The Lithuania Project | Barry Falk

System of Absurdity


 

In October 2015 Barry Falk visited Lithuania as part of the MAP6 Collective. He was aware that there had been two dominant forces that had shaped and misshaped the country in recent history. The first was the invasion and subsequent atrocities of the Nazi Germany regime, the second was the long Soviet Occupation which followed this. For this particular project he was interested in exploring the impact of the Soviet Occupation on the country between 1944 and 1991. 

The Soviet Bunker is a staged environment, a fabricated space constructed from the leftover paraphernalia of the Soviet Occupation. It is set within a former Soviet telecommunications centre, one of many such back-up station designed to keep broadcasting in the eventuality of a nuclear war, part of the Cold War stand-off. It was built between 1983 to 1985 and abandoned in 1991. However, when the Russians left Lithuania they stripped the space clear, leaving the bare concrete cells of an extensive bunker.

The bunker is surrounded by conifers and birches. It covers a square grid of 2500 m2. It has been adapted into a place of theatre, the rooms filled with meticulously salvaged Soviet paraphernalia from local markets. You enter through huge blast doors, beneath a mound of earth three meters deep, and enter a high ceilinged room set out like a banqueting hall. The bunker consists of two floors; there are long corridors leading off in two directions. It is a simple layout but the sequence of passageways and un-rendered concrete is repetitive and quickly disorientating. Rooms open off of the corridors to present a bewildering array of set tableaus, arranged around the theme of the Soviet Union: the red room with gleaming white bust of Lenin, table laid out with photographs of the Central Committee and map of the world on the wall where there are no separate Baltic States just one grey blue mass of the Soviet Union; the room with gas masks laid out on trestle tables like museum pieces; the interrogation room with picture of Trotsky and angle poise lamp; the medical room with gynaecological chair and forceps; the Soviet shop with authentic Soviet products including a can of drinking water; the children’s schoolroom with Soviet school books, and the faithfully recreated Soviet apartment, replete with box television set, laid tea table, children’s toys and china figurines. The effect is eery, the uncanny reality of the Soviet regime enhanced by the mould growing on the furniture and the sense of being lost in an absurd system.

Within this set space is the re-enactment: an actor is employed to issue out a torrent of abuse at the audience; humiliation lightened by the laughter of the audience’s embarrassment. It is a one man tour de force, a piece of absurdist theatre. This is a staged reality, a curated fiction to highlight the absurdity of real events. These intricately set pieces occupy an interstice between the abandoned and the occupied, the past and the present, fiction and reality. The setting: an underground maze, sets up this disorientating sense of being removed yet immersed in this reality. When the drama begins it adds another level of absurdity. And it is educational: colleges send students here to learn from the experience. Afterwards the actor, in full KGB uniform, asks the audience whether they like their freedom – the implicit message being that the absurdity of the past needs to be remembered so as not to be repeated.