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“Villa Lituania” is a multimedia installation that revolves around the history of the building of the same name (built in Rome at Via Nomentana 116 by architects Pio and Marcello Piacentini in 1912). It was the Lithuanian embassy from 1937 to 1940. The Soviet Union seized it and made it the symbol of the last occupied territory. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the building was used to house the Consular Office for the Russian Embassy in Italy. This function is still performed today. Villa Lituania still exists as a container that holds collective and individual stories. It also serves as a starting point to analyze the story about liberation from foreign occupation, in terms of art.
Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas approach the complexity of the building’s extended role in diplomacy from an artistic perspective, both searching for historical truth in unpublished archival footage and interviewing witnesses, but also imagining actions that might provide forms of repairing relations between the two nations. Among these, one driving force behind the project draws on the tradition of carrier pigeons, which were used as long as 3,000 years ago by the Egyptians and Persians but also in the twentieth century’s two world wars as a solution to sabotaged telecommunication networks. Carrier pigeons were selected genealogically by humans in order to further refine their innate abilities to travel long distances, and return home. During pigeon racing, distances of over 1,800 km were recorded. The story of the pigeon Paddy, who relayed information about the Allied landings on June 6, 1944 to the British after escaping German hawks trained specifically to intercept pigeons is also etched in history. The relationship between humans and birds becomes both a metaphor for peaceful coexistence at Villa Lituania and an expression of an oppressed people’s right to return home embodied in the primal instinct that animates the incredible efforts these pigeons make.
Evoking this potential in 2007, the artists proposed setting up a pigeon loft in the Russian Consulate’s garden that would receive birds bringing messages of peace from the Lithuanian Pavilion on the Venice Biennial grounds. When the Villa Lituania site was rejected as a destination, the Lithuanian-born Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas—building the new “La Nuvola” Convention Center at the time—enthusiastically welcomed the artists’ idea, suggesting that the pigeons’ return loft might be hosted in Rome’s EUR district nearby. Despite support from numerous institutions including Rome’s 9th Municipality and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities’ Directorate-General for Architecture and Contemporary Art at the time, not even the latter solution was adopted. Urbonas met with trainers of carrier pigeons in Italy and Lithuania. In a symbolic gesture Urbonas released 1,000 birds at the opening of the Lithuanian pavilion in Venice. The birds returned to their original release sites the following month. The Museum of Civilizations has a replica of a pigeon coop in the form of Villa Lituania, around which nine videos created during the process are projected from five different locations. This will illustrate the intertwined stories of a matter that appears immobile in historical context, but is actually very current in that it imagines art as a powerful tool that can rewrite the narratives and change the points of view years and years after the event.
These videos are woven with the many stories and testimonies the artists gathered carefully, such as the childhood memories of Kazys Lozoraitis (son of Stasys Lozoraitis Sr.) at the villa and the investigations of journalist Saulius Kubilius on the erasure of the inscriptions praising Lithuania’s liberation from Soviet occupation prior his 1989 visit to Rome of Mikhail Gorbachev, then the President of the USSR. Working around Villa Lituania’s stories also provided Urbonas the opportunity to investigate a history of protest, observing the evolution of its forms and the degree of repression and self-censorship exercised over it. Urbonas was able, through Villa Lituania stories and the stories that accompanied them, to investigate the history of protest and how it evolved. If the health of a democracy can also be assessed by the freedom it allows in the challenges posed to its governing power, then many of the installation’s videos may be seen as being fundamentally important and timely exercises in keeping the participation of citizens and organizations in public life critical and alive.
The “Villa Lituania” installation by the artists Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas brings witness to the art’s power of diplomacy in mediating complex conflicts and legacies, here, through the creation of an interspecies embassy that offers an artist’s hypothesis of cultural reparation. The exhibition itself embodies the homecoming spirit innate to carrier pigeons, finally bringing the pigeon loft imagined by the artists to Rome, just footsteps from “La Nuvola” Convention Hall and a few kilometers from where Villa Lituania still stands at Via Nomentana 116.
MYou can also check out our other articles.teo Lucchetti
at Museo delle Civiltà, Rome
Up to February 4, 2024