 20 years.’ Neither she nor her family had heard about these houses, despite there being one in every village. Delving further into why it has remained unknown, Indrė offered ‘that history hasn’t been passed on as it doesn’t want to be remembered.’ By changing the use of the buildings from interrogation houses to residences, these places have in effect ‘cleansed themselves.’
Capturing this piece of Lithuanian history was always going to be an enormous task. It took a few years before deciding on the most appropriate method. Indrė began by making trips to Lithuania to take photographs of the buildings. It wasn’t enough though; there wasn’t enough poignancy. She tried architectural modelling, followed by 3D printing which was available as one of the facilities at the Royal College of Art. However, none of these methods truly encompassed what Šerpetytė wanted to achieve. It was a four-month residency in Paris focussing on architecture that gave her, in her own words, ‘a lightbulb moment.’ Upon distancing herself from this project, she thought about using woodcarvings which have a long tradition in Lithuania.
Working with the Woodcarving Association, Indrė set three craftsmen the task of creating a model woodcarving from her photographs. Whilst two of them looked architecturally perfect, she chose the model that looked ‘raw’ and photographed it. This is the finished product. These have become her works. ‘It speaks to the human touch.’
Two threads run through this project: first is the idea of memory. Acknowledging that her home country was not trying to cover up the interrogation houses, Indrė emphasises the importance of remembering these events. ‘Whilst the goal in Lithuania was to become more Western, the shift was so fast,’ Indrė tells me, ‘that ‘there wasn’t enough capacity to remember everything.’ This project aims to look back and unlock these memories. Indrė spoke about wanting Lithuanians to be proud of what these women and children went through in going against the KGB. These calm, beautiful photographs of houses challenge the idea of a home which traditionally should be safe and secure.
Secondly, there is the interpretation. Indrė interprets the houses in her photographs. The woodcarver then interprets the photographs resulting in the model carving. Indrė then reinterprets carvings through her photographs. Interestingly, Indrė explained that she has not yet met this woodcarver. They have formed a virtual relationship. Like her, he didn’t know about the Lithuanian interrogation houses and Indrė has noted that as the project went on, he learnt more about the subject and took more care in the carvings. Indrė sends him four photographs, the four sides of the buildings. Does she want to meet him? ‘Yes, when I have finished. I don’t want to influence him.’
Exploring the reaction to these powerful works, Indrė has already exhibited them in Lithuania which, whilst not provoking a negative reaction, did not have ‘as much of a reaction as [she] would have liked, but that will come in time.’ Behind Indrė on the noticeboard two images stand out. One is a photograph of an ISIS beheading and the other of Manet’s The Execution of Maximillian. Indrė explains that she is currently exploring the backdrops to death. In both these images, the viewer is confronted by horror in the foreground and desperately looks elsewhere to escape. Her own photographs of the carved houses sit blankly on a grey background. There is no colour. There is nowhere else to look. We stare openly at these houses which have stood as ‘silent witnesses’ in the interrogations.
As our conversation draws to an end, I ask Indrė about the future of the model houses. ‘They are not for sale,’ she laughs. This isn’t the first time she has been asked it seems. Originally she was going to destroy the carvings and not even display them. However, they have become a big part of this ongoing research project. They are here to stay. Despite being only half way through the project, Indrė is looking ahead and hopes to move from photography to paintings; this is a new phase in her career. Throwing back her head, she laughs, ‘From mistakes you learn.’ This is a simple philosophy from the creator of such poignant, thought-provoking works.