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FLASHBACK: "Pets are sometimes cherished more than close friends or family; they often replace a child. They are depicted a lot, all too often commercially." – Mai Levin "Cats and dogs in Estonian art" (KUNST.EE 1/2021)

 

Silver Vahtre’s theatrum mundi

Harry Liivrand (1/2021)

Harry Liivrand looks at Silver Vahtre's collage exhibition "Room of Living".



12. II–3. III 2021
Vabaduse Gallery


In his critical view of Estonian society, Vahtre interprets, reproduces and is inspired by the famous collage "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" (1956) by Richard Hamilton, the godfather of pop art. Using the same technique of photo collage as his famous colleague well over half a century ago, he reproduces the work using contemporary technology – a silver-gloss aluminium composite with a rough unpolished texture that adds a sense of three-dimensionality to the print.

This, of course, is only the formal side of it all: while the method is the same, Vahtre looks at many more themes and his approach is no longer only site-specifically ironic but loaded with global political meanings. It seems Vahtre's goal is to address the whole of human activity in its inexhaustible diversity and contradiction and do so purposefully – as a thought-provoking chronicler of history, like John Heartfield. To tradition he prefers the non-traditional; to the conceptual, reality. He does not hint but points, gives meanings and creates new semantic fields of interpretation, resulting in a kaleidoscopic simulacrum.

At first glance, the series "Room of Living" (2019–2020) feels as if files in an old computer had crashed, producing a mix of chaos and specific images, like in a restless dream. Using portraits of famous people, online stock photos, advertising texts, quotes and reproductions of the classics of art history, Vahtre develops an extensive and grand thematic project with the potential to continue for a long time, just like Olev Soans' maps of Estonian cultural history.

 

 

 

Silver Vahtre
Room of Living
2019–2020
collage, digital print
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

The artist's ethical perspective stems from a mythology of the self with an incredibly high concentration of information – Silver Vahtre's theatrum mundi – a conceptually vast, critical and ironic theatre of the world, based on allegory and metaphorical schemes and an artistic position that still values aesthetic joy without the fear of seeming old fashioned next to the surrounding engaged art movements. However, when we look at the artist's works from the 1970s and 1980s, we can clearly see that Vahtre is still working in the technique he fell in love with early in his career, supplementing it with a more complex structure and current content. Already his first more experimental compositions from the late 1970s were notable for their surreal compositions and dream-like self-portraits.

In the last quarter of the century, Vahtre has become the leading collage master in Estonia, who knows how to concentrate his message and take a political stand behind a visage of beauty. By the way, self-deprecation is still very much present in his new works, just like the works' staged set-up and clearly delineated space, which is not surprising, considering Vahtre was educated as a designer and has worked as a film and theatre artist for a long time. He works out his compositions to the smallest detail; its various parts are harmoniously balanced, revealing that the artist has received a classical art education. It seems to me that Vahtre's skill as a collage artist is also evident both in his contributions as a member of the city design group in the 1980s and in his later stage design projects. For example, when I think of his scenography work for the play "Colour of Freedom" based on Mati Unt's 1969 short story "Murder in a Hotel" at Endla Theatre in Pärnu in 2005, I remember this production as particularly weak, but the set design and costumes were a great example of 1960s style.

Silver Vahtre's private space or the room of his own is not – contrary to expectations – protected from external irritants. It is penetrated by voices of politicians, colleagues, actors, architects and other professionals, ominous shadows from the past, populist oracles of today that all make up a cacophonous ensemble, where each complements and amplifies the other. In the post-truth world, it is no longer clear what is good or bad, what is global or local. In one of Vahtre's figure-laden collages, we see Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, Kersti Kaljulaid, Vladimir Putin, Greta Thunberg and a robot dog, with a reproduction of Hamilton's famous collage in the background. In another work we see tiny figures of Estonian politicians and political commentators like Kaja Kallas, Ahto Lobjakas, Kristina Kallas, Jevgeni Ossinovski playing in a sandbox around a giant baby with Jürgen Ligi and Mikk Pärnits in women's clothing in the background. Everyone, as we often say today, can draw their own conclusions.

In the third case, a medical worker with a syringe, played by the designer Taimi Soo, unequivocally points to the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic among the generation the artist belongs to, to our fears in this specific moment in time. The work "Yggdrasil" (2020–2021) depicts the mythical tree of the world and highlights the image of a panda bear, easily recognisable as a reference to China, a "pillar" of today's pandemic. In the fourth image, young actors rehearse their parts; the fifth, it seems, is a homage to the artist's mentors Kaljo Põllu, Leonhard Lapin and Tõnis Vint; the sixth makes the viewer face a discussion of an art exhibition, the image is full of critics and artists, hermaphrodite graces etc.

It is clear that Vahtre is constructing Estonian identity of the first quarter of the 21st century. In the age of freedom, the availability and high speed of information, Estonia is not a remote island but a full-blooded participant on the stage of the theatre of the world, trying to piece together a fully-rendered image, yet still breaking into fragments in the beauty and pain of the game – this is the moral and satire of Vahtre's story.


Harry Liivrand is an art historian, curator and music critic, working at the Tallinn University Academic Library.

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