Tamara Luuk

The story of the exhibition May You Be Loved and Protected

The story of every exhibition begins with the artists that resonate with you. If there happens to be more than one, they indeed have to be excellent artists, so that their simultaneous speech does not become a hammering cacophony in your head. The experience of viewing the works by Dénes Farkas, Tõnis Saadoja and Jevgeni Zolotko has been more powerful than speech. Rather, it resembles a flood where you have to keep your mouth shut to stay afloat.

When looking for a linguistic equivalent to your feelings, you start by refining your emotions and shaping thoughts with words. First comes the statement: When speaking about themselves, the three solitary creators also manage to speak about something much greater. This is followed by a hopeful assumption: They should be able to fit several “selves” into something greater than themselves. Could they­? You start testing the idea, you talk to the three artists and it works: they are willing to make an exhibition. Then it occurs to you that you already knew that it would work! You knew that from the moment Jevgeni Zolotko sent you a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, which includes the following lines: “Был язык мой правдив, как спектральный анализ, А слова у меня под ногами валялись.”[1]

For people with autistic tendencies, as we often are, being able to communicate in the language of visual images is invaluable. Even if we have not received the institutional approval to our being as artists, it will help us come to terms with the eternal feeling of living on the edge and fear of falling off the cliff that comes with the human condition. And also the fear that the only thing left of our lives will be a medical history written by someone else.

You think of the art collection of the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, the works of the mentally ill that Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933) began systematically collecting at the beginning of the 20th century, and the number of “true” artists it has inspired, with Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Alfred Kubin, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Georg Baselitz, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie among them. The first to exhibit a large selection of works from the Prinzhorn Collection after World War II was Harald Szeemann, one of the most legendary curators of the 20th century.

You understand why the art of outsiders inspires creative people: the danger of being excluded from society is also a part of their own lives. Openness and the courage to be different are a prerequisite for their freedom at a time when the fear of being seen as different pushes most people to voluntarily follow the path of the uniform, grey mass.

Grey is not a judgment here. “It seems to me that my whole life is in this tonality, both around and inside me. There are very few situations that are completely white or black. /—/ Perhaps the most important things are indeed happening in these grey times. /—/ We constantly make micro-decisions, and as a whole, everything seems grey, as if nothing is happening. In fact, it is the many micro-decisions that determine what happens,” says Jevgeni Zolotko. Zolotko, like Saadoja and Farkas, uses a great deal of grey in his works – both aesthetically and metaphysically, “both figurally and figuratively” (Saadoja). Saadoja’s way of painting, his endless mixing of colours balancing on the possibility of their becoming a muddy grey; his and Farkas’ love of the monochrome influenced by black-and-white photography means maintaining a balance between neutrality and depth. Not to mention Zolotko’s journeys to biblical texts and from there onwards deep into the core, or his declaration of war on the statement “in the beginning there was Word”. Walking on the border is familiar to all of them. There is soothing beauty of recognition on this side of the border and insane unpredictability on the other, while the artist as the fool of God balances between them – a saint and a halfwit at the same time. “…This is God’s new fool, and we must feed and protect him, because as long as he thrives, we have hope.” (Zolotko)

“Art can set an example to people, showing how far a free person can move if he is not treated like an idiot.” (Saadoja)

Interpretations change according to contexts and ideologies. The reception capacity of Soviet art history ended with Impressionism; Nazi Germany did not fathom the art of German expressionists, which was compared to the “scribbles” of the insane. Hans Prinzhorn, who worked towards establishing an art museum at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, relied on the aesthetics of German expressionists in his preferences for selecting works for the collection. Hans Gruhle who had worked at the clinic for a long time ( he resigned in 1939 after refusing to participate in the euthanasia programme for patients) and studied psychology and criminology, linked aesthetics to public opinion. He saw sufficient proof of the quality in the art of the mentally ill to refute the prejudice that it is not part of the value creation of society, just because according to the Criminal Code, people with mental disorders are not capable of such accomplishments.

“Condemn to be safe!” reads the short-term action plan. The favourite formula of totalitarian regimes, “One party, one nation, one art!” approaches us very quietly – and all of a sudden, it is here. Will the closing of borders under the aegis of the pandemic also rob our recent experience of an open world from us? Even if the present time provides us with the opportunity to tidy our homes, the aim is not to wake up every morning in rooms with uniform brown walls. Concern for the extinction of species is not only a problem for the natural environment; it is also a societal concern.

The exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall, May You Be Loved and Protected features three outstanding Estonian artists of different origins and cultural backgrounds. Aged slightly under or over 40, they are all in their best creative period. Whatever the yardstick you would use to measure the quality of their works – a purely emotional and free of context or that familiar with the developments in art history – the result is the admirably high accomplishment. None of them has any complexes about “old”, “foreign” or “strange” art.

Using an old-school term, Dénes Farkas’ installations could be called “still lifes”. They include handcrafted items as well as found objects that work as finished designs: a typewriter, a stereo, texts by strangers he has made his own. Photos based on these installations function as independent artworks, even though they somehow shouldn’t. The image they create is suggestive, open and self-sufficient, familiar and unexpected at the same time. Similarly to Tõnis Saadoja’s paintings, which place the truth alongside the illusory while also emphasising the right to life of both. “We head to one direction, but we always end up in several different places, always. And these places are connected through our person, through the time we live in, through circumstances and coincidences – and all of this together is truthful.” Also, “…this is certainly not all that both the artist and the viewer are capable of. Or what they have been capable of in the past.” (Tõnis Saadoja)

The art of Jevgeni Zolotko, Dénes Farkas and Tõnis Saadoja is very different. They neither compete nor overrule one another, nor do they complement one another or increase each other’s influence. This is left to the art audience. The works of the three artists are proudly displayed side by side, in a single time, observing and acknowledging one other. They know that as in life in art too there is smallness in the large and vice versa, and that chance and planning, old and new, perfect and trivial always go hand in hand. In their work, they move from one artwork to another without losing consistency, drawing on the lessons of past experience. On those of themselves and others. Their open professionalism, capable of developing even further, can value the chaotic yet rich potential of non-professionals. As such, they stand as friends alongside the nine authors from the Prinzhorn Collection, who were born a century and a half ago and whose work is still called art with certain hesitation.

[1] “My tongue was true, like a spectral analysis, And words gathered around my feet to listen.” (Translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev)