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Toomas Volkmann's visual statements

Krista Kodres (1/2024)

Krista Kodres


SUMMARY


The distinction between a photographic image as opposed to a painting or print lies, of course, in its inherent potential to establish a sense of reality, among other things. The strong illusion of reality imbues a photograph with a unique quality that other forms of representation lack. Yet, in most other aspects, the process of creating a photograph mirrors that of other visual mediums. The photographer selects their subject and objects, arranges compositions, manipulates light and colour, and then captures the moment, continuing the creative process by post-processing the developed image. Finally, if the artist so desires, the artwork finds its way into galleries or museums.

The exhibition "pastful blast" at Fotografiska Tallinn brought together Toomas Volkmann's multifaceted oeuvre, presenting not only his artistic works but also fashion and commercial photography, along with documentary snapshots. Through over 200 images, the exhibition presented a comprehensive exploration of the possibilities within visual culture. For me, the exhibition provided a great opportunity to contemplate photography as a cultural phenomenon, its position and agency within society, while also reflecting on the emergence of photography as "art" in Estonia during the 1990s.

Toomas Volkmann's images are visually striking and conceptually forthright. The iconographic choices made by the artist offer initial insights into the messages conveyed by his images: who or what is depicted, and with what attributes. Recurring motifs in Volkmann's works include faces, nude figures, vamps, femmes fatales, gays, drag queens, artists, children, older people, trees and natural landscapes. Among the recurring attributes, which sometimes stand independently as motifs, are crosses, angels, pomegranates, calla lilies, tulips, knives, bandages, hair, blood and cigarettes.

Central to the exhibition was the narrative crafted by the artist and co-curators Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan and Tanel Veenre, which unfolded through the spatial sequences set up at Fotografiska. Following a curated path, visitors were led through a visual journey of diverse human lives, beginning with the artist's quest for identity in the 1990s (including "Self-Portrait with Calla Lilies", 1991) and progressing to portrayals of the intricacies, complexities and contradictions of life and the world, culminating in the recognition that both decline and the cyclical nature of life are inevitable.

The creation of meaning in Volkmann's imagery can also be understood from a different perspective, not ignoring the time in which they were captured but emphasising the significance of this aspect. The curators of "pastful blast" underscore the 1990s, presenting a curated selection of international events related to photography, music and fashion on a large introductory panel. The extensive list begins with the founding of the photography group "Forever Yours" (Igavesti sinu) by Peeter Laurits, Herkki-Erich Merila, Toomas Kalve, Toomas Kaasik, Jaan Kadarik and Toomas Volkmann in 1990.

Fortunately, the exhibition provided insight into the years that each photograph was created, offering an opportunity to view the images as products of their time, as interpretations of the zeitgeist, addressing poignant societal issues in Estonia. Volkmann himself has assumed this interpretation of his artistic output, emphasising that in art, "visual politics must be discussed". Thus, the black-and-white portrait compositions and much of the fashion photography from the 1990s can be interpreted as attempts to bring taboo topics of the Soviet period, such as sexuality and LGBT issues, into the public sphere.

In conclusion, Volkmann's artistic photographs invite and necessitate a critical interpretation as visual and political representations of (still ongoing) societal maladies. Fortunately, he was not alone in his endeavours during the 1990s or later; the role of photography as a critical medium was also championed by Peeter Linnap, perhaps more vocally than anyone else. But closer to Volkmann's own work in a more nuanced emotional register, artists such as Ann Tenno, Ly Lestberg and Mark Raidpere also crafted analytical and critical images.

Toomas Volkmann has used many psychologically charged visual motifs prevalent in Western culture: crosses, angels, masks, knives, bandages, hair, blood, closed eyes, withered flowers, barren trees and other elements of nature. The power of emotional forms lies in their ability to evoke emotions in the viewer: Volkmann's images typically evoke feelings of sadness, nostalgia, pain, desire and angst, sometimes simultaneously eliciting contrasting emotions of pleasure, admiration or irony towards the phenomena and problems the artist has chosen to explore.

Sharing the same space with iconostases and generational images, the viewer may be enveloped by the melancholic or even tragic gaze of these images. On the other hand, we know that cabaret and carnival are inherently joyful: directed towards temporary identity shifts, they serve as protests against societal norms, visual parodies of the same norms and acts of liberation through laughter.

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