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PR-Sunday, or the structural transformation of the public sphere through the spirit of white bread from Maxima

Janar Ala (2/2019)

Janar Ala versus Tommy Cash and Rick Owens and their joint exhibition "The Pure and the Damned".



3. V–15. IX 2019
Kumu Art Museum, 5th floor
Curator: Kati Ilves

It seems that merging art and fashion or shared disciplinary spaces are a relevant topic right now: in addition to the joint exhibition by Tommy Cash and Rick Owens, an exhibition titled "Sots Art and Fashion. Conceptual Clothes from Eastern Europe" is also currently on display at Kumu. And for the time being, Estonia is being represented in Venice by Kris Lemsalu, who started as a fashion artist, and in some sense, is continuing as one. Art and applied arts are breaking down their mutual borders and this is possibly a sign of our times somehow. We are living in a fast-paced world and functional time, when connections and consumption are more important than thinking and so-called non-connections and non-consumption. Not that I would have anything against this situation, but just to acknowledge the state of affairs here and now.



Just like Mona Lisa…
Tommy Cash's video animation
at Kumu Art Museum
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko




People who "usually don't visit Kumu"

For Kumu, the joint exhibition by Tommy Cash and Rick Owens is most importantly a PR victory. Foreign media have been covering them at some depth and for some time, plus this brings people to Kumu who would otherwise not come so easily. I even saw people at the exhibition who, based on their clothes and manner, quite certainly "usually don't visit Kumu". The situation was so exotic for me that I acted as a human being normally acts in an exotic and inexplicable situation: I took pictures with my mobile phone.

At the same time, people were watching the video animation by Tommy Cash, created using the simple yet effective principle by which famous works from art history are combined in a popular post-internet aesthetic – in about the same way as Marcel Duchamp once painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa's face. My friend said his brother used to make these kinds of jokes when he was about 14 years old and he had just discovered the editing software Photoshop in his computer. The people who "usually don't go to Kumu" just laughed and looked at each other in the eye perhaps in slight embarrassment.

But Tommy Cash and Rick Owens have made an exhibition together at Kumu and the reasons for it are not invented at all. From an interview with Kati Ilves, the curator of the exhibition, on the news outlet Postimees at the time of the opening we learn that Tommy Cash himself came to her a year and a half ago with the question of what he had to do to get an exhibition at Kumu. The Californian Rick Owens, based in Paris and Venice, is basically considered an idol among fashion aficionados and his clothes are mostly discussed as an epiphany. "The last independent fashion designer," the curator says.

His garments – or would it be more suitable to say works of art? – are often described using the adjective "gothic," and indeed these writhing, cut and out of balance structures do look a lot like Robert Smith in some of the music videos of the band The Cure or Johnny Depp's character in Tim Burton's film "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). When I mentioned art becoming "applied" then Owen's clothes can be described as consumer-unfriendly – and therefore possibly containing a more metaphysical or conceptual dimension.


Obscene taste

I am not sure I would like to go, for example, on a cruise to Sweden with a person wearing clothes designed by Rick Owens. I am not sure if we would have a lot to talk about and if we would have fun. Wouldn't a person wearing clothes by Rick Owens be the type whose clothes actually make up the most interesting part of them – and what follows is just a negative gradation of the ensuing disappointment? I don't always believe in people who dress overly fancy – and at the same time I know this talk can be considered reactionary.

Tommy Cash has in the past participated in Rick Owen's fashion show as a model, in turn Rick Owens admires Tommy Cash's music and video work, and as I have seen Tommy Cash walk around in Kalamaja wearing a coat made by Rick Owens, then the admiration is mutual. Also concerning Tommy Cash, the media have used the adjective "gothic".

Rick Owens has said that he admires Tommy Cash's obscene style. Tommy Cash's obscene style has an effect at the exhibition as well because if it didn't, it would not be a Tommy Cash exhibition. Cash has made people who, I presume don't otherwise love his obscene style that much, how to love his obscene style – like, for example, how Arvo Pärt has taught people who don't love silence to love his quiet and entirely sacral music. And in the same way as this person, who did not like Arvo Pärt's music before, now buys his "best of…" compilation or throngs into the Noblessner Foundry and takes a selfie afterwards, the person who does not usually like the obscene style goes to the Tommy Cash exhibition and takes a selfie with the container that allegedly contains Tommy Cash's sperm (or with Cash's slippers that are made of bread sold at the Maxima discount supermarket). And those two people might very likely be one and the same person.

This possible obscenity or shock or sensation, that at least media headlines love to stress regarding Tommy Cash, has been diluted to become something random or bland at this exhibition. However, on the same day as the opening of "The Pure and the Damned" I managed to read the news on the entertainment portal that one of the regulars in that publication, cellist Silvia Ilves, who reportedly likes to eat dirt, considers Tommy Cash gross.


Kumu standard

Yet let us leave the exaggerations and move towards the exhibition's rough essence, which does not really exist. Tommy Cash is a notable musician and video artist and his Instagram feed could be praised as well, but as the art critic Harry Liivrand said on the TV show "OP+", he is not up to "Kumu standard" yet.

I hereby agree with Liivrand. He is rather a poor man's Jeff Koons or yBA. Or a poor man's Aphex Twin video. "Must practice more before going on the big stage," as Ivo Linna, one of the most experienced pop artists in Estonia, said, or so the legend goes, about the well-known Scottish noise band Jesus and Mary Chain, who performed at the "Rock Summer" festival in 1989. It is possible that Tommy Cash did not have enough time to concentrate on the exhibition amidst his other activities because I don't believe in the lack of his talent in this case.

At the same time, it is possible to think about this exhibition in completely different and then obviously some so-called post-internet terms – not as art-as-object but as art-as-communication, marketing, distribution etc. If pictures from the exhibition create enough traffic and hashtags on Instagram, then can it be considered a success?

I even saw a girl at the exhibition, who was dressed like a Tommy Cash fan would be dressed and who moved through all the halls at a moderate pace, filming what she saw with her smartphone. In the meantime, she wrote something on her phone, then perhaps laughed. Getting off the tram and waiting for another one, I later saw from a distance that the very same girl is now going somewhere, and for a moment I wondered what her impressions were? But it seemed that she is by now chatting with someone on Facebook or is counting the likes received. And this is very dangerous, one could get hit by a car! The most photographed work in the show is the purple velvet-covered wheelchair by Tommy Cash, or so it seems based on social media at least. Injuries and deformations are also a very "gothic" thing right now.


Public relations

"The Pure and the Damned" is an exhibition that at least I went through quite quickly. The objects and their connections did not create particular sensations nor considerations. However, I did get some kind of secondary thoughts about how culture and stars function nowadays. Perhaps this was in a way the objective of the curator and the artists. Although I don't believe so because, as the word itself states, it is secondary.

Nevertheless, the exhibition is undoubtedly a PR and marketing job well-done. I was about to say it's even necessary, but it's somehow very sad to use words like "PR" and "necessary" in the same sentence. In that sense it is definitely a necessary exhibition, as it has brought "low" pop culture into the traditional "high culture" exhibition spaces. Pop culture is the most informative kind of culture of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century and it should be covered more in museums. Coverage – a valuable asset.


Janar Ala is a critic of pop culture, a cultural journalist and writer. Up to this day he makes regular contributions to Estonia’s most read newspaper Postimees.


Quote corner:

"First of all, I will explain a few words about Rick Owens to those who are not into fashion. A native of California, a mini-town called Porterville, Owens is a fashion icon whose career was launched by wife Michèle Lamy 25 years his senior. Owens, who peaked and stayed at the top of the world of fashion first in his homeland and then in Europe, is known as a persistent gothic innovator. His work is sombre, romantic and conceptual. If the Alien of James Cameron would be into clothing, it would definitely wear Rick Owens. If I was tall and slender enough and very rich, I would also wear Owens."

Anne Vetik, Kohvikus Pimeduse Printsi ja Vampiiride Kuningannaga. – Eesti Ekspress: Areen 8. V 2019.


"The greatest fashion trend of recent years is the Eastern European style, which means that it is cool to wear the three-striped Adidas tracksuit, be from Kopli (or rather own a hoodie with such an insignia) and most certainly to pose in all your Instagram pictures sitting in a slav squat. [---] The appearance of the post-Soviet urban style on international fashion stages can be associated with the beginning of the normcore trend in around 2013 (according to Urban Dictionary, the word was first used in 2005). Normcore means socks and sandals, beige pants and jumpers, perhaps something that in my childhood in the 1990s was associated with the then non-understandable word "humanitarian aid". The kind of clothes worn in the countryside."

Kaarin Kivirähk, Kas on ok kanda Kopli pusa? – Postimees 25. X 2018.


"After Arvo Pärt, the second most famous export article in Estonian music is about to be an artist who is the opposite of him in almost every imaginable way: Tommy Cash. [---] He is touring the world with increasing success; he is talked about in superlative terms in the international music and fashion media. [---] His malnourished body, innocent gaze and retro-style moustache give him the impression of a redeemer, which combined with visual fantasy on the border of perversity, Russian bling-slash-trash-aesthetic, a forced Slavic accent in English, clothes and hair designed by a seemingly error-method, theatrical megalomania, naïve choreography, minimalist music and cultivated androgynity results in an utterly charming and original artist image, that in the past year has started to be understood and appreciated also abroad."

Alvar Loog, "Ma otsin iga päev seda x-kohta, kus ma pole loominguliselt veel käinud". – Postimees 17. V 2018.

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