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About "Image Drain"

Loore Sundja (3/2017)

Anthea Buys, the curator of "Image Drain" the main exhibition for Tallinn Photomonth 2017 contemporary art biennial, talked to Loore Sundja and Else Lagerspetz about lies in curating and fiction in art.

2. IX–8. X 2017
Tallinn Art Hall
Artists: Andrew Amorim, Victoria Durnak, Mathijs van Geest, Carl Johan Högberg, Henri Hütt, Toril Johannessen, Paul Kuimet, Laura Kuusk, Antonis Pittas, Mårten Spångberg, André Tehrani, James Webb, Kristina Õllek.
Curator: Anthea Buys.

"Image Drain" is loosely built around a story about a couple, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, and set in the near future. When the Tallinn Photomonth biennial invited Buys to do an exhibition in Tallinn, she started looking for a way to avoid a classic thematic group show. "I have developed a very strong dislike of these kinds of exhibitions, where the curator comes out with some idea like "oh, I'm gonna make a show about migration or the refugee crises or learning from Athens" or whatever – where the works in the show are just serving the theme," she says. Instead, she wanted to try to come up with a show without a very strong curatorial authorship or a strong pedagogical tone, a show without a curatorial text that tells the visitor what the exhibition is all about. Buys felt fiction could be a way out – her own educational background is in literature.

She recalled a book called "Manna for the Mandelstams, for the Mandelas" (2000) by a French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, which is about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam and Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Buys found it interesting how the book turned very well-known political icons – in the case of the Mandelas – and political and literary figures – the Mandelstams – into fictional characters. So, she decided to steal the Mandelstams from Cixous.



The relationship between Buys' Mandelstams and the historical Mandelstams is, at the same time, there and non-existent. Buys says she decided to borrow the names for no particular reason. "For a while, I have been quite fascinated by people who have the same name as me," she says. "In South Africa, there are at least four other people with exactly the same name as me. I find that really interesting, I've looked at them on Facebook and we have absolutely nothing in common, we are completely different people." What if there is just another person called Osip Mandelstam, someone who is a venture capitalist, and if, by coincidence, he is married to somebody called Nadezhda? "It's kind of cheeky of me to take two famous names and make them married to each other in a fiction as well, but, in a way, I'm insisting on the meaninglessness of it by saying it must be possible that these names don't actually mean anything. It's just some completely unlikely coincidence. It's also a way to avoid a convention in fiction where authors try to make whatever seem realistic. I'm looking for a way to tell you that this is really a fiction."

On the other hand, Buys says she has thought a lot about the original Mandelstams, and Nadezhda in particular. "She got a really raw deal in history. Osip was famous and had all these obsessions with other women – Anna Akhmatova and a couple of others. I think Nadezhda loved him a lot more than he loved her, she just devoted her life to him and to his poetry." Buys tells how when Osip's poems were destroyed in the Gulags, Nadezhda memorised them, becoming, in Buys' words, some kind of an archive or a filing system for his poetry. "She tried to store his poems inside her, like she was a hard drive." This could be a connection between Buys' Mandelstams and the originals. In Buys' story, Osip starts a foundation and sets up a museum for photography and Nadezhda starts working at the museum. "In a way, this is kind of like how Nadezhda – the original one – started becoming a museum for Osip’s poetry."

Buys has been thinking a lot about the relationships between fiction and reality, art and reality and the relation of art to fiction. "I think art and literary fiction share a similar relationship to reality," she says. The French philosopher François Laruelle has a term called "art-fiction". "This is a very crude paraphrase, but he has this idea that fiction is not necessarily literary fiction but it can be anything that doubles or clones reality. So, a photograph is a fiction, or when you just describe what's outside, it's a fiction, and even when you look outside, it's a fiction, because your eyes are essentially giving you the same information that a photograph would. So, even our experiences are fiction in that sense." She became interested in this expanded concept of fiction and started looking for a way to make an exhibition into fiction. "What if we just let go of the idea that an exhibition has to reflect anything about art, or our current situation or anything like that? What if we just allow this to be a realm of fiction?"



Kristina Ă•llek

Kristina Õllek
Distorted Hands
Installation view at
Tallinn Art Hall
Courtesy of the artist




No relationship

Buys says that trust is something she has been trying to play with in the framing of the exhibition. "In the conventions of exhibitions in museums, institutions try to set up conditions that lead you to want to trust the institution – and by extension to trust the curator. Once an exhibition is up you're supposed to have a walkabout with the curator and you assume that everything they tell you about the exhibition is the truth, and that they're actually the one who's qualified to help you understand the truth about the exhibition. It's the same with literary fiction – when an author does an interview about a novel, the assumption is that they're telling you the truth about it, that they're telling you what's behind the novel, that they're explaining things to you. But I think that that is quite sad for fiction, because fiction is then only the thing happening between those two covers, or fiction is the thing happening only in one dimension of this exhibition. And when you read the wall text or when you leave the museum, that's the sign to you that you're outside of the exhibition and now everything is real and you can forget that fiction."

Buys became interested in the possibility that the fiction could leak out, or that the curator could also be part of the fiction. "To me, it's much more interesting to think that the curator is someone who you perhaps shouldn't really trust. What happens to this whole system if you think that I might be lying to you when I tell you what the exhibition is about? I find this to be much more powerful, as it gives more power to the audience if they realise that they can't trust the curator or the institution to tell them the truth. They then have to look to themselves to either interpret it or to decide that they don't feel like interpreting it and that they are just going to enjoy it in some other capacity. I think this whole idea of truth is probably the most uninteresting way of enjoying art and exhibitions."

Buys says there isn't really a relationship between the artworks shown in "Image Drain" and the story she presents. "Something that became clear to me as the artworks became more thoroughly developed was that some of these artworks have quite strong narrative elements and it felt like the story I made up was crowding them. So I haven't made the relationship between the artworks and the story explicit. The one claim in this fiction that I've made is that the artworks in this exhibition are some of the best examples Osip's team could find of pure imageness, but it doesn't give any insight into what a pure image might be or why they thought it was important to do this, or what part of the work is the pure image. They're all such different works, some are just sound, some are text, and so as a set of examples, they don't actually tell you anything. In a way, the one part where I do try to make the connection between the story and the exhibition clear is precisely where the relationship just doesn't fit. It's like trying to put together two pieces of a puzzle that aren't the right pieces for each other. I deliberately wanted it to be that way, so that the viewer could decide how much they want to believe in the story."

This is also why the fiction exists in several different texts – there is a prologue in the exhibition's guide book, the wall text and an interview with Nadezhda Mandelstam in the Estonian monthly cultural newspaper Müürileht – there will be people coming to the exhibition who won't read the story, and people who will read the story and who will be looking for clues to that story in the exhibition. "I wanted to create a situation where you could decide how much fiction you want to take with you into the exhibition," Buys says.



"At a very practical level, I decided to invite these artists because I feel like a lot of them are thinking about images and concepts in similar ways as I do. We are 14 people, me plus 13 artists, who are thinking roughly in the same corner of the room. There are similar thoughts and questions going around and I was sure something interesting will come out of putting these people together."

There is a chance some people will interpret the artworks in the exhibition as illustrations to the story of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, but giving that impression is something Buys wanted to avoid. "This is exactly my problem with the kind of curated group show – you have the curator pronouncing the truth of the world, and then the artworks are supposed to support that. With the fiction, of course you run into the same problem. But here, you don't have enough information in that fiction to make the direct connection between artworks and the story." She admits there are little sparks of commonality between the artworks. "But it's not supposed to be a pedagogical moment, it's almost like – the Anthea Buys and the Anthea Buys, or the Nadezhda and the Nadezhda. It's a kind of coincidence, and it's up to you whether you make some meaning out of it or not."

The texts surrounding the exhibition have two rather cryptic recurring terms – transimages and pure images. Buys says that the transimages are related to a piece by a Norwegian artist, Toril Johannessen. "The piece is called "The Invention and Conclusion of the Eye" (2017), which is a fictional narrative, a hypothesis that we'll evolve to not have eyes anymore, because our perceptual needs will be met by digital means. While planning this work, she came across some computer software that was generating photographic images based on big data, or generating very rough approximations of photographic images. It would build images based on millions of text captions harvested from the web." Buys wanted to further explore this possibility. "How do we use images in contemporary times? There are so many images available on the internet, but still you choose to have certain images on your phone and you use them for social media. Sometimes you just keep them on your phone because you don't want to delete them. Or you look at them, when you're missing someone. I was wondering how this relationship to images might change if we were fed images in a different way."

Buys acknowledges that image-manipulation and image generation are already enormously powerful practices in the digital industries and advertising. "I'm just imagining, what if we stopped using these images in this sentimental way, looking at the picture of my daughter on the phone, but instead we were fed images based on our moods and thoughts. Imagine, you're sitting in McDonald's and wondering what your ex-boyfriend is doing, and then suddenly, an image of him pops up on your phone. I started thinking about technology getting so sophisticated that it would be able to make it seem like it's reading our minds. So, that is what transimages are supposed to be like."


What is an image?

The exhibition wall text, supposedly written by Osip Mandelstam, contains the idea of a pure image. "The idea is that he's trying to create some kind of a digital and analytical system to – in the midst of all this chaos of images-on-demand and manufactured images – find a real image. This really comes from a very basic question that was the beginning of thinking about this whole exhibition – what is an image? How is an image different from a picture? And how is an image different from reality? "What is an image?" is an extremely difficult question, but in the wall text – which is a statement from Osip – he makes it seem as if he's figured out a way to find out what an image is. He found some very good software engineers and some very sophisticated philosophers and together they've developed a system for saying "this is a pure image". When you read this text, you'll probably think that this guy is full of shit – and that's the point. You then look at the exhibition and you find nothing in any of these works that tells you anything about what a pure image is."

Buys agrees that the fiction of artists has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years. "I think Chris Kraus and "I Love Dick" (1997) did a lot for that. She wasn't the first person to write what might be called alt-fiction, but somehow the art world suddenly rediscovered "I Love Dick" a couple of years ago and that really changed something for many artists and curators. There are a lot of curators writing fiction and artists writing fiction, and it's almost an area where the curator, the critic and the artist can have some kind of overlap in what they produce. It's an area where these different roles aren't distinguished in the conventional way, where you have the object, the curator organising the object and the critic reflecting on it."

At the same time, Buys is critical of the wide-spread assumption that fiction is text and fiction by an artist usually means an artist writing a novel. "This collapsing of the fiction and the novel is maybe an unfortunate habit that the art world has inherited from the world of literature. I really think that an artwork is an artist's fiction. And an exhibition can be an artist's fiction. I find it strange and a bit dull that the whole genre of artist's fiction is fairly limited to text, that the medium of fiction hasn't been interrogated to the extent that, let's say, the mediums of painting or photography have – or any other medium really." She believes this has something to do with nostalgia and a romanticised idea of an artist writing a novel. "That idea is completely at odds with the way our attention spans work, or, in fact, the way we work nowadays."

All in all, Buys finds our time to be an interesting one to be thinking about fiction. "I just think that we have to jump off from text and think about how fiction can be manifested in other ways as well."


Loore Sundja and Else Lagerspetz are graphic designers based in Tallinn. They have also created a fictive publishing house Knock! Knock! Books.

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