A farmer bends over a dead pig with a blowtorch, a chicken perched on his back. A young girl stares out of a window over the decapitated head of a goat. A drunk bites the ear of another drunk who is biting the ear of a pig’s head on a plate. Welcome to the strange, frightening and darkly humorous world of Rimaldas Viksraitis, a 55-year-old photographer who travels through the benighted villages of his native Lithuania with a camera tied to his bicycle.
In July, Viksraitis won the prestigious Discovery Award at the Arles photography festival, having been nominated by Martin Parr, who described the work as “slightly insane and wonderfully surreal”. That about captures it. The motifs that recur in Viksraitis’s work are, in no particular order, chickens, vodka, breasts, dirt, animal carcasses and inebriated, often semi-naked, pensioners. In terms of photographic reference points, Boris Mikhailov’s work springs to mind, though his images of a bleak post-Soviet netherworld of alcoholism and madness are altogether harsher and more detached.
The more I looked, the more I was reminded of the early photographs of the Birmingham-born Richard Billingham, who turned his camera so revealingly and startlingly on his own dysfunctional family in his book Ray’s a Laugh. There is the same kind of unflinching gaze at work here, and the same kind of intimate identification with the subject. Interestingly, when I ask Viksraitis to name his prime influences, he cites “the films of the Fellini”, and, in a sense, he has created his own version of the great director’s semi-autobiographical Amarcord in a series of still images that shock and provoke as much as they intrigue.
As his photographs suggest, Viksraitis is quite a character. He was born in 1954 in the village of Sunkariai and contracted tuberculosis as a child. As a result, he is disabled and one senses that his otherness has helped him create these startling images. There is something, too, of the imp about him. When I met him at the gallery before his show opened, I asked why there are so many semi-naked women in his work. He laughed long and hard and had an animated conversation with his translator, Iena, who told me mysteriously: “Rimaldas says that he grew up surrounded by women and knows all their secrets.”
Viksraitis graduated in photography from the Vilnius technical school and his mentor is the great Lithuanian photojournalist Antanas Sutkus. For 10 years he worked as a commercial photographer, mainly doing wedding portraits, before receiving a grant from the Lithuanian ministry of culture. He has been photographing his friends and neighbours since 1971, when he first bought an old Soviet Smena 8 camera for 15 roubles. Grimaces of the Weary Village is the latest in a series of wonderfully titled visual narratives that began with Slaughter (1982-1986) and continued with Nude in a Desolate Farm (1991) and This Crazy World (1995).
The social backdrop to these powerful images is the decline of village life since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the attendant disintegration of the local farming system. People drink so much, he says, “because they are lost”. He shows me some images of a group of fresh-faced young boys posing in swimming trunks by a river. “I grew up with these people,” he says. “I know them since they were children but now the farms have fallen down, the work has gone and they have nothing so they are always drinking. Some of them are in prison from drinking. There is nothing else to do but they do not complain.” He identifies some of the boys, now grown-up and broken by circumstance, in the photographs on the wall. There is nothing else to say.
Viksraitis is also, as Parr has pointed out, a storyteller, and a director of his own narratives. In one disturbing image, a man lies in a drunken sleep beside a young boy, who stares unfazed at the camera, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Like the image of the girl and the goat’s head, this image occupies that shady hinterland between staged photography and social reportage. Some viewers may find his images voyeuristic, but the drunken abandonment and chaos of the villagers is as telling as the grime and poverty of their living quarters. Many young people have left these villages in search of work in the cities; those left behind seem unmoored. The traditional way of life that sustained them has disintegrated like the barns that stand empty and decaying in the nearby fields.
Revealingly, too, Viksraitis sometimes places himself at the centre of his work. Two of the more mysterious shots are staged tableaux: in the first, he stands naked, his back to the camera, balancing a huge metal bucket on his head; in the second, again naked, he walks in front of a long line of empty bottles. He seems to be saying, I am just like the people I photograph, even as he displays his physical difference. The camera, too, of course, makes him different, signals his detachment from the chaos and disorder around him. He grew up, he says, “between marshes and clay”, and now he is an acute and graphic chronicler of that alluvial world, a world that seems to be sinking under the weight of its own sadness and despair.