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We Are Alone in the Universe: the Sad Blues of Space Cowboys

T├Ánu Karjatse (1/2017)

Tõnu Karjatse visited Taavi Suisalu's solo exhibition.


11.–30. I 2017
Hobusepea Gallery

The title of Taavi Suisalu's solo exhibition "Landscapes and Portraits" at Hobusepea Gallery was deceptive: no paintings from the genres of landscape or portraiture could be found there in their traditional form. To be precise, the exhibition was extremely minimalist: there was only one landscape exhibited, and this took the form of a projected image from a weather satellite, which melted before the viewer into pixels forming a paysage of intersecting vertical streams of colour. This colour "freefall" was accompanied by a meditative soundtrack, which was also comprised of satellite signals. Suisalu had positioned himself above the viewer, in other spheres, and therefore, moving further from the Earth's gravitational field.

There is a noticeable consistency in his work to date. In his earlier projects Suisalu has acted as the moderator between people and nature, for instance rendering wind as sound or the relationship between a person and space. The Hobusepea exhibition approached the hidden sound-(info)-landscape, which surrounds us from a new, higher level – now the focus was on the technical info-(noise)-emitters created by people themselves.

Suisalu based his exhibition on the signals now being sent back to earth from satellites previously sent into Earth's orbit that have since become useless lethargic cyber beetles. For those who sent them there, these sputniks have lost their purpose, but now their modest signals constantly remind us of their existence. The message sent by the forgotten cosmic-bugs is simple: "we are (still) here" – every satellite says it in their own manner. Four of these satellite messages are pressed on a vinyl record entitled "Études in Black" (2016), exhibited for the first time at last year's Artishok biennale. The gramophone replaying the signals observed the movements of the satellites above the exhibition space using a special gadget and adjusted the playing speed of the record accordingly.

Such a "satellite gramophone" is also one of Suisalu's more intricate and ambitious electro-acoustic instruments. At the Hobusepea exhibition, the instrument was placed on the lower floor of the gallery, and therefore, gave Suisalu's sound a subconscious role, which we can presume should dictate the changes taking place above. So it was, at first glance, and the melting of satellite pixels into streams of colour took place accompanied by cosmic frequencies. However, it is not a perfect system because the recording on the vinyl is a mechanical reproduction, only the speed is variable. A whole other effect would be created were the visitor to the exhibition able to directly hear the sounds from the satellites passing above the gallery. This would evidently call for a technically more intricate apparatus.

The current satellite gramophone is a showpiece in itself, though, as part of the composition of the exhibition it was a bonus for which the viewer had to make one further journey, descending into the hidden room, a level below the landscape itself. The purpose of "Landscapes and Portraits" was to direct our attention towards the flow of information surrounding us, also towards the information which does not affect our everyday lives. It seems that, with this exhibition, the artist has given up searching for encrypted messages in nature and realised that nature is a reflection of ourselves. Therefore, the slogan from the TV series "The X-Files", "The truth is out there" is errant – there are only people in the universe and what they do comes full circle back to them.

In this instance, the message of "The X-Files" can be rephrased, "We (i.e. the sputniks) are out there" from which we can, in turn, draw the syllogism, "We are the truth". Such a train of thought seems to point to people's existential desolation, the model of which seems to be visually repeated by the forgotten satellites. Here Suisalu refers to the lack of responsibility exhibited by the creator towards the creation – the product is finished and then forgotten. A similar message would have been conveyed by abandoned buildings or toys forgotten outside, but Suisalu directs our attention higher, contributing a certain dimension of extra-terrestrial discovery.

At the same time, the orbiting artificial bodies also convey a different semiotic connotation: the satellites were thrust into their orbit around Earth mainly for military purposes; their objective was to guard us and each other, conveying information to terrestrial bases concerning the strength of forces and buildings and also whether highways were built and whether smoke was rising from factories or in other words whether a specific country is capable of development. But today's satellites no longer serve purely militaristic interests: instead of NASA, these tiny flying robots belong to global companies, such as Facebook or Google, and their points of interest are not countries, but individuals and their development.

The satellites that are the subject of Suisalu's exhibition belong to the past when the world could be more easily divided according to its political poles; a time which can by agreement be called the "era of truth" rather than of "post-truth". Therefore, their signals can be regarded as messages from the past, the recipient of which has long since departed. Although Suisalu's satellites are innocent space cowboys, who sing their sad forgotten blues in the wide expanse of space, with his exhibition, the artist also points towards the fact that information could become humanity's greatest enemy, if anyone decides to use all the collected information concerning us with evil intent.


Tõnu Karjatse works as the senior editor of cultural and radio news for Estonian Public Broadcasting.


Taavi Suisalu
Distant Self-Portrait
photo, interactive real-time animation
Exhibition view at Hobusepea Gallery
Courtesy of the artist

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