Esmaspäev, aprill 09, 2012

AB cubed presents: Tõnis Saadoja x Paco Ulman

Games between buildings, words, and clouds — a short review of Paco Ulman`s photography
Translated by Hendrik Koger


Paco Ulman Untitled (Photo from Paco Ulman)

In the spring of 2009, one could visit the concurrent exhibitions of artists Jaanus Samma and Paco Ulman — In the Park and In Tallinn respectively — in the Draakoni gallery and in the Hobusepea gallery. "Pleasantly autistic exhibitions both of them", somebody said, "Samma's not so much." Jaanus Samma's self-portraits displaying a boy wandering in the Palais-Royal gardens with a toy cannon serve as a young man's sullen commentary on a beautiful but dogmatic tradition: "I would like to blow it to pieces, because I could never be as dignified or as true." On the other hand, the portraits acted as an attempt by the artist to melt one's feeling of human powerlessness into the fixed historical park environment.

When Jaanus Samma was more or less visibly hesitant to relate to the authoritarian cultural contexts — evident in the use of symbols like the french park, cannon, and order —, then Paco Ulman's dialogue with the local urban space did not draw on any conventional symbols.

However, Ulman's exhibition did include the first1 attempt by curator Andreas Trossek to develop a clearly literary angle alongside the artist's earlier works — filling the otherwise empty cityscapes with people by means of simple contrasting in order to see "how would certain districts in Tallinn react if struck by a localised anomaly of a sudden "human flood", an abnormally dense concentration of human bodies?"2 The already mentioned attempt at conceptual development remained merely illustrative, because the absence of people in earlier pictures was not the main reason why the meaning behind Ulman's photos was difficult to put into words. The attempt to use simple contrasting in order to find a polar explanation for the previous works (thereby preserving the artist's own reception of his work) did not turn out to be visually cogent.

The exhibition, divided into sides A and B, was at its most convincing in the B side downstairs that displayed Ulman's earlier, more difficult, but visually concentrated work, which had surely found its way to the gallery by a path more rough and subjective than the clarity of the series upstairs. The fragmentation of the photographs and the integration of single photos into the whole on the basis of gentler qualities like composition, use of colour and light all spoke in favour of the gallery downstairs. Add to that a subjective choice of object and a distinct mood contributed to by different types of weather in the photographs. Ulman admits that suitable atmosphere is decisive at the moment of taking the shoot.3

As opposed to the preferences of the journalistic viewpoint in the case of similar shots, Ulman is not ideological or critical when analysing the surrounding environment. Nor are his photographs illustrative, because it would be very difficult to say what is it exactly that they illustrate. Topical social commentaries appear in Ulman's photographs only as secondary allusions. The 2009 North Tallinn photo series could not be used in a conference where the development of the city district, detailed plan, or environmental designing according to the needs of the people would be discussed. The trucks in the Tallinn Passenger Port car park do not speak volumes of transit business, nor does the interior of the passenger ferries (as depicted in Tallinn-Helsinki-Stockholm, 2011) speak volumes of the movement of workforce between Estonia and Finland.

Ulman states his inability to articulate his own photographs by saying that in order to apprehend the creative impulse, one has to forget about everything external, and think about nothing. He feels that later definitions, however, are too generalising. Ulman has also said that the context of the photograph ends with the edges of the picture.4 Ulman's practice can be considered successful as being an intuitive dialogue, because his carefully composed photographs of the garden cities, wastelands and dark corners of Tallinn have no definite framework even in the minds of locals. What is striking is not the recognition of specific locations5, but the way Ulman depicts a certain environment. Ulman is without a doubt one of those photographers who is envied because of their ability to simply notice and push the trigger button to extract the most important from the current space-time.

He describes the way one photograph (in this case The Tiigiveski Park, 2008) came to be:

"I always feel like a Martian when I find something like this". I have discovered the order and logical sequence of things here. In the case of this scene I knew it from afar that I could make something out of it. It was a good day, because the light was very peculiar. The weather was humid and warm — the one that usually precedes a thunderstorm. The sky was layered with clouds with sunlight gleaming through them, and the shadows were soft and barely visible. It was warm and bright out in the open, but comfy, dark, and cool in the Tiigiveski Park. The car park was large enough that the light could fall only on the cars, leaving everything else in the shade. I was faced with an interesting dilemma while framing — how to interpret this line of cars; is it a bunch of objects, a single whole object, or a single object and its copies? Is the original somewhere among them? It was important not to make a choice between them, but to find a frame that makes all interpretations possible. I took about ten pictures from different distances and sides. It took a while to get the "right" framing and angle."6

For example, Ulman's photographs of urban scenes make one wonder what the number of overlook views is that architects have planned on while designing buildings in real environment between greenery and other buildings. Ulman, who has a degree in architecture, can find the angles he needs, but have they really been consciously constructed by someone beforehand? It is more likely that the formation of sizes and proportions in an urban area is such a changing and an uncontrollable process that one could never see the constant development and quiet transformation of the environment, as well as the stir of everyday life around it, when designing a building. The bulk of Ulman's photographs are taken in spontaneous extreme situations multifaceted in relation to time and meaning, where the emphasis in the picture has no connection to the origin of what it depicts. What is captured in the frame attains features that differentiate it from its original meaning. There are causal explanations behind sofas that have been put somewhere high and close to the ceiling in commission shops, cardboard boxes lying around on a stadium, white vans lined up near the edge of a park, or a building covered in film, but the way Ulman explains the situation deliberately avoids logical allusions. Noticing randomness as well as the details that are usually missed, and getting the whole into frame figuratively is what best describes Ulman's approach.

Ulman is interested in individual moments, not the wider context. For example, the deserted leisure areas on board of a passenger ship strike as being all the more odd in Ulman's works because the artist has depicted them in fragments rather than in a panorama. Ulman’s approach makes the interior acquire the status of a material beyond its original function and meaning. Ulman's works have repeatedly shown that the artist's paragon is indeed fantasy, a touch of the unreal within the real world.7 That is the reason why even an ordinary passenger ship seems to be like a space station from a historical science fiction film in his photographs. A U-shaped snowy form in shallow coastal water is even more cryptic in its meaning. All the more so that Ulman has not since seen the described object in that same spot any more.

Whether Ulman's oeuvre is more humorous, unreal, or vice versa probably depends on the beholder. If forklifts behind a plank fence that has excavators painted on it, have a comical effect, then the huge piles of logs around a moving loaded timber truck — the size of which, compared with the former, is like that of a toy — is rather cosmic. The unattainable mystery of the world of toys is amplified in Ulman's work, because, despite the fact that everything depicted really happened, the frames manipulating with the size of things primarily denote parallelism, not congruity, staging rather than documentation.

The trademark fog in Ulman's photographs of urban spaces acquires a milieu of staging in his Untitled photo series of 2010. The comic book of the same title (2009) depicts a block of flats dissolving into clouds hanging over a patch of land where there used to be a city. In addition to digital illustration, Ulman stages a situation in reality as well, but on an opposite scale — he adds white puffs of steam to an interior space under construction in his photographs. The staging, which in the case of the photographs depicting overcrowded cityscapes came on as being somewhat clumsy, is delicately refined in the form of steam clouds enclosed in an interior space. Why it succeeded may be because Ulman chose a more controllable situation over random movements. Taking pictures of individual human figures as separate photographs within the same frame and and fusing them into a single photo during retouching had to proceed from the trajectory of people in the streets. However, the artificially generated cloud of steam was probably a lot more static and flexible of a partner to help Ulman find the right frame. The artist managed to use tangible means to create a situation that does not differ from his ability to randomly notice things in an uncontrollable outside space in any way. The result is a vacuum or autonomy of meaning which synchronizes the categories of documentation and staging, as well as illusion and reality. This is a play that helps to cleanse the overloaded areas of the mind, or, on the contrary, to load the underutilized areas; a play as means to find freedom in the rationality of everyday awareness.

The idea of seeing Ulman's works as a play finds a historic precedent in the happenings of young architects in wastelands near the city in early 1970s.8 One is familiar with gestural abstraction which was used back then to clear out the semantic fields that were in visual synchronization with the location were the play took place mainly through the photographs of Jüri Okas. Out of the contemporary urban photographers, the work of Paco Ulman is on the same level with Okas in the field of subject matter, the way he depicts environments (wastelands, seashores, industrial buildings), and the the way he frames his photographs. The social aspects behind buildings and environments today are different than they were forty years ago, yet the works of Okas and Ulman follow a similar logic. The topographic view, which treats the (three-dimensional) frame as a plane of ordered dimensions, is characteristic of both of them. While Okas approaches the object almost exclusively in frontal view, Ulman is more multifaceted and his frames are more clearly defined. Nevertheless, Ulman's work could be seen as a continuation of the The Concise Dictionary of Modern Architecture by Okas, because the same logic runs through both Ulman's frames and Okas's survey of the anomalies in architecture. The similarity between the two authors rests on the angle they use to depict combinations of architectural aspects. Taking a step to the left or right would already change the meaning of the picture.

If aesthetics is described via adjectives, then the articulation of the text, as well as the comparisons and connections within, are achieved by means of conjunctions. Pictures of a beach during winter, foggy car parks, wastelands, and clouds, forgotten or obscure combinations in Ulman's photographs are the conjunctions of a bigger text the artist extracts from everyday reality and delivers to us in chapters. After a while, every text becomes monotonous and incoherent when there are no conjunctions. However, when only conjunctions are stressed then the inferences before and after become important. In one of Ulman's photographs of a pivoting joint of a trolleybus (from the debut exhibition The Links of the City, 2008) where the front and the rear of the bus exceed both sides of the frame, it is unclear which is the front or back side of the vehicle. Ulman only reveals the connecting link; the meanings attached to it are for us to figure out. Ulman does not give us the whole picture, but stresses conjunctions here and there while photographing, thereby advising us to look over the important things and understandings in our own big pictures. Out of the conjunctions and, nor, or, but, however, (in order) to, if, when, because, until, although, like, as if, Ulman most often points out the last two.


Tõnis Saadoja is a freelance artist living and working in Tallinn.










AB cubed is a preparatory essay series for the III Artishok Biennale where X young Baltic and Scandinavian writers have chosen for their gesture of courtesy X young Estonian artists who have caught their eye with a witty personal exhibition or an absorbing work of art in a group show in recent years. Artishok tests experimetal editorial practice and self-inititative readiness in the art field with the series, giving writers the opportunity to take the initiative - but also the responsibility - and do one chosen artist a favour. The writers do not receive honorary for their work whereas the suggested artists automatically get an invitation for participation in Artishok Biennale in the autumn. Read more...


1 Andreas Trossek has acted as a curator of Ulman's first two exhibitions The Links of the City (In the former House of Designers in Tallinn, 2008) and The Links of The City (In the gallery of the Estonian Academy of Arts, 2008), taking part in selection of the works to be displayed, and not in their creation.
2 Andreas Trossek, quote from the press release of the exhibition In Tallinn.
3 From a conversation with the artist.
4 Ibid.
5 Ulman does not consider it necessary to find specific titles for his urban photographs, instead he adds the name of the district or the place where the picture was taken to photographs with a poetic flavour. Kitseküla, Mustjõe, Pirita, Suur-Sõjamäe.
5 From a conversation with the artist.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Mari Laanemets „Pilk sotsialistliku linna tühermaadele ja tagahoovidesse: happening’ id, mängud ja jalutuskäigud Tallinnas 1970. aastatel“ - Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi 2005/4 (14).

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