Proofread by Merli Kirsimäe and Barbara Sheard
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes in his essay Trafic/Déclic (2004) how the city and photography belong to each other. For Nancy, there is the concrete reference to early photographic experiments made in the city – think of the studio window view of the cityscape – , but besides this, their common ground has to do with time. Nancy underlines the transient nature of photography that is able to catch only glimpses, presenting a suspension, immobilizing the absence, retrieving the presence. The city, on the other hand is connected to the voyage. It offers a moment of rest for the voyager, for the one that does not stay. Indeed, what photography and cities have in common is, according to Nancy, that they both are systems for capturing the passage.
Anu Vahtra (b. 1982) is a young Estonian artist who has studied photography in the Estonian Academy of Arts, spent a term in Konsthøgskolen in Bergen, and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Her work deals with photography without being restricted by it. In fact, it might seem that Vahtra's works are as much about the destroying of the images (see Dimensions Variable, 2009), or they may approach questions of performance (such as in Stage 1, 2011), sculpt the space itself (like in Homage to Gordon Matta-Clark, 2009) and thus push the photography aside.
There is one pervading feature in Vahtra's working methods that catches the attention. Her work – often using photography – has a strong site-specific nature, as the artist takes as her point of departure the existing space. This does not mean, however, that she would follow a certain pattern. For instance, Untitled (A line has two sides aka any of the twenty-four triangles), 2011 pervades the city: in a video projection on a wall of a white building Vahtra projects series of black and white images of the place, which at the same time blurs the difference between the image and the city, but also highlights aspects from the surroundings that are unnoticed in the everyday perception, suggesting another kind of experience of the space.
Vahtra's installations – of which we can get a glimpse in the photograph Dimensions variable, 2009 (25 x 20 cm) – consist of black and white images underlining the transient nature of photography. She makes use of low-tech techniques such as xeroxing to create wallpaper size, 1:1 scale installations that reflect the surrounding space. As a result, the spectator's everyday perception of space is mixed with another interpretation, where reality is filtered through or blended in with a black and white image. Paradoxically, by choosing a low-tech method and black and white image Vahtra both plays with a certain feeling of authenticity – think of the tradition of documentary photography – as well as underlines the alienation from the reality. All in all, the experience of the space is in many ways transient: the work is site-specific and will be destroyed afterwards, the image that is the origin of that altered experience of space will vanish.
There are also occasions when the artist has planned to work with a specific space, but has been denied access to that place. In Access by permission only, 2010 the spectator encounters a stack of off-set posters. Vahtra's plan to work with the rooftop of Tallinn Art Hall (Kunstihoone) was blocked by the bureaucracy and she never gained the required permission to access the roof. In the poster you can see a bird’s-eye view of the Art Hall, pictured from the rooftop on the other side of the Freedom Square. The space that Vahtra had in mind has been, however, removed from the spectator's reach: instead of a rooftop, the poster has a hole. Paradoxically, one could think the hole is at the same time omitted from view, as well as an opening to another world...
The themes of Vahtra's work are familiar from the history of visual arts. The questions of mimesis and trompe l'œil are both present in her works, although it seems that the intent to deceive is here replaced by an invitation for the spectator to heighten momentarily his or her sense of experiencing the environment. In many ways I cannot help but think about Nancy's rather bold suggestion of city and photography belonging together. Vahtra's way of using photography underlines the transient nature of both the medium and the city: what was once there cannot be reached anymore. What is at stake in her work is the setting up of suspension.
Saara Hacklin has recently defended her PhD thesis Divergencies of Perception. The Possibilities of Merleau-Pontian Phenomenology in Analyses of Contemporary Art at the University of Helsinki. Besides research, she has also worked as a curator and has written about art for different publications, such as Mustekala.info web journal.
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...