KRYZIU KALNAS is a suite of texts and photographs by Quintan Ana Wikswo. In 2009, Quintan Ana Wikswo worked at the site, creating photographs using Stalin-era military cameras. These images document the many strata of spiritual architecture at a sacred site whose legacy spans over a thousand years.
Located on the road to Kaunas, Lithuania, Kryziu Kalnas is an ancient burial mound, a pagan temple to the snake goddess, a Catholic fort, a Nazi battlefield, a Soviet sewage dump, and a staging grounds for protests against totalitarian dictatorships – a site of insurrection and resistance, of incalculable desecration, of ideological warfare…and a site of prayer and strength, worship and mystery.
Created over a thousand years ago to contain the bodies, bones, and amulets of ancient Baltic tribal peoples, Kryziu Kalnas can be heard long before it can be seen. The Hill of Prayers offers an eerie overture of wood and metal rattling in the winds that sweep fierce across the otherwise flat and silent marshlands of Lithuania.
The Hill of Prayers is a dense forest of homemade spiritual totems – testifying to death by cigarettes, love’s sadistic suicides, still-births and soldiers, loved ones vanished from the fold. There are arcane pagan amulets: secrets kept by those who dwell in the cracks between sorcerers and seers. The Chabad leave Stars of David. A tangle of rough-shod folk art statuary: handcarved crucifixes, effigies of saints, portraits of parted and departed lovers. The wind rings chains of bells, handwritten prayers pinned to sheets of tinfoil, and nearly a million rosaries hang like a network of veins from the thin spindled branches of a crucifix.
The vast and muscular empire of Lithuania was the last stronghold of resistance against the Christian Crusades of Europe – its pagan peoples long held out when other cultures fell and were demolished. During the many wars of resistance, the burial mound was re-used as a temple to the snake goddess, and a source of strength and solidarity against colonizing forces of persecution and oppression. The Lithuanians raised giant iron pikes affixed with complex lacework symbols of the sun and moon, the snake and fish and spirit world. These pictures were a language of love calling beyond the beyond.
When the priests eventually occupied the area in the 16th century, they buried their own dead on the sacred site, used the temple as a fort, and began adding the sign of the cross to the ancient pagan worship pikes.
These crosses became new totems, and reflected a new ideology. But the old ways did not vanish. They burrowed into the earth, and sought shelter and solidarity within the mound. Worms and moles lived there. Summer voles. Bronze rings of chalcedony and amber lying loose on the skeletal fingers of the pagan queens.
Throughout the centuries, the Hill of Prayers became a pilgrimage site for Lithuanians travelling along a holy road. They brought their prayers: praise songs for ghosts and longings. At the crossroads of eastern Europe, Lithuania was a land of wars and occupations. For hundreds of years, bodies fell nearby.
Soon, the Hill of Prayers became a place where the memory of tragedy became a spiral: different enemies, different eras, but the same loop of loss.
When Nazi Lithuania murdered the area’s Jews. When Soviet Russia claimed the territory from the Nazis and more fell. When Stalin sent millions of Lithuanians to their death in Siberian concentration camps.
During Soviet Times, the Hill became a place of voiceless symbolic protests. After each wave of disappearances, more totems would appear. More prayers were left in stubborn opposition.
Infuriated and threatened by the homemade memorials, Stalin bulldozed Kryziu Kalnas, destroyed the skeletons, burned the wood carvings, crushed the crosses for scrap metal, buried the entire site under six feet of raw sewage, and then enclosed it in razor wire.
Although many were captured and executed, Lithuanians would come in dark new-moon nights to salvage what they could, and rebuild the site with reclaimed materials…a cycle of destruction and reclamation that would continue for fifty years.
When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the Hill of Prayers was claimed as a national treasure. Independence arrived as Soviets were damming the Kulva River. Poised at total destruction, they were prepared to flood the Hill and leave it under water and unreachable forever.
The snake goddess, perhaps, was not at all worried. She is a water snake. She knows well how to swim in any water.
PORTFOLIO COMING SOON
PHOTOGRAPHS & TEXT: Quintan Ana Wikswo
KRYZIU KALNAS was created with the support of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Performances, exhibitions and presentations include the Deborah Martin Gallery (Los Angeles), 610 Isis (Los Angeles), and Terrell Moore Gallery (Los Angeles).