Marge Monko, I Don’t Eat Flowers, 2011, colour poster, 42 x 59cm
In 1989 a united group of people formed a human chain that stretched six hundred kilometres across the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In a move to denigrate the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, three pro-independence groups from the three nations organised The Baltic Chain. Witnessed globally, the scene was a powerful act of social solidarity and mobility, preceding Lithuania’s declaration of independence by just six months. Estonia and Latvia were to follow. On the evening of 19 August 1991, an attempted coup (the "August Putsch") occurred in Moscow in an endeavour to take power from Gorbachev. This contributed markedly to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. The coup, supported by the Soviet commander of the Baltics, set in motion the declaring of independence of the Baltic States. On 20 August, as Soviet tanks approached Tallinn, the Estonian-Soviet parliament met in an emergency session to decide the fate of Estonia in or out of the hands of oppressive Soviet power. There occurred the conclusion to the “singing revolution”, as it has been named. A revolution of humility: a revolution of no deaths. The harmony and control shown in this way of overturning power is representative of an attitude that can be seen in the considered and collected nature of Estonian culture today.
KUMU, the Estonian modern art museum, designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori Tallinn, Estonia: the 2011 European Capital of Culture.
Such an occasion for a nation with relatively recent independence is an opportunity to demonstrate the individuality and progressivity of its culture in the twenty-first century. With the same consideration and acuity as Heinz Valk’s “singing revolution” of 1991, Estonia has created a vibrant art scene in its capital that does not accede to all of the demands of the art market, instead preferring a discourse that remains on the most-part commercial gallery free, and state-supported in its activities. When few are selling and even less are buying, the discourse of art-making as an incongruous set of commercialised practices is somewhat relieved, resulting in a group of practitioners that seem to be more genuinely interested in the pursuit of art as political and aesthetic process (in-as-much one can separate commerce from these two vast areas of enquiry). For an example, see the Estonian ‘capitalist anti-capitalist’ collective Visible Solutions. It’s not that the Estonian art scene doesn’t want or anticipate a market for its artworks; it just hasn’t developed yet and there is seldom a commercial gallery showing contemporary art to be found in the city. One of the few current examples is Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, who will soon present a seminar on collecting contemporary photography.
Tallinn Photomonth took place this October, and is comprised of a number of exhibitions featuring international and local photographers, or artists, working within the field of lens-based media. The message is clear: Tallinn Photomonth seeks to address current photographic discourse internationally, while showing something original to the Baltic, and indeed Estonian photography. The festival is named Natural Magic, and is filed under the auspices of "exhibitions and events that seek to thematize the possibilities, limits and spatial relations of lens-based art".i For such a huge thematic undertaking, the series of exhibitions around the city contain the usual didacticism one would assume, as well as some genuinely interesting and thought-provoking excursions into the world of Estonian and international photography. The exhibition has been incredibly well organised by Marge Monko, who is also a practicing photographer and a lecturer in the photography department at EKA, the Estonian Art Academy.
BEYOND: Solipsism and Curating
KUMU, the Estonian Art Museum, plays host to the largest and most capacious of the festival’s exhibitions. The building is a shard-like structure in the neo-modern style, jutting out of a limestone cliff. Its inside is curved as one makes one’s way up ramps and steps from level to level. It is a wonderful space for viewing art and one that is generally used to great success, particularly the exhibition The Soviet Woman in Estonian Art, which I saw on my first visit to Tallinn and which opened in April 2010, curated by Katrin Kivimaa and Kädi Talvoja. On my visit this time, I am also intrigued to see an exhibition of work by Tadeusz Kantor, polish avant-gardist and theatre reformer.
For Photomonth, the headline exhibition BEYOND (Look at my face: my name is Might Have Been; I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell), curated by Adam Budak, features a number of great and interesting works of photography-cum-sculpture-cum-mixed-media, coherently hung together under an unfortunately didactic and ostentatious curatorial proposition. This proposition could be read as really having little to do with the references and meanings behind the works themselves: A large collection of works, with a huge set of individual references and associations, are grouped together under a theoretical pennant, and flown confidently as an exhibition designed to engage the public in an accessible and clear manner (presumably?). The problem is not that theory shouldn’t lead the concept of a publicly-funded exhibition, nor that intellectualising contemporary art is a problem at all, it is just that within the discourse of contemporary curating, there seems to be a decision being consciously or unconsciously made that any theory can be paired with any set of artworks, regardless of their ambiguous connections:
"BEYOND (Look at my face: my name is Might Have Been; I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell) is foregrounding a self-reflexive nature of the photographic medium and its current condition as well as the photography’s “conditionality” and “exigency” (what Agamben calls “a demand for redemption”, or what he perceives as an agent of the “real that is always in the process of being lost, in order to render it possible once again”). What makes photography “possible”; what makes it “work”, being “useful” and acting in a “relational” way; how photography continuously contributes to the architecture of the image and goes BEYOND (it); what does make photography “speak”; what is “gestural” about it; how to go BEYOND the medium or move AROUND while simultaneously remaining within the photographic discourse?"
The poetic title par excellence opens up the “multiple perspective” approach of much curating; a form of practice that attempts to be flexible in terms of meaning, but in fact remains ambivalent for fear of being pinned-down in response to criticism. This position allows a number of rhetorical safeguards that distract from the almost total lack of cultural engagement paramount in this publicly funded, institutionally supported show. It is the exhibition that does everything, means anything and says absolutely nothing (which seems to be a regular trait of this particular curator). It is the contribution to a discourse where an exhibition must support itself with heavyweight theory - a philosopher’s oeuvre that is being reconsidered in light of some new advancement in contemporary art. It must purport to make the grandest and most profound of statements, asking the viewer to reconsider the meaning of not just a single subject, but the whole discourse of photography itself; its history as an art from; its ‘self-reflexivity’; its ‘conditionality’ and its ‘exigency’. Exhibitions like this take theory out of context and place it in a vacuum-like space somewhere between the financial rhetoric of the art-market and the bemusement of practicing artists and theorists who must attempt to engage with, criticise, or simply “discuss” the myriad of disconnected ideas often put upon the table of exhibition-making. See here and here for other prime examples, and here and here for more contemporary elaborations.
Agamben is not known as a theorist of photography, and his short essay Judgement Day seems to fall into the same Barthesian trap that James Elkins has so well criticised Barthes himself for in his text against Camera Lucida – What Photography Is (2011). The punctum, "…so personal, so close to history and so close to solipsism." ii Agamben reads like that, his closing remarks in Judgement Day that put affect at the centre of viewing all photographic images; almost to say all we have is this raw and unparalleled emotion and that all photographs are necessarily imbued with such conditions, such exigency. Agamben’s photography is not a photography of aesthetics (he admits this, preferring rather to see it as a ‘demand for redemption’), but a photography of judgement: the Brazilian girl in the portrait he speaks of in Judgement Day is judging him, as if her frozen timelessness could say something more profound than ‘Look at the objects that surround me. I am here, at this time, not in your time.’ Perhaps photographs have the ability to judge us only when they exist in multiplicity? Perhaps a single image is lost without other points of connection in the form of other images? That is one of the reasons why bodies of photographic work commonly exist in series: the photographer himself feeling the need to present serial images of a space, a subject, or a time, in order to make sense of it. Even Agamben speaks of more than one image, a book of images in fact:
"Photography demands that we remember all this, and photographs testify to all those lost names, like a Book of Life that the new angel of the apocalypse - the angel of photography - holds in his hands at the end of all days, that is, every day." iii
Sometimes photographs demand nothing whatsoever. They can exist entirely as images born of the often-pointless relationship between technology and human habit. Is it not the case that photography also shows a non-humanist side, one that downplays human agency?
"Camera Lucida hides photography’s non-humanist, emotionless side. Photography is not only about light and loss and the passing of time. It is about something harder… not only a blurred glimpse of our own deaths, a sense of memory as photographic grain, a dim look at the passage of time, or a poignant prick of mortality, but something about the world’s own deadness, its inert resistance to whatever it is we may hope or want". iv
Sometimes photographs do not contain the events we ascribe to them, or the profundity we label them with; they can also be empty and punctum-less. Such images portray the act of doing simply because one has the ability to do; building simply because one has the ability to build. And as the US housing market has recently shown us - so interestingly and subversively revealed by Edgar Martins’ Ruins of the Second Gilded Age - sometimes there is no one to use or occupy that which has been constructed. Your average person with an iPhone: click, click, and click goes the digital shutter as yet another pseudo-analogue photograph gets sent into the flickering ether. What of this huge archive of images? What are we to do with it? The advent of the “online exhibition”: curating the immaterial, a shifting, morphing subject…
Agamben cites Benjamin, but Agamben’s angel of photography doesn’t seem to view the past as a continuous catastrophe, more an exigence for the punctum itself; that spontaneous, habitual Barthesian nostalgia. Agamben’s angel of photography would not be forced by a storm into the future, but would keep photography in some crumbling idea of its own past (the punctum, a mirror; the narcissism of meaningless humanity). The angel of photography holds in her hands the whole of Flickr and Facebook; an incredible weight to bear whilst caught in a storm, moving towards the future. The images she holds do not contain a punctum, nor do they put affect at the centre of their existence, they are simply historical moments and coincidences:
"The notion of the ‘true’ image has been blasted apart – to use Benjamin’s words – by the dynamite of the split second. No snapshot is an absolute resemblance – Rodchenko uses the example of Lenin to make his case – there are only moments and coincidences. No one photograph summarizes the essence of Lenin, for there is no essence, there is no synthesis, only a shifting subject who moves through time, modifying history, being modified." v
Like Elkins’ statement on Barthes’ closeness to solipsism, so too we see the solipsism of the contemporary curator; one who looks for meaning in exhibition making, but instead ends up back with the conclusion that only he can be proved to exist; that exhibitions must show the existence of the curator overtly. Long has a time passed when the curator lurked in the background of the museum; now he is an art-world celebrity; his name appears in matt-grey vinyl lettering across the wall of the white cube at the same scale of that of the artist. Like the angel of history, a storm pushes the relational, global, philosopher-curator (of which Nicolas Bourriad is the epitome) into the future while art history crumbles behind him in total despair.
Daniele Monticelli delivers the opening lecture The Event of Language: Life In (and After) the Society of the Spectacle according to Giorgio Agamben. He succeeds at presenting an accessible and intelligent account of Agamben’s thesis adopted by the exhibition’s curator, and in doing so proves it bears little relevance to the works of art featured in the show, other than in the most profoundly general manner.
Liz Wells brings some coherence to the situation by delivering a highly interesting paper on shifting notions of the sublime, which focuses more on paintings of the polar landscape and Caspar David Friedrich than on the exhibitions concept.
The mini-symposium concludes with a group discussion with several of the artists, in which the curator explicitly refuses to answer questions about the exhibition, preferring to divert attention to the practitioners who all look genuinely perplexed by what is expected of them, with the exception of Alexandre Singh who made some lucid comments that both rightly contradicted and surpassed the logic of the exhibition’s concept. I must also use this opportunity to point to the interesting work of Dénes Farkas, the Hungarian artist who has, for a long time, been contributing to a burgeoning contemporary photography scene in Tallinn.
Moments of Reprieve at Tallinn Art Hall
This exhibition, co-curated by Louisa Adam and David Birkin, and held at the Tallinn Art Hall, contributes to an argument about the crisis of photojournalism, which could find expression, again, in Walter Benjamin’s essay The Author as Producer. Here, Benjamin rightly criticises the tendency photojournalism has to objectify suffering for bourgeois consumption, creating images that allow for too comfortable a contemplation of their content. The critique Benjamin wrote of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s publication The World is Beautiful (1928), contributed towards his wider criticism of the “new objectivity” movement in Weimar Germany at this time. The relationship between aesthetics and politics, according to David Levi-Strauss, reached boiling point in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when several writers took up their discontents with photojournalistic practice and its “aestheticisation of suffering”, including Martha Rosler, John Tagg, Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Allan Sekula (one could add several others to this list).
Today, there are a number of practitioners that continue to criticise mainstream photojournalism, including David Birkin and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin - who all feature in this exhibition - along with Indre Serpytyte, Idris Kahn, Ori Gersht and Taryn Simon, who, in a variety of ways contribute to this important discourse, where photography exists as social critique and as political engagement, which is one very good definition of art and one that perhaps Benjamin would agree with.
"Moments of Reprieve brings together a group of artists whose work responds conceptually to the challenge of articulating loss in photography, whether as personal experience or political critique. Through a series of staged and stolen moments, the photographs in the show expand on the idea that the medium and its modes of production may point to something beyond a literal visual depiction – for instance, by highlighting how images can communicate more through what they conceal than the subjects they portray. The exhibition takes its title from the 1978 book by Primo Levi, recalling the small and often unspoken gestures encountered during his imprisonment that restored a sense of humanity in otherwise inhumane circumstances." vi
The idea of loss (loss of life; loss of information; loss of control) - one of the key points of consideration in any individual or society’s experience of war - is a valid and understandable concept for an exhibition. Where as BEYOND sought to obfuscate cultural engagement and demand the impossible of itself, the exhibition Moments of Reprieve succeeds in contributing coherently to Tallinn Photomonth by, ironically, disentangling a set of works that hold obfuscation (partial or complete abstraction) at the centre of their existence. The former exhibition takes a body of artworks and seeks to obscure them in verboseness, while the latter exhibition takes a body of obscure and often abstract works - with a stringent political message - and gives them relevance and a platform for accessible cultural engagement.
"I spoke of the operation of a certain type of fashionable photography, which makes misery into a consumer good. When I turn to the ‘new objectivity’ as a literary movement, I must go a step further and say that it has made the struggle against misery into a consumer good." vii
If much mainstream photojournalism, even to this day, represents part of the ideology of “new objectivity”, then it is exhibitions like this one that seek to question it. As Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin have already expressed their objection at the way in which photojournalism comes to be seen and what it means, so too does this exhibition contribute to a discourse of photographic practice and exhibition-making that seeks to expose and criticise some of the problems inherent to contemporary photography and its politics of obfuscation (as Brecht terms photography's obscuring ability in 1931, in the following quote). The role of the mainstream photojournalist has been replaced by the vernacular or everyday image. Technology has developed sufficiently to allow for a situation where photojournalism is rendered redundant in its traditional “new objective” function by the very apparatus (camera technology) that allowed it in the first place. Now the role of the amateur photographer or video maker, which the BBC and other news corporations will describe as “unverified footage”, has taken precedence over Brecht’s model of the bourgeois photographer:
"The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts. The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter." viii
This ties into something incredibly pertinent Joel Snyder said in the transcription of The Art Seminar, published in James Elkins’ Photography Theory. The following quote perfectly highlights the erroneous nature of much photojournalism in its quest for accurate social depiction, or verifiable, lucid truth. Perhaps then, what Joel Snyder says here describes exactly where the exhibition Moments of Reprieve might locate itself within the context of exhibition making; and perhaps where BEYOND fails in its perverse solipsism:
"This is the first kind of problem you run into with the index. If you try to go from what you see in the photograph to what was actually in the world at the moment of exposure, you eventually screw up the way we talk about photographs. What we see in photographs is not, either necessarily or even generally, what we would have seen in front of the camera when the picture was taken." ix
The first issue here is representation, in the literal sense of the word: what exists in the world at the time of a photograph is not what is recorded. Photographs can only be imbued with a minority of any given quantity of present information. Therefore the index of a photograph is only ever a small, undemocratic quantity of the index of the event it attempts to capture. I don’t agree that this ‘screws up’ the way we talk about photography; I think it concretises it. Photographs are, on the most part, lies - be them hurtful or nostalgic lies - one who sees the punctum in an image; the narcissism of meaningless humanity - or photographs as empty depictions, such as Elkins’ Dim look at the passage of time, what one is viewing is technology’s ability to lie when taken at face value; when used as intended. Art that depends upon technology in a mechanical or digital sense is best produced, in my opinion, when it criticises the very conditions that make it possible; a kind of inversion of its own logic. That is what is interesting about David Birkin’s Embedded series, and additionally - to give a different example outside of this exhibition - a number of Cory Arcangel’s videos, including this one.
Sigrid Veer, Nude with Parents. , 2009, 35mm slide installation
Another exhibition, Generation of the Place: Image, Memory and Fiction in the Baltics, curated by Vytautas Michelkevicius, seeks to research photography as a catalyst for discussions and definitions of national identity between the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
"The exhibition is a part of the project Re:Searching the Baltics, aimed at reviewing photography used by Baltic artists born in the 1970–80s. Grown up in the shift of two eras, this generation still has vivid memories from the early Soviet childhood, mixed with the experience from the teen years in rapidly changing Post-Soviet environment. The experience of this local fin de siècle gave the generation a specific commonness, clearly separating them from earlier and later, entirely Post-Soviet, generations..."
Earlier in the month a solo exhibition by the Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov filled the ground floor space of the Tallinn Art Hall. The show featured two series of work: The Wedding (2005-6), which has recently been published by Mörel Books and I am Not I (1993-2002).
Daniel Campbell Blight is a writer, curator and academic based in London.