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How to Make Use of Words

T├Ánu Karjatse (2/2016)

Tõnu Karjatse analyses Sigrid Viir’s solo exhibition "Hirmus ilus torukael" (Awful Pretty Pipe Neck).



26. IV–14. V 2016
Draakon Gallery

Sigrid Viir's solo exhibition "Hirmus ilus torukael" (Awful Pretty Pipe Neck) at Draakon Gallery seems to open up pretty easily at first glance. The ceramic tiles in pastel tones used to support the pictures, upright rods budding green mirrors and the subtle background colour in the photographs refer back to a time prevailing just a couple of weeks ago. It is early spring, when the snow turns into piles of dirty beads, revealing things that have been lost and become useless. It is a time when the wintry husk melts, where the outgoing and the incoming meet for the last time – the old is still present in some form but the new is already sprouting. The themes of Viir's solo exhibition can be pared down to two concepts denoting movement and time – coming and going.

A peeled potato fits as a keynote, gazing back at the viewer from the picture with its many "eyes". Despite its seemingly fresh appearance in the picture, its slowly perishing body is on its way out. The potato is peeled, which reduces its shelf life and at the same time brings out the numerous "eyes" of the potato – the beginnings of shoots, chambers of hope, where the perishing corpus continues to live. The "potato" itself is on display in the second hall, where archival family photographs with their own narrative potential are placed next to conceptual pictures presenting perishability through matter. One of them depicts perishability itself – as an ex-fly.

Viir emphasizes one of the main properties of a photograph – preserving a moment and halting time using photographic means. By discarding a superficial viewing and relying on the accompanying text by the artist, one can obtain a much more profound meaning from the series of melting heaps of snow. Viir refers to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's "Metaphors We Live By" (1980) as she writes:


"Turn on the light.
Theories are buildings and sometimes they fall apart,
ideas are plants and they bring forth fruit,
a mountain is a person you could conquer,
sad is tight and happy is wide,
understanding is seeing, and seeing is touching,
problems are solid objects you can take apart, piece by piece
time is money
you make my blood boil
see what I mean."


Viir alludes to poetic stages of abstraction where melting mountains of snow can denote human lives, encounters and feelings, while the rods bearing the mirrors, the process of thought whose sprouts offer the surroundings the necessary light to flourish. By complementing the exhibition with an accompanying text referring to Lakoff-Johnson's anthological writing, Viir provides the viewer the essential arsenal to reach the exhibition's message and penetrate through the performative veneer. When the goal is reached, the artist leaves the viewer to create a personal landscape of perishability.

The artist sets up a catachresis, the opposition and adaptation of two metaphors, as a central concept in the exhibition's accompanying text. The mirror bearing rods and a table leg with a cup handle take one to a surreal world of figures whose principles of creation are in fact similar – it is a juxtaposition out of context and free of conventions that creates a new field of signification through a rising conflict. The table leg with a broken cup handle could be the most graphic object from the exhibition, as the linguistic metonymy is transmitted to the world of objects. A new real object is being formed that carries the volume of new possible combinations of significance with a perpetually expanding signified: kitchen furniture, family life, patience, attention, intelligence apparatus, mistrust.

Other objects at the exhibition enable similar signification and interpretation chains. Perhaps involuntarily, Viir offers an efficient tool to convert the surroundings into the personal, ordinary into art and trivial into poetics. The main principle of this choice may not be the evident contrast or incompatibility to which the catachrestic approach alludes, it could also signify boundaries impeding a creative process. It is more likely to be an intuitive choice taking place hand in hand with contingency. While not asking what is contingency, the creator of a new message is left recognizing and sorting out the right things, the elements of a new message, and putting them in order.

Poetics is not mathematics, despite the numerous attempts to unite them since antiquity. Catachresis has a distinct mathematical constraint as it dwells from a premise that there exists a certain number of contrasting metaphors, figurative tropes that form new fields of signification when juxtaposed. At the same time, it does not rule out that a method like this could function – let's take the word "handkerchief" for example, where the "hand" indicates the location of the kerchief, not the direct owner of it.

Umberto Eco has written about a metaphor machine that can construct comparisons with a poetic potential of use;1 in Estonia Märt Väljataga also created a sonnet machine at the end of the 1990s along the lines of the French literary movement Oulipo, and the texts produced and published with this machine evoked an acute reaction from our literary critics back then. Sigrid Viir unfolds the mechanisms of art creation by bringing the concepts of catachresis and metaphor into the exhibition hall, while retaining the right to the exhibits on display. Potato eyes and spruce legs is an enjoyable word game that can also be introduced at a visual level, reshaping personal everyday reality.

Whether this practice be the poetics of refrigerator magnets, where one could choose between a certain number of word strips; an unexpected result is insured with a blind selection. The result may be as follows:




Tõnu Karjatse is a cultural journalist at Estonian Public Broadcasting.

1 Equivalents to it can still be found on the internet, e.g.:



Exhibition view at Draakon Gallery
Courtesy of the artist

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