Shadows Cast on Artworks

Marten Esko

The apartment where my grandparents still live has two balconies – one in the front and the other in the back. The one in the back was my balcony – essentially it still is – and I spent a lot of time there. The balcony is like that of any Soviet paneled apartment building, covered in lime mortar and constructed from panels that have begun crumbling over time, and it is fairly easy to etch your preferred images in its walls with a nail or any other sharp instrument. Even now, whenever I happen to go there again, I look at those infantile hieroglyphs and do not attempt to understand their meaning but instead try to remember the strange little fellow who thought it was a good moment to leave a mark on and in the wall. It is unadulterated and purely superficial nostalgia… But what would happen if one day this wall would begin speaking to me about me, if it turned out that it had been recording my balcony activities all along? It sounds like a fairy tale about a talking wall but these marks are not the only testimony of past events on this balcony. And in fact, there is nothing fantastical about it, because these walls, this floor, and this balustrade all speak – admittedly not in an articulate or verbal manner (that would be a fairy tale indeed), instead, with their marked nature they communicate my own past to me, embedded in them either physically or symbolically. 

However, what would happen if the owners of the apartment changed and the new owners covered the walls with a new layer of plaster, deleted all visuals markings and started with a ‘clean slate’ as new inhabitants? I would remember, and perhaps the workmen who plastered the walls. But the new owners? It is possible, but the knowledge that something has been here before, and perhaps a vague memory of these images is not going anywhere. Even if the memory as a physical mark no longer exists on the surface of the material, it is subconsciously projected there by those who remember – in general, this goes for all mementos, both in the context of the individual memory as well as the more abstract historically ‘seasoned’ object. Here, we can talk about the material memory in two ways: on the one hand about what is recorded in the material, and on the other hand about what is projected on the material by the subject. The latter also includes the realisation that in general, a person is no longer the first or the only one in any given environment or space. 

How would the sound and video installation Recording Floor by Tarvo Hanno Varres position itself in this context? It is not altogether clear what exactly is the memory object that the work by Varres functions as. That is because Recording Floor seems to possess all abovementioned functions, alluding to the fact that this rather metalevel memory object, which, in addition to initiating remembrance and re-enacting what has taken place also creates new situations in the present, therefore pulsating in the area between the present and the past and stressing the differences based on these principles. Naturally, in the context of this work, the past is something abstract and symbolic and considering the sonic background, it is something spatial, because the viewer experiences the sonic trace of those who had walked on the floorboards as undefined in time, but since this trace is not recorded in the present, the only natural conclusion is that it is in the past and in a very broad sense at that. The possibilities of the entire field of interpretation, and therefore approaching it as a memory object, are further broadened by the fact that the artwork itself is not the recording floor but a projected photograph of the recording floor – a document of the object that records time and space, accompanied by a paradox rather than anything that could be identified more specifically. Moreover, this projection is not on the wall but on the floor, more precisely, on a screen placed on the floor, which marks the projected floor as a separate unit. Everything is highly multilayered, yet seemingly simple, because these different layers merge into one quite minimalistic whole and this whole seems to lack the ambition to be everything it seems to be. However, if we are to go through with the categorizing act we have begun, we should first latch on to the semiotic core terms signifier-signified and change them into the duality of rememberer-remembered. Taking this line of thought one step further, we could argue that Recording Floor is not an empty signifier, but an empty rememberer that does not remember anything specific, anything memorable, but merely generally highlights the issues of remembrance and spatial experiences related to memory and its diverse expressions, while not offering any final answers. 

But what is there to gain from this categorizing? It seems like most of all it provides proof of the unsuitability of this tool for interpreting an artwork and the freedom to stop interpreting the work from here on. In this unpretentiousness, the analysis of every layer of meaning could bring you as close to understanding the artwork as would merely reading the title and matching it to the work. Pondering this work evidently leads to more extensive musings, on a metalevel, located in a more universal set of issues that takes a broader look at remembering. It seems that with the later works of Varres, the most notable feature is his lack of pretentiousness and substantial conceptual scope, accompanied by aestheticized precision. This is most of all highlighted when the titles of the works are compared to what exists in space. There is an inevitable link to  the heritage of early conceptualism and Lawrence Weiner, whose works were truly nothing more than what was presented in the titles – however, the works of Varres are. 

‘What does one write about when there is almost nothing to describe?’ Hanno Soans asks in the brochure accompanying the joint exhibition Shadow of a Flame of Varres and Kirke Kangro at the Tartu Art House, referring to the titular work of the show – the question is accurate and yet not quite so. Essentially, it is not apt to describe Varres’ works, because they lack that ‘one’ angle to describe: every description is merely one possible approach out of many – but in terms of form, his works are not made up of what is highlighted in the titles alone, therefore, a description of the structure of the work is the only thing existing unequivocally. The Shadow of a Flame is not just a shadow of a flame à la Weiner, instead it is a wire, a tripod, a spotlight, a circle of light, the base of a candle, a candle, a flame, the shadow of the candle, the shadow of the flame, the background and the room itself. With Recording Floor, Varres could have just placed a microphone on the floor of the exhibition room, but recording and re-enacting the situation is the vital ingredient that prevents his works from being described as merely conceptual works similar to gestures. 

Finally, experiencing the works of Varres is down to the ability to relate and openness of the viewer, because as simple as it may sound, the key to the work is the title that leads to the elementary particles of the installed set and this is enough to start a notional chain reaction. These works do not require a written interpretation guide, a framing narrative or any other instructions in text form – the label, some affinity for poetry and the understanding that in this context a cut-and-dried interpretation overshadows the work should be enough. 

Published in ”Memory-Sensitive”, 2017

Marten Esko (b. 1990) is Estonian curator, writer and art-worker, currently head of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) and Tallinn Print Triennial Foundation.

Deciding Itself

Margus Ott

The following musings are largely based on the motif of the recent work by Tarvo Hanno Varres, namely corners. In his last exhibition at the Tartu Art House (Shadow of a Flame, with Kirke Kangro, 26.09–18.10.2015), this motif was represented in his photo series Unavailable Memory (The Corners of Brussels)Brussels is one of the most important places in Europe, but the photos depict rather ordinary street corners. And most photos have not been taken in broad daylight, when the streets are busy, but in twilight or during the night. Tarvo has invaded Europe to highlight the hidden things in plain sight – night-time street corners.

First, it must be kept in mind that a corner is nothing angular. A corner is a place where we turn around, behind the corner – or at least we are presented with the option to do so; and perhaps only soldiers in their special training take corners in an angular manner, while we naturally curve around the corner. Therefore, corners – house corners – channel arched traffic flows. In the latest exhibition, the majority of photos were indeed placed in an arched formation in the centre of the exhibition hall, with their backs to each other – although they did not arch 90 degrees like a complete angle, a ‘right angle’, but only a little, bending the trajectory of visitors in the hall. 

However, it is exactly because of this option of turning that we often don’t see the corner itself, we do not notice it – because we are focused on what is behind the corner (and we take even less notice of the corner when we keep moving on the main road). We can look for street numbers and house numbers to get our bearings but in terms of the objective of our further intentions – the direction we are looking for and in which we are going, the corners are only the bearers of a symbol (name, sign, surveillance device). We sometimes look at facades for what they are, but a corner is something extraneous in the truest sense of the word. Obviously there are many buildings where it is the corners that are emphasized but the mundane corner of a mundane house is usually upstaged.

Because of this turning, the possibility of a change in direction, the corner also represents hesitation, delay, slowing down. We slow down on a street corner – especially if we are in a strange place – study our surroundings, reflect on how to move forward. As such, the corner is a place of decision-making and as such, a decisive, strategic place. However, the thing about decision-making is that it remains outside (psychological) time. Deciding itself does not exist for me. I am always in the time either before the decision – when I plan, intend, consider acting – and then I havenot acted yet. Or already after the decision – Ihavealready acted. And the more important the decision, the more clearly we feel that the moment of the decision is beyond our experience. I am always either before or after, in memory or intentions, but I am never in the turning point. I either have not begun turning yet or have already turned. The one turning is myself, or rather – it is myself or it is me. This moment is my own time. Thus, deciding and turning bring out a significant gap; on the one hand, ‘self-images’ that are either in the past or in the future, but never in the ‘decisive moment’ or the present itself. On the other hand, the ‘selfness’, which constitutes this dividing present or moment of decision. In order to make a decision, to turn, I must let go of my self-image for a moment – but that decision does not come from my self-image, but the entirety of me, myself – and trust myself to transformation. For me it is always either ‘not yet’ or ‘already’. The corner of a building is like a spatial metaphor for this temporal split, moment of selfness. 

This image is supported by the above-mentioned fact that the corners of buildings are usually not the most widely present parts of space, instead they are something extraneous – like selfness is ‘outlying’ or ‘between’, remaining between two self-images (future-past). A corner structures our life arches, walking curves, but the breaking point of the corner itself remains unavailable to us. A corner remains in the twilight both because of the time of photographing as well as its character. That is why we also don’t remember the corner, what remains between – we have no memory image of it. Just like Proust will never regain lost time, but in certain special moments (reminiscences) we are offered a new kind of sense of time between the present and past moments (which offers us a peculiar pleasure, joy), in Tarvo’s works we will also not attain our state of being in between, however, highlighting the corner as a symbol of being between things, a new sense of time (and space) opens up to us. 

In his earlier works, Tarvo has also depicted indoor corners. White walls, white ceiling – although in different tones. A clean corner. An indoor corner is directed inwards, structures the internal ‘space’ of myself, creates dimensions where I can put things and myself (and in a way, ‘my things’ are myself). Or coming at if from a different angle: if the outdoor corner (potentially) sways our movements in one or other direction, the indoor corner carries out an endless self-reflection, as if embodying the moment of selfness and the gap between self-images. I reflect back from all walls, pictures, until this multiple reflecting back gathers momentum and becomes independent of them, delving into ‘myself’, the gap within myself, chasm, abyss.  It is when I am ‘by myself’ or between myself. Whereas outdoor corners open distances, the indoor corners open the gap within myself. In this sense, the indoor corner is a base for the outdoor corner. 

His latest exhibition only has outdoor corners and perhaps the distinction between indoor and outdoor corners is not that important. The state of being in between is what counts. This can be linked to the titular work of the exhibition Shadow of a Flame, where a strong light is cast on a lit candle, so that the flame of a candle casts a shadow. This shadow falls on a square piece of white cardboard on the wall, where the light from a halogen lamp forms a circle. Usually the flame lights the circle but remains in the shadows, invisible as a source of light. In the light of a stronger lamp the shadow of the flame becomes visible. It is a minimalistic masterpiece, depicting something that is very hard to depict. There are barely perceptible lines here, distinctions, joints, and this leads us to more sophisticated levels of understanding ourselves and the world, melting the angular, metric, juxtaposing, and taking us to the penetrating, the merging. The corner’s shadowy state of being between things does exactly the same, interrupting the utilitarian daily life for a moment. 

The contradistinction of light and shadow is common in the history of thought, but Zhuangzi is one of the few to pay attention to the finer nuances: ‘The penumbra questioned the shadow. “Just now you were moving, now you’ve stopped. Just now you were sitting, now you’re up. How is it you’ve no settled control?” The shadow answered, “Is it because there is something upon which I depend, or that what I depend on has something upon which it depends too? Am I dependent on a snake’s sloughed skin or a locust’s tossed away wings? How can I tell why I am as I am? How can I tell why I’m not as I’m not?”’ (2.13) 

In a similar fragment (27.6) the shadow says that it does what it does without knowing why it does it. According to Zhuangzi, this unknowing does not mean lack of knowledge, instead it is a higher form of knowledge that integrates the unknowing, the imper-ceptible or the corner’s shadowy state of being between things, the shadow and the penumbra. Tarvo’s work can be illuminated in very different ways, this is merely one of them; usually, our knowledge is like the flame that illuminates something but as a flame it remains in the shadows, invisible. However, a certain attitude or shift is possible, bringing out the shadow of this flame of consciousness itself: it is the perspective of the Way, or to use the words of Heraclitus, the cosmic ‘ever-living fire’ (Fr 30).

First published in the collection ”Isendlikud esseed”, 2017, (in Estonian)

Margus Ott (b. 1975) is an Estonian philosopher, essayist who is developing a philosophy of potency, combining diverse sources, from early Chinese thought to Deleuze. He has published five book thus far and is currently working on his second Phd.

Behind the Corner. Tarvo Varres

Hanno Soans

Why is it worse for us to say that an angle is cold and a curve warm? That the curve welcomes us and the oversharp angle rejects us? That the angle is masculine and the curve feminine?

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1964

Tarvo Hanno Varres (b. 1970) is one of the most discreet artists of his generation that I know.  In an article published some time ago, more precisely in a feature for the cultural supplement Areen of the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, Martin J. Palm described him as follows:
“I have seen all kinds of Varres – sullen and pensive, cheerful and hedonistic, fashion man and shoegazer, artist and band member. The only thing I’ve never seen in Varres is a deceitful machismo.” In his characteristic modesty, Varres reveals the perhaps surprising influences
on his practice as a lens based artist – it was the Russian avant-garde photographer Rodchenko’s work that showed him early in his career that documentary is not the only possible form of photography, and Jenny Holzer’s conceptual maxims that opened his eyes to contemporary art.
At the same time, he has worked as a fashion photographer, in an architectural office and created video backgrounds for works by several contemporary Estonian composers.

Varres’s earlier activity in the field of art is linked to Rühm T (Group T). At the legendary 1991 performance exhibition “The Guide to Intronomadism” at the Tallinn Art Hall, Tarvo Hanno Varres staged a happening where he created a house music party in the rooms of the building. His work “The Hall with a Black Ceiling” (“Musta laega saal”) was also exhibited there as a temporary installation, his arrangement of space creating a feeling of dislocation in the distinguished art venue. Additionally, the exhibition included his black-and-white photo series, given a blue hue with chemical toning, titled “Pigeons” (“Tuvid”, 1991, perished), which takes us quite close to typologies that stem from everyday life, yet are cut off from the commonplace, which Varres engages to this day and which, through his “Corners Series” (“Nurkade seeria”, 2012-…), is the main subject of this article.

Perhaps the best known work by Varres is “Portraits” (“Portreed”), exhibited in 1996 at the Rühm T retrospective in the Knighthood House and today included in the contemporary art collection of The Art Museum of Estonia. Facing the viewer are people known from the Tallinn club and fashion scenes, in close-up with a uniformly black background – yet the anonymity offered by Varres’s presentation rules out any kind of psychologism. Thanks to the make-up that stresses unearthliness, the faces presented in these photos, when displayed in an exhibition environment, become more like “masks” representing generational and subcultural affinities rather than models. Varres is not so much documenting here, as creating an anthropological type. Or as the artist himself put it: “The more questions the work raises, the more competent it is.”

The four-panel photo installation “The Sun” (“Päike”, 2002) comprises tens upon tens of images of the sun, taken from his window mostly. Here, the unnerving psychedelia of the visual language of sunstorms has been crossed with the smoggy glow of dull sunsets. On the one hand, the author is attracted by the banality of the subject, the challenge of banality – after all, when it comes to prevalence in amateur photography, the motif of the sun is almost in the same league with cats and babies. On the other hand, with this series, Varres employs the rhythmics of repetition and sameness as well as the mechanics of tiny consecutive differences to make us notice the ritual aspect of taking pictures of the sun, while also using the final product to force us to admit the hopelessly decorative nature of our model of the universe on an everyday level.

At the exhibition “Shadows of a Doubt” at the Tallinn Art Hall, Varres presented his photo installation “Corners Series” (2012-…). The series has previously been exhibited at the exhibition “Collecting Nostalgia” (2012) at the Y Gallery in Tartu. “Corners Series” depicts a collection of street corners
of Tallinn, in one composition pattern that gradually, shot by shot, reveals small differences, comprising a grid of 44 images in four rows, all in portrait format. As if representing pauses or commas in this typology, some interior corners are interjected, clinically white, neutral, like some inner places, psychologically undomesticated, where the glance rests. Here, the artist takes on the role of a collector. And the motif only begins to work in its consecutiveness. This urbanist study free of human presence is inevitably accompanied by an image of the artist as a flaneur, catching fragments of street poetry.

Let’s take a random shot (while being aware that these choices are as far from random as the choice of motif is for Varres): house number, drainpipe, roughcast sloppily repaired and a corner of a window that allude to the esteemed functionalist city architecture of the 1930s and the fact
that the house has not been renovated. The late autumn (?) light draws details that we are unaware of noticing in our subconscious. Due to the presentation format, these details are in fact divorced from their actual architectural context, the buildings as wholes. “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box,” the French space phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard comments, meaning to say that a house as a figure is one of the most important psychoanalytical constructions, one of the most primal models of the soul. That is the reason the images of this series rely on the viewer’s projections, where the ideas about layers of history depicted in the images – the past and the present of the house – and the viewer’s lived sense of space and personal memories are crystallized. Yet the viewer is cut off from the house as an architectural whole. And that is probably the reason the viewer, even if he or she is not from Tallinn, will take these fragments to put together a personal narrative or imagine meetings in the pictorial space that have never taken place, meetings that the closed nature of the pictorial space keeps obscuring and postponing. This way, Varres’s houses will always remain elusive, just like the motifs in his earlier photographs. Their secret is that meeting the artist en face is always postponed.

Hanno Soans in Estonian critic and curator. Essay first published in Maja magazine, 2014.