Cornered by a big man in black leather pants and motorcycle jacket at an exhibition at Pärnu artist house in Estonia, at first, I felt fearful. Towering over me he asks in an abrupt way who I am and where I come from.
It is my introduction to the direct style of communication celebrated in this region, a disregard of small talk and predilection for getting straight to the point. It was also my first meeting with Raul Keller in 2005. Since then we run into each other a few times each year, at art exhibitions or other cultural events.
Considering Keller’s image as maverick maker, fabricating gritty works from available materials, it is no surprise he chooses a motorcycle instead of a car. The mechanical functions of a car are largely hidden, but on a motorcycle the engine, radiator, gears, drive shaft are exposed and seductive to those among us fascinated by mechanical operations.
Like his works, Keller can seem imposing, a bit too sturdy, too cool, but once you get past appearance; what is gentle, caring and kind is revealed. All of these qualities smoothly collide in Keller’s current exhibition at EKKM.
EKKM, situated in a disused factory near the port of Tallinn is repurposed into a venue for the exhibition of contemporary art. The white cube format largely transformed into black cube, suggests theatrical or performative offerings in Raul Keller’s solo exhibition of a series of sound based installations, What You Hear is What You Get (Mostly).
The second floor of the museum territory includes a ramp on a 25 degree grade. Often used for video projections I always think I will fall and break my neck in the darkened room. Keller builds a sturdy bridge on level ground. The construction, somewhere between a K-Rauta prefab kit and Game of Thrones tableau ascends over the grade filled with luminescent blue fog. But the ceiling quickly runs out as the grade cuts off the level walkway, like site specificity gone wrong, one is likely to bang his forehead of the steel ceiling rafters scantily wrapped in foam insulation.
While the blue mist proposes an air of mystery the works themselves demystify the sound; the mechanical parts exposed, as if to clarify, electronic sound is nothing more than big speakers pushing air against a different types of resistance, mostly. The exhibition could easily fit into a scientific museum simply by adding accompanying text and audio tours about the phenomena of physical sound demonstrated by the calculated construction of each work.
On the ground floor gallery the visitor is met by two steel disks, stretched in vinyl textile behind which a large speaker is mounted to the supporting pillar three meters above the viewer’s head. The pulsing drones reverberate through the space. In the next room, the smell of cut pine indicates a change in materials from steel to wood as three towering crates become visible in murky darkness, they look like shipping crates but behave as subwoofers. Not to become bogged down in definitions, but this piece is not technically site specific, it could play anywhere, other factories, parking structures, natural caves… The massive crates suggest that the installations can be easily boxed, rolled onto a truck and transported to the next exhibition or biennale. The artist is mobile.
In fact, Keller recently returned from residency and exhibition in Berlin and many of the works were developed and fabricated there. The materials are not recycled, the materials seem new, uniform, machined by quality tools, I think, “Keller got a budget,” and what he does with that budget is make much bass.
The works are untitled; at first glance there seem to be six or seven distinct installations. The darkened spaces frustrate the eyes for the anticipated spectacle of works of art. But the experience becomes more comprehensive when one gives up entirely on a search for the object or the narrative, rather to wander through the multi layered space listening and feeling. On the descent from the upper floors, the deadly factory staircase shakes, the windows rattle while installations bleed into each other, bathing the entire surrounding in pulsation. The installations occupy the entire structure, sound transduces through stone, glass and steel. The engagement of sound is not always about listening, rather feeling vibrations run through your body, bones, bodily fluids, the sound is inside you and it can feel intimate.
Do I feel connected to the other spectators? Sound pulses through us, like twins in utero, surrounded by warm fluid and the all-encompassing reverberation of the heartbeat of the mother is timed to the tiny beat of the offspring, when we hear such a beat together it is likely that our heartbeats also synchronize.
A founding member of Estonian for Dynamic Union of Music and Arts, a performer in several collaborations, his individual works appear consistently in alternative venues and culture space. This year Keller will head the New Media Art department at EKA as a full professor, a step in the career of artists of a certain age, the transition from emerging artist to mid-career artist and the works mark the transformation from underground to institution.
At the opening of the exhibition the large attendance of art scene glitterati, academics and culture managers gave authority to the event. A solo retrospective at KUMU, the institutional counterpart to EKKM should come in twenty more years to indicate the passage from mid-career to established artist and then large scale commissions eventually mark passage to Estonian classic. The title of the show What You Hear is What You Get (Mostly) seems to offer us access to a visceral experience, absent of hidden agendas, conceptual context or ideology; but the simplicity of forms, the sheer monumentalism of the experience expresses the aestheticisation of anti- aestheticisation and is therefore ideological; what we hear is more then what we expect and what we get is not quite how it appears.
Raul Keller’s exhibition is open at the EKKM (Põhja pst. 35, Tallinn Estonia) from 18 September to 27 October 2014. For more information see here.
Photographs by Johannes Säre