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Would you dare hold a lizard? Eike Eplik – the artist who has nature nesting in her subconscious

Kaire Nurk (2/2021)

Kaire Nurk visited Eike Eplik’s solo exhibition "Shared Territory" and delved deeper into her work.

13. II–30. V 2021
Tartu Art Museum
Curator: Annegret Kriisa

The work of the sculptor and installation artist Eike Eplik, who belongs to the younger generation of Estonian artists, raises many interesting questions and has for this reason prompted quite a bit of response and attracted various interpretations. For instance, she is among those young creators fortunate enough to have been selected for the domestic Artishok Biennale, where in addition to displaying their works, each artist is analysed by ten critics.1 From the very start, her passion towards and interest in various materials, technologies, forms and formal fusions, meta-natural environments and new interconnections has been polyphonic, layered and bountiful. In the last ten years, she has carried out 12 conceptually focused exhibition projects, some of them in dialogue with two or three co-performers.2

In connection with the solo exhibition "Shared Territory", which took place at the Tartu Art Museum in early 2021 as part of their programme presenting fresh work by contemporary Estonian artists, a comprehensive catalogue was published. There, art historians Šelda Puķīte and Peeter Talvistu prod at the themes and footings of Eplik's work, adding new angles of interpretation. The reproductions in the catalogue are structured chronologically, looking at one exhibition at a time. Eplik's exhibitions serve as spatial stagings involving many different characters, and so, the catalogue also focuses on installation units. The publication, with its abundance of condensed single shots, is great for studying the interplay of individual elements in the artist's unique visual language and for identifying the gradual transformations that have taken place over the years.



Eike Eplik
Shared Territory
Installation, dimensions variable
Tartu Art Museum exhibition view
Photographer Hedi Jaansoo



Twists and turns of sculptural form

What might be the common code or main thread running through Eplik's constantly changing, even eclectic, expressions of form? Or is the viewer to be lost in her labyrinth of forms?

A carver works mostly by calling forth the mass and outlines of the form from the surrounding mass; his relationship with the internal nature of this emerging form is more static. Although a good carver also perceives the internal structure of the form, without which it would be merely decorative. Casting, on the other hand, is in itself a two-way, multi-stage process in relation to the external and internal; it trains the artist to see form from both sides and develops the use of inverse thinking. Most sculptors choose one and focus on that. Artists oscillating between different logics of form, not to mention those focusing on inverse form, are clearly a minority.

Eike Eplik has always been an assembler, builder, constructor, cultivating a structure around the (void) centre, which takes on dimensions and qualities of an installation as it spreads across space. Although she does not rule out carving, "Eike builds her works like birds build their nests," as Puķīte fittingly points out.3

Her individual forms are either creatures built/assembled/moulded on an armature or resembling that armature itself (e.g. wire-woven herbs), or traditional castings in plaster, less often bronze. On the other hand, found objects, the affinity with which cannot be reduced to merely conceptual pursuits, also train our perception. With its attractive form, a found object activates thinking about its function and inner life. Even before coming into contact with the artist, it has already set itself apart from its surroundings – it is already itself a form. It is not dug out, but dug into.

Yet Eplik also works with unformed mass, again in reverse: she creates the mass herself to have it relate to some defined detail – thus creating processual tension. In her solo exhibition "Some of These Birds Flew on Their Backs" (Tallinn City Gallery, 2015), Mother Courage-like feet stagger under a threatening waste-like mound. Some time earlier, black lumps filled the solo exhibition "Figurine", creating the impression of the will to take shape contained in a formless mass (Draakoni Gallery, 2014).

There is a lingering sense of becoming, forming, deriving, converting, of something brewing. A hidden internal urge – to overcome the static quality of sculpture. Eplik creates this impression mainly by juxtaposing the internal and the external. Already her first, mostly realistic, animal figures had incisions (wounds?) on their bodies, something dangling from their mouths (such as a flower stalks), or a Rodinesque restlessness, an inner tension in their posture.

The writer Jan Kaus has described the internal-external dialectic and processuality of Eike Eplik's chariot performance at the fifth Artishok Biennale ("Production", 2016, NO99 Chamber Hall), along with its elements borrowed from Halicarnassus, with harmonising fluid plasticity: "[---] anything, any kind of tangible substance, can be given form. Moreover, what is tangible on the outside, is also tangible on the inside; it is as if opportunities are found somewhere on the axis of the material, where, with the help of human hands, the substance begins to realise its potential. [---] History exists only because something is constantly taking form, because something abstract is becoming concrete and vice versa. Something is always in process; we are surrounded both by eloquent and cryptic details, using our bodies and senses to grasp them. [---] There are always hands harbouring inside matter, just waiting for the chance to shape and guide it – much like Mausolus did his horses. This fact is not the eighth but the first wonder of the world."4

Flexible form also does not allow meaning to remain the same. How else would you explain the form of a conifer cone cut into a tree trunk? It has no real content. Maybe it has a new content, one that has emerged from purely formalist thinking? A bright plaster cone has formed inside a tree trunk made of toothpicks – as if nesting? Could it be that the nest concept at the heart of "Shared Territory" already began to branch out from there? How did the road lead from a mishmash of materials (e.g. "American Smile" (2017) from the exhibition "Beauty Salon", Tartu Art House, 2017) to the spiral forms of this latest exhibition? Provided that the development of Eplik's forms has been intuitive and evolutionary, and therefore homogeneous to some degree.

In the exhibition "Shared Territory", the artist is working with the interior of the hollow form itself. It is like some curious inverse form, an anti-mass – there is no matter inside the surrounding shell, or rather, its contents remain unclear. Sometimes there is hair cascading from the opening, other times lizards encircling the empty orifice, or its shape engaging us in other meaningful ways. In her publicly more intuitive solo exhibition "Natural" (Hobusepea Gallery, 2018), the artist demonstrated the insides of the clay forms: burning lava, flowing. In that exhibition set, the ruptured forms served as a punch line to the enclosed towers with walls that were bulging under internal pressure. Nevertheless, this does not guarantee that the forms in "Shared Territory", mostly fitted with small openings, are teeming with the same kind of life. In that case, there would be some lava trickling here and there.

While the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who also loves inverted reality, pours negative space (the volume inside a house or a bath, under a table or a flight of stairs) into concrete form, Eplik's warpings of formal logic follow a different pattern. In "Shared Territory" she has come to create an intangible (psychological? spiritual? mental?) form in the interior of a volumetric object. It is a form we cannot see or feel, antimatter, a "black hole", a surreal imperceptible substance – something condensed from the viewer's imaginational tension.

In the generative interplay between form and content, it is mostly form that dominates. If we look at Eplik's works as narratives detached from their form – as visual fairy tales – then we do not really perceive them, we do not see them. Just like external observation is not enough to perceive Whiteread's sculptures, which require you to activate your experiential sense of space, to oscillate in the field of tension between the concrete and empty space.

Dystopia or "natural environment"

Is the lizard, a common sight in Eplik's two most recent exhibition installations, a dystopian messenger?

It is noteworthy that Eplik provides no accompanying text for her exhibitions and sometimes even leaves individual objects untitled, leaving the associative field of the viewer as free as possible. As a result, her works have been interpreted from hugely contrasting positions. On the one hand, they have been seen as apocalyptic visions, stories of horror, chaos and dystopia, ecological warnings, or at least a revolt of biomass.5 On the other hand, they have been seen as life-affirming experiences, expressions of the "duality and rationality of life", "a wonderland full of treasures".6 Or as a "game created with joy".7

Literary scholar Janek Kraavi defines dystopia as a form of depicting a negative world, with the theme being "defective environment".8 Compared with the public landscapes of ruin created by her contemporaries Mari-Leen Kiipli and Britta Benno,9 Eplik appears more playful and ambivalent. Coming out with a "ghost in the corner" ("Biomass – Ghost in the Corner", Kogo Gallery, 2020), Eplik asked Mehis Heinsaar, a writer with a similar imagination to her own, to cooperate with her for the exhibition. The result may be considered a therapeutic exhibition text. It speaks of "our deep innerness" and the "sensuous primeval forest" that has "preserved, expanded, deepened and enriched our internal landscapes with dream oxygen".10

This exhibition, which is in itself small, minimalist and fragile, elicits a powerful image from the critic Kaisa Eiche: "The unmistakable allegorical plays of Eike Eplik's escapist poetic Umwelt in the gallery spaces are like never-changing self-repetitions, resembling the highs and lows of primordial waters."11 Indeed, there is something elemental and indeterminate about Eplik's work. Her artistic resurgence is cyclical in a way that nature is cyclical. But I would disagree with the labels of "escapism" and "Umwelt" – how is it that the works of Kiipli and Benno prompt no similar remarks?

Author and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her stories about the wild woman archetype, has one of her characters say that those inside the forest also keep an eye on everything that happens outside the forest. In Eplik's catalogue, Puķīte repeatedly circles back to the artist's childhood in the forested and sparsely populated Rapla County. As a result of the ongoing ecological crisis, will there be an increasing revalorisation of non-urban life, of rural reality? The specific role of Eplik in the Estonian art scene is to carry this potential of nature, although she represents it in a deflective key through cultural encryption. A look at earlier periods also identifies nature as a source of power for many artists (e.g. Concordia Klar-Ulas, Peeter Ulas, Eve Luige and Ellen Kolk), but it was not the dominant theme back then either.

Let us look at the four-hall exhibition "Shared Territory" as a whole. In the first hall, we find a re-instalment of "Biomass – Ghost in the Corner". The dark swarming mass surging down the wall, never wanting to take finite form, reveals its rows of teeth – its open mouth is approached by crawling lizards and with them, the viewer's gaze. A transfixing scene. The white porcelain figures have the equivocal form of a pomegranate branch.

The subsequent narrow space with some of the most common herbaceous plants in Estonia – from common ryegrass to field horsetail – is like a footpath through the grassland. Surprisingly, the trail of plants on the wall panels is made of wire. The overhead light casts subtle plant-shaped shadows on the background, creating an optical effect of actual movement upon passing. The room is titled "Can You See Them Too?" (2021).

It is also a reference to the exhibition's central installation "Nesting Trees and Hiding Places" (2021), located in the largest hall. Nesting trees? And hiding places? The hall contains a variety of small forms, including the above-mentioned spiral figures, which we could imagine belonging to insects or birds, as well as the concrete building blocks used to construct residential houses. Along with the moss-covered blocks, snails slinking about in the soil have made their way to the exhibition, and a spider has set up a web between the blocks. The moss and soil are watered regularly.

When I spoke with the artist about large (and cute) animals versus the small, vulnerable (but at the same time fear or disgust-inducing) insects, spiders and lizards, Eike Eplik replied that she was more scared of large animals. And that, in fact, small animals are not more vulnerable: the lizard is very quick to hide. So in their own way, they are successful. For example, compare having to hunt all the elk in an area to having to hunt all the lizards. The former could be achieved with relatively little effort, the latter, on the other hand – good luck catching them!

Natural nests would represent an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a sculptor. Yet Eike Eplik has not arrived at her nest sculptures through natural bird nests but through animalistic and anthropomorphic bodies and abstract hollow forms. In any case, it is all connected. The bodies and vessels have become nesting trees. The idea of a nesting tree also colours the dark swarming mass into a nesting place – a nesting place for lizards. The teeth – did we already forget about them? Lizards can also bite. The last, vaulted exhibition room at "Shared Territory" contains an illuminated nesting tree. And various humanoid clusters.12

Among those to have constantly been working with nature in its here and now is the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. In his recent exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler private museum in Basel, he removed the outer wall of the gallery and filled the space with a pool, adding to it pond plants, water lilies and crustaceans. The installation "Life" (2021) is "open 24-hours-a-day to insects, bats or birds and people"; so far, the camera has detected "insects, spiders, ducks, a goose and cats".13 The world – and art along with it – as seen through the eyes of other beings.

For me, the highlight of Eike Eplik's "Shared Territory" was the triad of "Laocoonian panels": the voluminous white porcelain reliefs of snake-like shapes and fragments of human hands intertwining on a plywood base. The first impression synthesises the sight with the Hellenistic Laocoon Group and evokes the image of a struggle – the hands grappling to free themselves from the ubiquitous slithering forms. A closer look, however, reveals harmonious coexistence.

1 See

2 Eplik is also part of the artist collective at Kogo in Tartu, probably the most innovative contemporary art gallery in Estonia today. This year, together with Mari-Leen Kiipli, she is participating in the "Liste Art Fair" for young galleries in Basel.

3 Šelda Puķīte, Eike on seen. – Ed. Annegret Kriisa, Eike Eplik: "Shared Territory" and other exhibitions from 2011–2021. Tartu: Tartu Kunstimuuseum, 2021, p 22.

4 See

5 Janek Kraavi, Eplik feat. Heinsaar. – Sirp 22. V 2020.

6 Šelda Puķīte, Eike on seen, pp 23–24.

7 Lilli-Krõõt Repnau, Seest siiruviiruline, pealt kullakarvaline. – Estonian Public Broadcasting, Culture section 10. X 2017.

8 Janek Kraavi, Post-sõnastik 12: düstoopia. – Sirp 7. II 2013.

9 Annika Toots, Dancing on the Ruins of the Future. – KUNST.EE 2021, no 1, pp 2–9.

10 Mehis Heinsaar, Elusamus. – Ed. Annegret Kriisa, Eike Eplik: "Shared Territory" and other exhibitions from 2011–2021. Tartu: Tartu Kunstimuuseum, 2021, p 102.

11 Eiche refers here to Indrek Grigor. See Kaisa Eiche, Mõõn paljastab nii mõndagi. – Müürileht 25. V 2020.

12 By the way, some of them have the potential to engage with the human tangles in Renate Keerd's production "Lävi" (Tartu New Theatre, 2019).

13 José da Silva, Olafur Eliasson floods museum and removes wall, opening it 24-hours-a-day to "insects, bats or birds". – The Art Newspaper 21. IV 2021.

Kaire Nurk is an art critic, painter and historian.

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