By Anna Iltnere
In the summer of 2012, a Latvian artist, Miks Mitrēvics, spent 15 days living alone on a tiny island in Norway. He wrote a manifesto there, which included this: “15 days, the most valuable thing I can do is to be silent.” Miks is my cousin, and I remember when I received an e-mail from him telling me that he was in a small airport somewhere, waiting to get to the island.
15 Days Of Silence (29.07-12.08.2012) was a work of art. Miks had been invited to participate in a group exhibition, Five Thousand Generations Of Birds, in Fitjar, on the west coast of Norway — an archipelago of 381 islands, isles and reefs. The exhibition’s curators, Silje Linge Haaland and Andrea Bakketun, had assigned an island to each artist along with a commission to produce a temporary, site-specific work. Miks chose to live on one of the isles, sleeping in a shelter he built himself, and to communicate through letters he left in a mailbox floating in the surrounding sea. "Locals had warned me that I was taking a big risk building my shed on this small island because of the strong storms,” he told his wife afterwards. “When I saw a storm approaching, I wrapped lines around the shed and supported it with poles. This didn’t stop it shaking all over while the storm lasted. I just tried to stay calm, made tea…"
Miks has been a diarist since his teens, preserving moments in instant photos and taking notes, usually with a pencil. He also collects artefacts, like the dried leaves from two oak trees that were planted illegally in New York during the '60s by Lithuanian-born American artists and filmmakers, Jonas Mekas and George Maciunas. Both trees were eventually cut down but as he says,“Everything flows and changes, and only we ourselves impose meaning on things.”
Did the time he spent on the island, six years ago, change him? “You don’t have to go to an island to change something,” he insisted. “Renouncing and leaving something often means the opposite — gaining space and time for something new.”
Off and on, since 2003, Miks Mitrēvics has collaborated with his wife, the artist Kristīne Kursiša. In 2014 they published a book, Seven Thursdays. A Dialogue for Two, in which they discussed Miks’s time on the island and the manifesto that shaped it:
15 days of silence
15 days, the most valuable thing I can do is to be silent.
15 days, I turn off the computer and cell phone.
15 days, I live alone with the nature.
15 days, I forget my daily rhythm.
15 days, I get up with the sun.
15 days, I read seven books.
15 days, I cook and wash my clothes myself.
15 days, I wave my hand at every passing boat.
15 days, I make my own mistakes.
15 days, I go swimming once a day.
15 days, I respect the written word and I do not waste it.
15 days, I focus on the present and forget the past and the future.
15 days, I go to sleep as the sun goes down.
15 days, I wear warm clothes in cold nights.
15 days, I write down everything without thinking much.
MM: The manifesto was created while I was on the island. I decided to spend the time in complete silence. I had nothing but the bare essentials and seven books with me. I made a shed for myself. I read every day and took notes – writing down the most significant ideas. Later on, I decided to combine reading with a physical activity. This is how The Circle Of Reading began (Круг чтения, borrowed from Lev Tolstoy’s book by the same title). For several hours each day along the shore – where the sea met the bedrock – I wrote my notes. Circle after circle, these writings stretched all around the island, but as waves washed against the rock, they disappeared quickly, making room for new ones.
KK: … you mention that you started this ritual in order to get distracted from yourself. How did the silence and being alone influence you?
MM: Silence is an organic part of me, a necessity. While on the island, it gave space for other means of expression. I listened a lot and was open to everything that happened. I can’t remember another time where I spent so much time reading books or writing letters. There is a tendency to get caught in a loop when you’re alone. The books I brought with me helped me to organize my daily life… They were a way for me to broaden the circle of thinking and keep a healthy distance from myself. Time spent in silence flows differently; it's monolithic and doesn't have interruptions. At the end of every day spent in silence. I drew a line above my door. As weird as it might sound now, it was a way of counting the days of silence and separating one from another.
KK: What were the books you had with you? Which one did your arm stretch to every day and which were the ones that stayed on the shelf and why?
MM: I had seven books with me: two volumes of Wise Thoughts For Every Day by Leo Tolstoy; Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary; Epiphanies by Imants Ziedonis; The Tokyo-Montana Express by Richard Brautigan; 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard; Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog; and Faserland by Christian Kracht. Initially I tried to read them simultaneously, an excerpt from a book at a time. However, as time went by, I started reading the whole books, from cover to cover. Herzog’s and Brautigan’s were very inspiring, with their daily lightness and fundamental remarks. Tolstoy’s Wise Thoughts was heavyweight material requiring a considerate rationing to avoid slipping into melancholy. It's a very valuable book but as with Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary suitable only for fragmentary reading. Ziedonis’ Epiphanies I like a lot, however, it felt too romantic for the situation. The only book left unopened was Kracht’s Faserland, lacking just one more day of silence. These books existed in the context of my bookshelf, a chronic lack of time and a long-time wish to read them.
KK: How did the local community react to your decision to move to the local island?
MM: At first there was a huge confusion about me being on this rock in the sea, made even more awkward by my silence. The small shed I settled in, in fact, might just have been flushed into the sea if the storms had been stronger. Luckily, storms in the summer are less frequent, less violent. The local interest was significant and my silence wasn’t an obstacle for communication – sometimes, it happened with someone talking to me from a boat and me writing from a rock. One day a mother and her daughter stopped by in their canoe and left fresh strawberries for me. I wrote, “Thank you!” on a rock face.
KK: Islands like this are used as pasture for sheep. For a time, your island was inhabited by two sheep, a mother and son. You tried to minimize your contact with them in order to avoid attachment. But unlike you, the sheep were unconstrained and turned out to be extremely curious.
MM: True, there is a habitat of wild northern sheep species that the local farmers breed. The sheep are resistant to the harsh weather and are able to survive on a rocky island eating only moss. For the most part, they live in the wild and get fleeced once a year. At the beginning, they were afraid of me and I was afraid of them. However, as time went on, they started to follow my tracks; they hid behind my shed during a storm. We finally accepted each other and chased each other around the island.
KK: I will never forget the phone call —August 13, 2012 at 1:01am. I was trying to get to sleep when the phone rang; there was silence on the other end. The fifteenth day of your silence was over, so you called right at midnight but you couldn’t talk. Recently, you told me that you actually had a stab of paranoia on the island, a fear that you might never be able to speak again.
MM: When some seven days had passed, I started to think that my vocal chords might atrophy and I might not be able to speak. I remember that it was the only time I uttered a quiet sound to be sure I am still able to do something like that
Anna Iltnere is based in Jūrmala, Latvia, and has opened a Sea Library by the Baltic Sea with books about the sea. Coming from a family of artists, architects and actors, and formally a journalist covering the Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian contemporary art scenes, she now follows her passion, the sea.