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The Role of a Lifetime is a single-screen video installation, which can be projected onto a wall or a screen in a darkened room. The video version is a transfer from Super 8 mm and 35 mm film sources, produced in an edition of five, plus two artist’s proofs. It consists of a sixteen-minute montage of amateur footage from the early 1960s showing scenes of everyday life in Brighton. These images are intercut with panning shots of graphite drawings of landscapes. Throughout the audio track, a male voice is heard discussing film as a manipulative form of representation; five minutes into the film, the speaker is revealed to be British filmmaker Peter Watkins, best known for his innovative and politically-charged documentaries.
Watkins explains that he is being recorded in Gruto Parkas (Grutas Park), a theme park in Lithuania housing a collection of Soviet-era sculptures removed from the country’s public spaces. Apart from this sequence, in which Watkins’s voiceover is accompanied by drawings of the sculpture park covered in snow, the spoken text and on-screen images in the film do not coincide in an obvious fashion. Instead, the juxtaposition of voice and image remains enigmatic, stressing the ambiguous and constructed nature of all filmic narratives.
Narkevicius originally trained as a sculptor at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts, and began working with film in the early 1990s. His works examine the relationship between personal memory and political history, particularly in relation to the profound social changes experienced in Central and Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in the region in 1989. Combining found footage, voiceovers, scripted scenes and interviews, Narkevicius’s films reinterpret historical events by playing with different genres and narrative structures, such as memoir, documentary or drama. Socialist realist sculpture is a recurring subject in his work. In Once in the XX Century 2004, for example, television footage showing a statue of Lenin being removed from a Vilnius square is reversed, as if the monument were being erected before a cheering crowd.
The Role of a Lifetime was commissioned for St Peter’s Church in Brighton as part of Art and Sacred Places, a national initiative for which contemporary artists are invited to make new work in sacred spaces. Asked to respond to an unfamiliar context, Narkevicius based the work on amateur footage of Brighton shot in the 1960s, which he found in the South East Film and Video Archive located in the city. He juxtaposed this with material from two other sources: a series of landscape drawings, made by Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Lukoaitis, and the soundtrack, derived from interviews with Watkins, who lived in Lithuania for many years.
Watkins and Narkevicius share a distrust of the conventions of the documentary genre and its claims to authenticity. In The Role of a Lifetime, Watkins summarises his thoughts on the ethics of filmic media, comments which seem to echo Narkevicius’s approach:
We put images and sounds together, but we never discuss with the audience, with the people, what it means to do this. What effect is this having on society, on history, on our personal feelings, on the way we speak to each other? What effect is it having on the way we think about time, space, structure and process?
Tate also owns an earlier sculptural work by Narkevicius, Never Backwards 1994 (Tate T12779), consisting of an altered cot filled with paraffin, which also illustrates the artist’s interest in the irreversibility of history.
Deimantas Narkevicius: The Role of a Lifetime, exhibition catalogue, St Peter’s Church, Brighton 2003.
Cecilia Canziani, ‘Reconstructing Reality. The Subjective Documentaries of Deimantas Narkevicius’, Kaleidoscope, no.3, September–October 2011, pp.26–9.
‘Pure Documentaries. An Interview with Peter Watkins by Deimantas Narkevicius’, No Order. Art in a Post-Fordist Society, no.1, 2011.