Mermaid Physics: The Myths of Emilija Škarnulytė

Andrew Berardini


Emilija Škarnulytė, Sirenomelia (2017)

“…we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end”
James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (1795)


A mermaid swims through the ruins of a nuclear submarine tunnel. The beginning or end of a story, a myth at the edge of our imaginations. Above the surface, the sweep of her lithe body ripples the icy water. Beneath, the water holds her hybrid form with a liquid care, a gentle buoyancy, water wants to absorb just about anything into the depthless abysses of its wetness. Underwater, sound moves with blunt slowness, its movement not just sonic but physical as it too ripples through the water (does she move with some echoing sonar through the dark depths or is that sound just the weeping of dying stars?). Otherworldly certainly, but only for those forced to survive in a single world. 

“Woman’s role in creation should be parallel to her role in life. I don’t mean the good earth. I mean the bad earth too, the demon, the instincts, the storms of nature. Tragedies, conflicts, mysteries are personal…. Man invented a woman to suit his needs. He disposed of her by identifying her with nature and then paraded his contemptuous domination of nature. But woman is not nature only. She is the mermaid with her fish-tail dipped in the unconscious.”[1]

Follow the curl of our mermaid’s scintillating tail and you’re taken above the Arctic Circle through secret passages to parallel universes, deep into the earth where Jules Verne dances with Hades in bejeweled caverns, and down into the modern sorcery of split atoms and sputtering neutrinos, anti-matter factories and hadron colliders. With each swoop of her fin, worlds collide. And with their crashing union, a new life is born. Mythology erupts into science and back to mythology as we look into the past from what we imagine of the future. 

Our mermaid only appears where the passage between worlds is thinnest. At the edge of warring civilizations, under the northern lights near the magnetic pole, at nuclear power plants and mystical deserts where space travellers play saxophones in scintillating robes and concoct curved utopic spaceships. She watches a grandmother blinded by nuclear meltdown touch with her hands the monuments of the fallen empire that caused it. We can only glimpse our mermaid as a ghost from the past or a vision projected from the future. In truth, the slick skin of her form betrays no gender. I only say she because, like the t-shirt says, the future is female. 

Half-human and half-fish, human and non-human, the mermaid is the perfect traveller between worlds. She can appear as a guide, a dream, splashing out of the water with an alluring magic, but can pass beneath the surface of the waves, deeper and farther than any naked human could go. Even with submarines and drones and scuba, we humans can only ever see what our machines allow (and have only by some measures mapped a mere 5% of the ocean bottom), while mermaids have realms and secrets that can only be found and witnessed by those who can truly live under the sea. And perhaps this hybrid can never singularly exist in either world, perpetually returning to the passage between. 

Enmeshed in our sole atmosphere, it’s difficult to fathom others. The only way to really witness this world is to leave it for another. Is our mermaid an ancient myth or an emissary from the beyond? Life oozed from the ocean so many billions of years ago and many creatures waded back on in. In a churning earth, the land and sea flow between one another. Like Jacquetta Hawkes wrote in A Land in 1951: “It is only the pathetic shortness of human life that gives each individual a sense of the permanence of his background. The land we all walk upon has been under the sea many times, and it will be submerged again.” The earth, so seemingly solid, given the long stare of the cosmos wobbles and flows with a contentintal drift. 

Our mermaid swims through space and time as easy as water. She slips between folds in the present that whisper the past and betray the future, trace the thin skin between this world and the next and you can glimpse a possibility of both behind and beyond. 

In writing about the divide between classical and quantum physics, Roger Penrose wrote in his book Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe that “The mermaid herself straddles the two, being half fish and half person. She represents the link between the two mutually alien worlds. She is also mysterious and apparently magical, as her ability to form her link between these worlds seems to defy the laws of each. Moreover, she brings, from her experiences of the world beneath, a different perspective on our world above, appearing to look down upon it from a great height from her vantage point on the rock”[2]. Only this mythical creature can see and pass between both worlds. We might be wise to follow her. 

Our mermaid has a name—Emilija Škarnulytė. 

In dreamy films and submerging environments, the artist Emilija Škarnulytė plunges us through the passages between worlds. With camera in hand, she gazes through what we’ve done and where we’re going, offering visions of what creatures will come after and what our ruins might look like to them, the wonder they might have over our magic and ego, our power and hubris, the mysteries of a planet scarred and just possibly healed. Her videos possess a deep poetic and a ranging bravery that dive deeply into those so often hidden and remote places where humanity has wounded the skein of reality and opened a portal beyond. 

She swims through the often invisible systems of economic progress and military power, cosmic forces and geologic time, ecological disaster and scientific order all set against a tradition of symbolist landscapes where the evolving and mystical force of life survives and thrives despite our species clear drive towards self-destruction. At first her visions are ghostly, disappeared mythical cities in a landscape captured by the metaphysical dreams of the painter and composer Čiurlionis in The Valley of the Missing City (2012); in Korea, a fortuneteller reads the portents of the largest ever development abandoned in Song Do Prophecy (2014); the voguing theatrical magic of dragqueens dance in the sunken city performed for a single adorable boychild in a ruined theatre, the lusciously battered red leather seats an opulence beyond repair in Latent River (2015), and our mermaid swims through that nuclear submarine tunnel at Olavsvern burrowed into a mountain range and abandoned by the Royal Norwegian Navy (seen in many works but clearly in Sirenomelia, 2017) and through the cosmic sounds collected at the Geodetic Observatory at Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, the most northerly permanent civilian settlement in the world. Mystics and hybrids in the ruins civilization made for itself, the ruins we are making now. When her work erupts into the world in installations, we are not looking at landscapes we are in them. As she said in a recent interview, “I don’t work with screens, I work with landscapes. All this media, these pixels are like clay and I like to mold them and stretch them through time and space.” Mirrored ceilings put us on the other side of the looking glass, as we lean back on foam lounges cut like geometric relics of some advanced but lost civilization.  

In her collaborations with Canadian artist Tanya Busse called New Mineral Collective, they imagine taking the notions of healing and care out of spas and into the scarred body of the planet, a feminist act against mineral extraction and towards an “erotics of counter-prosecting” as they titled one of their exhibitions. Calling themselves the largest and least productive mining company in the world, together they stake prospecting claims with the intention of healing rather than mining, attempting to imagine and manifest futures not of dystopian destruction (the logical conclusion of our species extractionist obsessions), but one of healing, a sensual act that can start the process of recovery. A notion that offers an alternative to one mining company’s butchly explicit slogan the two artists found in their research: “Penetration is our Destination”. Through their actions and artworks, they make visible the invisible structures that gut the earth and with surreal pleasure imagine something else. Perhaps our future isn’t a closed down reality, but a shift of imaginary possibilities, a prismatic scatter of what might be. It’s through these ruptures whether they be political upheaval or earth movers dismantling mountains, that we can see through the scrim that separates these different worlds and futures.  

Certain of Škarnulytė’s solo works examine singular moments in time and space. In Aldona (2012), she follows her blind grandmother around her hometown of Druskininkai as she moves through the world with a spectral and angelic beauty, stopping to feel with her hands the hulking monuments leftover from the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. In her ongoing feature Sounds from the Desert, she transmits the story of musician Abshalom ben Schlomo, the Sun Ra Arkestra member and Black Hebrew Israelite in his own spacey travels through spirit and time, trying to find soul through ancient mysticism and Afrofuturism past the rupture of racism and violence that he witnessed growing up in what he calls “the United Snakes”. And a more recent project documenting the architect Aleksandra Kašubą in her final days before passing away amidst the choreographic curve of her own architecture in the New Mexican desert, who after escaping the Nazis and then the Soviets sought to find a communal vision beyond hard angles.  

But other pieces by Škarnulytė take places, moments, ruptures between worlds and employs them as am imaginary cosmogony, redeploying images throughout different works. Like broken tablets from a dozen scattered and destroyed libraries from lost civilizations, her mythology can exist in fragments, repeated over and again in different films. Vast chambers, walls lined with mirrored spheres reflect the rippling water of a scientific experiment at Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Observatory in Japan appears in Mirror Matter (2017), but flickers into the screen in numerous works. Massive, pale satellite dishes nestled amidst massive snowy mountains. Microscopy of infinitesimal creatures and spinning technical diagrams. 

And there, the swoop of the mermaids tail appears over and again. And like Alice chasing the white rabbit, a mystic that sees a swish of the mysteries, or a scientist who’s reached the edge of knowledge, we’re beckoned to follow. At the border crossings between worlds, this mermaid can reveal to us what lies beyond if we’re willing to see. Following her swim through time and space, it’s easy to imagine no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.



[1] Anais Nin, Diary, Volume II, Swallow Press (1967)

[2] Roger Penrose, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe, Princeton (2016)



ANDREW BERARDINI is a writer of quasi-essayistic prose poems about art and other sensual subjects, and occasional curator with past exhibitions at MOCA, Palais de Tokyo and Castello Di Rivoli. In 2019, he co-curated the Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Kris Lemsalu). He formerly held curatorial appointments at LAXART, the Armory Center for the Arts, and on the editorial staff of Semiotext(e). He is the author of Danh Vo: Relics (Mousse, 2015), a regular contributor to Artforum, Spike, and ArtReview, and an editor at Mousse, Art-Agenda, Momus, and the Art Book Review. Berardini is a Faculty member at the Mountain School of Arts since 2008 and at the Banff Centre since 2013. His research interests include art writing as a form of literature, color, radical subjectivity, ecstatic resistance, literary chimeras, corporeality, language as incantation, the permeability between fiction and reality, underground culture, the erotics of art, the aesthetic history of California, and most generally contemporary art. Born in California and lives in Los Angeles.