Performing against Surfaces

July 16, 2019
Author Keiu Krikmann
Published in Review from Estonia

‘False Vacationer’ by Sigrid Viir. Curator: Maarin Mürk. Contemporary Art Museum, Estonia (27 April–16 June 2019)

If you are a false vacationer, you are probably also a false worker, vacationing and working, always doing both and neither. This was the premise and threshold for ‘False Vacationer’, but I will leave it at that. I don’t think I have much to add by reviewing ‘False Vacationer’ from an earnest point of view, looking at precarious working conditions and the struggles of being a freelancer, art worker or something similar at this point. I also don’t have it in me to be whimsical about it: it’s just too familiar, a feeling that’s always there. Sometimes, when you happen to feel good about your life, it lurks as a shadow, just barely in your field of vision, or at other times, when things are maybe not going so well, you feel it like a lump in your stomach.

The longer you let something hover near you without giving it language, the more it becomes a feeling, and the less urgent its articulation seems. This piece of writing, too, got caught up in the usual routine: at first in other deadlines, and then in the pile of simple tasks that just seem insurmountable.

For several weeks, I was always low-key thinking about it, knowing what I wanted to say, but not quite being able to grab it and give it shape, which was also more or less my impression of ‘False Vacationer’. So this article is mainly what the show felt like, not so much what I thought about it; although, in the end, these two are not so different, are they?

For better or for worse, ‘False Vacationer’ has already closed now, but since the documentation, together with the press release is available here, maybe you can quickly take a look if you feel like it. But no pressure, though; there will be some images below as well.

‘False Vacationer’ was set up so that you could see it either in ‘work mode’ or in ‘vacation mode’. Basically, what that means is, you can go through the same sequence of spaces with two different audio-guides, which allow you to experience the exhibition in slightly different ways. The voice of the audio-guide leads you from room to room, from object to object, from surface to surface, and draws your attention to details, to other visitors and yourself, and to how your bodies move in the space, while making observations about the disappearance of boundaries between work and vacation in a tongue-in-cheek way. I can’t say I didn’t appreciate it; on the contrary, at first I was pretty excited to follow the text (and the instructions), gliding from room to room. And really, who would want to see a show complaining earnestly about the difficult life of freelancers? That would just be embarrassing. But I did see the exhibition four times (two visits, twice both times), and I eventually grew suspicious of the light-hearted tone laden with self-irony. Why is it so carefree? What is it hiding? What is it diverting my attention from? I felt there was something I couldn’t exactly get to, and the audio-guide became a shield against other people in the space, and a surface against the beautiful surfaces of the artworks.

“Plans of Today’s Me for the Future”, 2019. Site specific sculpture, 45×45×526cm, contact microphone

The first time(s) I went to see ‘False Vacationer’ I was on my own, and the audio-guide did indeed function like a shield. Even though the voice repeatedly instructed me to look at what others were doing, the headphones still signalled: I’m not really trying to engage with you, it’s just the text! And I must admit, this was pretty helpful against other visitors, that is, people I kind of knew, but not well enough to have a conversation with. The second time(s) I saw it together with someone else, and since I was much more interested in the person than the show, the audio became a wall, and the headphones were a little too much, creating an extra barrier in a space that was already blotted with awkwardness. But what a beautiful and strange backdrop to all those self-aware motions, to watch yourself and others perform!

Sigrid Viir’s work, her effortless surfaces, have always left me feeling everything is just a tiny bit out of reach, as if I can’t get through for some reason. And this makes me a bit suspicious. Perhaps I should look harder, but then again, I already know I can see it well enough, it’s impossible to miss, and I do appreciate what I see. Since this has happened to me before, and I was very aware of that before seeing ‘False Vacationer’, I avoided reading reviews of the show: just to see, one more time, if I could get through on my own (spoiler: I couldn’t). The only review I did have to read was one I translated for a magazine, which ironically gave me one of the deadlines that contributed to me pushing writing this into The Pile. But what stuck with me the most from that review for some reason (no link available just yet, sorry) was how the writer was annoyed at the fact that he couldn’t ride the chairs as instructed by the audio-guide. So, the second time I visited EKKM, I went, checked, and ultimately revelled in the fact that the chairs, indeed, could not be moved much: ha! more surface-objects! The chair, of course, is not a metaphor for the exhibition as a whole, that would be unfair; but this moment was somehow reassuring enough to make me bolder on the surfaces.

“Office Sweet Home”, 2019. Framed pigment print, series of 15 photos, various sizes, engraved text, embroidered text, metal supports

I was equally fascinated by what was going on with those surfaces, the little performances that were happening, following instructions, pretending to be really focused while looking at the show, feeling awkward; and, my favourite, seeing teenagers use the show as a backdrop for a photo shoot, in an unmistakably focused and serious way, but maybe not yet aware of their immaterial labour? However, it is more likely that they were very aware of it, perhaps only not in these specific terms: judging by the way they paid no attention to the souvenir plates on the wall. And by the plates, I mean the ones with key words on them, arranged in a diagram, anchoring the show in a wider discourse on the imbalance of work and leisure. Unlike the teenagers, I would probably have held on to that particular work as tightly as I could, had there not been the audio-guide to keep me from getting lost on the vast and pleasant but impenetrable surfaces.

“Souvenirs of the False Vacationer”, 2019 and ongoing 47 souvenir plates, text on glass and wall, various sizes

By the time I had got to the very end of ‘False Vacationer’, to the room that was transformed into an empty pool with Maarja Kangro’s audio-piece, a text entitled ‘Infinity on the Beach’, I don’t think I was hoping to break through any more. Kangro’s story concludes with her main character waking up on a beach; but I’m not a hundred per cent sure what happened before that. I suppose it was a story about a work-vacation haze. I don’t remember the words any more, just the rhythm and the echo of her voice in the space, and the smooth tiles under my hands and feet, as I performed my duty as a viewer: listened, walked, climbed and sat in the pool, flushed with flattening yellow light.

“I’ll Think of a Title When I’ve Had Enough Rest”, 2019. Installation, 8×9m, sound (text “Infinity on the Beach” by Maarja Kangro)