Egle Rakauskaite is perhaps best know for her performances involving her own body, however she asserts that she rarely performs herself, and usually hides from the camera. That is certainly not the case with her 1996 installation, In Honey, nor her 1998 piece In Fat. In both pieces, the artist appeared before the audience, naked and almost embryonic, lying in honey or fat, respectively. As she said herself, it simply wasn’t possible to find someone to do these pieces for her. And I would argue, as well, that they wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful if she had.
For her 1996 installation In Honey, the artist constructed a platform made of a cotton sheet, stretched across a platform, on which she laid, partly submerged in honey. Honey plays a large role in the Lithuanian national cultural identity. It is not only a national product, but also used for its medicinal and healing purposes. Mead is also a traditional alcoholic drink, made from honey. Furthermore, it was Joseph Beuys who acknowledged the mystical properties of honey – a product made from what he saw as the model of a perfect community: bees. In Egle’s piece, honey becomes the amniotic fluid, and the artist is able to breathe through a tube that effectively becomes her umbilical cord.
In In Honey the artist’s body is not visible to the viewer, who sees her from below, through the sheet. In In Fat, she also plays with the idea of invisibility, as in this video performance, the artist reclines in a glass tank that is filled with animal fat; she is completely submerged, and once again a breathing tube enables her to stay alive. The video plays on an endless loop, and as time passes, the fat congeals, further concealing the artist’s naked body. The sound of her breathing is amplified, which conjures a number of associations, from a person on their deathbed being kept alive by respirators, to a bizarre medical experiment.
In both of these pieces Egle reverses the typical presentation of the female nude. While in In Honey she is placed in a substance that is pleasing and sweet, her placement of both the honey and her body in it cause it to resemble a bodily fluid not fit for consumption. Likewise, the naked body in congealed fat – the interior literally externalized – creates a feeling of repulsion and the abject, yet at the same time, the opaque and blurry image is also aesthetically pleasing.
Egle’s work is one of the few examples of female body art in Lithuania. While not overtly feminist in nature, her work, and her biography, speaks of a patriarchal Lithuanian society that persists to this day. In fact, only recently is there an artist-activist group in Lithuania that deals with issues of gender – Cool Turistes.
A 1996 live sculpture, Trap. Expulsion from Paradise raises the issue of the female in contemporary, post-Soviet Lithuanian society more overtly. A dozen young girls dressed in white confirmation dresses stand locked together, with their hair in traditional braids, each one interwoven with the next one’s. After a while, they cut themselves free and leave the stage. The performance reflects the traditional role of women to be submissive and stay in their place, however these girls are able to break free. The title could also refer to the promise of egalitarian “paradise” under the Soviet regime. The fate of these girls is a loss of innocence as they enter into this new post-communist world.
The artist addresses a range of issues in her work, focusing not solely on gender, but on other pressing issues such as exclusion from society, the Lithuanian national cultural identity, the EU and Lithuania’s entry into the Eurozone (scheduled for 2015), as well as the struggle to survive as an artist in contemporary Lithuania. For example, in a recent interactive performance she created a white coat covered with colored dots – the type that are affixed to a wall label in a gallery when a painting is sold. She created a series of interactive performances with the viewer, asking them to blow up a balloon, and presenting them with a bag with this dot on it, and asking them to guess what is inside (a spotted coat). “There is no art market in Lithuania” was written on some of these items in Lithuanian, and the entire piece, which took place at an art fair in Lithuania, was meant to draw attention to this fact.
As an artist, Egle shows great concern for pressing issues in the world surrounding her, whether that is the local situation for artists in her country, or more global issues related to gender and the body.