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About Making Exhibitions for Those Who Make Exhibitions

Siim Preiman (3/2016)

Siim Preiman discusses the joint exhibition "Dead End" by Marten Esko and Mihkel Ilus.



1. VII–7. VIII 2016
Tallinn Art Hall Gallery

First off, I have to admit that "Dead End" was open at a time when I was occupied with summer activities outside Tallinn. I am a little embarrassed to say that maybe I would not have even seen the show, if I had not gotten an e-mail from the editor of KUNST.EE. But why am I talking about this? To explain, I must start a bit further back.

With "Dead End" Esko and Ilus have not thought it necessary to separate the roles of curator and artist. In a way this is a pity because I feel that working on solo exhibitions with curators has not yet become common practice. There is a whole array of exhibitions where a strong text or framework of ideas is missing. But "Dead End" is not a curated artist show, but a joint exhibition by a curator and an artist. The mostly tongue-tied "power drill curator" Esko has written a book for the exhibition, which, in its aimlessness underlines his unwillingness to claim a single position. The text is fragmented, but funny. I felt something similar when I read Mati Unt's novel "Öös on asju" (Things in the Night, 1990) a couple of summers ago.

The best parts of Esko's little book were the small paragraphs one could relate to professionally, which may seem like old truths worded anew, but in the case of this exhibition they really added something. For example, the second chapter of the fifth act starts with the paragraph: "Coming back from my lunch break on Tuesday I saw that a cultural journalist from the Newspaper had left me a message. The message read: "Someone told me that you went to see the exhibition at the Art Hall, so I just wanted to ask if you could perhaps write about it." At the very end of the message there was, of course, a little smiley face, which was, no doubt, a sign of sincerity and good intentions, so that the message would not appear too serious and formal." Sound familiar? On top of everything in the second chapter of the next act Esko discusses Aby Warburg and indirectly attacks fluffy texts that try to explain art. In his directionally indirectional text the non-curator so manages to hint at the reasons why he is reluctant to communicate the exhibition. Why would he reveal to us what "Dead End" is about, when trying to explain it would be a dead end anyway? The fluffy texts and the lack of subsequent communications cut off all possibilities to communicate the show. Which is why I also refrain from descriptions of the space and works, and focus on what an exhibition that discusses the making of exhibitions could be about.

Mihkel Ilus has taken a similarly evasive stance. I ran into him on the street a couple of days after the epilogue of "Dead End" was made public and told him I had accepted the offer to write an article about their show. To that Ilus smiled crookedly, first held up both of his arms, then crossed them and said: "Well, you can try, but there's really not much to write about." Even though the artists declined to offer any explanations and interviews about the show, I still managed to chat a bit with them over a glass of beer at a recent opening at the Contemporary Art Museum, Estonia.

The machine-aesthetic loving chatterbox Ilus, who appears as a character in Esko's text a couple of times, and whose drawings illustrate the publication, dedicated himself to the space. Here I am not talking so much about the physical form of the exhibition, which, I assume, is the result of joint labour and thought processes, but about the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery itself, where Ilus was often present, both during and in-between the different acts of the show. He was often busy moving a piece when vistors came in, and seeing somebody working there, they were taken aback. So Ilus had to encourage them and say: "That is actually it." Could it be that there was something more behind their astonishment than just the fear of an unknown situation? Is an exhibition an exhibition only when no-one is working on them and they just sit in a blissful sterile silence?

With "Dead End" Ilus was mostly interested in adding the dimension of time to the traditional exhibition format. With great excitement he told me about a show that does not go the gallery to die, but to live and grow. Dying may sound a little harsh, but there is some truth in the idea. Let's be honest: everyone who has ever been involved in organising an exhibition knows the sudden feeling that comes over you when you have just opened your show. While preparing the exhibition you focus all your energy towards one date and time, the speed increases until everything stops abruptly – it is like a full on crash into a dead end, or the completed exhibition. Everything slows and vegetation begins.

I do not personally think exhibitions go to galleries to die, but I agree that the "prologue" (production) and "afterlife" (documentation) are its most prolific stages. A completed exhibition is like a patient with a horde of caretakers around – curators, artists, technicians – who all aim to keep it in a static vegetative state. This kind of nursing is mostly hidden and visitors know nothing of it. For them the exhibition has to be the one and the same from start to finish. Organ transfers – changing broken media players or lighting fixtures – take place behind closed doors. Hence the uneasiness felt by the visitors who saw Ilus changing the exhibits. It seemed as if there was some sort of private procedure being conducted upon "Dead End" by the people associated with it. When the exhibition period ends, the caretakers cut up the patient and divide the spoils among themselves. Some parts go to the artists, some to the curator, some end up in landfill and those that may come in handy at a future exhibition will be carefully packed up by the technicians to wait for next time. The exhibition in its vegetative state will come to an end and remembrances can begin.

Of course we only remember via photographs, which in their limited two-dimensional existence only show everything in the best possible light. All spatial discrepancies, days with bad lighting and the inevitable caretaking disappear and only the illusion of a perfect exhibition remains. It is natural that a show about exhibition-making was followed by an epilogue in the form of documentation. In the video made by Kirill Tulin and Yekaterina Abramova, the frames are combined into beautiful, but impossible worlds. With picturesque links (rope ends, shadows etc. repeating in different frames) to delicate puzzles made up of views of the same works as well as elements from different acts in the exhibition. The video epilogue is everything that "Dead End" could ever have been and more. It is more than the whole of "Dead End" – it is a ghost, an image of something that has never happened. But that is fine, because it looks so damn good. :)


Siim Preiman is an art worker and critic who will be working as curator at the Tallinn Art Hall by the time this review is published.



Exhibition view at Tallinn Art Hall Gallery
Photo by Jekaterina Abramova

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