Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas

Villa Lituania

Installation view Villa Lituania at Museo delle Civiltà, Rome

An Interspecies Embassy

The Villa Lituania project by artists Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas returns to Italy sixteen years after representing Lithuania at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 winning the Jury’s Honorable Mention, and now being is presented at the Museum of Civilizations on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the death of Stasys Lozoraitis Sr., a diplomat who lived at the Villa from 1939 to 1940. 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). Hosting the Lithuanian Embassy from 1937 to 1940, it was seized by the Soviet Union and became the symbol of the last territory occupied. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, it was used as the seat of the Consular Office of the Russian Embassy in Italy, a function it still serves today. Now Villa Lituania continues to exist as a container of collective and personal stories, and it offers a starting point for analyzing the story of liberation from foreign occupation in terms of art and the relationship between humans and animals as a potential means of escape from conflict and its sedimentations.

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of the building’s extended role in diplomacy from an artistic perspective, both searching for historical truth in unpublished archival footage and interviewing witnesses, but also imagining actions that might provide forms of repairing relations between the two nations.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 have been genealogically selected by humans to further refine their innate ability to travel long distances and return home. Distances over 1,800 km have been recorded during pigeon races, and the story of how the pigeon Paddy relayed information to the British about the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944 after escaping attacks by German hawks trained to intercept pigeons has gone down 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.

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Installation view Villa Lituania at Museo delle Civiltà, Rome

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Installation view Villa Lituania at Museo delle Civiltà, Rome

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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. After conferring with many carrier pigeon trainers in Italy, Lithuania, and Poland, in a symbolic gesture, Urbonas released in Venice 1,000 birds on the day that the Lithuanian Pavilion opened in Venice, all of which flew back to their places of release the following month. No pigeon loft will ever be erected in Rome, but the installation at the Museum of Civilizations provides a copy of one in the guise of Villa Lituania around which nine videos made during the process will be projected from five locations to illustrate the intertwining stories of an affair that is seemingly immobile in its historical context but actually extremely current instead in imagining art as a tool that can rewrite narratives and change points of view even years and years later with unexpected dislocations in space and time.

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. Working with Villa Lituania and its stories also provided Urbonas with the opportunity to investigate a protest movement: how its forms evolved with the degree of repression and self-censorship exercised over it. 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 kilometres from where Villa Lituania still stands at Via Nomentana 116.

The text has been written by Matteo Lucchetti.

Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas
Villa Lituania
Museum delle Civiltà
December 20, 2023 – February 4, 2024