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A vanishing point of the Tuglases' home garden

Neeme Lopp (1/2020)

Neeme Lopp asks one of the past decade’s most important questions in photography: can photography provide a non-political perspective?

17. V – 27. X 2019
Kumu Art Museum
Curator: Elnara Taidre

As the Soviets were recapturing positions of power in Estonia after World War II, the writer Friedebert Tuglas did not immediately fall out of favour. In 1945, he was again admitted to the ESSR Writers' Union, albeit after having submitted a new membership application, avowing his allegiance to socialist reconstruction. In 1946, he received the title of People's Writer of the ESSR and even took part in the work of the board of the union. It was only in 1949 that Max Laosson's article "On Some Issues in Estonian Literary Theory and Literary Criticism" declared him a class enemy, along with many others who shared his fate, and the 8th plenum of the Communist Party of the ESSR (21–26 March 1950) removed from Estonian culture anyone with a more or less significant contribution to pre-war culture. So Tuglas was destined to internal exile. He spent most of the early 1950s editing his memoirs, though without much hope of publication, as his diaries reveal. Informal contacts also dried up. Tuglas' rights as a writer were officially restored in 1955 and symbolically in 1956, in an article, "On Mistakes and Misjudgements" (Vigadest ja väärhinnangutest), by Lembit Remmelgas.

How does the encyclopaedic description above tie in with the Elnara Taidre curated exhibition "Garden Exile: The Tuglas Home Garden Through Tanja Muravskaja's Lens" at Kumu? Very intimately indeed. It serves as a historical reference point for the exhibition and at the same time creates a theoretical tension between the two main elements in the exhibition – Paul Horma's documentary photographs from the period and Tanja Muravskaja's present-day photographic studies.




Tanja Muravskaja
From the project "Garden Exile" 2016–2019
Photo Courtesy ofthe artist and Art Museum of Estonia




When Marie Under and Artur Adson fled to Sweden in 1944, the empty house in Nõmme that they left behind was given to Tuglas, who had lost his home during the war. The house, which was completed in 1933, also had a garden, and when Tuglas was cut off from all means of self-expression outside the home, he turned his attention to the garden. Tending to the garden becomes a kind of therapy that helps him deal with the oppressive reality of life and the lack of social contact.1 This even astonishes his wife Elo, who writes in her diary: "I am surprised by Tuglas' interest in gardening. It always seemed as if only typing, proofs and books filled his life. Now he is in the garden all day, planning and building rockeries, even in late autumn."

The cultural links between garden and exile are many. In Christian culture, the Garden of Eden offered a blueprint for designing earthly gardens where cultivated nature signalled the presence of a divine order, lending a dimension of self-education and spiritual growth to the act of gardening. However, while the myth of the fall led to an exile from Eden, Arabian gardens with their flowers, shady trees and fountains themselves offered exile, a refuge from the scorching heat. The scents, the shadows and the humidity of the garden were intended to provide a contrasting sensory experience, with which believers hoped to create an anticipation of heaven, and gluttonous rulers, to establish a heaven on earth for themselves. There was a direct connection between the garden and matters of the soul. If the garden was blooming, the soul of the ruler was in good shape.2

As societal strictures eased – with Tuglas' rights as a writer officially restored in 1955 – the social life of the Tuglas family was also revived. They once again began to receive guests, often entertaining them in the garden, a kind of microcosm arranged according to their own rules. Between 1959 and 1961, they invited photographer Paul Horma to capture this world in miniature through his camera lens. Based on this, the Tuglases compiled three albums titled "Our Garden". A selection of these photographs forms one of the two opposite poles in the forcefield of the "Garden Exile" exhibition. Horma's photographs include both panoramic views and close-ups of individual plants. The sweeping, natural perspective represents a romantic view in which the regular order created by the Tuglases harmonises with the order of nature itself, which they could not possibly control even if they wanted to. Here we see the lush flourishing of nature in the shadow of the pine trees of Nõmme, the solitary beauty of individual flowers, but also the people in the midst of it all – guardians tending the garden and enjoying its gifts with friends.

Even if these images originally functioned as reassuring home photography, they take on a different meaning in the exhibition curated by Taidre. Since the way Tuglas plodded away in the garden was diametrically opposed to what he was unable to do at the social level (especially considering his previous position as a sort of guardian of Estonian literature), what you do not see in these pictures becomes particularly important. In the context of the exhibition, their meaning is crucially tied to what they do not show, to what lies outside the garden. This, in turn, highlights two theoretical tensions. First, on a more ontological level, the question of whether a photograph can derive its meaning from something that the camera has not captured (an entire pleiad of authors tie photography, due to the specific nature of the medium, solely and exclusively to what is mechanically captured). Second, on a more social level, the question of whether photography – and this is especially relevant with nature photography – can provide us with a non-politicised perspective (according to some authors, the technical nature of photography itself places it within certain social dependencies). The latter has been one of the most pressing issues in photography over the past decade. Despite Horma's romantic manner, nature is socialised in his photographs – precisely because it does not show anything social. According to this approach, the meaning of a photograph always depends on perspective – what it is depends solely on what we take it to be. In the context of the exhibition, our understanding of what the photographs are is dictated by the fact that we take them to be an expression of "harsh Soviet reality" with "its repression and power games".3

This is where Tanja Muravskaja comes in. If the series of photographs by Paul Horma, with the exhibition texts and excerpts from Elo Tuglas' diary (in Estonian, English and Russian), form the "thesis" of the exhibition, then Tanja Muravskaja's work aims to relate to this thesis in one way or another. Muravskaja studied the Tuglases' garden and its past over a period of three years from 2016 to 2019. As a result, she produced five translucent, partially overlapping panels with black-and-white nature photography stretching from floor to ceiling across from a large light box with a black-and-white photograph; these are shown in the same space with Horma's photographs. Thus, she uses a completely different medium to that used in Horma's photographs. But meanings already begin to unfold from the artist's creative background. Tanja Muravskaja is known mainly for her portrait photography captured in the studio environment.4 That is, through photographs in which the social perspective is inseparable from their meaning. In a recent discussion, however, Muravskaja mentioned that she was no longer interested in social photography depicting people or overly explicit social connections in photography.5 These are actually superficial. Now she claims to be drawn to photography that aims at the beauty of the image itself.

The photo installation by Muravskaja, then, poses the same question as cited above: can a photograph provide a non-political perspective? It seeks to show us what happens to the Tuglas garden as a result of an attempt to remove all the political context from it, what happens when trying to convey the present-day experience of this garden without the Tuglases, Under or the harsh Soviet reality. In other words, what happens when replacing the interpretive view with subjective experience. Dialectically speaking, there is a kind of reversal involved here. Paul Horma's subjective view derived from an objective (natural) perspective is reversed to create an objective (natural) beauty that emerges from a subjective point of view (experience). The technical methods used to achieve this include separating the foreground from the background and emphasising the three-dimensionality of the two-dimensional photographic image. It is as if we were now in the middle of a garden that could belong to the Tuglases, but could just as well belong to someone else. In fact, the very idea of Muravskaja's photo installation is to make the question of who owns the garden and what social connotations it might have irrelevant. To render irrelevant questions of ownership and property, so that the photograph's beauty will coincide with its affect. But of course, achieving this irrelevance is only possible through antagonism – by virtue of the fact that the question of this irrelevance is posed in the first place, through juxtaposition with the photographs by Paul Horma. And so, photographic beauty ironically still ends up being realised as the beauty of a social problem. This happens through the form of the artwork, an artistic form that cannot be reduced to the mere effect that the photos have on the viewer.

The exhibition actually has other components. Alongside Paul Horma's photographs, the accompanying wall texts and the installation by Tanja Muravskaja, a small monitor on the wall shows excerpts from the TV film "On Little Illimar's Paths" (Väikese Illimari radadel, 1962, directed by Virve Aruoja) and TV show "The Life of Tuglas" (Tuglase elu, 1986, directed by Ingo Normet), which are a visual addendum to the photographic compositions. Also shown are six garden-themed prints (three by Vint, and one each by Salome Trei, Vive Tolli and Silvi Liiva), which provide an alternative to the optically correct order6 of the photographic and cinematic images. However, they do not particularly enter into or affect the meaning of the strong photographic confrontation between Horma and Muravskaja described above and instead remain a flicker on the fringes of the exhibition.

The same cannot be said of the installation that continues in the Kumu courtyard (or garden, to be more precise), which as a stand-alone environment is a kind of extension and transformation of what is going on in the exhibition hall. While in the exhibition hall, an illusion of the Tuglases' garden was created (through Tuglas' narrative of the past and Horma's documentary photography on the one hand and Murkskaja's polemic photography on the other), here the illusion collapses into fragments and mixes with reality. In a small rockery built in the garden (recall Elo Tuglas' remarks on her husband's gardening interest), visitors can dig out more photographs by Paul Horma from under the sand. As it is no longer easy to make out what they depict, representation has weakened: rather than representations of the Tuglas garden, they have become objects in the real world, just like rocks in a rockery. In other words, they have themselves become the garden. The symbolic completion of the exhibition is marked by a large-scale black-and-white garden photograph by Muravskaja, placed a dozen steps away, in the foliage of some trees against the limestone cliff of Lasnamäe. Here, too, representation is weakened, but not because we struggle to discern the image (the photograph is of very high quality), but because the frame, which separates the image from its surroundings, is beginning to dissolve in the natural environment. The camera is focused on the gate in the background. It is a threshold, a way out of the garden, into reality. And beyond the gate? Refuge, disappearance, the vanishing point.

1 The therapeutic dimension of Tuglas' activities is also emphasised by Anneli Porri in her exhibition review; see Anneli Porri, "Garden Exile. A Study of Sense of Nature" – Estonian Art 2019, No 2, pp 13–17.

2 For more about the garden as a refuge in Islamic cultures, see Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture. Cambridge (Mass.), London: The MIT Press, 1979, pp 66–67.

3 Quotations from the exhibition wall text.

4 In her review referred to above, Anneli Porri also points out that various aspects of Muravskaja's approach here could be associated with other names in Estonian photography (the black-and-white nature photography with Arne Maasik, gardens with Eve Kiiler and the translucent panels with Marge Monko).

5 During a roundtable, "Trauma of Photography", with Tanja Muravskaja, Rebecca Erin Moran, Fabian Schroder and Paul Kuimet at the Foto Tallinn Art Fair on 28 September 2019 at Kai Art Center.

6 I will discuss this concept by Paul Virilio at some length in the next article.

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

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