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We need to talk about DeStudio

Andreas Trossek (4/2021)

Andreas Trossek wrote down his theses on DeStudio's (Herkki-Erich Merila and Peeter Laurits) retrospective "Hangover".


28. III–3. X 2021
Fotografiska Tallinn
Curator: Eero Epner

Let me start by saying that I have practically no connection to the founding members of the group DeStudio, Herkki-Erich Merila and Peeter Laurits. Meaning, there is nothing more between us than the conventional capitalist relationship of "culture producer" and "culture consumer". A critic's respect (destined to remain one-sided by its very nature) in fact involves no emotion or passion but does include a certain kind of objectivity.

I understand that this declaration (of interests) places me outside the circle of people who have built the legend around DeStudio, which includes the heroes of the narrative themselves as well as their closest friends: all kinds of classmates, comrades, drinking buddies, others of their generation etc. Nevertheless, in this text I will try to carve out why DeStudio as a brand does not only belong to them but has instead crystallised or been canonised by now as part of the disciplinary body of Estonian art history and thus belongs to us all.




The nineties were like upside-down sixties. Meaning that the cultural upheavals taking place in the free West in the 1960s occurred in Eastern Europe – previously part of the Soviet Union – only in the 1990s. After the Berlin Wall had fallen. We can argue over the details but figuratively speaking, the Second World War really only ended here and then. Historians will be discussing this transitional decade for generations to come, this is something we can be sure of.

Above all, in the nineties, Eastern Europeans wanted to become free, rich, sexy, famous and buy a lot of colourful Western goods. The time favoured young people without much past experience – it even felt like they were the majority in society. The future belongs to the young anyway, but especially during pivotal times they manage to adapt the fastest – essentially, this was the prevalent attitude in society at the time. DeStudio was one of the cultural phenomena in newly independent Estonia that embodied this paradigmatic shift in real time.

The fact that in the course of this shift they were going to be put on a pedestal in the local art history seems almost inevitable. If DeStudio had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent them – a rhetorical cliché, but in this case also true. Who else could curators have picked for museum shows telling the story of the "revolutionary", "wild", "crazy", "hot" or "nosy" 1990s? There has been a number of such retrospective shows since the opening of Kumu, the main building of the Art Museum of Estonia, and almost without exception, these shows have always included compositions by DeStudio.

The fragmented images of DeStudio also allow future curators to link a whole array of key concepts relevant to the time to the group's oeuvre: postmodernism, post-socialism, neoliberalism, private equity, commercial photography and profit-oriented mass media, the advertising and fashion industries, new pop music and new subcultures. And, of course, there are also the keywords that evoke the group's name in a rather direct manner, such as deconstruction or Derrida (Jacques). So nineties, isn't it?

Yes, but also why not decadence, debate, destabilisation, disinformation or other stylistic twists using the prefix "de-", like "deranged" etc. At a time when even the most insane ideas were realised, DeStudio were also producing a considerable number of advertisements as well as photography and art exhibitions, as anyone who remembers the print media and advertisement boom of the time can confirm. Sometimes, the portraits that were shot in their studio were cut up with scissors, so when dealing with DeStudio the fact that one had a sense of humour was perhaps more beneficial than detrimental. Irony and humour also fit better – or at least that is how it seems to me – in the 1990s than in today's world.

Cutting up images was said to have been done for practical reasons, at least that is what Laurits and Merila claim in their interviews today. Since such large-scale formats as they needed were technically difficult to create in Estonia at the time, they had no choice but to create the larger image using smaller pieces. This might very well be true but it seems equally plausible that collage and montage became fashionable again with the onslaught of postmodernism. Chasing différance with a magnifying glass on shifting meanings was very in; big modernist narratives were out. Who would not love an anti-authoritarian constellation of meanings made up of endless tiny details that can never be exhausted but will branch out forever as an endless rhizome?

So, seemingly standing on the shoulders of famous French philosophers – who in those days were still (mostly) very much alive and extensively translated into Estonian by Laurits' good friend from his youth Hasso Krull – DeStudio had an equally significant effect on audiences more familiar with Anglophone pop culture. This is evidenced, for example, in DeStudio's collages for Röövel Ööbik (a kind of a "tribute band" of the British collective The Fall) that managed the band members look like "normal" Western youth, even though they all had not so long ago carried the red Soviet passport in their pockets. In fact, there was something in DeStudio's visuals that evokes the aesthetics of MTV, which influenced the global youth culture at the time: the kind of nervous multicoloured flickering and images that resembled music video stills that could also have easily been imagined as a moving image.

For some reason, in my mind I always see (and/or hear) them in association with the "Achtung Baby" (1989) and "Zooropa" (1993) period of U2 – the stadium rock band's experimental studio production period – when Bono dressed in a golden suit, made prank calls to Salman Rushdie or tried (unsuccessfully) to call a taxi on stage in front of a live audience during their Zoo TV tour. Just like DeStudio (wearing leopard-skin outfits), the members of U2 also wanted to ironically distance themselves in that time from their output of the 1980s, which had been sincere and straightforward as opposed to the ambivalent and adrenaline-fuelled kaleidoscopic world that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So, metaphorically, the static single black and white still image was at the time replaced by the flickering screen of colour television, presenting all of God's animals in all their diversity. Indeed, presented with an array of images, screens or altars, people also do not have to make as many choices as in more "monotheistic epochs". When it comes to collage, a particular effect can be noticed, one that the beloved artists do not speak of too often themselves but which is nevertheless very much present: when you present the viewer with several ideas at once, not all of them need to be executed artistically on an equally impeccable level; to arouse and keep the audience's interest, it suffices to combine a number of things that are moderately or only somewhat original. Because nobody wants to seem dumb or uneducated by asking, for example, why there are scissors in a person's mouth, a razor blade on someone's eyeball, a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table etc.

From this maze of allusions, we can, of course, spot the influence of 20th century dadaists and surrealists as far as the eye can see. For example, on the cover of the second issue of the 1993 almanac Kunst, we see a photo collage by DeStudio, depicting a mouth, an eye and a saw, originally displayed at their debut exhibition "Diseases and Metamorphoses" in the photography gallery of the Tallinn old town jail (currently the Museum of Photography, a branch of Tallinn City Museum). That was in addition to favourable reviews by their contemporaries and an advertisement of various services offered by DeStudio on the inner side of the back cover. However, inside the issue, we can also find an article titled "Textuality and Photography in Surrealism", authored by "Peeter Laurits / DeStudio".

Photographers' love of surrealism should not come as a surprise, since in a way, the tension between truth and lies, documentary and fantasy has been encoded into the history of photography as technology. Just like the law that since the birth of photography entire generations of creators of all kinds of gimmicks have found work, money and fame at fairs, advertising and other parts of the entertainment sector, where an abundance of "free money" circulates, just waiting to be picked up.

And yet: as surrealists, of course, were avid students of Sigmund Freud (and his students), would it be excessive to consider DeStudio's work, among that of other cultural greats of the 20th century, post-Freudian in its essence? Sounds classy, no? All that focus on the mysteries of birth and death, in utero and spiritus–animus–corpus themes – where else could it come from? Surely not as far in the past as the renaissance, the "harvest party" on the anatomical table, as Johannes Saar writes in the catalogue of DeStudio's retrospective?

Or where does the desire to construct such a dignified prehistory to a phenomenon like DeStudio, anchored in such a particular point in time, even come from? All of DeStudio's exhibitions, advertisement gigs and other activities took place roughly between 1992 and 1998. It was the 1990s that was the perfect time and place for them. A time when the intoxication from drinking an exotic bottle of tequila on an August night in 1992 could still be felt and the idea of DeStudio was conceived, as the artists claim. And the hangover had not yet hit. The idea to earn money from advertising photography and spend it on art and surviving.

In the 1980s, they would have not had the chance to do this, as in the deficit economy of the Soviet Union, there was no need for advertisements (read: everything that was officially or unofficially available was bought anyway), and eager private entrepreneurs were rather rudely labelled hustlers by the state. In the 1980s, exhibition spaces were dominated by the triumvirate of painting, print and sculpture; in occupied Estonia, photography was not yet taught at the level of higher education.

In the noughties, on the other hand… nobody seemed to need DeStudio anymore. Least of all the former members of DeStudio, who were visible enough without it, especially Laurits. As the 1990s came to a close, the so-called band separated and both members of the duo continued their individual careers. And that was that. At the end of the decade, an ugly lawsuit was also looming somewhere in the background, regarding photographing some garments without the permission of their maker or something similar, but it is unseemly and unnecessary to bring that up now. If at all, perhaps only to say with acceptance and resignation that capitalism, or money, gave birth to DeStudio, and capitalism, or money, also killed DeStudio because, surprisingly, a wonderful Hair Splitting Device had been hidden in the fresh copyright law adopted in the newly independent Estonia in 1992.

Here we must ask the most painful question of them all: could DeStudio make a comeback? The fundamental impossibility of the prospect of a revival was clearly indicated already by the relatively lukewarm reception of their 2008 comeback from the critics. So it seems that the works created in the 2000s were included in the timeline presented at DeStudio's retrospective in 2021 only because these had been stored somewhere and could be restored, exhibited and marketed during the artists' lifetime alongside the group's earlier but art historically more significant works.

In reality, the legend of DeStudio was born in the 1990s and remained firmly tied to this particular decade to the extent that, by the 2000s, DeStudio was literally (art) history and both Laurits and Merila had successfully moved on with their lives. When it comes to legendary bands, comebacks are always a bad idea, as they obscure the narrative specific to a time and space by unravelling the stories we have securely and impatiently attached to the heroic acts of our idols.

Reunion of The Beatles – thanks but no thanks. A 21st century version of the Sex Pistols – thank you, not interested (already their 1996 comeback was not interesting). ABBA revived as digital avatars – where is the kill switch? To conclude: you can make money by staging a comeback, but is money really the most important thing in life? And if there really is a dire need to return, perhaps a new b(r)and name should be adopted – I don't know, something like DeStudio 2.0 or Re:destudio, for example. Or something clever using the prefix "meta", or whatnot.

Each story has a beginning, middle and end. Each legend has its price. In the case of DeStudio, the price is expressed in the axiom that we need to talk about DeStudio, and indeed, we do, so much so that we start foaming at the mouth and our ears start bleeding, but above all, in the future we will also be discussing DeStudio primarily in the historical context of art, pop culture and print media of the 1990s in Estonia. This is how it has been, this is how it is, this is how it will always be.



DeStudio Maria
Photo montage,
c. 70 x 50 cm
Art Museum of





P. S. Another alternative way – even though it's crazy, I know – of looking at DeStudio's legacy would be to see it as the photo archive of the failed fantasies of the future of 1990s Estonian pop culture. Let us imagine this idea expressed as a sign on a building, engraved in marble, all capital letters, referring to the institution occupying that building, and let us get used to the idea: The Archive of a Failed Future. Open Mon–Fri 9:00–17:00, to enter please ring the bell and wipe your feet at the door.

Röövel Ööbik never sounded as cool and international on their records as they looked in the portraits taken by DeStudio. Maria Avdjuško never became as iconic and global a theatre or film star as DeStudio's photo sessions seemed to suggest. Joel De Luna never won the Eurovision song contest as a representative of the Republic of Estonia. Ene-Liis Semper never became the so-called local version of Marina Abramović but instead, the co-founder of theatre NO99 etc. I think only when it comes to Beatrice's portrait collage, it is clear that if that had been the last photo shoot to conclude her decades-long modelling career, her place in the history of local pop culture and fashion would have been secured regardless. Not to mention DeStudio themselves, of course.




P. P. S. And a little joke to conclude it all. Allegedly, DeStudio was approached with the idea of making an exhibition by one of the importers of the Fotografiska franchise at the opening of their Tallinn branch in 2019. In 2021, the DeStudio retrospective was finally opened and that undoubtedly constituted one of the most notable art events in the country. And so, Fotografiska Tallinn has fulfilled its strategic goal and now it could might as well be demolished. Ha!


Andreas Trossek works as the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.

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