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Elastics of Time Travelling as a Public Body

In March last year, there was a period when I consumed exclusively history-themed content: at first, I read novels set in the past, but after a while I turned to films and television series. I wanted to literally see into another time, in as much detail as possible, even if it was only fiction of varying degrees of inaccuracy I was looking at. At first, I thought I just wanted to take my mind somewhere else, to be anywhere but at that particular moment. However, I soon realised that it was more than that: I was, in fact, desperately trying to regain a perspective on life. My own time no longer offered that; events were developing at a speed at which it was impossible to take a step back and try to understand what was really happening; there was a sharp loss of perspective, a loss of vision.

It was a distinctly intense experience, but as the initial wave of heightened anxiety began to recede, I realised that it wasn’t only the pandemic that enforced the almost palpable lack of imagination. For a long time I’d been longing for a clearer picture. It was like coming to the conclusion that you have actually become depressed, after knowing you’ve not been all right for a while. And how you know this is because you no longer have a perspective, no palpable sense of a future: it’s not that you think something horrible will happen, you are simply unable to see any kind of future at all.

I suppose a lot of it also had to do with the previous years of extremely disappointing political developments, both domestic (in my case Estonian), and international: the rise of populist-nationalist sentiment, increasing protectionism, the constant vilification of minorities, climate concerns, the precariousness of working in the arts, frustration with the art world’s inability to counteract all of the above in a meaningful way, and the list goes *on*. And the lack of political imagination is suffocating. Sure, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, etc, but … that doesn’t mean we should stop. Having a sense of future is vital to survival. Without it, you may still exist, but no longer live.

The scarcity of imagination both in art and politics also means a lack of abundance and sustenance. And I’m not talking about material wealth, although inequality has not decreased; even during the pandemic, wealth has increasingly migrated to where it was already overflowing. But what I mean is that we need to not forget that poetry is not a luxury.

In the past year, time has acquired a strange elasticity, changing gear unexpectedly, and seemingly losing any semblance of a coherent flow. When that first happened, frantic predictions of the post-pandemic world started rolling out almost immediately. I suppose it was a reaction similar to my retreat to the past, but unlike the doomer historian in me, the predictions overwhelmingly envisioned a new and better (art) world. In the end, though, these were more about self-assurance than concrete actions, but fair enough. However, there was one particular prediction I have been absolutely haunted by. Someone said online that they think the future will be a mix of Biedermeier and sci-fi, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Not because I consider it particularly accurate, but rather because of the implications of possible (political) positions arising from the two, and how that might reflect in art.

The sci-fi part is already more or less familiar; depending on your disposition, the future might be utopian or dystopian. And we know the images that go along with that: artists have been churning out bits of speculative futures for a long time: post-humanist, post-digital, post-internet, post-gender, etc. Some of these are truly inspiring, some mediocre and unimaginative, some enmeshed in truly awful politics. With the exception of the last on the list, I’m for it. Shaping a new imagination is hard work, requires persistence, and has to allow for failure as well.

But what I’m more interested in is the tension between the future and the past, the connects and the disconnects. So let’s discuss the Biedermeier part for a second. Biedermeier refers to the period between 1815 and 1848, that is, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the ‘Spring of Nations’ revolutions. The term is used mainly to describe the arts in Central Europe at the time, but the style also reached the Baltic region through Baltic German culture. At the heart of Biedermeier was the rise of the middle class, domesticity, conservatism, and apolitical artistic expression. History is, of course, much more complex than we glimpse in hindsight: for example, the name Biedermeier was originally used to denigrate petit-bourgeois poetry, which obviously shows a plurality of artistic sensibilities at the time, but the name nevertheless stuck. And to me, in many ways, it also resonates with the present.

Otto Zoege von Manteuffel. The Artist’s Family. 1850s (EKM j 283:56 M 1299, Eesti Kunstimuuseum SA)

With the pandemic and conservative politics as its backdrop, domesticity has also taken on a peculiar elasticity, now stretching to encompass our public (work and social) lives into a sphere that was previously considered private, the home. So many of the functions of public life are forced into the home, which forces people, and especially women, to take on countless new roles in that confined space. And in the midst of all of this, we’ve also become worn-out and half-assed performers, tired, but always ready for the camera, allowing countless people into our private sphere, via screens. There is also, of course, joy in retreating to one’s private space, and, ideally, slowing down, to enjoy multum in parvo, or the Renaissance philosophy of finding ‘much in little’. The latter was also practised by the Tudors in 16th-century England during the plague. However, as the textile historian Eleri Lynn points out [1], the more private a room, the more expensive the adornments and decor. These private luxuries remind us yet again that privacy really is a luxury. Perhaps all this is not so unlike our unattainable cottagecore [2] dreams from last spring? Or before that, finding out that the bonnetcore [3] girls were all heiresses. Of course, in order to think, work and create, what is needed is privacy and security, you know, a room of one’s own, 500 pounds a year, etc. But really, social and economic circumstances have everything to do with the degree of privacy, domesticity and nostalgia attainable by each person.

In her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate histories of riotous black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals, Saidiya Hartman writes about black urban communities at the turn of the century. She describes and envisions individual and intimate lives lived in public; both materially, as living conditions were poor, crowded and volatile, due to the lack of socio-economic opportunities; and metaphorically, due to the constant over-policing of black communities, their minds and bodies seen as public property, in need of managing and handling. In the process, people lost their right to privacy, or, as Édouard Glissant put it, their right to opacity. However, as Hartman points out, the relationship between the private and the public is tentative, but regardless, ripe for innovation, imagination and desire. Balancing fact and fiction, Hartman envisions a multitude of lives filled with deep joy for historical women and queers who had very little, showing how they unapologetically navigated their small private sphere, expanding their lives into the new kind of urban life around them, taking up more space than they were meant to. The work of unearthing pasts for those who were always there but never seen provides other ways of looking at ourselves, and the future too: there are speculative futures in abundance, but speculative pasts are needed just as much.

Olev Subbi. Afternoon in the Old House (1974), Lady in a Green Skirt (1972), Girl Under an Open Window (1977). Olev Subbi: Landscapes from the End Times, exhibition view. Tallinn Art Hall. Photo: Paul Kuimet

There are, obviously, limitations to drawing parallels between any given moments in time. Interestingly, this was made very clear by two extensive exhibitions of Olev Subbi’s work that opened in Tallinn just after the first lockdown ended. Olev Subbi (1930–2013) was an Estonian painter, mainly known for his landscapes, still-lifes and female nudes. In recent years, his work has enjoyed record success on the Estonian art market, driven by various initiatives undertaken by his collectors. Subbi’s work is aestheticised, conservative and subdued, beige and muted, which makes it even more remarkable that one of the exhibitions, ‘Landscapes from the End of Times’, curated by Àngels Miralda at the Tallinn Art Hall (24 July to 4 October 2020), displayed his work alongside a younger generation of considerably more progressive artists: Larry Achiampong, María Dalberg, Nona Inescu, Ad Minoliti, Juana Subercaseaux, Nazim Ünal Yilmaz and Maya Watanabe. I do understand and appreciate what the curator was trying to do: to find contemporary counterparts to themes in Subbi’s work, and address them in clearly contemporary and alive artistic language. However, what happened was that Subbi’s work tamed and suffocated so much of the visionary potential of the other works; as a viewer, how can I possibly think about or hold both proposed worlds in my mind as equals; instead, it mostly felt like my mind was splitting. How can I truly see a different world, while the reclining nudes and men in suits look on? But such is the power of beige. Subbi’s work also has a very distinct air of private consumption, perhaps imposed by its contemporary context, but I find it very difficult to disregard that.

Thinking about private and public, past and present, there is a project that I keep coming back to, one that also really speaks to many of the issues I’ve tried to make sense of here. The spiralling interconnectedness and elasticity of past, present and future, and private and public, and their imaginative potential. Jaanus Samma’s Outhouse by the Church (2018) looks at a historic public toilet next to the almost hundred-year-old Kodavere church in the south of Estonia. Samma collaborated with conservation specialists in exploring the layered history of the outhouse, simultaneously a very private and extremely public space. He explores the element of folk art and vernacular language, present in the form of latrinalia; he has previously researched public toilets more specifically as gay cruising sites, mapping unnoticed histories. In his work, looking back does not dissolve the future, rather it contributes to a wider perspective, or brings more light and air into imagining one, even if, paradoxically, it comes about by digging through toilets. But history always implicitly carries the tension between public and private lives, as is clearly made evident by people’s ever-present desire to communicate to the public from a very private space.

As the longest year still drags on, I’m not sure what is left of public life. I am sure, however, that seeing ourselves as part of a public, and a historically situated public at that, is crucial, as it helps, among other things, to counter the reduction and push of vital concerns solely into the private sphere.

Nona Inescu. Vestigial Structures (2018). Olev Subbi: Landscapes from the End Times, exhibition view. Tallinn Art Hall. Photo: Paul Kuimet

Jaanus Samma. Outhouse by the Church, wall detail. Photo: Annika Haas

Jaanus Samma. Outhouse by the Church, exhibition view. Nomas Foundation. Photo: Roberto Apa


[2] Cottagecore – an online aesthetic, perhaps a subculture, idealising romanticised rural life; an aspirational form of nostalgia.

[3] Bonnetcore – an online aesthetic expressed by wearing bonnets as a fashion accessory and related vibes and moods: Little House on the Prairie, shepherdesses, Mennonites, etc.