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An indoor beach won Lithuania the top prize at the Venice Biennale. Continuing our tour of Europe, we visit the capital Vilnius to gauge the scene it sprang from

Holidaymakers lounge on an indoor beach, stretching out on towels and slathering one another in suncream. They play sudoku, fret and sing, while around them kids run among the supine pale bodies. There are ice creams, there is lassitude and threat. We catch the sunbathers thoughts and anxieties in song, as the imminence of ecological doom grows ever closer.

This was Sun and Sea (Marina) at last years Venice Biennale, which won Lithuania the international art shows prestigious Golden Lion. The audience looked down on the work from above and even more people queued outside, as word got round that this was the one thing in the biennale not to be missed.

Compelling, heartbreaking, morbid and funny, Sun and Sea (Marina) was first presented in Lithuania in 2017, at the bottom of a large stairwell in Vilniuss National Gallery of Art, an extensively remodelled, Soviet-era museum. Following Venice, the work is soon embarking on a global tour, taking in South Korea, Australia, Canada and Brazil, as well as Londons Barbican. So what do we know about the country and scene that produced such a world-beater? Are there more out there?

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The piece is the second collaboration between director Rugil Barzdiukait, writer Vaiva Grainyt and artist and composer Lina Lapelyt. Their earlier work was 2013s Have a Good Day! an opera starring 10 supermarket cashiers that has also been performed worldwide. The rampant success of their current production vexes its creators.

The links between visual art, theatre, literature and music are strong in this country that has a small and concentrated cultural scene. Its population is just under three million so the audience for contemporary art, I am repeatedly told, is limited and not always appreciative. Everyone knows everyone and pretty much all the artists pass through the Vilnius Art Academy, which co-sponsored Sun and Sea. A lot of younger artists and performers seem to shuttle elsewhere, to study, take residencies and teach abroad. Almost everyone says they perform multiple roles as artists, curators, writers and much more besides. They make their own scene, often in the most ad hoc ways.

The old town in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photograph: Ryhor Bruyeu/Alamy

Artist Anastasia Sosunova tells me there is virtually no commercial market here, and that artists work with a kind of stubborn dilettantism. This certainly feels the case, but it is deceptive. Aside from artists, I am told, shows get few visitors and contemporary art is not popular. There is among artists a sense of making do and getting by.

Yates Norton, the English curator and organiser at Rupert, tells me that because the arts centre is at the edge of town, hardly anybody outside the art community visits its gallery. Rupert is situated in a woody district of large houses, many hidden from the road, and which are described to me as possible lairs of James Bond villains and plastic surgeons. (I am certain things are more complex than that.)

Artists come to Rupert for two- or three-month residencies. Norton tells me it offers a space for anxiety and vulnerability and even failure, and what seems to be a bulwark against the romantic myth of artistic individuality. Things here have to be done together, through friendships, affiliations and collaborations.

Swooping art Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas. Photograph: Courtesy the artist/Dualhead.lt

Perhaps this isnt a great time to visit too early, too late, the wrong week, perhaps the wrong decade. In the new Mo Museum it was still the 1990s, with a large exhibition devoted to the art and popular culture of the decade that saw Lithuania emerge from the USSR and regain its independence. Designed by Studio Libeskind, the museum is an agglomeration of Daniel Libeskinds signature angles and slicing, slanted windows. The floor of one gallery curls up unaccountably and uselessly, like the drying page of a sodden book. Even on a late winter afternoon of rain and empty streets, the museum was busy. Mos approach is populist and accessible, a contrast to other shows I see in Vilnius.

Visiting the semi-wrecked Atletika Galeria, where a group show is being installed for an opening that night, I am astonished by the sense of abandonment, the crumbling walls covered in old graffiti, the piles of stuff everywhere, the beyond-the-last-minute haste, as often delicate works are installed amid the chaos. And then in one darkened space, the finishing touches to Goda Palekaits complex pair of dioramas contrasting the life struggles and personal crises of French anthropologist, surrealist and thinker Michel Leiris, and 18th-century Swedish scientist and religious visionary Emanuel Swedenborg are being completed.

Swedenborg searched for the seat of the human soul, while Leiris struggled with the role of anthropologist. I feel trapped and frustrated, the latter wrote. Stuck in the mission and the position I hate. There is a metaphor here, though I cant quite put my finger on it. Something to do with the practical and the spiritual, the need for a sense of communality. Atletika is in a pretty ruinous state, but is undergoing expansion with studios, interdisciplinary workshops and even allotments a ground-up alternative to the bureaucratic Soviet artists and photographers unions that had exhibition spaces throughout Lithuania.

In the restaurant of another artist-run space, Autarkia, artist and curator Laura Kaminskait describes the organisation as a sandbox. Everyone is experimenting, everywhere, and it seems to be more than talk. Institutions here help each other out, she says. They lend each other equipment, such as lights and screens, as well as offering practical help. But there must be jealousies and rivalries, I thought. What about when the sandbox turns into quicksand?

In his nearby studio, Julijonas Urbonas shows me his Euthanasia Coaster, detailing the swooping trajectory of a rollercoaster ride that would propel its occupant to an ecstatic death through lack of oxygen to the brain. That would work well in Venice, I thought, where Urbonas is about to take part in the Architecture Biennale.

Head With Many Thoughts, at the Contemporary Art Centre, is curated from an open call that attracted more than 600 proposals. The highlight is a large-scale video titled From Mother to Daughter, a choreographed series of performances by eight real families from different backgrounds on the theme of generational chains and interdependence. The project was devised by Lithuanian film-maker Vytautas Puidokas and Finnish choreographer Maria Saivosalmi. The distinction between media seem unimportant, the barriers between performance, theatre, literature and art an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We could learn from that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/04/beach-of-doom-lithuania-art-scene-world-champions-venice-biennale