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"I have used the comparison of [---] perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal." – Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale. "Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame" (KUNST.EE 3/2022)

 

Making the invisible visible

Eero Kangor (3-4/2010)

Eero Kangor speaks of Enno Hallek’s solo exhibition Fractal Marriage with a Shadow at Tallinn Art Hall Gallery
 
The viewer who enters the space of Enno Hallek’s exhibition with no prior knowledge of the artist and his works will no doubt be confused – ‘What are these things?’[1] On closer examination, ‘these things’ turn out to be segments consisting of plywood panels, painted and attached to each other with butterfly screws. The curator, Harry Liivrand, has called them ‘module paintings’[2] whereas the artist describes them as ‘fractals’, and what makes these fractals seem like paintings is that Hallek has painted their surfaces. By definition, a fractal is a geometric figure characterised by its self-similarity; i.e., each part of the object has the same statistical character as the whole. The titles of the works do little to help explain them. Indeed, the work Fractal Marriage with a Shadow,from which the exhibition’s title is drawn, consists of two ‘modules’ like coat-hangers on a clothes rail, and even here the title tells us nothing. Worse still, none of the works are dated and any attempt at placing them in a specific context fails. In this way the artist has achieved his goal. The viewer must enter into a dialogue that is supposed to form the meaning to the work, especially in the absence of the author (who may even have died, as Roland Barthes once wrote).
 
However, this meaning may also be discovered from the artist’s biography. Hallek is an Estonian artist living and working in Sweden. In 1943, still a teenager, Hallek emigrated from Estonia with his parents. He began his studies in art in parallel with his other work, and from 1953 to 1958 he studied painting at the Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm. He first tried to define his refugee status in relation to the Swedish mentality by opposing it with nostalgia, and his realist landscape paintings were also partly a protest against the high-modernist training that promoted abstract expressionism. Thus, Hallek found it necessary to deal with personal memory, as is perhaps best exemplified by his work My Paddles From Estonia, And My Memories from 1975. Hallek tells an amusing story about the creation of that particular work in the film Artist Enno Hallek,[3] which was made in Kadriorg Palace in 1990 when Hallek had his first solo exhibition in Estonia. The story shows us the extent to which the birth of an artwork is determined by chance, by the inventiveness of the artist, and by his ability to see beauty in everyday objects. He had found the eponymous paddles in a shed at his country cottage where they had stood for over thirty years before he found them, riddled with wormholes. However, the reunion with the past does not appear tragic in Hallek’s works, rather it is manifested in a rainbow of colours fused into bright yet calm combinations.  
 
Hallek first began to explore the rainbow spectrum, with all its different meanings and variations, during the period when he was fascinated with Pop Art. Among other things, Hallek’s fame in Sweden is based precisely on his leading role in introducing Pop Art into Swedish art during the early 1960s. Nonetheless, Liivrand indicates that Hallek should not be considered a typical Pop artist, because Swedish critics regarded the works in his 1965 solo exhibition as the ‘blonde and Nordic version’ of Pop Art.[4] He certainly follows the neo-avant-garde principles that disapprove of bourgeois lifestyle and consumer culture, and has remained true to them until this day, but he does not apply these principles strictly and imposingly, but rather in a merry, ironic and playful way. Even the fractals in his current exhibition mock the bourgeois passion for acquisition: they are characteristically anti-auratic and promote environmentally-sustainable recyclability. Hallek tries to involve viewers interactively and democratically in shared authorship of the work, intending to render his works with a constantly changing and open quality. In essence, Hallek’s fractals are conceptions.  
 
Theory plays an important role in Hallek’s work: theory becoming reality – its realization and expression in art is among his goals. In this exhibition he is particularly interested in the newest and most intriguing scientific theories, and his interest in science and technology has also been apparent in earlier works. This is perhaps partly explained by the profound importance of milestones in the development of science and technology – be it the discovery of the structure of DNA or Albert Einstein’s formula E=mc² early in the 20th century (which opened the possibility of constructing nuclear weapons). Among the most significant events of the 20th century was man’s stepping on the Moon in 1969,[5] which Hallek was able to witness through another important technological miracle, television. Thus, the achievements of the physical sciences have made the physical world more accessible to us; but this, paradoxically, has occurred through the visualisation of the invisible. No-one has seen atoms and electrons, not to mention ‘strings’. Likewise, art in a general sense, is an expression of an idea in material form, and yet it is never an unambiguous and direct concordance, but always a mediated, suggested idea. It is precisely this essential link between science and art that Hallek explores in his conceptual work.  
 
In illustrating string theory Hallek tries to depict a phenomenon that is unknown to him, drawing on an understanding he has formed by means of scientific texts – things he has read, heard and seen. However, arriving at the expression of this understanding in material, he leans on his previous knowledge and experience, just as medieval sculptors did when sculpting Satan, demons and hell, or as Albrecht Dürer did when he depicted a rhinoceros even though he had never seen one. Contemporary scientists also rely on visual experience that is not radically different from that of artists. Martin Kemp has called the basis of this similarity between scientists and artists their ‘structural intuitions’.[6] Kemp argues that observers of nature with different interests (scientists analysing the laws of nature or artists drawing inspiration from their surrounding environment) perceive the fundamental structures of certain natural forms and processes intuitively in a similar way. Our perceptual ability has developed to process similar natural forms and forces in what is functionally the most effective way, regardless of whether these forms and forces are perceived with the visual imagination or analysed according to a comprehensive scientific research model.[7] Therefore, there are certain common elements in the various ways of expression of scientists and artists, and we may also intuitively perceive the similarity between Hallek’s module paintings and the string theory.
 
After all, science and art are both games involving sets of rules – Spiel, as Vaino Vahing used to say. It is in this playful mood, inspired by Boris Vian, that I would like to entertain the readers with a dialogue compiled of the titles of Hallek’s works and occurring between two imaginary art critics trying to impress one another with their profoundness:
 
A: Good morning, Mr Rorschach! What do you think of the theory of the white bubbles of the world?  
 
R: I have never been to Kilimanjaro, where the sky-blue sky symmetrically relates to the shadow of the fractal marriage.  
 
A: Do you think then that portable sunset with a hole in the ozone layer offers symmetry that is more ambivalent?  
 
R: Oh no! I would rather prefer portable sky-blue and a psycho-realist fractal to Kandinsky’s portable sunset!
 
Eero Kangor is an art critic and art historian, and is currently a PhD student in art history at the Estonian Academy of Arts

 
[1] A possible answer to this question is provided by other reviews of the exhibition: Kersti Koll, Mitmetahuline Enno Hallek. – Sirp 22.10.2010; Teet Veispak, Kuidas maalida seda, mida me ei näe? – Postimees 26.10.2010; Raivo Kelomees, Enno Halleki moodulmaalid. – Eesti Ekspress 28.10.2010.
[2] Harry Liivrand has gone to great lengths to ‘repatriate’ Enno Hallek’s art, which had previously only been known to the local audience through literature on art. Liivrand has curated all Hallek’s solo exhibitions in Estonia: those held in 1990, 1995 and 1999 as well as the current one. He has also thoroughly analysed Hallek’s work (see: Harry Liivrand, Enno Halleki kunstist. – Eesti Kunstimuuseumi aastaraamat 1990–1992, Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum, 1994, pp. 9–11).
[3] The film can be also seen until the beginning of 2011 at the exhibition Estonian Art in Exile in Kumu Art Museum.
[4] Harry Liivrand, Enno Halleki kunstist, p. 9.
[5] Elnara Taidre has analysed the themes of the ‘Space Age’ in Estonian graphic art. See: Elnara Taidre, Kosmoseteema käsitlusi Nõukogude Eesti graafikas. – Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi 2010, No. 1–2, p. 73.
[6] Martin Kemp, who describes himself as a visual historian, has tried to apply the methods of art history to the artefacts of science and technology. See: Martin Kemp, Seen/Unseen. Art Science and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 2.
[7] Ibid, p. 211.
Photo: Andreas Trossek
 
8.10–7.11.2010
Tallinn Art Hall Gallery
Curator: Harry Liivrand
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