Emilija Škarnulyte makes work on the borders—between documentary and fiction, the political and the poetic, sculpture and digital art—and of her own body. In her short film Sirenomelia (2017), for example, she takes the form of a siren or mermaid and swims through an abandoned NATO submarine base in Norway, while other works explore oceans of data and a rumored spacecraft at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. This month, she opens Æqualia, an installation at New York City’s Canal Projects, which installs a breathtaking single-channel video of the artist swimming through the birth of the Amazon River upon reflective black flooring studded with sculptures of black glass she calls “Mermaid’s tears.” Škarnulyte sat down with Surface ahead of the opening to talk about shape-shifting and subsurface tension.
How do you conceptualize your work?
I’m a Lithuanian-born artist, and as an experimental filmmaker I’ll often collaborate with researchers in fields of geology, marine biology, astrophysics, and quantum physics. I need that feedback, questioning, and the research-based process. Maybe we don’t see it in the works, but the challenging dialog is helpful in the mediums of video sculpture and sound-immersive spaces. For the last 12 years, I’ve been taking this into different themes: cosmic supernovas, dying black hole sounds, radioactivity, or descending to oceans in four time zones deprived of oxygen and light. I’ve been looking for what’s invisible to the naked eye, intangible, untouchable.
Yes, coming back to rivers as networks—this mapping of rivers being transport and also places where culture rises, of worshiping the river and paying respect to it. It’s based on Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and her book The Language of the Goddess. These riverian cultures were matriarchal, peaceful, and female, not the constant extraction of linear progress.
Æqualia is the video piece commissioned by Canal Projects and the 14th Gwangju Biennale. We’re weaving the confluence between two rivers—the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões—and my body. As in previous work, I work with archaeomythologies and shape-shifting narratives. On this site [Encontro das Águas in Manaus, Brazil], the viscosity and velocity of these two bodies of water meet, but they don’t mix for six kilometers. They form fractals and swirls. I’m interested in these portals that exist between the world we see, the Newtonian real, and the quantum hidden. How to enter and create these portals?
The Rio Solimões is made of glacier melt from the Andes. It’s full of sediments—one geological period. The Rio Negro is of the rain forests, full of rotten lowland matter. I’m orientating along the line, through temperature. This site is the birth of one of the world’s biggest rivers, the Amazon, and is full of mythology of shape-shifting, conflict, pollution, and tensions. I was filming from 2020 to 2023, and by last October the rivers were in an extended drought. There was a mass dying of botos, the pink river dolphins. We were swimming together here. I was thinking of the figure as a non-gendered species that adapted—not a mermaid, but maybe a dolphin or a watersnake. It’s referring to those Goddesses from paleolithic and neolithic times. So the work is already looking from a future geologist’s perspective. It was exhausting.
Yes, what was the actual filming like?
It was a small production: me, a drone operator, and a boat pilot. I was far from the boat so it didn’t get in the shot. The Rio Negro was almost boiling. More shallow, and full of this… life.
How do you relate this new work to your previous films?
In 2015, I trained in Norway, in a free-diving technique. It’s about mythological characters’ point of view, not just a documentary. In the footage, pink river dolphins were following, surrounding me. I feel this urge, this intuition. Once I enter that portal, I’m outside my comfort zone. I tend to do that in all my works. I filmed Burial, my last film, for seven years in nuclear decommissioned sites. In that non-comfort zone, that subsurface tension, something happens. It’s shape-shifting, traveling in circular time. I always try to transmit that, in live exhibition architecture. It’s never a screen or a monitor—it’s a space that surrounds us, where we could be our own bodies.
“Emilija Škarnulytė: Æqualia” will be on view at Canal Projects (351 Canal St, New York) until March 30.