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Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History
Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Istorijos Muziejus


Angelika Sher Eglė the Queen of Serpents


A longing for what is irretrievably lost in time prompted Vilnius-born Israeli artist Angelika Sher to return to her roots. Her project Eglė the Queen of Serpents is about the strong feeling of being drawn back to the beginning - to one’s birthplace, childhood home and fairy tales. Intertwined with Angelika’s own life story and the plot of the well-known fairy tale, the project takes on yet another interpretative axis: at the centre of the works that embody the story appears the famous Lithuanian theatre and cinema actress Eglė Mikulionytė, the fairy tale heroine’s namesake.

Angelika Sher tells her version of the fairy tale not with words but with photographs pregnant with symbols, allusions and details. Here, we find ourselves lost between memories and the present, seeing the boundaries between imagination and reality blur together with the ones between poor domestic mundanity and a fairytale wonder.
We enter Eglė Mikulionytė’s personal space - her apartment in one of Vilnius’s sleeping districts. Sher too spent her childhood in the same type of squalid Soviet blocks of flats, and the rooms and kitchen of her mother’s home had the same impoverished look. In this cramped, claustrophobic, cluttered room, we start running out of air, at the same time feeling somewhat cosy and safe. Like in a fairy tale, the small one-room apartment establishes its own reality - with its own events, rules and laws.
Time stops, the space closes, we are home.
The series opens with a photograph entitled Bathing, depicting a white night dress illuminated by light. As in the fairy tale, it is a symbol of naivety and innocence, and at the same time a hint of what is about to be taken away.
In the fairy tale, Eglė’s beauty starts blooming and love is born in a mysterious space, inaccessible to any stranger. There, somewhere very deep and very far away, a serpent truns into a desirable husband, and Eglė discovers her own happiness. Likewise, in this project Eglė’s home is cut off from the outside world by the opaque walls and hides a deep and unique inner world. We see Eglė on a double bed, with her feet on the sheet, in the centre of which gapes a red diamond-shaped spot - a symbol of her imminent loneliness.
By interweaving photography and the performing arts, Angelika Sher draws our attention to the price a woman has to pay in order to dedicate her life to art. In her famous novel A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf identifies the conditions necessary for a female artist to be able to create: financial independence and personal space. Eglė Mikulionytė emerges in a shabby old kitchen wearing a chic antique kimono of museum quality and value, which actress colleague was awarded for professional achievements in Japan.
The flat itself, as if preserved in time and having retained the Soviet spirit for surprisingly long, with its asceticism and its complete detachment from the material aspects of life conveys a feeling of an intangible sacredness. The human essence unfolds in a very personal, internal space, and this is where the strength and power of the spirit radiates; this is where creative energy flows.
The well-known fairy tale ends with a curse: Eglė (Lithuanian for ‘spruce’) and her children turn into trees. The story contains more such transformations: a little earlier, the serpent Žilvinas turns into a handsome young man, and later, when he is dead, into a bloody foam. Such changes and conversions, transformations and metamorphoses, are possible either by means of a miracle or special powers. The choice of acting is precisely the choice of a life path marked with constant change, a never-ending sequence of transformations, just as an artist’s dedication of life to their creative work; it is an expression of the longing for eternal life.
Focusing on the events of the recent past is common in both Lithuania and the whole of Europe, with the the historical narrative being transformed through textual or visual interpretations, bringing to the surface deep internal contradictions. These contradictions or tensions are also evident in the differences between personal and collective memories. The two points of view - one directed towards the external, passing project of a typical Soviet-era apartment, and the other one to the internal, hidden and unique world - also reveal the events of the recent past, creating an inevitable, emotionally charged conflict.
In the last photographs of the series, we see the windows open, and some fresh air is let in: we are looking at a veil blowing in the wind, a metaphor for a revealed secret. It is like St Veronica’s shroud, which could be compared to the first act of photography, imprinting the image of Jesus on the fabric. The white cloth reveals several circular details, reminiscent of the symbol of yin and yang, embodying the interplay of two opposing and complementary forces that are present in all the phenomena of the universe, constantly changing and evolving.
The story of Eglė warns of the danger of return. Returning is an act whose consequences can be disastrous not only for the person who travels back, but also for their loved ones. Eglė does everything she can to return to her childhood home, but the outcome is tragic: her happiness leads to jealousy, her brothers kill her beloved husband, and her own life is torn apart.
In reality, the apartment in which this project was created soon lost its character captured in the photographs - it was renovated along with the entire building; we thus have no possibility of returning even here, and the white shroud fluttering in the wind can signify changes both in time and in life itself. If you like, you can also look at it as a flag of reconciliation raised by the losing side, or simply a way of waving goodbye.
Ella Harel
Angelika Sher was born and raised in Vilnius, later moving to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. She creates large-format staged photographic series in the style of tableau vivant, in which everyday life is replaced by magical and illusory scenes. The exhibition Eglė the Queen of Serpents marks the first time the artist is presented in Lithuania. With an on-going several decades-long creative career, Sher has had solo and group exhibitions in many museums and galleries in New York, Tel Aviv, Milan, Brescia, Ljubljana, Haifa and elsewhere. Her work has also been exhibited in a number of international biennials, including in Shanghai, Taipei, Beijing, Sakhnin, Moscow, etc. In 2009, she was awarded 3rd place in the Sony’s World Photo Awards competition, with her works subsequently exhibited in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, and other mega-cities worldwide.
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