Moments of Aliveness

Erin Dickson. Authentic Venetian chandelier, 2019. Foto

On the screen of my computer, there are a number of highly polished photographs depicting artworks, design objects and installations that will come together at the Tallinn Triennial for Applied Arts. Very good photos – excellent framing, skilful lightning, aesthetically serene or seducively atmospheric. You will see those photos on the pages of the triennial catalogue where they will appear even more attractive and special. Although, at the same time, so everyday –  they will inevitably blend into a stream of images every day passing our eyes in a continuous rush. There is a never-ending progression of visual melange that provide us with information, augment our attitudes, stimulate our ideas. Images that we use for identification as well as opposition, images that we admire, pass by, and forget.  

In our contemporary life, filled to the brim with images, is there more authenticity to be found in objects? Humans are makers by default and things and bodily perception of things have an important role in the human experience. Whereas pictures and images belong to the realm of the mind and the intellect, objects relate to the body. In the context of overabundance of visual stimuli, objects offer a stabilizing base. For ages, things have served as extensions and augmentation of our bodies, providing foci for memory, and helped to develop our abilities and enhance knowledge. To a great extent, things are the intermediators between ourselves and the world – or as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has said, a thing may serve as a bridge to another person, to another emotion. In the reflection of things we are able to perceive ourselves as more whole, more concrete, more grounded. According to Csíkszentmihályi, thnigs help to objectify ourselves in three different ways: they demonstrate the owner’s power, vital energy and social position; they reveal the continuity of self over time, offering foci for involvement in the present, rememberance of the past and signposts for the future; and they provide concrete evidence of one’s social network, functioning as symbols of valued relationships.[1] In those ways the objects stabilize our sense of the self that would otherwise dissolve in a flux of consicousness.  

It is a certain sense of security that an object offers by being concrete, tangible and sufficiently unambiguous. Creating an object, possessing it means commanding the matter, establishing oneself in relation to the surrounding world. A potent and effective object embodies mastery and dominance, integrity and stability, conveying these qualities to me as a perceiver as well. The only things is... it is illusory. My perception of the world, my perception of myself is rather unstable, incomplete, frgmentary and partly flawed. Instead of perceiving myself as a delimited whole, able to control my body, my space, my time and environment, I notice changeability and contingency of being, the little shifts in perspective that shed a certain doubt over certainty. I see a constant dance of mutual accommodation of body and matter, presenting dynamics that is far from commandment of one over the other. I see simultaneity instead of order and interdependence instead of hierarchies.  

Hélène Cixous has stated that acknowledging one’s fractured and multiple nature is what triggers the feeling of aliveness, the desire to live.[2] We are in constant flux, shedding cells and regenerating, operating in constant relation to things and people that surround us. Cixous emphasizes that the human experience is not distinct from the rest of the world but quite the contrary, the body’s intimate and non-hierarchical relationship with the rest of the matter makes it perceptible as affecting and being affected. This affective relationship to the world is not a feeling located „inside me“ but is situated at the point of contact between myself and the other, in-between me and the world. In such a relationship, my subjectivity is an amalgamation of all the beings and things I encounter – a fragment of a dynamic current of life.

Several works presented at the triennial seem to manifest just such dynamic sensibility. These objects do not wish to work as solid status signifyers, they abstain from supporting dominant subject positions, they refuse to play the role of ego-fortifying pillars. Nor do they offer unequivocal transparency nor clear and pure sublimity. They rather share a certain ambivalence and deception, upon closer inspection slightly sliding away or turn out to be something else altogether. Those objects lure us to encounters that may result in a deceptive, confusing or destabilizing experience. Julia Maria Künnap’s rings and brooches refer to jewellery as status symbol and the long and respectable craft of goldsmiths, yet at the same time reveal the invalidity and empty vanity of them as social signifyers. The perfect clear-cut facets of a classical gem drips like a 2-d model on a screen – is this ring really real or have we accidentally stumbled into virtuality? My sight and tactile sense clash in contradiction – a genuine hard gem cannot act like that. Another ring appears just like wrapped in a canvas: a monument waiting to be revealed, or a magician’s cape, but underneath it a void. At once voluminous and flat, perfectly genuine and yet so delusive, a bodily encounter with Künnap’s jewellery makes me doubt my senses. They have a baroque opulence and allure to them which resonates in me as vanity; at the same time, they are flawed and decomposing, letting me notice my ludicrousness.   

In a similar way, Erin Dickson’s Authentic Venetian chandelier conveys the demise of precious stuff as status signifyer, and the deceptiveness of material as the primary source of an object’s credibility. Based on pirate I-Pad scans taken at the Murano glass museum as a tourist, the artist has made a 3-d printed plastic copy of this magnificent artwork, with all imperfections and flaws, accidental refractions and shadows forming an inevitable part of the work. Even the light that the chandelier emits is halting as if the glitches in scan had tranferred to the electrical system. Just as the contemporary visual environment is filled to the brim with poor images – files copied multiple times, thumbnails and previews, compressed low-resolution images, ripped and reformatted videos – so is the spatial environment populated by cheaply produced and fast consumed imitations and random objects. But if the value of the poor image may be in its speed, intensity and spreadability leading to trespassing of hierarchies and executing a subversive potential[3], then could the digital 3-d prints be similarly set free of deprecication. Abandoning the high-brow distinctions of sublime and everyday, the Authentic Venetian chandelier declares the state of things as it is. Letting go of expectations of perfection, purity, durability and authenticity, we may welcome temporality, lightness, joy and playfulness. Dickson is searching for a certain personality of spaces and objects, their own agency that we could encounter on equal terms.  

Ditte Hammerström’s chairs Out of Focus and Entwined Chairs are also short-circuiting the cooperation between my eye and my body, playing with optical illusions on the border of two and three dimensions. The white steel chair Out of Focus is single and plural simultaneously – visually, it seems like a number of images of chairs were overlapping in a slightly shifted manner; spatially, it is a single coherent form. A chair is the most archetypical object, its whole being anticipating a bodily encounter. But the Out of Focus chair fragments bodily coherence into multiplicity, suggesting that I should approach it as if looking awry. Entwined Chair is also one and many at the same time, yet in a slightly different way – it encompasses not only involuntary shifts and fragmentation but also indecision, multiplicity and simultaneity of choices. The rippling and flickering of the chairs confuses perception of direction and depth, it is difficult to make sense of distance and scale. A similar flickering characterizes Andrew Bearnot’s installation Screen Capture, generating a moiré effect – an optical illusion originally found in early photography and printing, an unwelcome side effect of the slightly shifted positioning of image layers. The surface appears layered, the image is blurred and appears somehow moving and eluding. Bearnot’s spatial installation is a deceptive teaser, challenging the parametres that we assume to be stable – the dimensions and scale of space, the density and rigidity of material. To find myself in a shifting space like this may lead to a frightening vertigo. Yet another option would be to embrace the irreality, to accept the unstability of space, to observe a different, fluctiating relationship of my body and space leading to an enhanced self-perception. To notice the dialogue of the body and the space, a feeling of being alive in this very moment.  

Many works help to become conscious of temporality, fragility and impermanence. Sissi Westerberg’s Hung Out was originally conceived for the main square of Linköping. The artist attached laundry lines to the flagpoles high up in the air and set translucent underwear, stockings and nightgowns hanging in the wind. It was a maximum feeling of intimacy transmitted by the silky nude underwear – a mere mental millimetre from your skin; and maximum exposure as well, juxtaposed with the urban square representing power and rule. Garments as bodily fragments, fluttering high up in the wind – humiliated and hung to the gallows, or blissfully free of all earthly concerns? On the one hand, the work makes me feel naked, vulnerable and jeopardized, on the other, the pleasure and elatedness of the dancing rhythm of the wind takes over the body. Vulnerability gives way to lightness, marginality leads to liberation. Linda Aasaru’s imprints of garments and Helena Tuudelepp’s paperclay installation add a temporal dimension, sharpening the perception of the moment and acknowledging impermanence. Aasaru’s garments record a moment – a certain fleeting moment, no more special than any other, random yet unique. Tuudelepp’s layers of paperclay seem to stretch this random moment of time indefinitely – the crumbling, the disintegration is about to happen any moment now but not quite yet. I ache to touch it to ruin everything yet hold my breath instead, finding myself in slow motion in a rare and captivating moment of balance. Sandra Kosorotova accentuates the relationship of insecurity and fragility with community and being-togetherness. The work To Be A One At All You Must Be A Many emphasizes relatedness and interdependence, empathy that can grow out of acknowledging equality of yourself and the other.  

To encounter works, objects and materials that are ambivalent, unstable, fragile and temporary means noticing the ambivalence, multiplicity, impermanence and contingency of my own being in the world. But this is not a source of fear and insecurity but enables a heightenened awareness of being in the moment and contact with the other. Letting go of expectations of stability and permanence may lead to rediscovering enchantment and joy. Perceiving myself as flawed, partial and temporary paves way for encountering the human and non-human other from a less hierarchical, more equal basis. Jane Bennett has written that ethics cannot be grounded on pure intellect. An ethical disposition necessitates a joyful attachment and an affective fascination with the world. This is based on a strange intimacy with the world and life, a certain hyperecological sense of interdependence which stems not from fear and despair but rather from enchantment and delight.[4]  To experience such moments of affective fascination requires seeing non-human nature not as “inert matter”, but something that is a crucial part of calling attention to magical sites already present in the world.[5]Encountering objects that are translucent, unstable, multiple and eluding may provide just such moments of aliveness. 

[1] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Why We Need Things? – Steven Lubar, W. David Kingery (eds.) History from Things. Essays on Material Culture. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution, 1993, p. 23.

[2] Eret Talviste. Philosophizing in Plato’s Cave: Hélène Cixous’ Affective Writing. – Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 2019,  1 (4), p. 149.

[3] Hito Steyerl. In Defense of the Poor Image. – e-flux journal, 2009, No 10 (November), accessed 18 February 2021.  

[4] Jane Bennett. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001, pp 131–158.

[5] Ibid, p.7.

Published in the catalogue Translucent of Tallinn Applied Art Triennial 2019, and in magazine 2/2021.

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