One from Plaster, the Other from Clay

May 24, 2023
Author Laura De Jaeger
Published in Review from Estonia

Every time I stay in a place temporarily, I tend to lose my ground a bit. It happens even when I return to my home country, the place where I grew up and feel comfortable. Apart from social anxieties (which are mostly created by my own damn head), it becomes physical. I feel a little off. My stomach hurts, and my sleep is light. Last week, I started a small ritual which was suggested to me. ‘Every time you walk into a space, whether it is grandma’s living room, the hairdresser’s or the bus, take a few seconds to touch any surface.’ We might have experienced the miraculous power of touch in many ways, but that sweet sensation of interaction with material never grows old. Understanding can be physical. For many sculptors, this is the reason they do what they do.

On Saturday afternoon, I enter the project room of the ARS Art Factory in Tallinn. I hesitate. I don’t immediately sense a starting point. The gallery is dimmed, and the light feels intimate. The show looks nice. Every body of work in the room has a generous amount of space surrounding it. I find it comfortable, but there’s another adjective for which I can’t seem to find the right translation in English. In my mother tongue, Flemish, we say braaf. In the local tongue, the closest might be tubli. ‘Good’, ‘well’, ‘decent’? My personal preference goes to more spatial tension points. I believe it engages me more. The open exhibition design is fair, but it makes me wonder: where is the space left for my body, the body of the visitor?

Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces, exhibition view, 2023, photo Roman-Sten Tõnissoo

The exhibition is an initiative by the Estonian Sculptors Union, who passed the torch to the young generation of curators. Mikk Lahesalu thereby invited Kerly Ritval to have a dialogue and shape an exhibition, which aims to put older members of the union together with young sculptors. It feels like a lighter version of the exhibition ‘Tuur Skulptuur’, which took place in Telliskivi creative city last summer. This exhibition filled one space, Roheline Saal, with approximately a hundred sculptures by more than 50 artists. Many of these artists were also part of the Sculptors Union. For some, this was a unique, almost complete, overview of Estonian sculpture. Others found the show overstimulating, an abundance of information in which works and the visitor get lost. For the latter, ‘Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces’ might be a more convenient solution. While it still fulfills the purpose of an overview, combining older with recent works, the exhibition’s smaller selection and spatial choices are approachable and serene, and leave room for thought. Lahesalu and Ritval chose a thematic approach. They bring together works that relate to the body in all its forms, its socio-cultural meaning, and its representation in visual culture.

A little creature in the middle of the exhibition hall surprises me. It’s definitely his location, because he seems to be absent, in deep thought, while hiding behind a pillar. His appearance hints at Renaissance or Baroque: René Reinumäe’s sculpture resembles a putto. ‘Putto’ used to be an Italian insult, aimed at young boys. Originally, the name derives from the Latin word for purifying. If his quest was to purify, this little one definitely needs a break. Unlike the putti we’ve seen in art history, he is exhausted. Bodies are able, but they are just as unable. Reinumäe’s Ingel shows me the limits of our lifelong suits that carry our vessels and bones. The winged creature cleverly finds respite on the wing of the pillar. At times, the space around us can function as an extension of our body, and provide solutions and shelter.

Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces, exhibition view, 2023, photo Roman-Sten Tõnissoo

The relation between objects, bodies and space has been discussed before through sculpture. Carl André’s horizontal, flat sculptures make sculpture become the space, whereas Ana Mendieta’s haunting self-portraits are as much the earth as the earth is her art. I find a similar sense of space in Hold me by Terje Ojaver in this exhibition. Whereas the eye-catcher is her tall sculpture in the central hall, I move towards an intimate, small back room. There is a projection, a chair and a table, holding a pillow. The work consists of these, plus a body. One automatically sits down in the chair, and places the pillow on the lap, to find moving images of an old woman and a young child taking turns. Whereas I might have labeled this work as too sweet, this time I sit down. I have to say, I feel it. The places for my arms on the chair steer my hands to hold the pillow carefully. I fiddle while I hold the moving image on my lap. I care for it. As an artist working with video, to carry a projection in such a kind way has to bring up some motherly feelings. My friend walks in and immediately walks out again. He later tells me he found it so intimate, as if he had interrupted an encounter. The moment I put the pillow back and move away, I glance at the projection. When my body is not there, it lingers clumsily between the chair and the table. The place where a lap is supposed to be. This space becomes part of the sculpture. I am in love with its honesty.

A body into pieces is a body in-between. The pieces are there, but not yet assembled. We are half-way. Multiple works in the exhibition are shaped out of plaster and clay. Marta Vaarik’s Grandma is a full-size body cast made out of plaster, whereas Mägi’s AL stayed in unfired clay. The torso of Nele Tiidelepp’s work This Fantasy is the Only Thing Capable of Bringing Me Relief is made out of plaster, with fragments of textile that during the casting process stayed with the shape. These materials are, in sculptural history, part of the process. They often function as an in-between shape, before something is poured into, for example, bronze. A conscious choice to use these materials immediately gives a sense of in-betweenness or fragmentation. The sculpture AL has already lost one foot, and is allowed to turn into bits and pieces during the course of the exhibition.

Several works bring me to the interior, domestic space. Ojaver’s Just a Shelf contains various body parts stored up, carefully classified on a metal rack; while Tiidelep’s piece’s upper body is rather hung than folded. Johannes Luik brings in textile. A covered body hovering diagonally through space, of which we can barely see its ankles. The flower-patterned creature is called a Creeper. With Wrap me up, the young sculptor Sarah Nomm approaches the body as dissolved, or even extended in a complex web of threat, an amalgamation of material such as hair and textile. What happens with a fragmented body shelved up, stored or covered? Storage exceeds the domestic space in the workshop. A similar rack to what Ojaver uses to store her body might have been standing in my father’s (a mechanic) garage. Or in an artist’s studio! Each of these bodies has the potential to be activated, to interact with its surroundings, and to return to a resting position. A journey we embark on daily. These works make me think about one essential part of life that we often forget about in our contemporary world: rest or retreat.

Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces, exhibition view, 2023, photo Roman-Sten Tõnissoo

Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces, exhibition view, 2023, photo Roman-Sten Tõnissoo

The body is the material of past decades, in the field of art as well as social sciences and critical theory. The last Venice Biennale ‘The Milk of Dreams’ was dedicated to magical realism, and in the main exhibition in the Giardini, the body was thereby omnipresent. The curators Mikk Lahesalu and Kerly Ritval provide an accompanying text about body-ideals for the exhibition at the ARS Factory. It reminds me of Todd Rose, writing about the standardised pilot seat that used to be based on the average measurements of a body. He also refers to Norma, the so-called perfect woman, whose body measurements are based on the average as well. Not one pilot fits that chair perfectly, just as not one woman had the exact features of Norma. I like the nod to storytelling and fiction’s role in internalised standards by Lahesalu and Ritval. But, however relevant the topic, I sense a missed opportunity. While discussing the body’s struggle to fit into one ingrained ideal, the exhibition kindly obeys and reinforces the standard topic and format currently dominating the art field. I wonder what might be the added value of revisiting this topic over and again in this way? Would a critical discussion on the role of contemporary sculpture with regard to these questions do the trick? A dialogue, or a new fairy tale? Then again, maybe the works speak for themselves? After all, sculptors think through material.

‘Every Person is Broken into Pieces’ is a group exhibition running from 19 April to 19 May at the ARS project space, Tallinn, Estonia.
Participating artists: Johannes Luik, Kert Elliott Mägi, Sarah Nõmm, Terje Ojaver, René Reinumäe, Paul Rodgers & Anne Daniela Rodgers, Berit Talpsepp-Jaanisoo, Nele Tiidelepp, Marta Vaarik.

The exhibition is co-curated by Mikk Lahesalu and Kerly Ritval.

Photo reportage from the exhibition ‘Every Person is Born Broken into Pieces’ at ARS project space