CRITIQUE - Ave Randviir-Vellamo. Small Lexicon of Erki Kasemets. KUNST.EE 2013, 1, 60-62

In light of the artist's most substantial solo exhibition "Spooky Days", Ave Randviir-Vellamo presents a short overview of the most important ideas and items in the work of Erki Kasemets.


Time and its passing is the central theme in Kasemets's work. "Time passes, pleasures remain," Estonian singer Tarmo Pihlap once sung. Kasemets, not satisfied with the abstract and immaterial "pleasures" promised in the lyrics of Estonia's premier yodeller, observes the passing of time and makes notes by writing and creating sculptures and installations based on what he sees; that is, he materialises the traces of time. Yet, in a sense, these actions create a nightmarish loop – by materialising fleeting time, the artist actually wastes the valuable time he is working so hard to preserve. The objects that mark the temporality of his life, the painted milk cartons and shopping receipts, overwhelm the artist's studio and living quarters – the past is physically taking over the walls and floors that should belong to the present.

In some ways, Kasemets's works have taken the slogan "He who dies with the most toys wins" to a completely new level. The empty cartons the artist often uses in his work have an apparent predetermined destiny – they are made to be used, exhausted and then thrown away. By giving the cartons the status of art, Kasemets has managed to have them incorporated into the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia, where this "nothing" should at least in theory be kept until the end of times. This practical joke played on time and evanescence could very well be considered a small victory.

Milk carton

One of the most important signifiers of time in Kasemets's work is the milk carton. Kasemets's most extensive and con- tinuously expanding and developing work "Life-File" (1984– ...) actually consists of painted empty milk cartons. The original idea was to have one carton for each day of his life and as Kasemets once said, the project can only be concluded after his death. Kasemets estimates that about 2% of the vast num- ber of cartons has been painted by someone else – mostly by other artists, friends and guests. Visitors to his exhibitions have so far only been able to engage with "Life-File" in an indirect manner; for example, during the 2009 exhibition "SSS" at Draakon Gallery, people could seek out a carton, from the 366 cartons arranged in a circle, that corresponded to their own date of birth. During the exhibition "Spooky Days" visitors had the unique opportunity to contribute directly to his packaged biography – to add a design of their own to his "life-file" and thus become a part of the artists' life and work.

Tin can

Kasemets has also used tin cans in his works about time but unlike the milk cartons that despite their ephemeral nature have in his hands become surprisingly durable and only refer to a certain moment in time, the main purpose of the tin cans is to act as building blocks for capturing fleeting time tempora- rily. The "digital" clocks Kasemets has built from the cans could be compared to the famous sand mandalas – meticulously created only to be ritually destroyed a few moments after their completion. Both the mandalas and Kasemets's can clocks denote the passing of life and time – just as the sand can be used to create new mandalas only moments after the previous was destroyed, the empty cans can also be dismantled or rearranged to create a different work of art. Unlike ourselves, these insignificant little cans could almost be eternal – indefinitely recycled and always part of something new. Memory

A human being's memory is strange and imperfect – its ability to store and recover information is probably not nearly as good even as that of a mediocre laptop. In addition to the fact that we seem to forget so easily, we might sometimes also be convinced that we are remembering things that are nothing more than the fruit of our own imagination. It is easy to fool our memory, it can even be lost – but by losing our memory, we also lose our identity, we lose ourselves.

The main reason Erki Kasemets needs these material props to mark time is that human memory can only record a limited amount of the past – this is the case with both the personal and the "great" [events from] history. People who are keen on writing keep diaries or find themselves writing their memoires for similar reasons, but Kasemets, as a visual artist, has found another way of preserving memories (longer), a considerably more experimental way.

The path Kasemets has taken evokes the workings of the human memory – not only is he recording the information, he is also processing it. While organising, standardising, compressing and decompressing the information, he must inevitably make choices and decisions that may lead to overlooking, losing and distorting some of it; that is, it becomes evident that no matter how hard we try to remember, and try we must, in reality we cannot rely on the content or durability of the wri- tings, notes or "safeguarded" records.

Compact disc

Compact discs are one of the most metaphorical signifiers of time and memory in Kasemets's work. First of all, Kasemets uses defunct or broken CDs; that is, discs that have been created to record and play back information but have become obsolete 1) because they cannot fulfil their original function 2) because the recorded information has been later deemed not worthy of preserving. The very existence of such objects raises the question of whether there actually is any value and relevance in the process of storing information.

Furthermore, CDs are becoming a technological relic, just like floppy discs and VHS cassettes before them. Alongside portable USB-sticks, an increasing amount of information is now being stored on "clouds" or online servers (Google Docs, Dropbox, social media sites). A large part of the revolving information of our digital age is as immaterial and untouchable as the memories and dreams hidden in the dusky folds of the human brain. As the name suggests, visual artists have always given form to the immaterial but there is an important question haunting Kasemets's work: could it be that even this activity is becoming a relic? Time passes and space has become more abstract than ever – what, then, is left?

Ave Randviir-Vellamo is a PhD student in the Information Studies and Interactive Media programme at Tampere University,
she was editor of KUNST.EE from 2009 to 2011.

1First published in Estonian as “Kasemetsa Hääl”, editor, Johannes Saar, 8. I 2013.