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FRESH KUNST.EE OUT NOW! KUNST.EE 3/2021

 

Defying gravity

Hanno Soans (4/2020)

Hanno Soans explores the exhibition "May You Be Loved and Protected", curated by Tamara Luuk.

 



17. X–20. XII 2020
Tallinn Art Hall
Artists: Dénes Farkas, Tõnis Saadoja, Jevgeni Zolotko, Hans Prinzhorn Collection (Franz Karl Bühler, August Natterer, Adolf Schudel, Friedrich Bedürftig, Josef Forster, Emma Hauck, Franz Joseph Kleber, Johann Knopf, Heinrich Hermann Mebes)
Curator: Tamara Luuk



"Erst wenn die Wolken schlafen gehen,
kann man uns am Himmel sehen.
Wir haben Angst und sind allein,
Gott weiß, ich will kein Engel sein."*
Rammstein, "Engel" (1997)


First, I became particularly aware of the title of this exhibition. On the one hand, it serves as a ceremonial introduction, a bit like "once upon a time" in fairy tales. At the same time, it is clearly formulated as an appeal. And when you think about it, not many art exhibition titles act as appeals. Or book titles for that matter, let alone titles of musical compositions… But what is curator Tamara Luuk's "May You be Loved and Protected" aiming at? Who is being addressed here? Is it the artists or perhaps the works? And are Dénes Farkas, Tõnis Saadoja and Jevgeni Zolotko, along with the Prinzhorn artists exhibited alongside them in the Tallinn Art Hall, the subjects or objects of this appeal? Or are we dealing here with a general concern in the broadest sense, one that finds itself in empathy, in an openness towards the Other, a willingness to coexist with the intricate and complex – in all that good art can take us to?

Of course, something as rare as this can only happen through the sharpening of the viewer's perception of nuance, through the binding of their personal memory with the products of the artists' imagination, through individual courage to move into uncertainty through text. This process, difficult as it is to articulate, is only possible if the work succeeds in stopping the viewer's personal time, if even for only a moment. But what is specific about the material which addresses us in this exhibition? Is it humanity, consciousness, community, the image, the archive, the continuation of nature, or intellectual heritage that we are urged to protect here?

The mental point of departure for this exhibition is the art collection of Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933), or rather some of the works in this collection, acting as catalysts. The collection was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by Professor Karl Wilmanns and his assistant Hans Prinzhorn at the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, with the primary purpose of exploring the perspectives of those affected by mental disorders as well as liberating their self-expression from demonising stigmas. "[I]t is time to acknowledge the existence of a distinct component of creativity that allows us to see the value of a work of art in and of itself, even if it was created by a schizophrenic," Prinzhorn himself has written.1

However, the numerous spores of influence the collection has spread across art history have been a rather surprising bonus track. The Prinzhorn Collection originally consisted of about 6,000 works of art collected from various psychiatric hospitals around the Weimar Republic – mainly small-scale drawings, but also watercolour and oil paintings and even some sculptures. At the beginning of the 20th century, this kind of artwork first attracted clinical and soon also wider aesthetic notice, largely fuelled by the constant excitement surrounding psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) strong view that psychopathologies also manifest in the self-expression of "normal people". At the time, various German hospitals had already slowly started to store artworks made by mental health patients, so the founders of the collection had truly struck a nerve of the era, so to speak.

The book "Artistry of the Mentally Ill: a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration" (Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung), which was published by the active psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn in 1922, has acquired great significance in the history of modernism. It is considered a classic. The book highlights and explores the earliest stratum of the collection. These creators were not yet exposed to the waves of cultural fetishism during their lifetime; waves which first arose with surrealism and later namely with Art Brut and neo-expressionism, and through the writings of Ronald David Laing (1927–1989) and Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992) extended their reach to postmodern cultural consciousness. Back then, there was no talk of the special ability of those with autism to communicate in the language of visual imagery. The feedback flow of the art world had not yet directed their convention-defying style into the clichés of outsider art. The mass referral of patients to art therapy sessions was still a distant speck on the horizon.

This marked the beginning of the long-standing flirtation modern art has had with the "afflicted". These works only served to compose their stories as plainly as possible in order to convey the authors' fantasies, desires, beliefs and obsessions in a generalisable way, at times even expressed in graphs, or in monumental scripts consisting of endless repetitions. In this respect, one of the most famous works of the collection stands out – Josef Forster's "Self-Portrait (Man Without Gravity, Man on Stilts)" (1916–1921), which shows the author hovering over the barren terrain as if in an act of defiance against gravity, a force inherent to the physical world, and thus against causality and the loss of meaning. The figure is fragile, yet desperate and saturated with supernatural pretensions. (Its transcendental aspirations are directly opposed by Jacob's ladder, lain in the room and torn down by Jevgeni Zolotko, yet still managing to hold together).

By the way, the Prinzhorn Collection was used not only by modernists, but also by the Nazis, who tried to employ these works as proof of the pathological nature of all "degenerate" modern art. For a while after the Second World War, the collection was forgotten about and left to gather dust in the clinic's attic. One of the people to rediscover it was the legendary curator Harald Szeemann (1933–2005), who based an exhibition on it at the Bern Art Hall in Switzerland in 1963. A decade later, a thorough cataloguing and restoring of all that remained from the original collection was undertaken. Since 2001, the Prinzhorn Collection has been permanently open to the public in a former building of the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic. The collection of more than 20,000 artefacts is still actively upgraded and lectures and exhibitions are organised based on its contents. And now an impulse originating from this influential collection has momentarily crossed into the mainstream of Estonian art life…

 

*

 

All this should be "blamed" on the curator of the exhibition, Tamara Luuk, who, incidentally, has long been interested in the artwork of people with mental disorders. During the depths of the occupation, this matter was surrounded by an air of danger and tied to anti-establishment views – after all, the dissident was often equated with the schizophrenic, and psychiatry had a severe and as yet still unatoned complicity as an enforcer of repression under the Soviet regime. The relationship between mental disorders and creativity was so intriguing for Luuk that she spent some time as a volunteer at a psychiatric clinic during her studies at the University of Tartu. During this time, she probably also first came into contact with images of the collection, as some of Hans Prinzhorn's books – though held in restricted sections that were difficult to access – were still available in libraries during the Soviet era. Incidentally, a new best-of version in English, a so-called popular edition published in 2011, has recently been added to the original German volumes, which shows the topic continues to attract interest.

Luuk's interest as an art historian became even more pronounced after visiting a major exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection in Belgium in 1995. At the latest since then, the impulse has been waiting for realisation, for a trigger. It is then worth asking, what was it that activated the Prinzhorn Archive for the curator right at this time? The reasons are global and societal. Firstly, the atmosphere of alienation has drastically intensified over the last decade, both on social media and on the news media trudging in its tracks. There has been a frightening erosion of mutual respect in public parlance. From here, it is only a few steps to pointing a scornful finger at someone because they are different. The spell of hate speech leaking from social media into politics and from there back into social media, and the deeply divisive contrasts à la us-versus-them are proliferating more and more uncontrollably, feeding the powerful waves of populist politics. Little by little, calls for a more closed society are being normalised – and these cannot be explained merely by the effects of a rampant coronavirus. In turn, this situation fuels the already endemic spread of psychological afflictions and drives the "fear of the eternal indeterminacy of being human" to grow into hopelessness, as expounded by the curator in an existentialist tone. The appeal is then, in fact, a cry for help; and the exhibition an attempt to seek protection for fragility in an act of solidarity between three acclaimed Estonian contemporary artists and the marginalised.

 

*

 

The nine iconic works from the Prinzhorn Collection, which have been magnified in lightboxes for the exhibition in a dialogue with the works of local artists, were selected collaboratively by Dénes Farkas and Tamara Luuk. One of my favourites, "Come! (Letter to Husband)" (1909) by Emma Hauck is, just like the exhibition itself, unusually titled with a direct appeal. It is one of the many unsent letters the woman wrote to her husband, asking him to come get her from the hospital. Doesn't the ritual magic of obsessive writing – that, in its repetitive and cumulative conjuring, forms graphic structures – share a certain commonality with the self-expression of tribal peoples, where only artefacts operating in a productive syncretistic relationship with the religious consciousness attribute the same kind of causal force to ritual repetition? It is then a prayer in visual form or, if you prefer a more modern expression, an act of suggestion. Prinzhorn, who first described these letters as "scribbles" in his writings, later concludes that given their orderliness and symmetry, they can be classified as "decorative-ornamental" scripts.

 

*

 

Out of the three main artists involved in the exhibition, the curator's appeal ╩║May You Be Loved and Protected╩║ most clearly resonates with Jevgeni Zolotko, his creed being that his point of departure as an artist is to always stand up for those less fortunate. With Zolotko – at least more evidently than with the selection of themes by Saadoja or Farkas – the coincidental position of an individual in the field of social activity continues to come to the fore. And beyond it echoes a barely audible yet uninterrupted "endless background beat" of fundamental texts (in this case the Old Testament), ever imparting new attempts to make sense of being human and our essential life choices. "This creates a rather direct connection with the Prinzhorn artists, for whom religion was an integral part of life, guilt and hope," the curator notes.2

However, Zolotko's assertion that he is primarily interested in the "dry residue of being" makes it possible to find clear parallels with the modus operandi of Saadoja. Yet all three are rather hermetic creative personalities who put their work through a long and thorough process of crystallisation, leading us to a concentrated focal point, which, however, can often be moved to the edge of intelligibility. And so the intimate still-lifeness of the desks photographed by Farkas, saturated with meaning, contrasts with his magnificent views of Svalbard. The call for ecosystem conservation dormant in the latter does not communicate to the viewer explicitly, but requires prior acquaintance with the artist's work or at least existing knowledge that the photos of Svalbard act as a representation of the Norwegian seed bank constructed in the uninhabited mountain territory to guarantee the survival of vegetation. However, once this connection is recognised, the plants on Farkas' desktop also take on a new, hopeful meaning. Both Farkas and Saadoja can notionally be called magical perfectionists. But they have all developed their meaning schemes for a relatively satiated audience who are so used to seeing good art that they are not easily enthralled. They are artists who tend to raise the stakes.

What are the differences? In his installations, Zolotko illuminates the traumatic aspirations of the common person, Farkas constructs his own space of individual creativity in the intertwining of borrowed texts and schematic spaces in his lightboxes, and Saadoja, focusing strictly on the artistic means of painting, struggles with stubborn consistency against the devaluing of images. It is thus worth remembering that a certain visual asceticism that unites these three very different artists is intended as a countermeasure to the carcinogenic proliferation of images in today's world – the scarcity of resources reflects the artists' willingness to venture into the margins of conventional meanings. As such, all of them deal closely with the fragility of the space of meaning, which is also the leitmotif for artists with mental disorders. The connection is fragile, but it is there.

 

 

Tõnis Saadoja
September. Warm Pink
2020
oil on canvas, 248 x 176 cm
Tallinn Art Hall exhibition view
Photographer Paul Kuimet
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

When Tõnis Saadoja claims to have spent a seventeen-day painting session on one of the works in the series "Architectural Photography with a Little Boy: Oil Paintings on Canvas" (2013), the dedication to labour hidden behind the perfect surface of the image holds the key that allows us to extract a more general truth about the nature of visual images than from the intimate but banal scene originally documented on the Polaroid. "The problem with "our cognitive filters" arises in most of Saadoja's paintings: the difference between the camera and the eye, between the two-dimensionality of flat paper and paint-covered canvas, their comparability and incomparability" – this is how Tamara Luuk sums up the artist's project. In Saadoja's latest series of paintings – massive cover-up images reduced to dull greens, dove greys and ochres – our eyes are offered a kind of image magic reminiscent of the processing of analogue photographs in chemical baths. "I have waited in the hellish glow of a darkroom and watched over a shoulder as a special pair of hands performed witchcraft above the murky liquid. The point at which the picture first emerged, that brink of development, fascinated me even more than the shoulder and the hands"3, the writer Emil Tode has gracefully rendered the analogue of the imagerial state captured by Saadoja.

The boy depicted in "Architectural Photography…", on the other hand, whose obvious subjection to the surrounding environment again brings thoughts of care and protection to mind; who is surrounded by houses that should provide security yet do not, unexpectedly reaches out to the boy in the Zolotko video installation "Base (I)" (2016), which has taken over the space of the apse of Tallinn Art Hall. In the video, the helpless, desperate distress of the other little boy, in dialogue with the drunken maundering of his father, acquires its cultural context from the hollow wooden backdrop – the iconostasis of the Orthodox church, stripped bare of the glorious golden aureole of its icons. The theme of care and protection, however, contrary to the manifestation of the forces threatening it, appears in the figure of a house in the new works of both Saadoja and Farkas, independently of one another and without any preconditioning. This shows that the curator, who also sometimes works on the fringes of perceptibility, must, among other things, be lucky.

 

*

 

To conclude, let me circle back to the beginning. I noticed that the title "May You Be Loved and Protected" has a productive etymological connection with the title of curator. This word is after all derived from the Church Latin curare – to care, to take care of, to keep. And while the word "curator" was originally used to refer to museum archivists with their preservation-specific material-technical tasks, it was soon after, when the curator became an orchestrator of art exhibitions who contributes to new connections in the constellations of works, that she also became the custodian of meanings. As such, this appeal is – perhaps even first and foremost – a reminder to the curator herself.

 

* Only when the clouds go to sleep / can you see us in the sky. / We are afraid and alone, / God knows I don't want to be an angel. – Trans.

1 Brochure and digital guide of the exhibition "May You Be Loved and Protected".

2 Ibid.

3 Emil Tode, Border State. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000, p 1.

 

Hanno Soans is a freelance artist, art critic, translator, curator, lecturer and doctoral student at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

 

Quote corner:

"Estonia is one of the countries that has not yet exhibited the famous art collection of the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, which includes 27,000 works: drawings, paintings, collages and handcrafted items from non-normative individuals who have not fitted into social conventions. Works by "outsiders" from the end of the 19th century to the present, gathered in the collection named after psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, testifies to the complicated relationship between the society's notion of freedom and that of the individual." (Source: Tallinn Art Hall)

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