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Observers, feelers and other thinkers

Keiu Krikmann (4/2020)

Keiu Krikmann takes a look at Kristina Õllek’s work.


29. IX–10. X 2020
Draakon Gallery

Kristina Õllek's project "Filter Feeders, Double Binds and Other Silicones" combines photographic and video images of sea(side) environments and their inhabitants using installation with natural elements. Characteristic of the artist, the set-up she has created in Draakon Gallery is measured and controlled, perhaps even clinically precise, each element finely tuned. In this project, Õllek was inspired by a specific geographical location, the coastal areas of the North Sea in the Netherlands, essentially a man-made artificial landscape. Or to be more precise, the region – mostly below sea-level – was shaped into its current form, replete with bridges, tunnels, wind turbines, oyster and blue mussel farms, after a massive flood at the beginning of the 1950s prompted thorough reconstructions in the area.

This is not Õllek's first sea-themed exhibition: a less extensive version of "Filter Feeders" was displayed at the art fair "Foto Tallinn" in 2019 and "Nautilus. New Era" (2018) has been shown both in Estonia and internationally. As a photographer Õllek has long been fascinated by the mediation of images – the relationship between the original and the copy, the migration of images between online and offline environments, the transmission of culturally significant images – and this is also evident in this exhibition. Õllek's view on the Dutch artificial landscapes and their inhabitants is hyperrealistically cool; it rather documents than boils with excitement of discovery. Although, what great discoveries could be made anyway in a place that is purely man-made infrastructure, the continued existence of which completely depends on man's ability to be in full control of it.



Draakon Gallery
exhibition view
Courtesy of the artist



However, I still feel that "Filter Feeders" is a more personal project than Õllek's previous exhibitions. In the video in the show, exhibited as a prologue to the rest of the artworks, we see an invisible presence clicking through short videos the artist took in the two years she lived in the Netherlands – of jellyfish, algae, sand buffeted by the perpetual wind along the coast etc. Õllek has admitted that while she was living in The Hague, walks on the beach became a sort of meditation for her. Still, just as in her previous works, she is present as a bodiless and faceless hand, probing, touching, reaching out and showing. In "Filter Feeders" it also makes itself known through the hand-written silicone letters on the window of the gallery.

In addition to the extended view of the artificial coastal area, Õllek also zooms in on the various organisms living in the region, such as mussels and jellyfish. And both are prolific in the area: mussels can be found in their natural habitat as well as in the region's largest mussel farms, the jellyfish population is rapidly increasing due to the rising water temperature caused by global warming. Humans have the tendency to view the so-called lower organisms as material, a mass that can be easily instrumentalised and "Filter Feeders" does look at the boundary between living being and material. This is referred to in photographs, where inorganic and biomaterials are displayed, but also through the titles of the artworks, such as "Jellyfish, Slime or Other Silicones", and the perhaps at first startling video and photographic image of a bodiless hand massaging a jellyfish-like translucent mass and eventually squeezing it to pieces.

The silicone-like mass, however, is not a living organism but a ball of edible water, and so artificial landscapes now feature artificial water. Õllek observes, explores, feels, composes and archives – but her view is anchored to the shore, her relationship to these organisms seems somewhat different to that the kind of kinship Donna Haraway speaks of. But what does it mean to touch another organism so different from us; in what way is this even possible? How can we understand reciprocity here? Recently, feminist theorist Sophie Lewis commented on the Netflix documentary "My Octopus Teacher" (dir. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, 2020) about the friendship(?) between a filmmaker and an octopus, when she said there was a kind of an eroticism present in the human-cephalopod interactions caused a tiny storm online for a couple of days. The main cause was, of course, many of the commentators' limited understanding of the meaning of the word "eroticism", but it nevertheless once again raised the question of the possible forms and levels of perception in relationships between humans and non-humans.

Coming back to the broader picture, due to the climate catastrophe, the world's oceans and related ecological issues that have attracted increasing attention from artists, it has become clear that as a multilayered and complex issue, this requires a multiplicity of different approaches. Õllek's view of mussel farms and artificial landscapes is different to Mika Rottenberg's video "NoNoseKnows" (2015), looking at the multiple levels of exploitation in pearl farming, in terms of both the "material" and the underpaid (female) workers; to Joey Holder's lavish and mysterious installation "Semelparous" (2020), centred around the life and bleak fate of eels in eel farms; and to the recent group exhibition at Kai Art Center titled "Leviathan: the Paljassaare Chapter" (2020), inspired by a vision of the future, where climate change has left most of the Earth under water and the changes the Paljassaare peninsula has gone through over time; to Joan Jonas' extensive installation "Moving off the Land II" (2019), thinking of the past and future of oceans, their mythologies, mysteries and wonder. But it is precisely the presence of an array of different perspectives that allows us to understand our connection to the oceans and its inhabitants and how we influence one another; and new explorations of filter feeders, double binds and other silicones are in the pipeline.


Keiu Krikmann is a writer, curator and translator. She has taught 20th and 21st century design theory at the Estonian Academy of Arts and curated the online gallery Konstanet.

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