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Flaming Shadows

Kadri Veermäe (4/2015)

Kadri Veermäe looks at Tarvo Hanno Varres and Kirke Kangro’s joint exhibition.



26. IX–18. X 2015
Tartu Art House


The artistic intentions behind the exhibition "Shadow of a Flame" by Tarvo Hanno Varres and Kirke Kangro have been clearly unpacked by Hanno Soans in the accompanying booklet and I have to admit, it is quite difficult to move outside the framework he has laid down. Nevertheless, in the following review I will try not to mention Gaston Bachelard or Marina Abramović and find another way to approach the show.

In "Shadow of a Flame", of the two artists, it is Varres who seems to have reached a certain kind of perfection; many of the themes he has previously worked with having found here a complete form. His approach is longingly poetic, yet without sentimentality, but nothing is fully reachable: those whose steps are reflected on the floor may already be somewhere further away, the plastic form of the human face reflects everything except for true feelings, the lighting of a candle is reduced to a wilted grey flicker on the wall. This becomes especially clear when it comes to the subjects Varres has been capturing for some time already – corners. The series of corners of Estonian streets, buildings and rooms, even though depicted in portrait format and laced with an obvious subjective character, (exhibited in 2012 at Y-gallery as part of the show "Nostalgiat kollektsioneerides" (Collecting Nostalgia), for example) still left an positive impression. The clinical and consistent typologies it presented would probably even please maybe one of the most famous cataloguists Bernd and Hilla Becher. Documenting tirelessly and without emotion, the Bechers photographed water towers, gas holders, blast furnaces – the physical manifestations of the industrial structure of western Europe – but if we look at it more critically, it can be said they are also responsible for the fact that this approach has since then comfortably and without much critique found a place in the conventional paradigm of photography.

Varres has distanced himself from a familiar environment and changed formats, which contributed to a clear shift in the impact of the series – a hasty viewer may glide over the corners from Tallinn, but get stuck on the corners from Brussels. The reason may be in the increased detail, although this does not fully explain why most of the critics who have written about this exhibition have, at some point, wandered off into metaphysical contemplations on the nature of things. A certain sense of wonder seems to characterise Varres as well; for example, it took me a while before I understood the oxymoronic nature he had attributed to the shadow of flame (although a cynic would still say, it is about the relationship between things, not about the things themselves).

If we want to draw some parallels with Varres' photographic series "Kättesaamatu mälestus (Brüsseli nurgad)" (Unavailable Memory (The Corners of Brussels), 2014–...), the closest counterpart can be found in literature, because unlike the Bechers, whose catalogues are rather lifeless (to be fair, it is hard to make a series like these attractive – the human brain loves novelty), there is a writer who creates them in a soulful way, the Frenchman Georges Perec. He entertains (or afflicts) the reader with endless lists and notes on what he ate, what words he used in a book, what objects are in his flat, what is happening on the street, what the street is like, etc. There is an inexhaustible amount of things that can be listed, just like a person will always have countless corners to photograph; the list is complete with the presence of a sense of absence – there is always something missing. Perec said he wants to describe what normally goes unnoticed, what does not catch the eye, that has no importance; what is going on and what is not – and even the most profane moment acquires meaning through the words dedicated to it. And by paying attention to it Varres also makes a moment and a place meaningful, but not familiar, as the corners of Brussels reveal they are completely unknown and anonymous, to the author himself as well. The title of the work, "Unavailable Memory" can be read poetically, or at face value – the scenes of Brussels reflect someone else's memories; however, for the artist what has become a memory, is his photograph of that place, which, without having anything to anchor to, will never be anything more that an isolated (yet ambivalent) memory.

Having seen that, exhibiting the works of Tarvo Hanno Varres and Kirke Kangro together seems like a natural choice – their relatively different approaches complement each other. And there are some very clear, shared traits. The corners reflect the person, as did Kangro's 2011 exhibition "Toad" (Rooms) in the Large Gallery at the Tartu Art House. Varres leaves people out of his photographs, Kangro does the exact opposite and presents them in an active relationship to their environment, but the fact that the city, streets and apartments are also shaped by someone, is obvious without their clear presence.

Knowing Kangro's previous works, this time she surprises the viewer with unexpected bluntness: even though the artist spent the entire duration of the opening hours of the exhibition behind a white curtain with her small child, it is one of her more accessible works (where strangers are allowed to approach intimate proximity). Based on Kangro's earlier works it can be said that the artist never hands anything over to the viewer just like that and in their entirety, they are only comprehensible to her. "The exhibition" does not show much, it leaves much to be sensed. Unlike Varres, who gives the viewers a few pointers and a general tone, Kangro leaves everything to the viewer and their reaction – the artist is both hidden and trapped behind the curtain, and it must not be very pleasant to put yourself in such a vulnerable position. At the same time, it is one of the most immediate ways of observing reactions to the artwork. The viewer does not feel so much voyeuristic as missing out – there is something happening that the viewer has been denied access to already before entering the exhibition hall. Maybe not having a "gallery guard" at the exhibition would have allowed for a more dynamic exploration of boarders, but it simultaneously made it clear that the lines have been drawn somewhere after all.

Even though the spatial division in "Shadow of a Flame" was strongly skewed towards Varres – just like this review that unintentionally also mimics this relation in text – Varres and Kangro made up a well-functioning and equal duo; it is definitely one of the best exhibitions of this year in Estonia.


Kadri Veermäe has written art criticism since 2010. She works as a journalist at the newspaper Postimees.



Tarvo Hanno Varres
Unavailable Memory (The Corners of Brussels)
photo series, 140 x 100 cm
Courtesy of the artist

Photo by Paul Kuimet

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