Contemplating Diāna Tamane’s exhibition ‘Commissions’ at the ISSP Gallery (16.11.2018–19.01.2019)
Diāna Tamane’s exhibition ‘Commissions’, curated by Evita Goze, could at first sight come across as rather an unusual exhibition. Its aesthetic set-up does not bode well with the trendy examples of installations and objects in the contemporary art world, and neither does it resonate with the standards of presentations of images applied by photographers, which strive towards a detached perfectionism without unnecessary displays of emotion. The exhibition features works and images that could be considered schmaltzy or even clichéd: a photograph of a cat in the window of an old brick house, an idealistic view of Riga, a blossoming tree beside a house. But the most eye-catching object is the furthest wall of the exhibition, painted the colour of an omelette, and filled with various-sized images, paintings, framed family photographs, and even small clay articles (made by Diāna’s sister), creating an eclectic, irregular ‘wallpaper’ of impressions. Diāna’s exhibition is like a ‘diary of memories’, making us feel slightly uncomfortable while browsing its pages, because it gives the impression that she has made some highly personal memories public. A sense of unease also creeps in because the viewer quickly realises that these are not works of art that correspond to the criteria of contemporary art, but rather amateurish articles, creative attempts, and impressions from one family’s collection, the family of Diāna Tamane. Many of these pieces were made by Diāna, either just before she finished her professional art education or during the early stages. Other pieces were created or commissioned by members of her family. Many are not even artworks: there are family photographs that have been transferred from her family home to the walls of the gallery.
I would say that Diāna’s ‘Commissions’ should be, and at the same time should not be, read in the context of the language of contemporary art exhibitions. The aim of her project was not to make a good impression on members of the (very small and elitist) art world, but to create a dialogue with a certain audience, Diāna’s family. This is shown not only by how the works have been selected and the way they have been presented, but also by the comments in Russian next to many images. The exhibition was produced with the active participation of the artist’s relatives, and therefore it was intended as a dialogue specifically with them, and not with an abstract audience. For example, for some time now, Diāna has been trying to make works for members of her family. Her father wanted a view of Old Riga, with a specific request, it had to feature Akmens and Vanšu Bridge. Her grandmother, for example, wanted a photograph with a sunset; but Diāna could not quite manage it, so instead she printed one of her grandmother’s own photographs of her summer cottage in Kursīši, which was sold a few years ago, on canvas.
‘Commissions’ has turned out to be a collaboration by a small collective, bringing together memories, impressions, dreams and intentions in a visual adventure. It may resonate with any viewer’s experience, because who has not thought of making a family portrait of some sort, either more or less idealistic? However, while reflecting on the exhibition, it seemed less important to emphasise the making of this family album, and more an aesthetic adventure in the production of an exhibition as a process, in which collaborating and getting to know each other were essential. It eliminates the hierarchical relationship between the artist as an authority and the viewer, who is often anonymous and abstract.
An essential part of Diāna’s practice so far has been to involve her relatives, as she notes,[i] something that she has deliberately done since 2009. For example, in her work ‘On the Road’ (2015), she asked her mother to comment on her job on the roads while she was working as a truck driver. Another project, ‘Flower Smuggler’ (started in 2017 and ongoing), features photographs of flowers taken by her grandmother that were sent home while she was detained for smuggling flowers on the border with the Russian Federation. Until now, Diāna’s relatives have been active protagonists in her work; but only as research objects, whose presence invited the contemplation of complex issues, such as belonging, identity, memories and movement. While zooming in on personal family relationships, and shining a light on misunderstandings, life’s let-downs or deadlocks, in search of commonality and understanding through differences, the artist explores subjects such as ‘economic migration, generational differences, and the aesthetic sense and understanding of art of the working classes’.[ii] But, to me, it seems that Diāna’s focus has shifted in yet another direction with the exhibition ‘Commissions’, distancing her from the subjective and the individual (or the ego), and turning towards the collective. In particular, by concentrating her attention on a particular group, in this case her family, the artist brings to our attention issues of responsibility and participation within the wider context of contemporary art. It is a chance to witness a stepping away from the egocentric role of an artist, by shifting one’s practice towards a more socially responsible path, and thus touching on subjects that are not only essential to the contemporary art world, but which also relate to people outside it. Of course, Diāna is also reliant on the objects she explores, she is so closely entwined with them that any separation or move away in another direction could be difficult. But, and this is perhaps another interesting aspect, how can we view the artist’s practice, bearing in mind the fact that its core has always been interdependence, mechanisms that are characteristic of societal structures in general, and whose removal or attempts at breaking them up would cause profound problems with long-lasting consequences?
We often pose the question, how can art become visible beyond its boundaries? How can it become noticeable, and influence social systems? In my opinion, this exhibition provokes a contemplation of art and photography as an expanded field of perception, where the focus is not just on a certain medium, in this case a photograph, but the forms of action and communication that break free of the boundaries of this medium. In any case, an image here serves as a link between the creator and the perceiver, removing active and passive roles in this dynamic. Is Diāna’s exhibition an example of social practice? That is debatable; however, this example certainly encourages us to view it in that context. The exhibition and its production process have dared to cross the space between the one who creates and the one who consumes, the one who views and the one who partakes in the creative process. This exhibition is also like a reminder of boundaries that have historically and institutionally been constructed to separate professionally created art from unprofessional, vernacular art, where the ‘label’ of good or bad art is attached to a certain type of creative output. While wilfully reminding us of this division, ‘Commissions’, as an exhibition and a project in one, acquires a vulnerable status that is welcoming and humane to any viewer. The role of the individual, or in this case, the artist as a creator, has been deconstructed, introducing cooperation as a form of creative practice; and therefore it is not the objects (for example, the exhibited works) that acquire value, but the actual practice as such, and the context in which it emerged.
Photo reportage from the exhibition ‘Commissions’ by Diāna Tamane at ISSP Gallery here.
[i] Laura Brokāne, Moments of Failure. Interview with Diāna Tamane, Echo Gone Wrong, http://echogonewrong.com/interview-Diāna-tamane/?fbclid=IwAR09Qsy0Z6rO1mH01ial72ZeMY-CaBCDtvks8Q5cuQRM1ho2cPaIRsD4Muw
[ii] Inga Lāce, Diāna Tamane: Jet Lag, The Estonian Art, 2018