Human souls are made of endless sensations, carefully wrapped in plain or patterned wrapping paper. From the outside, we are all more or less the same, because the wrapping paper exists only in certain varieties, with or without dots, stripes, flowers, letters or colours. This effect of variety is merely superficial, but we prefer to believe that there is a perfect pattern for everybody and everything. Being constantly busy with the question whether we like more dots or more stripes, we tend to forget that we evaluate the packaging and not the people. Life is a carnival, where the participants have to decide what masks to wear: anonymity is a prerequisite to enter this party, a party guest without a mask is persona non grata.
The theories of carnival culture and civilisation of the Russian philosopher, literary critic and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin are built as a whole upon both, high and low culture. Although hard to differentiate in our contemporary bubble(s), art provides us with the tools to understand the link between these two notions. Sometimes more, sometimes less obviously, but still, a contemporary art gallery is one of the churches of our time. What I mean by a ‘church’ is that it is a ‘place of no lies’, where masks are dropped, and truth can flow ‘non-stop’; there is no need to wrap it up in the Batman-patterned wrapping paper of popular culture. Indeed, it is a pity that so few people use this opportunity. “Have you seen yourself?” Kristi Kongi, one of Estonia’s most prominent young painters, is asking shamelessly with her current exhibition at the Hobusepea Gallery in Tallinn Old Town.
When I walk into the gallery … out of those dirty November streets, I feel enchanted and humble. The glittery kaleidoscopic installation in the front part of the gallery, which could definitely look kitschy to someone somewhere, is so dynamic that ‘everyday logic’ fades into the background, and soon it feels as though it has relaxingly disappeared. Together with the integration of video, laser and sound, this glitzy, flowery world creates the perfect transition from ‘street logic’ to intimate paintings downstairs. There is no doubt that Kristi Kongi is being brutally honest. When I read the titles of her paintings (I see through you, You peeked at me from afar, Will you be here when I come, Have you in my wilderness, Man. Hidden, etc), I suddenly stand trembling and naked in front of myself, a bit like the wolf in Kongi’s painting, frightened but alive. I FEEL myself feeling (again).
The grotesque of Bakhtin’s carnival expresses fear (amongst other things); but not the fear of death, but the fear of life. This is amazing, because life is the only thing we have, and yet we are not afraid of losing it, but are afraid of living it. We are so afraid that we wrap ourselves up in patterns, from head to toe, and pretend we (our sensations) don’t exist. The internationally renowned art theorist and professor at Oslo Art Academy Jan Verwoert said in the public lecture ‘Whipped Cream for the Walking Dead’ he gave in the hall of the Estonian Academy of Sciences last November: ‘We no longer feel that we don’t feel. When you don’t bother with feeling anything, you will become a thing, an undead, a zombie.’ Like Jan Verwoert, I’m also nostalgic for humans. So, it seems, is Kristi Kongi. I think she is one of those artists who, intentionally or not, provide therapy sessions for those who have forgotten how to live, how to feel, how to love, how to be happy, and how to be unhappy. Yes, unhappy. That’s the dark side of unwrapping yourself. But I believe it’s a hundred per cent worth it. Feeling is the only thing that differentiates us from things, the undead and zombies, the only thing that makes us human. Let’s try to hold on to this.
The Estonian artist Kristi Kongi introduced her current personal exhibition ‘Have you seen yourself?’ with the following words: ‘The present painting installation forms a whole in the Hobusepea Gallery, consisting of patterns collected over recent years originating from various pieces of packaging: plastic bags, gift wrap paper, etc. Every detail is part of a story that can be created by the act of remembering. Time is made of different key words and sensations. One important aspect for me is the hidden existence of a package; every package has something in it; it is addressed to someone or is from someone. There are objects with specific functions in packages, such as flowers that will eventually wither and disappear. The wrapping paper, however, will remain. The shadows of objects appear through some paintings, hinting at their presence, either in an abstract or a realistic form. While working with this exhibition, I have probably focused most on the concept of existence: this is definitely caused by everything surrounding us. Patterns and colours contribute to covering up the things we don’t really want to see or feel. And yet, they help us to think about ourselves.’*
The exhibition is open until Monday, 21 November.
* From the press release of the Hobusepea Gallery