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It's Good When There's Space

Jaak Kikas (4/2013)

Jaak Kikas writes about the curator's exhibition for Photomonth, "Where You End, I Begin".

28. IX–20. X 2013
Tartu Art House

Artists: Dénes Farkas, Johnson & Johnson, Flo Kasearu, Margot Kask, Eve Kiiler, Paul Kuimet, Laura Kuusk, Marco Laimre, Peeter Laurits, Kristina Norman, Helen Melesk, Marge Monko, Krista Mölder, Birgit Püve, Raul Rajangu, Liina Siib, Laura Toots, Anna-Stina Treumund, Tõnu Tunnel, Anu Vahtra, Vergo Vernik, Visible Solutions OÜ.
Curator: Anneli Porri.

"The main topic of the curator's exhibition at Photomonth 2013, focusing on Estonian photography, is space and the perception of the environment. /…/ The exhibition encompasses works from 1992–2013 and is divided into sub-topics: political and ideological space, personal space, photographic space and transcendent space." This information is taken from the exhibition catalogue.

I am going to the exhibition with the knowledge that I live in a four-dimensional pseudo-Euclidean space-time assigned as -+++, slightly curved by huge masses (the Earth). But in spite of that it appears the exhibition is not all that easy to enter. Beside the front door of the Tartu Art House there is a sign: "NO ENTRANCE! TO ENTER USE THE DOOR TO THE COURTYARD!" I manage to rejoice in the fact that I live in a space where it is possible to navigate around obstacles. I then try to buy the exhibition catalogue, but my hand replete with a five-euro note bounces off the cashier's glass. The cashier smiles somewhat apologetically – this is said to happen to many. A direct and cautionary observation of space: there might be invisible obstacles, the space may not simply be visible for our eyes – as much or even more it is a place for us to navigate physically. It pays to take this realisation with you to the exhibition.

On the second floor, there is a red door ajar in a white wall. You won't get through there; letterboxes opposite; wait, these are not letterboxes but Laura Toots's photographs in heavy mounts. Not much can be seen, but maybe it doesn't matter. Like in the morning when I look from a distance at the little holes in the letter boxes on the gate, to see whether there is a newspaper inside or not. And sometimes this is the only important message the newspaper brings – that the postman has been, everything is in order (inasmuch of course as comes out later) and the world is functioning. We don't need much. Don't need much.

Now there are two options – to move in a counter-clockwise or clockwise direction around the exhibition. I start moving counter-clockwise. In mathematical terms it's a positive direction.


Parallelism and conflict

"Where You End, I Begin" claims Helen Melesk. No, but it is not like that! It can't be, even mathematically. In every sense something has to be in-between. I don't know a good equivalent in Estonian for the English word "spacer". It is a kind of implement that is put between two things and its purpose is to hold those things at the right distance from each other. Not too near, not too far, otherwise the system won't work. Documenting these spacers between people – spaces in-between – is what Melesk does by covering the incidental (people, their places) with coloured paper. Could this also be seen as a metaphor for an immunity to sensitive personal data? And to a resigned contract to deal only with what is legally allowed when everything personal-interesting-human has been eliminated? Yes, what can you do – then all the rest should also be poeticised.

In photographs our familiar three-dimensional world is compressed into a two-dimensional flatness. "Flatland". When we look at a photograph we compensate for this violence by reconstructing the three-dimensional world once more (we are oh-so good at that!). But what happens if the physical world itself doesn't put up with this kind of smashed-up shape, and by tearing itself away from the surface of the photograph, tries to get back into the space? The accord and conflict between those two "return routes" creates uncanny effects, which Anu Vahtra has captured in her pictures.

But... it seems that I'm not alone at the exhibition. Though I don't see any other visitors (it is Thursday evening, an hour before closing), in my head I start hearing male and female voices. They belong to the curator of the exhibition, Anneli Porri, and the gallerist, Indrek Grigor, who are conducting a tour at the opening of the exhibition. I would like to get rid of them, but this is only possible for a moment, then they come back again. Sometimes I would like to argue with them, sometimes the opposite. And apparently there are more things I can't get away from as I view this exhibition. To be more precise, those pictures are all projected against that background in my mind. Very personal things. Giorgio de Chirico's "The Nostalgia of the Infinite" (1911). Borges' "The Library of Babel" (1941). Escher's spatial fantasies. Lectures on mathematics and physics from university.

Next up are the city views by Paul Kuimet. I understand that we are now already in photographic space. During a lecture I give my students the task of searching for the axes of symmetry in a cube. The axes of the second and fourth order are easily found. Is there anything else? Silence. Please look at the cube in the direction of its spatial diagonal. A little surprise. Sometimes little children look through their legs at the world upside down. Then we grow up and conform and actually don't look at anything anymore. Photographs through the lens of a talented photographer can show us the world as we have never seen it before – or once saw, but can no longer remember.

Eve Kiiler's large historical (or history-probing) photographic composition – next to some pictures there are dates in a vertical column like inches or centimetres on police photographs. Mugshots. Estonians are the suspects. Prosecutors – they are also known. "Tell me about time, tell me about space," wrote one poet. And about the father's house. And about the July when there was still a bit more than four years until the Bronze Soldier came. But the encounter with Kristina Norman is still ahead of us.

In university (in the physics department at Tartu State University), we had a photographic praxis (film, photographic paper, darkroom and all). Recently these pictures emerged out of a box – plain, grey, out of focus semi-postcards, without any composition or framing – but everything is clear. From a distance, the tiny pictures by Margot Kask are something very familiar, but on closer inspection no longer. There is a lot of empty space between the pictures on the wall. What happens in the space in-between? Somewhere very deep in the corner of the brain there lives the belief that the world is coherent and logical and between just a few points we can comprehend all that is important (Laura Toots!). Does Margot Kask lure us, the bona fide observers, trustingly onto the edge of a cognitive abyss so as to throw us down – to absurdity, to discord, to frustration? If so, I was saved by the limited time I had to view the exhibition.

The buildings drawn by Tõnu Tunnel to occupy the empty spaces of a city appear not so much as real spatial-architectural constructions, but to impart the author's wishes, dreams, disappointments, fears, memories. They are very personal and intimate.

Paul Kuimet also approaches a house in his video. And what is important here is not so much this particular building, but the manner in which he approaches it. It is stumbling, hesitating, self-repeating. In the background, there is a spoken story about a photographer without hands (or perhaps, the video image is the background for the story). You will probably feel psychological discomfort seeing this (you don't understand, you would have done it differently, you would have filmed it better). I cannot recommend this piece – take this as a compliment.

(We pass by Laura Kuusk's video, and pictures by Vergo Vernik, but only to reserve them a more important place in what follows).

Flo Kasearu's homeless people in the snow. From a distance, many of them seem familiar – a detail that is not confirmed on closer inspection. And somehow they are not at all so miserable and bleak as you might think. I ponder whether a really bleak picture could be made by placing a "natural" outcast in some cosy domestic room? But surely this idea has also already been captured.

The diptychs by Birgit Püve. The argument between Anneli Porri and Indrek Grigor has become very noisy. Suddenly the words "flatness" and "spatial" slip out as Anneli talks. Yes, this is it. In no other artist's works is this unity and opposition of a flat plane and a three-dimensional space so distinctive. From flat patterns, models emerge occupying their three-dimensional space. The whole substance of these models, however, is expressed in flat patterns. A duality of 2D–3D.

Marge Monko is majestic and sovereign. Photographs of an absolute nature that paralyze the ability to analyse. The curator's voice talks about the international success of Estonian photography and the predominance of female photographers. Particularly this space here – a personal space – is filled with female influence that makes me feel helpless and insecure. Only in one corner of the room Tõnu Tunnel bravely persists with his video. No, I didn't pass by without noticing Anna-Stina Treumund. But it is appropriate to observe her in contrast to Marge Monko. How the Space has changed. How the Woman has changed. Anna-Stina Treumund's women have got what they wanted – insofar as they themselves know what that is. Marge Monko's women have all that still to come – the hysteria directed at oneself, the taut bow of an amazon, power without the opportunity to erupt.


Where You End, I Begin

Exhibition view at Tartu Art House
Photo by Paul Kuimet
Courtesy of the artists



Liina Siib's women take up little space. But that's all they have been given. I am struck by a sudden anthropic thought: "Oh, why is the Universe so big if a woman gets by with so little?" This Universe must have something else in reserve for us. The exhibition doesn't of course look particularly in this direction (at the Universe). However there is one exception: Kalev Leiga, who even had a telescope for this.

Kalev Leiga is a character in Laura Kuusk's video "Objektiivid" (Lenses) (2008). The video is the story of his disappearance, the circumstances of which remain mysterious. The final scenes of the story give rise to another significant speculation. The camera zooms in, and in the very last second or a fraction of it, the pictorial space collapses into pixels. The imperceptibly deep layers of digital photography – the existence of a photograph or a video in the form of bits on a storage device after disappearing from the sensor, and before reappearing on a screen or printout. This in-between-ness is inaccessible to our senses and even if we could make the bits on a storage device somehow visible, we would be far from seeing the real scene or action that was photographed or filmed. But of course the computer knows how to reconstruct the daily experience of a given space-time from these bits. Maybe Kalev Leiga simply collapsed into bits? As a virtual character he might have. Rather more speculative and further from the answer is the question asked by some physicists – whether our real physical space-time isn't similarly discreet on a deeper level? Is the world a digital print consisting of pixels? And who then is the Photographer?

Peeter Laurits is grandiose and biblical. No, the flood doesn't of course give the impression of a restaurant at the end of the world. Rather, this is the beautiful beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Or in an extreme case, the fourth Ice (Mid-) Age.

In Japan, there are a lot of people and very little space. Krista Mölder has managed to take and bring over even more of the little space they have. This space is beautiful and clean. What one has little of, one keeps well.


Creatures from different space-times

Political and ideological spaces are kept separate from the other forms of space – in the monumental gallery of the Art House. Maybe it is better like this. Maybe it would be better like this altogether. But let's go there as well because surely this space will come to us anyway.

Johnson & Johnson are lying in a museum without moving at all. In the National Museum. It is clear that it is impossible for them to move in a photograph, but they haven't moved themselves for some time, as is obvious from the pictures. Could spaces be classified along the lines of how long you can lay down in them without another's interference?

I could only observe Dénes Farkas' models more closely on the third visit to the exhibition (which was actually the last day of the exhibition). Forms relieved of anything excessive (colour, texture, etc.). Could this be the way in which certain things that ably evade our consciousness and perhaps reside only somewhere in the subconscious start to crawl out beneath reality's colourful surface? Like a black and white photograph brings out something that colours don't reveal? What are these things? They are exciting and dangerous.

Visible Solutions OÜ conquers. Conquers various exhibition spaces. Conquers various continents. Conquers the bottom of the world's oceans (Laurits and Linnap record this event with their submarine cameras). Conquers the Moon. (How to raise a flag up there so it flutters?) Conquers Mars and other planets of the Solar system. And then, with the speed of light, leaves us to conquer new galaxies.


Where You End, I Begin

Exhibition view at Tartu Art House
Photo by Paul Kuimet
Courtesy of the artists



Marco Laimre's professor-like gymnastic splits relate in some way to the topic in Johnson & Johnson's work. Which is more tolerated in a public space: a nice gymnastics exercise or lying about? And how is the public's attitude affected by the presence of a photographer? Perhaps the photographer might rather be attacked? You see, so many questions! Because, of course, who wouldn't want to speak up on political-ideological topics?

The Bronze Soldier by Kristina Norman is probably the best fit in this exhibition space. It is somehow reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's novel "Night Meeting" from "The Martian Chronicles" (1950) – an encounter between an Earthling and a Martian on a dark night in a desert on Mars. Creatures from different space-times. The friendly but bewildered momentary contact between parallel universes. Something, which alas, can be more violent, as we know.

Raul Rajangu's glass room game is as mysterious as it is transparent. The glass wall (in the picture) blocks our entry into the picture. But this makes it the more appealing.

Now we have to move back to the transcendent space. For me three photographs of the Former Military Airfield in Haapsalu by Vergo Vernik form the centre of this exhibition. And they are actually positioned in the middle of the exhibition, amidst the transcendent space. Everything about this is well executed: the soap-toned colour, the simple geometric shapes, the repetition. Infinite symbols set in contrast with the Cyrillic names of soldiers. Letters like the calligraphy of woodborers in the series "Logos & Mythos" by Peeter Laurits (but this is already another exhibition). A space reconquered and opened up by way of photography.


Self-confident leader of the fine arts

It is rather hard to try to generalise or summarise the whole exhibition. Not in the sense that it is complicated but precisely because it is hard. This is because it would mean withdrawing from the pictures, which are emotionally very engaging. Considering the author's background this kind of view from "above" is definitely also a glimpse from "outside". One must admit that more constant and closer observation of the Estonian photography scene is a matter of the distant past. This was a time when that part of photography that remained outside of the realm of hobby photographers and media photography – as much there was of it – was a "thing in itself". Yes, there were names, exhibitions and albums, but this was something that had a place along side "real" art. The greater the surprise, to finally find photography in the company of the fine arts, and maybe even as a self-confident leader of the field.

"Where You End, I Begin" is distinctly a curator exhibition – and is worthy of praise. You cannot imagine that an exhibition so strong and cohesive could be composed in any other way. Of course everybody is permitted their own opinion on which of the artists are more, and which less well suited to their "personal perspective" on Estonian art photography; which artists are missing or which are unnecessary. The author imagines that Tanja Muravskaja could have been somewhere close to Kristina Norman, fully taking the risk that the "ideological space" might have blown up because of it. And Linnap, whose position and significance in Estonian photography is of course much more versatile.

Given the success of art photography, and the complaints about the lack of popularity for the contemporary arts, one might ask what is the relevance of the fact that beside (not to say "below") the high art echelons of photography, there is a considerable amateur photography movement, and of course professional press photography. Does this fact bear any other significance except that the technical equipment is similar? There are two more exciting and general trends: potent female photographers in Estonia (a fact which becomes clear in this exhibition) and the international success of Estonian photographic artists (something which is also known outside this exhibition).

But what comes to women. Yes, for the writer they have always been a mystery. And women photographers are no exception here.


Jaak Kikas is a professor of physics at the University of Tartu and director of the Tartu University Physics Institute.

Quote corner:

"Surely even today there is a great number of people in Estonia who still don't think of photography as a real art. The question of whether photography is art comes up again and again in these conversations where on one side of the table there are people dedicated to art and on the other side those who maybe just once a year find their way to an art exhibition. But nevertheless let's look at the facts.

First of all: what is the role of photography in the Estonian art scene anyway? It is that photography as a technique dates back to the 19th century and photographic images are a part of our daily lives. On the one hand, it is nevertheless clear that not much art photography has remained in the collective memory of the local population from the Soviet era. The people involved in photography in those times were mainly passport photographers, hobby photographers, press workers, KGB workers etc.; only paintings and graphics, which were neatly framed and placed on the wall, were considered highly valued as art.

But after the collapse of the Soviet system, the world also opened up in Estonia and the situation changed dramatically – to the advantage of camera art over traditional "tableaux arts". If we look for example at which artists have won the competition to exhibit in the Estonian national pavilion at the international Venice Biennale then we see that these are mainly artists working in the fields of photography, video and film: Jaan Toomik, Mark Raidpere, Kristina Norman, Liina Siib, Dénes Farkas. The victory of the camera has been absolute.

In fact, the valid question is no longer "is photography art?" but should rather be "is art only photography?". Without doubt, at this moment there is no other technique besides photography in the contemporary art scene, which forms a better platform for a young artist to gain attention in the professional art world. As if it is the camera that makes you automatically trendy and hip."


Andreas Trossek, Is Photography Art? – ERR radio news' art comment of the month 14. X. 2013.

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