A couple of decades after Jacques Derrida described a curious encounter with his cat, I was driving with my friends across the restored alluvial plains towards the sea while on holiday on Muhumaa island. Every now and then, one of us had to jump out of the car to open and close the cattle gates blocking the road. In front of the last gate was standing a large herd of cattle, which slowly began to lumber away as we approached. Eventually the herd parted except for a couple of stubborn animals. One of them was lying on the ground in front of the gate, while the others were standing around as if on guard, all gazing at us through the windshield.
One day as he came out of the shower, Derrida looked at his cat. As he regarded his cat, he felt the cat regarded him. Looking into the eyes of the cows, one by one, I realised that I had no idea how to communicate with these beautiful and conscious creatures. As a child, I had seen cows being herded home along the village roads, but I had never done it myself. I was sitting there in the car, wearing my grandfather’s old shirt and thinking with embarrassment that I lacked the knowledge that would have been considered completely normal only a few generations before me. Finally the cow slowly rose to its feet and limped away, followed by its attendants. The guard of honour had simply waited patiently for the injured herd member to gather its strength to rise.
For some time now, I have been consistently working on exhibitions that, in one way or another, deal with the pain points and bottlenecks of modern society and try to unravel the tangle of eternal global crises a little bit, so that some bright ray of hope can briefly shine through. During this time, I have felt a deep impatience with the immeasurably slow impact of art, the anxious loneliness of a climate warrior, and groaned under the seemingly endless burden of care as both a parent and a citizen, almost to the point of breaking.
However, in recent years, I have also experienced how crossing a certain threshold of pain arouses sympathy in society and encourages almost everyone to help others. But why do we need a pandemic or a war in order for us to recognise that our neighbour is also a human being? How can we find each other sooner, rather than reacting after the damage has already been done?
In philosophy we have come to the realisation that just as I exist, another living being or object also exists in its own way. However, such thoughts are ahead of society, and sometimes it seems that we are moving further and further away from understanding each other. Even in Estonia, which has taken great strides towards a more equal and free society in the three decades since regaining independence, there are complex issues on the agenda that cause conflicting opinions. Those residents of Estonia who do not show a desire for integration are distancing themselves from each other, one example of which being the segregation that is increasing at a record speed in our capital, compared to the European average. Migration, security and livelihoods, the destruction of the natural environment and changing traditions cause fear and resentment.
Right now, Estonian society is on the cusp of several upheavals: the education reform has been finally launched after decades of delays, and the parliament recently established the marriage equality expected by many residents here. Though these changes have the potential to strengthen and improve society, there are also those who are reluctant and feel somewhat threatened by them. Far-right movements successfully exploit this fear to their advantage.
According to Bruno Latour, the reason for this conservative revolution is the transformation of globalisation from the process that enhances cultural diversity into one that narrows and devours biodiversity. The local doesn’t even wish to become global if it has to give up a lot of its special features in order to do so. If we add to this the aimlessness typical of the present time and the failure of the grand narratives of the past, it is not surprising that a society that is hurting in many areas goes on the defensive. But the networking of living beings and cultures is a fact, and the previous rigid national narratives must one way or another make room for viewpoints not represented in them to date. Latour proposes a new political subject, the Terran, which I understand to include all beings and objects. But how to become an empathetic and caring Terran?
To be a subject is to be both free and conquered at the same time. Maggie Nelson says that the question is not whether we are intertwined, but how we negotiate, fight and dance in that entanglement. Paranoia, despair and constant vigilance limit humanity’s ability to do something for both the present and the future. We need new ways of feeling and acknowledging that other ways of being are also possible. And not just in some uncertain revolutionary future or idealised past, but right here and now.
Boring a hole in the shape of ourselves in the currently valid norms is a common human ordeal. How can we bring grey space to black and white confrontations? How can we find these new ways of feeling and knowledge? In a country whose history includes stories of suffering, repression and reconciliation, on which the entire national identity is built, could we have the emotional intelligence to not only notice the hardships around us, but also empathise with them?
I burned out dreaming of such a caring utopia, but gradually gathered myself again, getting to know works of art and artists who, based on their personal experience, shed light – not to say a ray of hope – on experiences and questions that don’t always get the attention they deserve, or that are even considered taboo. The works by the invited artists in this exhibition relate to Tallinn Art Hall’s current location in Lasnamäe and deal with relationships, care, social roles and responsibility, language and ethnicity, vulnerability and violence. There are as yet no concrete answers to the questions raised, but these artworks floating in the common value space indicate that the knowledge necessary to understand each other and move forward is within reach.
It seems to me that one of the most important questions in life is what to do with the time that we are given. True care takes commitment, but I’m not sure depth of experience has much to do with its duration. Even a fleeting encounter with another person can shake you to the core. Once the areas of concern are identified, is it possible to resist the forces that try to hijack our valuable attention? And to tenderly hold each other, even for just a brief moment.