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Who Understands the Feelings of a Replicant? Notes for Tõnis Saadoja

Andreas Trossek (1/2016)

Andreas Trossek visits Tõnis Saadoja's solo exhibition "Etudes for Piano and Canvas".



13. I–1. II 2016
Hobusepea Gallery

One of the most famous "death monologues" in Hollywood history is found in the cult science fiction film "Blade Runner" (1982). I have used quotation marks for this term because from the perspective of narrative an artificial organism, whose batteries have simply run out – to put it metaphorically – leaves the stage at this moment. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe", enumerates the replicant – played by Rutger Hauer – with unveiled condescension towards the main character, who had been sent to "switch him off": "Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears... in... rain". Moving, simple and effective (Richard Wagner plus Aphrodite's Child); and according to legend, some people on the film set even started to cry.

An oft-repeated subject in science fiction literature and cinematography – the birth of artificial intelligence – falls in this scene back to a simple opposition. The machine is a slave for humans – no matter how intelligent or strong, but he is clearly secondary in a literal sense. In fact, when a machine can solve problems logically, it will change nothing for humanity because World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov already lost a chess match to an IBM supercomputer in 1997. The hypothetical problem of artificial intelligence appears only then when a machine acquires the ability to simulate human emotions. The same thing is basically still measured using the half-a-century-old Turing blind test which does not judge the correctness of the given answer or the ability to respond, but whether the computer answers in a way that a human would have answered. Until this happens the planet remains dominated by the anthroposphere.

Tõnis Saadoja's cold, calculating photorealist manner of painting has, over the years, caused somewhat similar perplexity. He is like a havoc-wreaking replicant as a painter, and it is never really clear whether he is more human or more machine. Here I am, for example, reminded of Jaan Elken – professor of painting at the University of Tartu – who at last year's Konrad Mägi Prize award ceremony poked fun at this in a friendly manner, saying that similar paintings could today be ordered as low-cost products from China or printed using a digital printer. Saadoja's painting technique always has a precise and mimetic effect. At the same time, it is like dead material on a canvas, where there is no place for human mistake or spontaneous whims. Everything has always been a priori in the service of the original idea, as is immanent for conceptualism. Even the colour on the canvas seems to be flowing as if it were in a raster graphic programme. Critics do find emotions in these paintings, but almost in a forced manner,1 as if they were giving a defence speech in an imaginary trial for a microwave oven or scanner.

The exhibition "Etudes for Piano and Canvas" at Hobusepea Gallery is comprised of the same paintings that were exhibited from 19 June to 30 August last year at Tartu Art Museum. In addition, there is one new painting, which is only an empty "screen". The viewer can thus project anything on that screen with the permission of the artist. When I was talking with an art critic who was visiting Tartu, a surprising association was pointed out to me with David Cronenberg's film "Crash" (1996), which is about car crash fetishism – human and machine melting together. When I visited the exhibition at Hobusepea Gallery, I was instead reminded of the film "Blade Runner" and more precisely the motif of the replicant. Quite possibly when asking a music critic for a written opinion of Saadoja's work, we would get an essay on the music of Kraftwerk, which is simultaneously humanely warm and machine-like cold. So there is something to this.

A well-known literary critic Harold Bloom has conceived the anxiety of influence concept, which in a nutshell states that all strong creative minds feel an anxiety of influence towards their predecessors but are, exactly because of this fear of epigonism or idealisation, capable of exceeding their predecessors.2 Influential, historical role models come into being exactly in this way and strong creative minds are designated to (mis-)interpret the work of their predecessors in their own ways. Saadoja named his personal anxiety of influence with his breakthrough exhibition "Mainstream", which also took place at Hobusepea Gallery in 2006. The exhibition focussed on a photograph of Gerhard Richter that he had found on the web encyclopaedia Wikipedia, hinting at the series of portraits Richter had painted of historical figures. Today we see that even though this exhibition took place a decade ago, the spirit of Richter still lingers in Saadoja's work but not in an idealistically tragic or ironically opposing way, but rather in a theatrical dramatic key as part of the beauty of the game.



Tõnis Saadoja
Etudes for Piano and Canvas, I
acrylic, oil, canvas, 250×185 cm
Courtesy of the artist


"This series has been described as something reflective, cryptic or elegiac," says the artist in the press release for the "Etudes…" exhibition, leaving everything open-ended so that the game could begin. A viewer with only a modernist school of reading will probably first notice that the colour scheme of the painting series is dark, the candle has burnt out, there are scissors and a rope on the table and, as amateur detective, will quickly reach the conclusion that the artist must suffer from languor. Yet at the same time, one can find a certain alienation, impersonalisation of emotions in these scene fragments. This is likely to be best understood by young hipsters who walk directly up to a painting that depicts a smartphone, grab their mobile phones and take a photo of it and then upload it onto the Instagram photo sharing network to get "likes". Simple and effective – art criticism in the digital age par excellence.

Emotions are not unique and do not belong to us alone; all images today are bound to remind us of something that has existed before. For example, when Estonians, who are interested in art and familiar with the postmodernist custom of referencing other artworks, should easily recognise the reference to Adamson-Eric (the hangman's noose motif), then the average foreign art expert will definitely recognise Richter in one of the paintings (the candle motif). It is of course a very comfortable presupposition that could easily be expanded to include Estonia's entire art history: think of Andres Tolts, think of Giorgio de Chirico; think of Toomas Vint, at the same time think of René Magritte, etc. According to a hegemonic Western art theory, the Eastern European artist remains – even after the end of the Cold War –a "belated" elementary particle in the general expansion and normalisation process – invisible, secondary, in the status of a replicant. Yet at the same time, one cannot exclude the possibility that he may one day get further than us, mere mortals, would ever believe.


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


1 For example, "Undivided is Saadoja's own experience, the emotional impulse that has pushed him to act." Jan Kaus, Loo artikuleerimata tuum. – Sirp 22. I 2016; "The future perspective of Saadoja's art could lie in continuous emotional opening and/or a more clearly articulated social commentary." Tõnis Tatar, Perfektsionisti üksindus ja raskemeelsuse ravi. – Sirp 7. VIII 2015.

2 See: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp 19–49.

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