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The Artist’s Mythology and Location

Yevgeniya Lapteva (4/2016)

Yevgeniya Lapteva went to see Andrus Joonas’ solo exhibition "Mindsurfer vol. 4" in Klaipeda.


9. IX–9. X 2016
Klaipeda Culture Communication Center
Curator: Ignas Kazakevichus.

The Klaipeda Culture Communication Center recently hosted a large-scale solo exhibition "Mindsurfer vol. 4" by Estonian artist Andrus Joonas. This project grew from a major exhibition at the Tartu Art Hall ("Mindsurfer", 2014), and relates the story of the "making of the artist" between 1995 and 2016. It is probably here, in Klaipeda, away from home, that Andrus Joonas' personal mythology is revealed and intertwined with the mythology of Klaipeda City.

The show displays several works from the first series of the artist's "road art period" – "Suvi maal" (Summer in the Country) – which contributed to his rapid rise in popularity, and indeed also causing him to become rather well-known in his home country Estonia, although none of these have yet been acquired by Estonian museums. Namely, since 1995, he has shown his work along a length of the Suuresilla–Pärnu highway, having installed billboard sized paintings along the side of the road for a public of bus and coach passengers, truck drivers and car drivers to view. Other works such as "Südamelaul" (Heart Song, 2008), "Meeste laul" (Song of Men, 2009), "Olemise laul" (Song of Being, 2009), all belonging to the long-running "Aledoia" (2000 –...) series and no less monumental, but more sacral and symbolic, like mandalas created by monks from coloured sand, are finger-painted on canvas using colour combinations inspired by Orthodox and Buddhist icons; these are invitations for the viewer to meditate.

Andrus Joonas is also a performance artist. The title of the exhibition, "Mindsurfer vol. 4" reveals the direction of his performance practices and art as such: inward, into one's self. The artist's statement is rather accurately and clearly demonstrated by his verbal performance "Elu ilma CV-ta" (Life without CV, 2000–2014), created in the spirit of classical conceptualism. On 20 November 2000, he printed and signed a manifest stating that he refuses to use a CV as proof of the fact that he is an artist. Seven years later, Joonas prints another document stating that he has realised that living with a CV is the same as living for the CV. A year later, another document emerges, in which the artist communicates his new observations: "There is no big difference between living with-cv or without-cv; both are illusions and they do not express or confirm who I really am". This performance ends with the last document in May 2014; the original documents are now part of the Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus) collection.




Andrus Joonas
Life without CV
documentation of an endurance performance
Photo by Haide Rannakivi
Courtesy of the artist and Tartu Art Museum




It is important to view many of his paintings against the context of the video documentation of his performances as similar to Pagan rituals. Under almost every painting, there is a TV-set showing the artist engaged in odd-looking activities: he rings a bell, beats a drum or pours vodka over himself, appearing as a Yellow Wolf Man at times or choosing the character of a shaman. The shamanic period is related to his repeated journeys to Udmurtia to connect with his Finno-Ugric roots. Whether we like it or not, the video documents show that the clothes the artist was wearing during the performance sometimes end up in the painting ("Kolmainsus" (Trinity), 2014; "Must ja valge" (Black and White), 2011; "Tuisk" (Blizzard), 2014). The works of this period are created employing mixed media collages on canvas with the use of items of clothing, photographs, candles and the artist's personal belongings. All of the above live like containers or herbaria in which Joonas attempts to preserve his emotional and psychological state, his life energy. He even uses his own bed sheets and tablecloths as canvases. However, one of his latest works, "Absoluut" (Absolut, 2015), is just a yellow palm print on white canvas. And it is probably an anonymous palm print on the wall of a cave, which was the first image ever in the history of human civilisation and the history of art.



A trace or, more precisely, an imprint is one of the principal elements of Andrus Joonas' pictorial language. He creates paintings, using not only brushes, but literally his hands, dipping palms and fingers in paint and sometimes even mono-typing with his whole body, as in the work "Iseenda karjane on Kuningas" (The Man Who is Shepherd to Himself is King, 2008). There is another symbol that travels from one painting to another: it is a bird schematically depicted by means of an imprint of the sides of his crossed hands. The work "Tee kadunud linna" (The Way to the Lost City, 2008) is entirely metaphysical though, featuring a wonder-bird with human hands for wings who carries the artist away to a secret place where they are met at the entrance by a blue cat with Buddha's face, the third eye in the forehead and human hands. The hands are not merely painted; they seem to be traced like the shadows of the author's own hands.

In order to understand why Andrus Joonas needs to include the image or imprint of a hand in his pictures so often, we have to know some facts about his life. When the artist was a child in his primary school years, he fell off a tractor during farm work, which resulted in grave injuries: a spinal fracture and a fracture in his right hand. Doctors were close to amputating his hand; after a year spent in hospital the hand could be saved, but it still aches. Andrus Joonas, a very young man then, was forbidden to do any physically demanding work. How was one supposed to live like this in the countryside near Pärnu? For six years, he worked as a shepherd and started practicing as an artist in the same period. This is how it all began.

It is difficult for visitors to Klaipeda to miss the bronze adult and child footprints all over the Old Town. These urban sculptures refer to the legend about how the city was founded. It tells a story of two brothers, called Deer and Wolf, who went looking for a new place for their tribe to settle. Each brother went his own way. Wolf was following the riverbank and he vanished, having only managed to leave a footprint. Deer arrived on the coast and started looking for his brother, but could only find his footprint (klai peda), and this was where he brought his people.



The wolf's path and his disappearance also form an important motif in Andrus Joonas' artistic resume. In 1994, the artist created his character of a Yellow Wolf Man, a man with a lupine head, similar to the Egyptian god Anubis or Saint Christopher, revered greatly in Lithuania (earlier represented as a man with a canine head, and nowadays, as a giant carrying the Child Jesus across the river on his shoulders). The wolf man's first appearance is in the paintings "Jaanituli" (Midsummer Fire, 1995) and "Lugu minu lootusest" (The Story of My Hope, 1998), and later the artist put on the Yellow Wolf Man mask, which becomes his costume (or even alter ego) for numerous performances in the ten years that followed.

One legend has it that Saint Christopher was so handsome that he begged God to disfigure his face to spare him from women's lust, and God gave him the face of a dog or wolf. The actions of Yellow Wolf Man similarly resemble young men's quests and suffering during puberty, the path of trial and error and, finally, searching for love, the ideal or, in the artist's allegoric language, Аledoia. He dances with various women, lets off fireworks from his trousers, walks along a thin yellow pipe, marks his territory like an animal and takes his trousers off and puts them back on in public, while repeating "This Is Art. This Is Not Art" (2002). This period of yellow madness seems to end here in Klaipeda 10 years ago to the day…



In 2016, Andrus Joonas returned to Klaipeda, retracing his steps. In 2006, he was in residence at the Klaipeda Culture Communication Center to set up an installation and hold a performance there.

According to the artist, Klaipeda then resembled a city where a war had just ended. He was foraging for materials for his installation in the abandoned houses near the Jonas Hill district. In one of windowless houses, he saw a homeless couple having a date: a man and a woman, lost to society, had attempted to make those ruins there feel comfortable and even put a vase of white roses on the table. The artist transferred this romantic image of pure love amidst filth and rubbish into his installation "Memoriaal kapitalismi ja süütuse ohvritele" (Memorial to the Victims of Capitalism and Innocence, 2006), in which he held his performance, having discarded the Yellow Wolf Man mask.

Andrus Joonas created a sectional view of the room occupied by the homeless, a show-case of sorts with one wall made of trash and waste and one wall missing for the viewer. The entire interior of the conventional space, resembling a stage set, is painted white: a white armchair, a white sofa, a small white coffee table with a pot of white daisies. The only bright details the artist has left on the sofa catch the eye – a portrait of a young girl and a soft toy. Andrus Joonas painted himself white too, recalling Boris Grebenshikov's lyrics "I'm going to paint the room light … teach me the art of being quiet". This does not look like an attempt to forgive himself and others though, but like a method for calming down and starting everything anew; the ideal of sorts has been found, but it has already become a memory: the purest beauty and the purest love were experienced in the days of one's youth.

At this exhibition in 2016, two ready-made portrait photographs of children, a girl with tulips (2015) and an unknown boy with a pumpkin (2016), hold a prominent place. These portraits, encircled with fidgety video projections of the artist dancing alone and dancing with a woman, hang on the wall above the installation ("Aledoia 149", 2004) of the artist's bed looking as if it has survived a fire, with a hole burnt through in the middle and white roses visible in the hole. The boy and the girl seem to be the focal point of the display – a memorial to innocence of sorts. Apart from the above, Joonas touches upon the topic of innocence and the inner child that lives in every one of us in his work "Aledoia 265: Mehed ja naised ja poiss ja tüdruk" (Aledoia 265: The Men and the Women and the Boy and the Girl, 2008). The canvas almost two metres across features a symbolic image of a house with four hearts intertwining to make another inside. Around the house, there is a rather conventional representation of a landscape with a line to separate the sky from the land, two clouds, a couple of birds in the form of hand imprints that we have already seen, and two primitively drawn tulips: one with the tips of its petals looking up (this could be the boy) and the other with the tips of petals looking down (resembling the girl's skirt).

In the central square in Klaipeda, there is a very innocent sculpture. It is a fountain monument to Simon Dach, a Prussian poet. It is inspired by his poem to Annchen of Tharau written in honour of her marriage, which later became a popular song. A beautiful young girl stands on the pedestal, from which water flows in thin trickles, holding a flower in one hand and seemingly adjusting her dress with the other. There is a story related to this sculpture. When Hitler was giving a speech in Memele (the former name of Klaipeda) from the balcony of the drama theatre building, he became outraged at one woman who was standing with her back to him; it was the stone Annchen. Soon after, the sculpture was removed only to be replaced after the war.

There are numerous sculptures in Klaipeda, and a whole park where a cemetery used to be. And there is a small sculpture of a pot with coins from various countries scattered next to it near the "Biržos Tilta" bridge. It marks the place where the first bank used to be and is to remind us that Memel was a port city where the paths and fortunes of numerous seafarers crossed. Andrus Joonas titled the performance that opened the exhibition "Kollase Hundi tagasitulek" (Return of the Yellow Wolf Man) as a reminder that this is where he had disappeared. The artist met the public face to face, standing on the steps of the stair to the gallery. He was massaging his head with one hand while opening a tap in his trousers with the other. Yellow liquid started pouring. The smell of apples followed. He was spitting out coins that rolled down the steps, plinking. These were Lithuanian, Russian and Estonian coins that people normally throw into fountains for luck. The artist did not look like a vandal but rather resembled an extravagant fountain that could, for instance, decorate this street on which the Culture Center is located. 


Yevgeniya Lapteva is an art critic, freelance curator and performance artist with master's degrees from Saint Petersburg State University and Bard College. 

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