“So it may be that the early animalistic forms this strange state of mind delivers – the lizards, hydras, beetles, and those somewhere between plant and insect – wilfully adopt the sublayers of the human spiritual landscape as their own, enriching and reviving it with their phosphorising rhizomatous roots and eyes; with their excretions and decay; with their composting and pupation; with their refertilisation and reproduction; thus permanently sustaining that state of mind within us as a sensory primeval forest of possibility.”
– Mehis Heinsaar. Aesthistence (2020)
Eike Eplik (b.1982) is a member of the young talented Estonian sculpture and installation makers, the same generation artists such as Art Allmägi, Edith Karlson, Jass Kaselaan, Kriss Lemsalu, Laura Põld and Jevgeni Zolotko belong to. Out of all these artists mentioned, Eike seems to be the one most drawn to realms of magical realism creating her own wonderlands somewhere on the border between physical reality and the subconscious. Taking great inspiration from nature, she builds up her spacial installations just like birds build nests, putting small, well considered details together in seemingly abstract compositions, encoding them with mystical messages. Eikes’ works represent the world’s duality: where the ethereal, fragile and beautiful coexists with the whimsical and even the gory, reminiscent both of some Flemish still life paintings in the tradition of memento mori as well as some old fairy tales blended with images from modern popular culture.
We met with Eike in her Tartu-based studio on Friday, 28th of February 2020. It was one of the rarer days of this year’s winter when the city was covered in snow. It made the landscape as white and muted as the porcelain pieces in Eikes studio waiting to be exhibited alongside works by writer Mehis Heinsaar – ceramic clay sculptures, found objects, a fresh plate of pomegranates and various poetical texts – for her upcoming show ‘Biomass – Ghost in the Corner’ at Kogo gallery. We talked without having any real suspicion about what was about to happen in the near future dedicating our conversations to Eike’s life in Tartu city, to love and shared concerns about nature, and to her latest exhibition project. On 14th of March, despite the government’s quarantine announcements having been a couple of days prior, Eike’s show opened but only to a very limited number of people who could attend it. Taking into consideration Eike’s gentle and fragile installations and pieces as well as her outsider type of character, the new set of rules and regulations seemed to weirdly fit with her project and its ghost in the corner.
Šelda Puķīte: Tere Eike! At this moment, we are in your studio on Ujula Street in Tartu, Estonia. Could you tell me how long you have this studio space here for and how you are using it?
Eike Eplik: I think I have it for two and a half years. A bit longer actually, but I am using it for two and a half years. I work here with my sculptures, but I also work at home with the pieces for which I use cleaner materials so I don’t make a mess. I usually use the studio for working with messier materials like clay and plaster with wood and stuff like that. The studio is the space that can get dirty if needs be. At home I am working more with cleaner materials, some textiles and wire. I also sculpt smaller things there because I like the possibilities of working from home later in the evening or early in the morning if I feel like it. But the studio is my main space of work and practice.
Is this a kind of antidote to the problems you mentioned in previous interviews where you once complained about the lack of a workplace being open for 24 hours when you were a student, or as a sculptor being able to bring your work home after studies being difficult?
Actually, at the beginning, when I started to study sculpture in Tartu, I had access to Tartu Art College’s studio space most of the time (now Pallas University of Applied Sciences). It is more problematic nowadays when studios close already at eleven o’clock so nobody can get in or out after then. My art college moved to a new building just one year before I finished. So it was only torturous for this one year that I could not stay working with my sculptures late at night. In Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), it was similar in that you could be in this huge new building with all these ateliers for as long as you liked. You could even sleep there if you weren’t precious about needing luxury. But here in my studio, I can work when I want but I prefer not to work till four o’clock in the morning the next day. If I work later then it’s usually at home with smaller pieces.
The house where your studio is situated belongs to the Tartu Artist’s Union which you yourself are a member of. It is not so typical for artists to join unions these days because in comparison, for example, to during Soviet times, not being in the union meant being denied access to certain materials or commissions. Nowadays, it seems that this function is played by funds and the free market. Why was it important for you to become a member?
Before I became a member of Tartu Artist’s Union I was already a member of the Estonian Artist’s Union. One reason why I became a Tartu Artist’s Union member was that nice people work there which was a good enough reason for me at first. Also if I would not have become a union member I would have had to pay more for half of my studio I currently pay for. Recently, the union has also started working with quite a lot of artists, and I have also had some exhibitions with them, like my show with Imat Suumann (“In the Shadow of the Twilight” in Tallinn Art Hall gallery, Tallinn, 2018/2019) that was curated by Peeter Talvistu. I think that the union is doing some things that are good for my career as an artist so I am very happy to be a member.
The art critic and curator Indrek Grigor once wrote that you are a 21st century bourgeois escapist. You have been working in Tartu with few pauses since 2002. In Tartu Art College, you were studying together with Jass Kaselaan, Jevgeni Zolotko and Art Allmägi. Almost all of them except for Zolotko have since moved to Tallinn. You also went to Tallinn, Finland and Germany, but you came back. Returning to Grigor’s description would you say that Tartu is a form of escapism for you, and do you feel that it is necessary for the way in which you work?
Actually, moving back to Tartu after finishing EKA was not planned at all. I had a studio where I also lived which belonged to EKA, so after I finished my studies there I had to give it away. I moved all my stuff to my parent’s home and started to look for a cheap apartment or room in Tallinn. Why I moved to Tartu is actually Jevgeni Zolotko’s fault. It was summer, I was free and could do nothing, but then he asked me to participate in an international sculpture symposium which was here (in Tartu) in ERM (Estonian National Museum) park. So I came here and stayed for some two or three weeks and then things started to happen. I got a job offer, some art restoration work. I saw that I had old friends still living here, and I made an impulse decision to move here for a while. After doing this initial work, other work soon came along and the room in the apartment where my friends were living also became available. So everything occurred in a way that felt very comfortable. And now it’s nine years later (laughing). I am not a great patriot of Tartu. I know that some people really love Tartu even if they live in Tallinn and constantly talk about coming here. For me it is a place where I stayed for random reasons and then eventually started to like it. Years ago, Jevgeni and I were talking about living in Tartu to which he said: “Tartu is a town that does not disturb you.” I think that’s about right. I too believe Tartu is an environment which allows me to live my life and do my things without forcing me to have to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on around here, which I like.
I am convinced that there are artists for whom being outside of a big city actually benefits their work, would you agree?
It can be true. And I must say that I don’t mind being an outsider. In some ways it gives me a better view on what’s going on. I have never been the popular child and I like to do what I want instead of doing what people expect me to do. So I would not move somewhere just because somebody thought that would be an easier way. Although I have had many shows in Tallinn, only once has a curator actually asked me to participate in an exhibition which is a bit sad. It makes me question the reasons for curators’ choices, whether they are a bit vain or shallow sometimes. I think that it should not be a problem if an artist is working in another town. There has never been a problem for these curators to bring artists from other parts of the world to work within their exhibitions. If the reason why a curator does not wish to work with me is because I am not based in Tallinn, then I don’t want to work with this kind of curator.
From the 14th of March, you have a new show opening in in Kogo gallery together with the writer Mehis Heinsaar called “Biosmas – Ghost in the Corner”. Could you talk a bit about this new project?
As you know, I don’t like to talk about new exhibitions especially before they have been opened. I always prefer that people go and see my exhibitions in person. I don’t work with words, but with materials and images so when I say something, I feel it takes away a bit of the magic. If there is a bit too much concept around it, it’s not so interesting for me anymore.
It might not be so different from what I have done before. There are still a lot of elements to do with nature, but I have been working with materials somewhat differently. This is one of the first times I am using and exhibiting porcelain, so some of the works will be quite fragile. There will be reliefs with a pomegranate tree image that reflects itself, beginning in one place and then getting to that same place in the end. For me, these are visions on the walls; there are symbolisms and deeper meanings in these reliefs which I feel I should present in a white, very clean, material. These are visions on the walls. On the other hand, there are also ceramic and organic forms with teeth coming out of them that I have already made before as well as the bubbly forms I made for my show “Natural” in Hobusepea gallery (Tallinn, 2018). In a way these were natural forms that could be stones, tree cancers, or something like that. Since, I have started to add some realistic elements like lizards that are crawling over these forms. I am actually planning to go a bit more abstract and mix them together with figurative forms. For me it is very much about working with the materials and compositions that I like a lot.
Nature and fantasy are two very important parts of this upcoming exhibition. Right now there is this global situation to do with climate change and if we are talking about Estonia the government’s people are doing hurtful things to the forest. I want to bring out the beauty of the nature, yet its duality which plays into this harmful situation.
Indeed, some things we perceive in nature as beautiful like the aurora borealis or the northern lights are now appearing more than ever before due to climate change. The increase of their numbers is actually bad news for our planet but we enjoy them because they are so visually stunning. I also see this duality or conflict in your work.
Sometimes the ugly things are the normal things. Not everything has to be beautiful. I think that’s also the rule of nature – that everything is useful. For example, when you have an infection and this stuff is coming out from the wound, it is useful despite not necessarily being so pleasing for the eye.
It seems that you are inspired by some very old fairy tales where the dark side of the world is much more present. It is magical, interesting, but dark. At the same time there is also a mix of kitsch and pop culture present in your work.
I must say I am bit tired of this fairy tale talk because it was only in my very first exhibition that I used a particular fairy tale, but after that it became almost a Wikipedia text about me and fairy tales.
You have been branded.
I like fairy tales. They are very good and useful stories, but in this exhibition it is more about life being mysterious than it is about fairy tale creatures. The fairy tales I have been using before are about animals and people, about trusting and mistrusting. I’m interested in what can happen when you act on certain impulses, when in the end you understand that you are doing harm because you don’t understand nature or how the world that exists loves you. But yeah, somehow I have also been drawn towards weird and nasty stories where some things don’t happen so nicely. I like books or movies that are weird or depressing, though of course I enjoy reading lighter things as well.
Once you said your greatest paranoia was that everyone would be waiting for you to make political, social or highly conceptualised artworks as a contemporary artist. But taking into consideration how important nature is for you and what’s happening in the world with climate change, don’t you feel the urge to comment on these issues through your art? Are you becoming a more political artist now or not?
I don’t know. I don’t want to put any posters on the wall. I might have made some secret comments with certain exhibitions, but I am really embarrassed of being political (laughing). Maybe things do not have to be said out loud, despite me definitely being pro nature.
Part of the title of your exhibition is “Ghost in the Corner”. Who is the ghost?
Biomass is all the living mass. Ghost in the corner means future. Even now the ghost is already in the corner. People make bad decisions and the ghost is suffering.
Is the ghost then in a way not also the spirit of nature?
Yes it is. You should notice it, you should think about it, but a lot of people don’t. Nowadays, especially in towns, nature is just a ghost and not a real living thing for them. It’s there in the corner, but nobody notices it.
But it can at some point start to haunt you?
Well, it is always there. It will forever be in the office corners of politicians who let forests be harmed or destroyed, who allow people to commit violent acts of deforestation.
You are also great stickler for detail. You tend to take different small items and put them together in one mass. How do you usually come up with details or work with them, taking for example the lizards, or porcelain roots, that have started to appear in your work?
These elements you have mentioned in my work are actually from real nature, not imaginary fantasy. These photographs of lizards (shows some photos in her studio) I took while I was out picking mushrooms and resting by the bonfire. There were a lot of lizards coming out in the sun that day. I found it fascinating that there were so many of them approaching me, not afraid of me. This was a very special moment in a real forest encountering real lizards.
In the autumn when it had already started to get cold, I went for a walk close to the river Emajõgi outside of Tartu. There are plants (water lilies) which grow in the water that are protected by the law so you should not pick them, but some of the water animals like beavers like to eat them. So I had some help from a beaver as it had left some of its lunch leftover beside the water for me to gather. I just organically find things like that. I don’t want to harm nature. I also use insects that I find in a similar manner. They are all already dead. If you know where to find them then you don’t have to kill them. In the case of the lizards I decided to sculpt them myself and in this process be able to change them a bit. Lizards are very old fascinating life forms. They have existed longer then humans. They are also in towns, not just in forests or wild places like that. They live side by side amongst people.
Your exhibition will be made together with writer Mehis Heinsaar. Have you also had some personal shows made with other participants in the past?
Actually, not so many, and I am usually not the one who invites the other artist or participant. I also wouldn’t say that Mehis and I are ‘making’ this exhibition together. He is writing texts. My artworks were ready before Mehis was invited. Because I am not writing the text for my exhibition, the idea is that this will become his contribution. I think it would have been very different if we would have worked together from the start. At the moment I have no influence from him because my works are done. He is also not giving any comment. He is a writer and I am giving him total freedom to write whatever he wants. He will write something that he feels is somehow connected to my works and this exhibition. I like his work and I thought that we could have a connection because he also shares an infatuation with a dark and playful side. I hope it will go together perfectly, maybe it will even feel like one art-piece.
Finally, what’s next for you after this show, do you have any future plans or exhibitions we can look out for?
Yes. Next year in February 2021 I will be having an exhibition on the first floor of Tartu Art Museum. In December 2020, I have another show in Kogo gallery which will be a group exhibition curated by Rael Artel with artist Bruno Kadak casting all of the bronze forms. It will be a show of contemporary art pieces made using traditional methods, a very nice and rare opportunity to work with small works that will be cast into bronze which is usually pretty expensive. To make sculptures in long lasting materials is not really possible in Estonia for exhibitions these days, only if there is a public commission.
Since making this interview, Kogo gallery has unfortunately closed its doors until further notice in accordance with the COVID-19 guidelines from the city of Tartu and the Estonian Ministry of Culture. Eike Eplik’s exhibition “Biomass – Ghost in the Corner” was originally intended to be open to visitors until 2nd of May, 2020. Photo reportage from the exhibition you can find here.
 Mehis Heinsaar’s text excerpt originally prepared and exhibited in Eike Eplik exhibition “Biomass – Ghost in the Corner”. Text translation from Estonian by Adam Cullen.