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"I have used the comparison of [---] perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal." – Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale. "Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame" (KUNST.EE 3/2022)


...with a cool flick of a finger

Maria Helen Känd (3/2021)

"Modern Love (or Love in the Age of Cold Intimacies)" could surprise you by offering a little bit of warmth, writes Maria Helen Känd.


19. IV–5. IX 2021
Tallinn Art Hall
Artists: Gabriel Abrantes, Hannah Toticki Anbert, Melanie Bonajo, Laura Cemin, Benjamin Crotty, Marijke De Roover, Kyriaki Goni, David Haines, Juliet Jacques, Mahmoud Khaled, Maria Mavropoulou, Lauren Lee McCarthy, Kyle McDonald, Marge Monko, Peter Puklus, Margaret Salmon
Curator: Katerina Gregos



"The practical mind has made life tragically lame. I have neither the will nor the voice to speak for someone else, and I do not have the strength to raise my fist towards the cold gaze of stars as I stand in the crowd. Intimacy turning into advertisement and porn makes me hide myself under the bed like a child, and I cry. But I can no longer cry. I do not want to read the word "love" only ever on the covers of mail order catalogues."

Taavi Eelmaa


At the international group exhibition "Modern Love (or Love in the Age of Cold Intimacies)" at Tallinn Art Hall, the curator Katerina Gregos presents a selected constellation of artworks concerned with the nature of intimate relationships in the current technologically mediated and networked world. The largely video-based (in total approximately 200 min) and intellectually demanding exhibition makes the viewer wonder to what extent love can be spoken about, only touching the emotional side from a distance with a cool flick of a finger. Even though the conceptual base of the exhibition – "cold intimacy" – supports this type of approach, and the show includes strong works, the whole might not have enough depth to make the contemporary man understand the importance of intimacy and openness.

In experiencing art, I have often struggled with the question of why artists and curators today seem so afraid to tackle existential and human issues more directly, especially compared to practitioners from other fields of culture, like literature, film or theatre. In art history, we see that this has not always been the case, but at the moment, art tends to be more research based and the emphasis is on technologies. The focus is on artistic form and the working mechanisms of the field itself. Topics that address emotions are fitted with an intellectual and often aesthetically challenging spacesuit, just in case.

Of course, such a situation indicates the presence of diversity in contemporary art and different experiences are interesting as long as art does not become a self-centred pastime for the art field, growing increasingly distant from the viewer. This does not mean that everything should be reduced to an easily digestible level of mass entertainment; however, this question should be critically addressed. So, does this major exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall engage with deeply human emotions, such as love and the need for intimacy and empathy, and in what ways?

To answer this question, let us first look at how the curator positions herself in regard to the theme of the show. The two words "cold love" and other terms used in the introduction to the exhibition, such as "algorithms", "optimisation" and "standardisation" immediately make the reader think of all kinds of (pop) cultural phenomena that we encounter at the exhibition. These lead back to estranged, lonely individuals with difficulties establishing long-term relationships, using various technological prostheses to hold on to their "curated" self-image and their virtual "ideal life". Tinder, Bumble and Grindr are easy-to-use IT applications for finding a life partner or a hook-up and also make it convenient for their users to treat relationships superficially and abandon people with ease. These keywords also lead to (false) notions in our private lives regarding who can love whom, what is the correct way to have an orgasm, how many steps per day we should take to stay young forever, and so on; that is, the show presents a whole array of complex topics from sex life to digital marketing, connected by the theme of love.


Coldness, cold

Even before I ascend the art hall stairs, I start thinking about various thematic parallels, such as Sophie Calle's powerfully fragile "Take Care of Yourself" (2007), in which the artist invited women with very different backgrounds to interpret an inexplicable e-mail that broke her heart (exhibited at Tallinn Art Hall in 2011). I also remembered Marge Monko's sensitive and apt "Dear D" (2015) – a video-based virtual walkthrough of writing an electronic love letter, where the female consciousness and the online network become one (the work is also exhibited in this show). It also reminds me of films such as David Cronenberg's "The Crash" (1996), looking into the world of intimate fetishes and Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), romanticising the love between artificial intelligence and a human, but also Alex Garland's "Ex Machina" (2014) and why not a more sinister episode of the TV series "Black Mirror".

These examples give an idea of the dystopia we have probably already encountered in some ways, and is explored at the show curated by Gregos in the opening piece "Pplkpr" (2015) by Lauren Lee McCarthy and Kyle McDonald. The video illustrates how dangerously close art stands to "real life". Software for generating love affairs is created both for art and business – either to provoke criticism from art audiences or to attract real consumers. No wonder, applications like this are readily available for download all over the internet. Yet, what I see in art projects like this today no longer moves me nor does it seem to be ahead of the present developments in any way. The work was created 5–6 years ago, and perhaps then it really was spot on, but is it not a little bit passé by now?

Another way of conveying contemporary "cold intimacy" is expressed in Laura Cemin's video "4-Minute Warm Up" (2020) and the found object installation "Persistence of Memory" (2020). The question the artist asks – Who (or what) slips into bed with us in the evening and keeps us warm? – is obviously relevant and important. However, items resembling hot water bottles used as symbols feel like a highway to the answer of this question and leave no room for interpretation. It feels as if we are participating in an attempt by a mechanical human in isolation to imitate intimacy with all available means. The tonality of the video is cool as well – stylistically pure visual language and the robotic routine of the main character once again feel predictable. The artist's ideas are relevant and timely, but somehow they do not touch me...

If my criticism was solely based on the concern that the work does not include human touch, the story Cemin is telling could still work within the framework of the exhibition. However, the obstacle is more that by imagining a "cold" world, this (read: over-regulated, consumption-based and clinical) is exactly what the world may already be like. The same question also applies to some of the other exhibited works, such as the sculptures designed to prevent smartphone addiction by Hannah Toticki Anbert or memes about intimate life by Marijke De Roover – perhaps we already know it all too well? Be it from our own life or pop culture. On the other hand, Cemin's sensitive and well executed composition, a series of photographs "In Between. The Warmth" (2017–2020) together with materials and forms placed alongside the photographs aptly convey the feelings and sensations the artist experienced when hugging different people.

Semiotically simple but powerful, Maria Mavropoulou's "Holy Trinity" (2018) and "Family Portraits" (2017–) mediate contemporary models of relationships. The first refers to the information technology trio (smartphone, tablet, laptop) that contemporary man has replaced religion with. Indeed, any information we can google could become our inner conviction, the religion we use to identify with some, while distinguishing ourselves from others. With these digital devices in the background, we see diagrams, scales and numbers from newspaper articles, describing dysfunctional tendencies in human relationships related to the over-consumption of the media. The solution is convincing because, indeed, all information regarding misuse or overuse of digital technologies fades into the background and people hardly notice it.


Love – everybody's business

Of course, the feeling of love is not an experience that is influenced only by technology, and the "coldness" of today's world is not exclusively caused by new digital solutions. The curator expresses her attitude in a critical and clear manner: unfortunately, our choices regarding whom we can be with are also determined by our economic status, class, culture, race and sexuality.

This knot is skilfully untied by one of the opening works of the show, "Liberdade" (2011) by Gabriel Abrantes and Benjamin Crotty, providing a blueprint for the viewer to shape their own perception of the issues the film presents. The short film is about insurmountable divides in certain societies – when a young black man from Angola, who has dropped out of school, and a pale white middle class young woman from China want to be joined together in body and soul. The strange story leaves its mark on the viewer with its music, slightly comic scenes and minimal dialogues, without being overly moralising. It is not clear, whether intimate contact between the couple is hindered by social taboos or simply their young shy bodies, but as a believer in the functioning of biopolitical discursive formations, I would suspect both.

Abrantes shows his sensitivity as a film maker also in the second short film screened at the exhibition, "Artificial Humours" (2016). Even though the possibility of love between artificial intelligence and humans is by no means a new question, Abrantes approaches the cliché by combining various cultural phenomena. The analogue aesthetics of the video and the sweetly grotesque sequence of events make the half hour story extremely compelling, proving that even robots can make jokes and display a sense of warmth.

It seems that the social sharp points of love are better addressed by longer videos, even though the abundance of video works requires the viewer to either spend three hours at the exhibition or make several visits. Nevertheless, Melanie Bonajo's video work "Night Soil – Economy of Love" (2015) should not be skipped; the soft carpeting and the pile of pillows add to the video considerably by providing a tactile experience and guiding the viewer into the theme. Through the experience of female sex workers, Bonajo offers a fresh perspective on how intimate experiences are interpreted and what is considered desirable. It reminds me of the Estonian artist Liina Siib's video "Averse Body" (2007), where prostitutes working in Tallinn shared their experiences with her during a night time taxi ride. Only in Bonajo's work, the women speak directly to the camera, even revealing themselves on Times Square, boldly and with great self-awareness. The narrative of the show bends in a direction, where Bonajo really begins addressing the crises and joys that actually accompany people in their private matters.

Intimacy at the crossroads of taboos and possibilities is exemplified by Mahmoud Khaled's "Do You Have Work Tomorrow?" (2013), consisting of smartphone conversations staged on a gay dating app. We live at a time when chats initiated to secure one night stands get political – the situation on the streets is discussed followed by a decision to have sex in a car for safety. Following the Cronenbergian scenario, even a car can become an object of desire. One of the parties states: "Nothing is normal!" and that sums up the search for intimacy and their true selves for a lot of people today.

Again with a limited vision of love, David Haines strikes the viewer with "Dereviled" (2013) – a grotesque and disturbing video featuring a twisted soundtrack about "healing" gays and lesbians during a service at an evangelical church in the USA. The other work by Haines at the exhibition, a post-internet inspired video "Two Way Mirror" (2016/2017), has so many layers that it will probably be difficult to understand for those who do not read the accompanying text.

The most captivating and poetic surprise, discussing earthly love and dissecting its more existential layers – identity and love after death – can be found in Juliet Jacques' cinematic essay "You Will Be Free" (2017). The dream-like and fragmented video is inspired by the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s in the US and conversations between two lovers. It is poetry, reminiscent of Félix González-Torres' series "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)"(1991) but in the form of a video. Love – it is all of us mortals', everybody's business, regardless of our sexuality or the illnesses we carry in our earthly bodies.

A similar emotion, although expressed in a more eerie way, can be found in Marge Monko's almost sacral installation crowning the exhibition, titled "I Don't Know You, So I Can't Love You" (2018). Based on the romantic conversation of two smart device voice assistants, the work makes us relentlessly aware that creating the self and becoming the self – even when it comes to artificial beings – is a process that involves another being. We need a recipient, even if we talk to ourselves. Monko's "Dear D" also lends itself to the interpretation that in order to get rid of something, we might first need to imagine someone else, an addressee. Just like Tõnu Õnnepalu sent letters to the imaginary Angelo in the novel "Border State" (1993) in order to write about life on the other side of the border.




Marge Monko
I Don’t Know You, So I Can’t Love You
Photo installation, audio
Installation view at Tallinn Art Hall
Paul Kuimet
Courtesy of the artist




Still about love

I would like to ask again: to what extent has the theme of the show, love, been reduced to a mere umbrella term, or perhaps even an auxiliary term to talk about the bad influence of digital technology on our everyday life?

As the curator explains in her text, first and foremost, she looks at the anomalies and problems in human relationships. But it seems that she is unable to deliver on her other promise – to imagine a way out of the emotional sterility created by the digital revolution. In today's world, people still fall in love, laugh, hold hands, have children and say goodbye to their partners on their deathbeds. However, the exhibition only includes a few works that mediate the experience of "unconditional love as a potent emotional force and intense psychological bond" that Gregos mentions in her text. No conceptualisations of a tense intimacy and deeply felt partnerships. Nothing like the collaboration between Marina Abramović and Ulay. And so, leaving the exhibition, the impression that contemporary art just does not dare to address love directly remains.

The exhibition "Modern Love (or Love in the Age of Cold Intimacies)" at Tallinn Art Hall looks at the stalemate in love without offering enough sincere sensibilities, warmth and a way out. And in the future, I do not want to read the word "love" only on the covers of art catalogues, when art exhibitions no longer mediate an honest and human experience of love.


Maria Helen Känd is a freelance curator and cultural critic and a master's student at the Estonian Academy of Arts. This year, she received the art critic scholarship awarded for the first time by the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art and the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators.

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