researcher, writer and curator of architecture and visual art

Architecture photo with a small boy

Photo cca.ee

 "imagined shreds on the edge of an undrawn map. i run on these edges. like an animal. like a war machine, that has lost sight of its target. on the trail of trains under a moon crumbling from the heat. the smell of fuel wagons, yellow sand, where nothing grows. outlines of trees flashing in the brain. broken edges of cities, with a shadow of a very real tartu flitting time and again – bleached, with traces of burn. i run and don't stop. i never stop. i want to keep moving, to stay in this half-unconsciousness that emerges from it."

*

I was recently browsing  a collection of articles published two years ago titled "Mitte-Tartu" (Non-Tartu, Topofon, 2012), in which a number of articles endeavoured to map the psycho-geography of the fringes of Tartu. Or, the urban experience of fringe areas in general where both space and the clear identity of the urban subject begins to move and diffuse. This text by andreas w about spatial perception while running long distance, through a machine-like physical experience that tests the boundaries, suddenly created an unexpected resonance with Tõnis Saadoja's series "Arhitektuurifoto väikese poisiga – õlimaalid lõuendil" (Architecture Photo With a Small Boy – Oil Paintings On Canvas, 2014). I looked at the sheet metal hangar and asphalt painted in grey tones with very slight variations, and wondered whether painting them would have created the same feeling, the same intention – to dull one’s body like a tool, to take it to the edge where being machine-like is liberating – "the body ran. like a machine, a metronome. [---] consciousness moved beyond the machine." Or was this a coincidence in my mind?

In the first glance these are fairly contradictory pieces. In Saadoja's painting there is no movement, let alone any bestial running. His work is extremely static, motionless. He has always manifested slow pace, even as a method of establishing and securing his own style and space. However, this slowness, this completely controlled static has no leniency or flow. This is a tamed intensity, a kind of masculine, even raging melancholy. Saadoja's boy sits on the edge of the street with the same obstinacy that andreas w runs.

Their location is the same – an anonymous no-mans-land on the edge of town, incidental, dull and unengaged. In art, what more could be said about this banal, generic experience of space, about which I do not even want to use the hackneyed concept of nonplace? However, when we talk about a contemporary urban space and its relationship to a subject, is there anything else we can talk convincingly about? Is it possible to imagine the construction of subjectivity independent of it? 

"who controls my mind? this imaginary city, it does. [---] i am spread out on this network, a fragmentary raft of signals, endlessly returning to its entrenched and stratified layers."

In this case one way to look at Saadoja's series would be both as a study of the construction of subject embedded in spatial layers, and also as a rebellion against them – as a refusal to become defined by space. Am I the sum of all the fragments of rooms I have experienced? The brochure accompanying the exhibition provides the viewer with many, even too many, threads to take hold of. Is childhood a theme that inevitably takes a direct route to nostalgia? The paintings themselves seem rather to avoid this. The space depicted is contemporary but in the brochure, the artist talks about 1980s space – this suggestsfictionality of space as such, thus leading to fictionality of memories and memory images as well. The door to 1980s space is closed, not because the spatial changes are so great (though the paintings reveal this is also true) but because the social time-space – the habits, customs, and rules of using a space – has been replaced by another one.

The same applies to polaroids, which of all photographic processes reveals the magic of taking a picture most clearly – how the image slowly emerges out of nothing, how the edges become focused, how colours that are indistinct in the beginning become clearer, and then how you have to be careful to hold it by the edge and blow on it or wave it around, hoping to speed up the process. Nostalgic – yes? The 1980s? Well actually no, because who in Estonia had a polaroid camera? There was Smena, Kiev and really cool people might have had a Horisont. We are talking about appropriated nostalgia here, an acquired knowledge of the aesthetics of polaroids and their connection with nostalgia. Is it that we wish we had such a nostalgia?  We are rather dealing here with the contemporary atemporal (and also non-local) retro culture. Maybe this is Saadoja's mission, to eradicate the over meaningfulness of places, their layers of history, and the issue of whether a direct connection would be possible without some kind of mediating story. Studying the remembering process he objectifies himself – is there more to memories and emotions than chemical and neurobiological processes? But a fault, an unpredictability nevertheless remains and is elusive. Consciousness still runs beyond the machine. It is not possible to predict a five-year-old's next move.

*

This time, the space-time of our encounter with the paintings is of equal importance. We are in the heart of industrial Narva, the most Other imaginable. A black hole for the local art world, and irresistibly tempting as such. It is a bold choice of the artist, to demand such an effort from the viewer – of course, by no means equal to that of the painter himself but still the least possible effort, to devote a whole day to this experience instead of a usual luchbreak dash through a gallery. Sure, the marketing knowhow is also there, making the event a something special by placing it in a special location.

Anyway, the exhibition space sets the paintings boldly in an intense and contradictory relationship with its setting. On the one hand, there is the villa once owned by Carr, the director of the Kreenholm Factory, with its grand and varied history, and on the other, the ambitious cultural-political gesture of taking art to this culturally neglected and problematic location. The paintings, in the rooms of an industrialist's villa, have an objectifying and sobering effect – the spatial changes, ideals and realities of different historical eras come into sharp focus, but at the same time, the paintings immediately block out any historical-nostalgic attitudes that tend to rise to the surface and make it possible to connect to the space at a much more banal level.

At the same time, this easing of the burden of meanings and associations is in the interests of the development of Kreenholm, in other words, art finds itself in the service of gentrification. The developer, who willingly invested in beautifying the villa for the exhibition, recognises it as a mutually beneficial scheme. The elegantly careless ripping off of the plaster has by now become a standard treatment of  historical interiors, as ‘neutral’ as the walls of the white cube. So the challenge the setting posed to the paintings was not too back-breaking and the polemic raised about spaces producing a variety of subjects enjoyed a very tasteful setting. 

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