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Relapse into the matrix

Neeme Lopp (3/2020)

The end of a trilogy*: Neeme Lopp writes about Mihkel Ilus and Paul Kuimet’s joint exhibition in Tallinn Art Hall.


7. III–31. V 2020
Tallinn Art Hall
Curator: Siim Preiman

Mihkel Ilus and Paul Kuimet's joint exhibition "Endless Story" opened in Tallinn Art Hall just four days before all museums were closed due to the first wave of the coronavirus in March 2020.2 The story did have an end, though, a happy one, as the show reopened for three weeks in May. As a metaphor, the complete cancellation of the exhibition might have been even more powerful, but it's a good thing the public got a chance to experience the concept in the exhibition space. Still, even the temporary closure of the exhibition and the uncertainty about its continuation took on metaphorical dimensions, highlighting the infrastructural setting in which exhibitions usually take place: the space, the museum and, finally, the political decisions that affect museums.

The pandemic, however, was a coincidence the authors could hardly have planned for. The exhibition is reported to have been over two years in preparation, and considering the creative practice of both artists, for much longer. To be honest, the two parties do not really come together in the exhibition, each mostly moving according to its own logic, without looking for contact with the other; so I will approach them from the one angle that articulates a clear conceptual link between the two and makes the metaphor of closure work in the first place. Both Ilus and Kuimet deal with infrastructural issues in their artistic practices, and this aspect took on an unexpectedly general meaning in this unprecedented context of re-emphasised social infrastructures.



Mihkel Ilus and Paul Kuimet
"Endless Story" (7. III–31. V 2020)
Joint exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall
Photos by Paul Kuimet





Mihkel Ilus deals with all the prerequisites for a traditional work of painting that are not themselves considered part of art: frames, easels, brushes, the flax used for canvases – all the way down to the conference table, an ironic embodiment of the symbolic ground zero where new ideas are conceived (considering how far removed the results of an actual brainstorming session tend to be from the Idea of Art). On the face of it, then, this looks like your run-of-the-mill critique of the medium, but Ilus' approach moves beyond that. In fact, he uses the critique of the medium to create a new social relationship between the artist, the creative process and the work.

Work is part of the social order of activities. We all work. The artist also has a place in this order or at least is visible in it to some extent. The position of creation is the most dubious, especially as work and creation coincide in the artist. So, when Ilus makes an installation ("He Won't Be a Real Person Anyway", 2020) of dried flax, the raw material for canvases, he has grown the flax himself. When we see a bulky paintbrush, it is the one used for the only painted wall in the exhibition.

In short, Ilus shifts our perspective on where we see the creation (painting) and the work surrounding it: who does it, where, when and by what means. He highlights the work, while pushing what is traditionally understood as creation behind the scenes, or right into the scenery, to be precise; he draws a veil from the illusion of art, caricaturing the social perception of the position and role of art as a "factory of illusions" designed to work as a social frame of reference, a backdrop, with the forestage occupied by dreams of the "Estonian Nokia" or our very own "totem of economic success", a metaphor used in one of the videos accompanying Ilus' exhibition.

Perhaps the most symbolically charged in this respect is Ilus' largest installation – a Ferris wheel made of painting instruments, extending diagonally across the back of the large hall at Tallinn Art Hall (titled "The City of Gradov" (2020) a short story by Platonov). The makeshift wheel looks so fragile that you expect it to collapse the first chance it gets, like the shattered social illusions surrounding the Ferris wheel. The first great wheel, the original Ferris Wheel, was erected for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893; with its 36 cars allegedly accommodating 2,160 people, it must have offered an unprecedented perceptual experience and its utopian symbolism was to do with elevating the human being to previously unseen heights.

Compare it with the tiny Skywheel hoisted on top of the T1 Mall of Tallinn, which offers a perspective on nothing more than its own inconsequence and the immediate cityscape, much of which is occupied by the Ülemiste goods station and the sprawling roof surfaces of the Ülemiste shopping centre, and has the utopian potential of a Tallink ferry trip to Finland. Ilus' material of choice being wood with all its natural character, I cannot help but be reminded of a thought attributed to Immanuel Kant – that nothing straight could ever be made from the crooked timber of humanity.

And this brings us to Paul Kuimet, who focuses on glass and metal structures in his choice of objects, rather than wood. Materials that persist rather than surrender.




But first, let's look at the infrastructural level of Kuimet's selection of objects. When Kuimet photographs architecture, he is not interested in the end result, but rather a kind of ground zero of architecture. For an architect, this could be a sketch or a drawing, but for a person experiencing architecture in the street, this will be a construction site and scaffolding. Construction waste and scaffolding, all sorts of irrelevant stuff for the user makes up the essence of construction; although discarded as a temporary departure from the social perception of the City, it is our first encounter with a new spatial experience.

We only need to think about our actual experience of a big city to remember the ubiquitous construction hoardings, guiding pedestrians onto the road, around scaffolding, through scaffolding. Kuimet's photography brings this infrastructure to life and presents it to us, making the photographic medium itself play a meaningful role here: clearly referencing three-dimensional structures (scaffolding, twisted perforated sheet metal, etc.) that actualise issues related to the two-dimensional nature of photography. In this way, his photographs also enforce their meaning through form, referring to the material boundaries of photographic practice itself, the materiality of infrastructures, which is not always noticed.

The differences between analogue and digital processes are not particularly significant with this project. Rather than being interested in technology here, Kuimet is playing on a theoretical level. His practice points to the tension between materialism (which merely claims that every existing thing has a material base) and historical materialism (which stipulates the historical justification of these material conditions), to their irreducibility to one another.

Historical materialism gives a rational, idealised meaning to reality, but this is always accompanied by some material surplus that does not yield, but instead resists and remains. In today's world, every representation carries with it such huge informational baggage that even if we reduce this set of information to a tiny detail, all these possible contexts still come with it. But even so, a certain impenetrability remains, which we associate with the silent materiality of the natural world. Therefore, if we want to talk about the one (history, society, capitalism, etc.), we must always take into account the existence and counterplay of the other (dense materiality). And the other way around.

Which in turn brings me to my next question. What happens when Kuimet captures natural objects?




In "Endless Story", we see a collage of fragmented images of palm leaves in the Tallinn botanical garden. The key to this approach is a reference to the Crystal Palace, erected on the grounds of the Great Exhibition in London (another World's Fair!) in 1851, which was used to exhibit the great technological achievements of the day and was a kind of starting point for the architectural utopia of glass and metal (a hint in this direction is provided by the film collage "Material Aspects" (2020) shown in the previous exhibition space).

In this light, the collage of palm leaves no longer appears merely as a graphic design aesthetic articulating the surface of the prints, but as a glimpse through this crystal grillwork symbolising the capitalist dream. In other words, it is a glimpse into how an ideology looks at nature, while still showing the simplicity of the leaves themselves, unaware of the existence of any ideology. That is to say, we are once again, and even more distinctly, faced with the tension between historical materialism (represented here by the collage-like gaze) and materialism (the leaf fragments themselves).

But perhaps the question of ideological gaze is brought into focus with the most crystalline clarity in the installational space set up inside the Tallinn Art Hall's large hall (with the Ferris wheel by Ilus projecting from the other end); the "windows" to this space are Kuimet's photographs of palm leaves, this time unfragmented, beautifully intact (a mirage), with the illumination of the photographs largely depending on the natural light in the hall surrounding the space.

For decades, the light box has been a central medium in photography; with light radiating from the inside out, it represents an authoritarian regime of meaning. In the installation by Kuimet, however, it is as if the viewers themselves are placed inside the light box, beyond ideological determination, and how much they can see now depends on the contingency of external light, rather than the certainty of a regime. This kind of reversal points to the possibility of escaping representation and entering a space of pure presentation, where matter itself, rather than the artist's intention (here embodied by the contingency of light), asserts itself. This topic could certainly be taken further in much more detail.




Escaping representation and betting on contingency also brings to mind an earlier work by Mihkel Ilus, known as his wood grain series. With the abandonment of figurative depiction and the triumph of conceptualism during the 20th century, painting was perhaps the one area hit hardest by an identity crisis. After all, painting had historically relied the most on the visible experience of beauty involved in visual art.

So, the first response was to turn away from this to non-figurative painting and the characteristics of the medium – colour and texture. The interpreters of art even reached out to the unrepresentable, seeing colour field painting as a vehicle for sublime objects (as did Jean-François Lyotard). But beyond that, when even that exhausts itself for us? Where to next? Into meaninglessness, into the night, into the void? In the wood grain series by Ilus, it is this cul-de-sac of representation that becomes the central problem (perhaps without the author's knowledge), ironically presenting something that has no independent reality (unlike an abstract painting, it does depict something) but at the same time does not represent the depicted object; instead, it replaces the object. Let me explain.

There has been a lot of talk about adding value to wood in Estonia in recent years. A tree growing in a forest is only potentially worth something; in order to extract that value from it, some value must be added. Generally, this requires felling the tree, although there are some more marginal alternatives (e.g. a tree growing in a designated protected area acquires a certain value). Paintings also have value (which ranges between the negligible and the infinite). So, when painting something that otherwise has no value, it acquires at least some value in the painting, as Leon Battista Alberti realised as early as the 15th century. The essence of Ilus' approach, however, was that he seemingly added nothing to the natural pattern of the wood grain; he painted an exact equivalent. What is more, in order to escape artistic intention and achieve a wood grain as close as possible to "nature's own writing", Ilus used a graining comb – on the one hand an old Baltic-German technique for adding value to wood, but on the other hand a way of shifting the blame of representation away from the artist.

The hand and the eye might be too deliberating; nature's own technique is needed. In this way, the result does not represent wood, but replaces it with an independent object, which is still caused by the wood. This is painting as perverted photography, which attempts to capture an image without the intervention of the artist, a virtual duplicate of wood, with the added value of a painting.

The French philosopher Paul Virilio criticised the contemporary visual regime for being dominated by the optically correct.3 Not correct in the sense of how things ought to look (socially accepted visual norms and ready-made models that is constantly circulated by the media (including social media) and then followed by people), but correct in the sense that the televisual, lens-based mode of representation leaves no room for optically different ways of seeing, causing these to lose all relevance. The fight has been lost, end of story. In this order of the optically correct, there is no place for illusion; it takes us to a completely objective world, which is a realised reality that cannot be given any meaning because there is no distance left between reality and representation.

The wood grain challenges such an optically correct order by presenting meaning through an entirely "objective" form in which, paradoxically, nothing is correct. It is precisely the way these works abstain from representation, while at the same time depicting something one-to-one, that makes them exciting for me.




Very well, let's go back to "Endless Story".

While the optically correct order strips reality of any illusion, "Endless Story" shows what happens when illusions are removed from art and depiction, leaving nothing but infrastructures. Does this cause depiction to lose all relevance as well? Or does removing the illusory of art reveal something important?

When the illusory is removed from reality, what remains is the pure Real, meaningless reality. When art is stripped of all illusion, it generally becomes either an object of utility or waste material. The apologists of the art conspiracy (a book by Jean Baudrillard on this was just published in Estonian) would definitely find material to reinforce their argument in this exhibition. It is cold, analytical material that seems to be governed more by the laws of physics than aesthetics.

But the case of "Endless Story" doesn't seem to be as simple as that. As we saw with the earlier example of the wood grain by Ilus, there is a double-dealing with representation going on here. The works on display here do not seek to be literally "what they really are", to assert their meaningless material being (the ideal of minimalism), to be merely self-referential; instead, through this, they paradoxically point to structures outside the art venue.

In this respect, a large wooden installation hanging right above the entrance to the exhibition is significant; with its massive physicality and breaking points (what force!), it makes gravity almost tangible, but on the other hand, it immediately alludes to social restrictions ("Do not climb!"), which render gravity irrelevant. It is therefore an effacement of representation and demythologisation of the material – not to show its inconsequentiality, but to point out the inflexibility of the social matrix.

During the pandemic, social structures exhibited surprising elasticity; but when reading an online news headline "Skywheel of Tallinn reopens!" on 22 May 2020, by which time "Endless Story" had also reopened, I sensed how we were falling back into the matrix where everything tends to take the shape of that Ferris wheel. The art practices of Ilus and Kuimet, for which the Tallinn Art Hall exhibition was obviously just one output, nevertheless puts up some resistance to this relapse, to this socially correct logic. According to Hito Steyerl, this is exactly what constitutes the most urgent task for art in our (economically dominated) post-democratic age.4 So, the end of the story is again pushed back, if only a little.


* The previous two articles of this trilogy (on Jass Kaselaan in connection with the series of exhibitions "Artists in Collections" curated by Maarin Ektermann and on Tanja Muravskaja in connection with the exhibition "Garden Exile" curated by Elnara Taidre in Kumu) appeared in issues 2019/3 and 2020/1 of KUNST.EE, respectively.

2 Yes, even museums were closed (although they could have easily followed the "sacred" two-metre distancing rule), while bars and DIY centres, for example, remained open.

3 The resulting situation in art is what he calls the catastrophe or accident of art. For more details, see Sylvère Lotringer, Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005.

4 See: Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy. – The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012, pp 92–101.


Neeme Lopp is a publisher and lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Arts as well as an art observer.

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